IDF Intelligence hails tactical win in Gaza, can’t say how long calm will last

FILE - In this May 19, 2021, file photo, an Israeli artillery unit fires shells towards targets in Gaza Strip, at the Israeli Gaza border. Israel is at war with Hamas, Jewish-Arab mob violence has erupted inside Israel, and the West Bank is experiencing its deadliest unrest in years. Yet this may all bolster Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov, File)

Source: Times of Israel, By JUDAH ARI GROSS, May 27, 2021

Military maintains it exacted a devastating price from the Hamas terror group for its attack on Jerusalem, but recognizes it struggled in preventing rocket fire

Israeli Military Intelligence cannot yet assess how long the ceasefire between Jerusalem and the Hamas terror group will last following this month’s 11-day battle between the two sides.

Though the Israel Defense Forces firmly believes that it dealt a serious blow to Hamas’s military capabilities and undermined its core strategies by attacking its underground tunnel network inside the Gaza Strip, it acknowledges that the terror group still has thousands of rockets in its arsenals and could easily decide to use them again.

Shortly before the ceasefire went into effect, the head of IDF Operations, Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva, said the conflict would be considered a success for Israel if it brought about five years of calm in Gaza.

But intelligence officials on Wednesday clarified that this was not an estimate for how long the ceasefire would hold, just a bar for assessing the outcome of the campaign, known as Operation Guardian of the Walls.

Neighbors gather in a clearing strewn with debris from an airstrike during an 11-day war between Gaza’s Hamas rulers and Israel, in Beit Hanoun, Gaza Strip, May 26, 2021. (John Minchillo/AP)

Much in the way the 1967 Six Day War was an overwhelming military success for Israel but nevertheless was followed by a surprise attack six years later, the IDF warns that despite the tactical and strategic victories in Operation Guardian of the Walls, the current bout with Hamas may not have yielded the lasting deterrence that Israel is hoping for.

Hamas’s leaders have claimed victory in the conflict as they seek to establish a narrative to explain the fighting to their people, and they can be justified in doing so, having accomplished many of the goals the terror group set for itself.

Throughout the fighting, the terror group defined itself as a protector of Jerusalem — launching the initial barrage of rockets at the capital in response to violent clashes between Muslim protesters and Israeli police officers on the Temple Mount — it also managed to exacerbate growing rifts between Jewish and Arab Israelis, inspire attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers in the West Bank, garner international attention for the Palestinian cause, and kill 11 civilians in Israel.

In this May 10, 2021 photo, rockets are launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Now Hamas has to determine if the considerable price it paid for those achievements was worth it or if it won a pyrrhic victory. This will only become clear in the coming months and years, according to IDF assessments.

The cost to Hamas was high: During the conflict, Israel killed a number of top operatives, including several key members of its research-and-development wing, and conducted strikes on some three dozen rocket production facilities, which will make it much more difficult for the terror group to replenish its arsenals. The IDF also intercepted every drone — both unmanned aerial vehicles and autonomous submarines — that Hamas launched, as well as several on the ground before they could be deployed.

And, perhaps most significantly, the Israeli military destroyed upwards of 100 kilometers (60 miles) of Hamas tunnels in the Gaza Strip, which Israel dubbed “the metro.” This rendered unusable large swaths of the terror group’s subterranean infrastructure — roughly a third of it, according to IDF assessments — and, more importantly, demonstrated to Hamas’s operatives that they were vulnerable to attack in their underground bunkers.

“Cracking Hamas’s ‘metro,’ Military Intelligence’s ability to map underground infrastructure and provide much-needed information to combat troops in order to take from the terror group its central domain is a strategic shift. This was the work of several years,” a senior Military Intelligence official told reporters this week, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Years of work, outside-the-box thinking and the fusion of Military Intelligence’s power with officials in the field resulted in a breakthrough and a solution to the enigma of the underground,” he said.

Israel’s ability to consistently strike subterranean targets was also noted by Hezbollah in Lebanon, which maintains its own massive underground complex of tunnels and bunkers.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a statement at a press conference after the Gaza ceasefire, Tel Aviv, May 21, 2021. At his side is a screen showing parts of Hamas ‘metro’ tunnel network inside the Gaza Strip (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

The IDF’s assault on Hamas’s tunnel network kicked off in earnest with a massive round of airstrikes on the fourth night of the conflict, which was accompanied by an elaborate ruse that was meant to convince the terror group that Israel was about to launch a ground invasion of the Strip and that it should therefore send its fighters into the passages beneath northern Gaza.

This included telling IDF infantrymen that they were going into Gaza and positioning troops along the border as though they were preparing to enter the enclave, as well as telling foreign reporters that Israeli troops had indeed entered the Strip, though the IDF officially maintains that this was not a deliberate attempt to mislead the press, but a misunderstanding by one officer.

This ploy was not as successful as the IDF had hoped, and far fewer Hamas operatives entered the tunnels than was initially thought, yet Military Intelligence still largely sees the stratagem as a success, as by that point in the conflict the IDF had already destroyed a number of tunnels and Hamas’s faith in them was therefore wavering — so this was effectively the military’s last chance to destroy the tunnel network while it still had strategic value.

