Hamas’ 20,000 troops emerged in the weeks of fighting Israel as a surprisingly competent, disciplined and well-trained army. The IDF and Hamas have crossed swords on the battlefield twice before, in 2008-2009 and 2012, but some Western observers recognize striking differences in their performance between then and 2014. Now, they seem to be following a carefully plotted operational plan with a military professionalism said to surpass that of the Lebanese Hizballah forces fighting in Syria.
Hamas appears to have made itself into the largest and strongest Sunni militia to be found in the Middle East region stretching from Libya through to Syria and Iraq. During Operation Protective Edge, Hamas proved to be more powerful than any of the Sunni militias or other groups fighting in the Syrian civil war, and more dangerous than any of Al Qaeda’s arms, including the Syrian Nusra Front and the ferocious Iraqi Islamist State.
Tehran plans to rebuild its Gaza strategy around Hamas
Hamas’ evolution into a powerful and well-disciplined militia has convinced Tehran to rethink its Gaza strategy. Having gambled and lost by raising and funding Islamic Jihad as its pawn and rival to Hamas, Iran is now considering a plan to merge the two groups.
Palestinians at large were not dumbstruck by Hamas’ performance in the current clash with Israel. They have long regarded the Islamist movement as the authentic Palestinian army, a reality never admitted by West Bank leaders and Israel. The handful of security battalions at the disposal of the Palestinian Authority and its Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah are no match for Hamas.
This mismatch in power has come to resemble the situation in Lebanon, where Hizballah’s fighting strength greatly outstrips that of the national Lebanese Army. Eventually, the Ramallah-based PA will have to face up to the diplomatic and political implications of this asymmetry.
Some IDF officers acknowledged to DEBKA Weekly’s military sources that as the Gaza conflict approaches its third week, they continue to be surprised by the capabilities exhibited by their adversary, notwithstanding its overall lack of progress on the battlefield.
Militants split into small cells to combat IDF
In the face of heavy IDF air and ground fire, Hamas has split up into small, fast-moving commando cells for three types of operation:
1. Tunnel terror: Armed with a supply of anti-tank missiles, these cells lie in wait just inside the hidden entrances of tunnels or shafts and strike IDF forces as they pass by.
This tactic makes military sense when fighting a superior enemy – provided it works. In the fighting inside the Gaza Strip, this tactic has worked only once, when a Hamas cell blew up an armored personnel carrier carrying Golani Brigade infantry troops in Shejaiya, killing the six soldiers seated inside. The seventh is still listed as missing.
Below the surface of this territory is a honeycomb of tunnels and shafts in which Hamas has ensconced its commando units, holding them ready to jump out and catch Israeli troops unawares. But Israel’s superior air power and surveillance systems have all but eliminated this menace: The helicopters, drones and intelligence units moving forward with the ground troops have spotted these hidden warrens and blown them up with smart bombs or precise tank fire.
Hamas has been left with little choice but to burrow deeper underground.
A full bag of terrorist tactics includes snipers and infiltrators
2. Sniper cells. These forces take aim at Israeli unit commanders in order to throw the men off balance, a tactic which has accounted for the largest number of Israeli losses. As we write this, the IDF has lost 32 soldiers with one missing and 500 wounded, in seven days of ground combat.
For a small country and army, losses on this scale strike wide and deep.
3. Infiltration. Hamas commando cells have tunneled under ground and landed by sea for terrorist attacks inside Israel. They target civilian communities and military bases alike for mega-attacks, aiming to kill as many people as they can to sow demoralization.
All these infiltrations have been discovered and quickly liquidated, thanks to Israel’s air and electronic surveillance systems, although, in one case, Israel sustained two military losses.
But Hamas’ real washout is its high-profile rocket barrage against multiple Israeli targets. In line with the military doctrine espoused by Iran and Hizballah, Hamas dedicated 60 percent of its arms budget and a fifth of its military strength to building a stockpile of rockets to terrorize Israel’s home front and – more importantly – cripple the IDF rear bases that provide the Gaza troops’ with logistics and supplies. Also targeted were Israel’s military facilities in southern and central Israel.
Before Hamas launched its blitz, its surface-to-surface missile system was considered one of the most sophisticated and dangerous in the Middle East.
Expensive rocket program is high on technology, low on success
Thousands of rockets are hidden away in Hamas’ well-fortified below-ground launchers that are nearly impossible to detect from the air. Fiber-optic cables link the launchers to a single launching center in a subsurface command center under Gaza City. At the press of a button, rockets can be sent flying into Israel at pre-planned targets, without requiring the presence of manpower at the site.
The Gaza-based militants managed to shoot rockets an unprecedented distance, covering the 150 km to Haifa and sending more than three quarters of Israel’s population, or 5.3 million people, into bomb shelters, night after night.
Despite this accomplishment and its high degree of sophistication, Hamas’ rocket program is no match for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense shield. These batteries distinguish between rockets on track to hit a target and those due to explode in unpopulated areas, and have intercepted the vast majority of Hamas’ dangerous rockets before they hit anything at all.