If the planners of Operation Protective Edge expected the vastly superior Israel Defense Forces to take out Hamas’ arsenal of surface missiles and rockets in a trice, the past days have been a reality check. Acting on advice from Iran and Hizballah, Hamas’ military wing – the Izz e-din al-Qassam Brigades – has folded its weapons away inside a broad honeycomb of underground bunkers and tunnels, safely out of reach of Israel’s heaviest air strikes.
In Israel’s 2006 war against Hizballah in Lebanon, as well as against Hamas in the 2009 Cast Lead and 2012 Pillar of Defense operations in Gaza, the Jewish state relied on its tried and true formula of superior intelligence and air might to wipe out the enemy’s long-range missiles.
By any international yardstick, the “long-range” missiles at play in the Israeli-Arab conflict would be designated less than short range. However, given Israel’s small area, Hamas rockets need a range of no more than 160-180 km to cover three-quarters of the country and force more than 5 million Israelis to stay close to cover against attack.
Hamas’ military machine can only be destroyed bunker by bunker
Installed in underground fortifications, impressive even by Western standards, these rockets and launchers are immune to Israel’s air strikes. Command and control centers stay safe in bunkers, along with officers up to the rank of Brigade chief and stockpiles of ammunition and other military gear.
This means that the IDF’s boast in the morning of July 10 that, in two days, Operation Protective Edge had managed to hit 785 terror targets inside Gaza, was misleading. Many military facilities and the homes of Hamas chiefs were indeed bombed, but the lynchpin of the Hamas infrastructure – including manpower and equipment – remained unscathed in their rabbit warrens.
This fact was the cause of the disconnect between Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s words and deeds. While he and other political leaders asserted that the operation aims to wipe out Hamas’ military capabilities, with the focus on its missiles, he has held back from ordering the IDF infantry and armored corps to go into the Gaza Strip on the ground and destroy those capabilities, bunker by bunker. There is no other way to decimate Hamas’ military machine. But it would undoubtedly be costly in time and Israeli military casualties.
Iran and Hizballah adopt practice of burying infrastructure
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources say that fighting underground battles would present new challenges to an army inured to relying on strong intelligence and aerial firepower.
1. Israel’s most advanced surveillance satellites and drones cannot pierce the fortifications of an underground military command and reach the precise intelligence required for an attack.
The information on location and contents of a bunker may be further obscured by decoys designed to mislead the units searching for Hamas’ command centers and weapons stores.
2. Even when exact locations are established, their contents may remain unknown. So attackers would have only partial information to work with.
3. Such information would have to be procured either from informants, or by means of prolonged reconnaissance by teams of watchers taking note of the comings and goings of military personnel and equipment.
The practice of burying military operational facilities underground has also been adopted by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and their Lebanese Shiite surrogate, Hizballah. This tactic does have its drawbacks, not least of them financial. Iran and Hamas are estimated to have sunk close to half a billion dollars in building the underground network of Gaza.
Frustrated by wasting hundreds of rockets to little effect
At this time, Hamas and Iran are most vexed by the fact that, while their weapons of war are secured underground, most of the rockets hauled out for launching against Israel have had little effect.
In the last couple of days, Hamas and Islamic Jihad threw 260 rockets at one Israeli town after another, some reaching a town as far distant as 150 km from Gaza, out of previous range.
However only a trifling 10 reached their targets. The rest were wasted – intercepted by Iron Dome or exploded in open areas. Despite the vast expenditure on deep bunkers and new-fangled rockets, the Hamas blitz has not caused a single Israeli fatality to date and very little damage to property.
Israel has spent much greater sums on developing the Iron Dome anti-missile system, even with some US aid. The batteries cost $70-$80 million each and every missile fired to intercept an incoming rocket accounts for another $40,000-50,000.
An Iranian rocket can be produced for less than $3,000 and a Hamas homemade Qassam comes in at just a few hundred dollars.
Israel has now invested $1 million in producing seven Iron Dome batteries.
Israel uses Iron Dome missiles piecemeal to cut down on costs
To provide close to blanket protection of the country from potential rocket attacks coming from Gaza, Lebanon and Syria, this number of batteries and the size of the investment would have to be doubled.
And that is only one layer of Israel’s multi-tiered missile shield. Its other air defense systems, such as Arrow 3 and Magic Wand, are far more expensive to develop and produce.
According to DEBKA Weekly’s military sources, Israeli Iron Dome operators have devised a fix for cutting the costs entailed in fighting off Hamas rockets and beating its Iranian backers.
Each battery has been converted to multi-tasking. The individual missiles are separated from the cluster carried in the core operating system, and each relocated to points 150 km away.
Since each missile has a range of 70km, this device substantially broadens the area under the battery’s protection while saving money on operating costs.