The Second-Biggest War on Terror: An Interim Report

Israel's campaign against the Palestinian Hamas group in Gaza is the second biggest war on an Islamist terrorist organization controlling a territory after the US-led war in Afghanistan. Never before has a military force this formidable been deployed against a territory as small as the Gaza Strip, proportionately comparable only to the Russian army fighting in Chechnya in the 1990s.

For comparison –

Gaza's area is 41 long by 6-12 kilometers wide = 360 square kilometer. Its population: 1.5 million. Hamas combatants are estimated at 15,000.

Chechnya is 15,300 square kilometers.

Iraq's Anbar Province is 137,808 square kilometers. Al Qaeda deployed 4,500 fighters, the Sunni insurgents 100,000.

Pakistan's tribal area of North and South Waziristan is 11,585 square kilometers. Its population: 600,000. Taliban fields 4,500 fighters, Al Qaeda 1,500.

Israel deployed one-third of its estimated 600 fighter-bombers, more than half of its helicopters and drones in the first five days of its aerial offensive against Hamas.

Three armored divisions and 45,000 fighting men are deployed around the Gaza Strip awaiting orders to move in.

By launching its attack on Saturday, Dec. 27 – the Jewish Sabbath day – Israel took Hamas and Western observers by surprise. Wave after wave of bombers struck Hamas military and government installations from 11.30 a.m. Hamas was taken unawares by this massive aerial bombardment, which in its first four minutes accounted for 205 Palestinian deaths. Israel's military planners achieved their first goal of sowing confusion in Hamas ranks and catching them off-balance.


Israel's six initial tactical objectives


The other six objectives of this stage of the offensive were:

1. To wipe out Hamas' arsenal of Iranian-made Grad rockets whose range is 45-60 km. Hamas had stocked app. 300, stored in fortified underground stores, the largest number of these Katyusha type rockets stocked by any non-state Islamist group apart from the Lebanese Hizballah.

Less than half were destroyed.

2. To eliminate the short-range primitive Qassam missiles. Hamas started out with some 8,000.

Nearly 1,800 were wiped out on the first day of the bombardment.

3. To demolish the 200 military tunnels running under the Philadelphi zone bordering Egyptian Sinai (as distinct from the 1,000 or so private tunnels owned and managed by Palestinian mafias) used by Hamas for smuggling in arms, ammunition, fuel and reinforcements.

Some 110-120 were destroyed and others were abandoned by their controllers for fear of being buried alive, leaving about 30 tunnels still active.

This tunnel network was designed to be both Hamas' weapons lifeline and as bolt-holes for high-ranking Hamas leaders to exit the Gaza Strip in a war emergency. The Iranian al Qods operations chief organized the tunnels to allow the Hamas leadership to get out in a hurry. They were supposed to head for the Palestinian communities in the northern Sinai town of El Arish and conduct the war from there.

This plan has fallen apart because of the flare-up of an unannounced feud between Hamas and Egypt. Cairo threatens to throw any Hamas operatives attempting to cross the border into prisons in the Egyptian heartland far from the Gaza Strip.


Hamas' government infrastructure flattened


4. To destroy the underground bunkerland Hamas has sunk under much of the Gaza Strip's surface. It is there that its top political and military echelons are hiding, along with weapons caches, TV and radio stations and Internet connections. An estimated 82 km of subterranean corridors are buried in several tiers under the 41 square kilometers of the enclave.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources, only 30 percent of this underground system has been demolished so far.

5. To destroy the workshops and laboratories turning out the Qassam missiles, mortars and launchers, improving their performance and inventing new devices. Hundreds of these small facilities are scattered across the Gaza Strip. Roughly 80 percent of the workshops were demolished in Israel's air strikes.

All the laboratories and testing sites housed in the Islamic University of Gaza were wiped out.

6. To eclipse Hamas' governmental structure and symbols of power, i.e. ministerial premises and education, health and social welfare societies, as well as the offices and homes of its high officials and senior commanders.

Almost all these targets were flattened.

Wednesday, Dec. 31, Nizar Ariyan, a high-profile terrorist operative, climbed out of one of the tunnels for a morale-boosting mission. He walked through the streets and shouted to dispirited passers-by that Hamas leaders had not fled or lost control of government and were managing the war from bunkers.

The next day, an Israeli bomber killed him on a visit to his apartment.


Hamas rallies, extends missile reach to 60 km


Israel's Gaza operation showed at least six defects:

  • On Day 3, Monday, Dec. 29, the Israeli Air Force had run out of pre-determined targets and was picking out random hits.
  • Hamas was allowed to start rallying from the devastating blows of the first three days.
  • Whereas Israeli intelligence had calculated that Hamas would hit back with 200 missiles and rockets a day, from Monday, they launched no more than 80. But that scale too was enough to place a million Israelis within range and in lockdown, quadrupling the pre-war figure pinned down by Palestinian missiles.
  • Israeli intelligence estimated before the war that the furthest reach of Hamas rockets was 42 km. By Thursday, Jan. 1, they were hitting locations, hitherto considered safe, 60 km from the Gaza Strip border.
  • Hamas became inured to Israel air strikes and fell into a routine of hitting Israeli towns almost without pause. Its remaining stocks are enough to keep the barrage going for another two months. The Palestinian Islamists are therefore reconciled to carrying out a lengthy war of attrition until a life-belt is extended from some quarter, even if it comes in the form of an enforced truce.
    Therefore, the Hamas prime minister of Gaza, Ismail Haniya, said in his first (taped) speech Tuesday, Dec. 30, that his forces would not halt the war and its missile offensive until Israel promised to open all six Gaza crossings to the unrestricted passage of Palestinian people and goods.
    Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority are all fiercely opposed to complying with this demand, because it would be tantamount to recognizing the legitimacy of Hamas rule over the Gaza Strip.
  • Senior IDF officers believe a tactical and psychological mistake was made in omitting to follow the first stage of the aerial offensive with an immediate ground incursion by armored and infantry forces. This would have prevented Hamas from recovering its second wind. It is widely believe that this incursion has been scheduled for the end of this week or early next.
  • Israel's leaders are not clear about their final objectives. Will halting the eight-year long missile war suffice to end the Israeli offensive or must Hamas first be wiped out as a military and political force?

If the latter, then what is to become of the Gaza Strip at the end of the war? Which Arab government will want to take over a virtual bomb site?


Can Hamas handle guerrilla warfare?


Hamas has developed a detailed plan for withstanding an Israeli invasion, whose main points are outlined in HOT POINTS of Jan. 1 below.

The Palestinian terrorists have no intention of battling Israel's armored columns or entering into hand to hand combat with Israeli infantry. The bulk of its army will stay safe in their underground bunkers and let the Israeli seize most of the Gaza Strip against sparse resistance.

Once Israeli siege troops are dug in around Palestinian towns, Hamas gunmen and suicide bombers positioned in civilian homes will come out at night and pick them off. As the war wears on, they calculate that Israeli casualties will mount.

The question now is how Hamas will stand up to its second blow, an Israeli invasion, and whether it is capable of developing a guerrilla campaign. The Gaza conflict is therefore far from over.

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