‘The first AI war’

Military Intelligence played a key role in the operation, identifying targets for attack in advance and finding more during the conflict itself. This was done in part by so-called HUMINT, human intelligence, notably Palestinians in Gaza collecting intelligence and passing it along to IDF case officers. But in this round of fighting, machine learning and other advanced computing capabilities played a key role.

Indeed for the first time in battle, much of the effort was assisted by the IDF’s artificial intelligence programs, making this the IDF’s “first AI war,” according to Military Intelligence.

“For the first time, artificial intelligence represented a key factor and force-multiplier in warfare against an enemy,” the senior intelligence official said.

These advanced capabilities were used to sift through the unimaginably massive amounts of data that Military Intelligence intercepts and collects from Gaza — telephone calls, text messages, surveillance camera footage, satellite images and a huge array of various sensors — in order to turn them into usable intelligence information: where will a specific Hamas commander be located at a specific time, for instance.

To give a sense of scale of the amount of data being collected, the IDF said it estimates that any given point in the Gaza Strip was photographed at least 10 times each day during the conflict.

“This is the first war of its kind for the IDF, an actualization of new techniques and technological developments representing… the combination of a wide variety of intelligence sources with artificial intelligence and a deep connection with [troops in] the field, representing a dramatic shift in the connection between intelligence and those on the front,” the official added.

This allowed Military Intelligence to not only kill several dozen top operatives from Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the second-most significant terror group in the Strip, but also to do so with a smaller number of civilian casualties.

Fire and smoke rise above buildings in Gaza City as Israeli warplanes carry out strikes, early on May 17, 2021. (Anas BABA / AFP)

In one case, when the IDF killed Islamic Jihad commander Hassan Abu Harbid in the densely populated Shati refugee camp, Military Intelligence determined that the terrorist leader was staying in a detached guest room at his friend’s house. Knowing that Abu Harbid was staying in a separate building, the Israeli Air Force was able to strike only that room, killing him and no other people.

During the fighting, 253 Palestinians were killed, including 66 minors. The IDF maintains that most of the people killed were members of terror groups and that some were hit not by Israeli strikes but by errant rockets from Gaza that failed to clear the border and landed within the Strip; at least eight civilians were reportedly killed in this way.

But the military also acknowledges that civilians were killed by Israeli fire, though it says considerable effort was put into minimizing civilian casualties whenever possible. This included directly contacting people in buildings that were due to be attacked and calling off strikes when too many civilians were seen in the area.

One strike with no casualties that still looms over the IDF’s campaign is the attack on the Jala tower in Gaza City, which was home to the Associated Press, Al-Jazeera and a number of other international media outlets. According to the Israeli military, it also housed a Hamas intelligence unit that operated a number of advanced electronic warfare devices from the building meant to interfere with the military’s GPS reception, potentially affecting the normal operation of IDF weapons.

Military Intelligence maintains that the seriousness of this issue justified the attack on the building, as well as the decision to bring down the entire structure, rather than just a surgical strike on the floors where Hamas was operating, as this might not have destroyed all of the electronic warfare capabilities in the tower.

This view has been heavily questioned, and indeed some Israeli officials involved in the strike told the New York Times that they regretted having approved it, considering the significant international blowback that was prompted by the strike.

The destroyed building housing the offices of The Associated Press and other media, after it was hit last week by an Israeli airstrike, in Gaza City, May 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

The problem is rockets

Where Military Intelligence struggled during the conflict was in locating and destroying Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s arsenals of thousands of rockets and mortar shells. This allowed the terror groups to fire upwards of 4,300 projectiles toward Israel, 680 of which fell short of the border, while another 280 landed out at sea.

In large part, this is because Hamas has found a variety of ways to hide its launchpads, concealing them under tarps or inside buildings with removable roofs.

Though the military had more success in targeting Hamas’s more advanced, multiple-barreled launchers, or multiple launch rocket systems, taking out roughly 40 percent of these batteries, the IDF acknowledges that it only destroyed roughly 10 percent of Hamas’s rocket arsenal in the current round of fighting. This still leaves thousands of rockets, including long-range ones, in Hamas’s possession, though the IDF’s precise estimates for the size of the terror group’s arsenal is classified.

Though terror groups in the Strip successfully conducted at least three anti-tank guided missile attacks this month — one by Islamic Jihad that lightly injured an Israeli civilian, one by Hamas that killed a soldier and wounded two others, and a third by Hamas that hit an empty bus, causing no injuries — the IDF was able to find and destroy large numbers of these precise, deadly weapons, taking the number of launchers from dozens to single digits, according to IDF assessments.

Unlike rockets and mortars, anti-tank guided missiles remain a difficult weapon to produce domestically, leaving Hamas and Islamic Jihad only the option of smuggling them into the Strip, a difficult feat to accomplish as Israel has significantly stepped up its efforts to counter such efforts.

Defensively, Military Intelligence has also improved its ability to predict anti-tank strikes, sending alerts to soldiers in the field when they are at risk of being hit, based in part on assessments by artificial intelligence programs.

Such warnings were sent to the soldiers whose jeep was hit by a missile; the IDF is still investigating the incident to determine why the soldiers hadn’t moved to a safer location, out of the direct line of fire from Gaza.