The most disturbing incident in the last 24 hours may indicate an operational choice by Hamas not to immediately escalate tensions to the point of outright war. The organization released a video on Tuesday showing its strike on an Israeli bus near the northern Gaza Strip on Monday afternoon. The video clearly shows the bus driver entering an area in which there is no barrier between the bus and the border, giving an open line of fire to an anti-tank missile. A few smaller vehicles are seen around the bus, most of them military ones, with some soldiers next to them.
The missile blew up the bus and seriously wounded a soldier standing nearby. The bus had been bringing reinforcements to the area, with dozens of soldiers disembarking just moments earlier. Even though this is not shown in the video, it’s clear that the Hamas squad was aware of all the details and chose to fire at this time.
Watching the video is chilling but infuriating. With all due caution, it must be stated that this is not how an army at war should be conducting itself. The lessons should have been learned following similar, fatal, mishaps during Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, and on the Lebanese border when two Israeli soldiers were killed in January 2015.
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The army has strict guidelines that are supposed to close off the border area and military assembly points to civilian transportation (other than urgent local traffic). These prohibit travel in unarmored vehicles in areas exposed to direct fire. Moreover, train movement in the area was halted a few hours earlier, precisely due to concerns about enemy fire.
The military doctrine holds that assembly points are moved beyond the range of an enemy’s tactical artillery. In the case of Hamas, this means mortar fire within a 5-kilometer (3-mile) range. Yet this mistake is being repeated, leading to high exposure to mortar fire – or, in this case, anti-tank missile fire as well. This has led to casualties in the past and also led to criticism during the 2014 Operation Protective Edge. One would expect the Israel Defense Forces to manage its movements in areas close to the border fence more carefully, and this serious mistake demands a thorough investigation.
Mortar fire also appears to be a problem Israel is experiencing difficulties coping with. For several years, the IDF has struggled with such high-trajectory fire along the border and targeting the squads launching it. In contrast to rockets, most mortar launchers are stationary and are not moved from place to place during combat. Their continued fire shows Hamas has come a long way in attempting to compensate for the systematic Israeli attacks on Hamas’ main offensive weapon until now – its attack tunnels.
Another question relates to the nature of the IDF’s offensive ideas. As of Tuesday morning, it was clear that the army had not received a directive to advance its forces and use all the tools at its disposal. It is also clear that Hamas was the party dictating the timing here, with its decision to respond with a massive round of rocket attacks.
Yet the impression is that an Israeli response based on hitting Hamas positions and even high-rise buildings (which Hamas managed to clear of their residents) is not deflecting its leaders from their goals. It seems the new Israeli military parlance, in which the IDF spokesman talks of hitting a “unique terrorist asset,” is not going down well with the Israeli public. It sounds more like bragging (or, alternatively, a real-estate ad).
Even if Israel is seeking a long-term cease-fire, which is obviously preferable to war, there may be no choice but to intensify the military response before things calm down. Currently, Hamas is broadcasting that it has the upper hand, and Israel’s moves have yet to remind it of the gap in the two sides’ capabilities. This is a troublesome starting point for reaching a long-term cease-fire agreement.
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