In the early hours of July 13, almost unnoticed, a minor clash on a Gaza beach between an Israeli commando force and Hamas represented a turning-point in their contest.
It was on the fifth day of Operation Protective Edge, when the elite Shayetet 13 unit (comparable to the US Navy SEALs) landed under cover of dark on a mission to seize control of a long-range rocket-launching site near Al Sudaniya, west of Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza.
The unit ran almost immediately into a series of ambushes and was forced to retreat with four lightly injured men, without reaching the Hamas launchers. Israeli navy ships and air force planes covered their exit with massive fire.
This was the first Israeli ground operation in the current offensive and, by definition, the first by commando fighters. It took place five days after Hamas tried to launch a commando landing on an Israeli shore. They too were gunned down as they came ashore by an IDF shore position which spotted their approach.
It took Israel another five days to mount its commando raid on Gaza – a delay which seemed to betray a problem. Either IDF generals’ reflexes are slower than they are reputed to be, or they were held back by the cumbersome chain of authority directing the military operation – led by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon – and their insistence on signing off on every action, however small.
Superior intelligence is key to successful ground operation
The Shayetet 13 operation, which gave Hamas tactical points, offered Israel’s war planners three important insights:
1. IDF commanders complained after the fact that the team was sent into harm’s way without being prepared by advance intelligence about what to expect from the enemy when they landed.
2. Hamas proved to be amply prepared to defend its strategic military installations, including the all-important rocket launchers.
3. The Al Sudaniya episode provided Israel’s military leaders with a timely reminder that the key battle for winning the war was still ahead. It would be fought by locating and razing Hamas’ underground command and control bunkers, housing the upper echelons of its political and military structure, the Izz-e-Din Al Qassam Brigades, and applying the same treatment to Gaza’s other armed factions, including Islamic Jihad.
It was brought home to them that none of these objectives is feasible without a very high class of intelligence, far better than the information that left Israeli sea commandos exposed to a Hamas ambush.
Hamas chiefs and command facilities buried safe under Gaza City
The Israeli air force’s precise bombardments of rocket launching sites, arsenals, and production facilities are important both strategically and psychologically. In the process, IDF chiefs have learned not to belittle Hamas’ ability to conduct a war or its acumen in burying its high-ups and command and control systems deep underground, safe from the most determined Israel attempt to shut them down.
Israel’s intelligence agencies have not so far pinpointed the precise location of Hamas’ deeply interred nerve centers, where the directing hands of its military, policy and propaganda efforts are hidden. Those centers are known to be sunk deep under the streets of central Gaza and the Shifa hospital, in the heart of the territory’s densely packed civilian population.
Hamas’ war rooms are described as a large and complex labyrinth of meeting-rooms and command centers, equipped with air conditioning, an independent electricity supply, security and communications links. They are well-stocked with food, drink and sleeping accommodation for the hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of people hunkered down in this warren.
This underground complex was not slapped together overnight. It needed years and hundreds of workmen to construct.
Iran invested heavily in Hamas’ subterranean stronghold
Many Iranian and Lebanese engineers were employed in the project by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, our sources reveal. Tehran clearly invested a sizeable chunk of money and effort into installing Hamas deep under Gaza, bringing to bear its best intelligence, communications and cyber-warfare skills.
But even as the columns of smoke hang over the Gaza Strip from ten days of Israeli bombardment, its commanders are concerned that Hamas remains almost unscathed, its leaders safe in their bunkers, their military and political arms functioning out of IDF reach and continuing to spew out a stream of propaganda – backing more than a thousand rockets.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources stress that for any attempt to penetrate Hamas’s underground fortress, the IDF must not only be armed with first-rate intelligence, but also dominate the electronic battlefield.
Israeli intelligence agencies’ failure to bring home concrete reconnaissance on the Hamas buried stronghold is noteworthy, particularly given the central location, size and importance of the war room Iranian and Hizballah engineers constructed for the offensive against Israel.
Unfortunately, the various clandestine agencies failed to appreciate that this buried command and control center should have been their top priority target. They are now playing a rushed game of catch up.
Intelligence agencies missed making the Hamas war room their top priority
This lapse partly accounts for Netanyahu and Ya’alon keeping on postponing a decision to put Israeli troops on the ground in the Gaza Strip. They are holding out first for full digital intelligence, known in the business as HUMINT, SIGINT and visual maps of the control bunkers. With this in hand, Israel would be armed with the three essential information folders for going ahead:
- The Golden File: The locations of rocket launchers and their armament; the names and functions of key combat and support personnel and their communications resources.
- A window into the counterintelligence systems of Hamas and Jihad Islami.
- Access to Hamas' communications, encoding and battle management systems.
For now, even with improved intelligence, physically damaging Hamas’s heavily fortified underground war room by bombardment is not a realistic option, especially given is proximity to such sites as the Shifa hospital, which the IDF is under orders to avoid wherever possible.
Israel is also looking ahead to the day after the military phase of the contest with Hamas is over.
Taking out its military infrastructure is vital, but only insofar as the group itself lives on to serve as a negotiating partner to the future of relations with the troublesome enclave. Hamas is the only viable candidate in sight.