Combined operation in Gaza and questions about the future strategy to deal with terrorists
The massive IDF (Israel Defense Forces) military operation, which has been going on for several months, is still ongoing in the Gaza Strip. It is aimed at terrorists from Hamas and other terrorist organizations (for instance, PIJ), as indicated in official documents of the Israeli authorities. The operation is, of course, a derivative of the massive terrorist attacks that took place on October 7, 2023. It should be emphasized that in the case of the present use of the armed forces by Israel is characterized by the actions of joint forces, i.e., land forces, air forces, navy, and specialized formations (i.eg. special operations forces). Nevertheless, it is natural in such a case, with significant support from the Israeli intelligence community. In the latter case, we are talking primarily about the Aman military intelligence service and the Shabak/ Shin Bet internal security agency. It should be noted that the main fighting occurs in urbanized areas (Gaza or Khan Yunus, as well as other cities and towns) and outside them.
Moreover, the conflict regarding the IDF’s involvement in underground operations is unique. Because IDF troops are assaulting the enormous network of Hamas tunnels and logistic underground complexes or command and control facilities. We should also emphasize that the fighting primarily involves significant conventional resources of the Israeli side. Therefore, in the IDF’s official video and photo materials, we can see a diverse range of armored vehicles, MBTs, and artillery supported by small, mobile infantry formations. At the same time, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) is still considerably active, using a range of manned machines and unmanned aerial vehicles. We are talking here about ISTAR missions and the kinetic destruction of several targets, including close support (CAS) operations for the troops fighting on the ground.
The Israeli Navy supports land operations in controlling the coastline and conducting attacks on land targets, which appeared in official communications. Of course, the mentioned operations are combined with the everyday operation of air defense, which is struggling with rocket fire from terrorists (not only from Hamas but also Hezbollah from Lebanon or even Huthi from Yemen). The operation also has a conventional northern dimension, relating to maintaining the necessary resources in the field of deterrence and defense against Hezbollah, a terrorist organization supported by Iran and operating from Lebanon.
How to continue fighting, and not only against Hamas
However, it is now possible or even necessary to consider scenarios for developing activities in the region after the end of the active (conventional) phase in Gaza by the IDF and asking the fundamental question of whether Israel will continue full-scale operations in other operational directions and whether there may even be an escalation leading to an open war with Iran (which is also discussed in the media). However, this cannot be done by looking only at the issue of Hamas terrorists, without all the complexity of relations in the Middle East and all the determinants beyond it. Therefore, the starting point is the recognition that the elimination of most of the human and equipment resources of terrorist organizations located in Gaza (Hamas, but also, e.g., Palestinian Islamic Jihad - PIJ) will not end their physical existence as terrorist structures because the further operational capabilities of terrorists depend on their activity in the West Bank (formally controlled by the Palestinian Authority), but also in other countries in the region (e.g., Lebanon) and outside the Middle East itself.
We should remember the cases of Al-Qaeda (hunted and defeated globally after September 2001) and the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). In both cases, extensive military operations were able to destroy and disrupt their assets in terms of people and equipment but, unfortunately, did not end their functioning. Similarly, it can be assumed that the statements by the Israeli government and the prime minister himself about the annihilation of Hamas are an element of the political narrative and strategic communication or even some part of PSYOPS. Israeli experts in combating terrorism (one of the most experienced in the world) know about the scale of difficulties when it comes to the destruction of any terrorist organization. Furthermore, this is even more complex when we realize a scale Hamas base spread across the Middle East and almost the entire world and could also draw on broader foreign assistance from state and non-state actors.
A regional powder keg, i.e., unchanged in the Middle East
Therefore, it remains an open question how Israel will have to adapt its anti-terrorist activities to the fight against smaller terrorist organizations operating in the West Bank and the operationally or even strategically weakened Hamas (active in the Middle East and outside), especially since some terrorist organizations are a challenge because they refer not so much to centralized structures that are easier to penetrate but more local ones that focus on new, radicalized generations.
Moreover, the future of the conflict also depends on the attitude of actors other than the Hamas terrorists themselves, as questions are already being raised about the further actions of the Hezbollah terrorists (currently we see a border harassing), but also of the Yemeni Houthis. Hezbollah, as a strategic problem for Israel, was presented in a separate analysis by the Author and is available in the study - Is Israel ready to militarily confront with Hezbollah terrorists? COMMENT. Similarly, we can also read more about the situation in Yemen in Defence24, text - The Houthis want the world to weep at the Gate of Tears. However, in both cases, it should be emphasized that Israeli policy must assume that both structures will be able to conduct activities regardless of the effects of the fight against Hamas and, most importantly, regardless of the political decisions of the mentioned terrorist organization.
Finally, the most critical threat to regional stability is, of course, Iran’s policy (from supporting the terrorist structures of the „Axis of Resistance” through the development of the missile industry and unmanned systems to the secret military nuclear program).
Apart from the situation of Iran’s direct involvement, which requires a separate look at the possibility of a full-scale war breaking out, we can try to outline the following selected scenarios for the development of the situation:
Attack on Hezbollah and dealing with its most dangerous enemy
A full-scale invasion of Lebanon to eliminate the main threats from Hezbollah, including the missiles collected by terrorists.
This scenario includes fighting in the south of Lebanon, especially in highly fortified areas characterized by increased activity of Hezbollah and attacks, primarily air and missile attacks, on targets deep inside Lebanese territory. We need to remember that Hezbollah is diversifying its material bases, for example, by locating them in places close to schools, kindergartens, religious facilities, and hospitals. In this scenario, it would also be crucial to destroy the tunnels built to infiltrate Israeli territory, just as Hamas did on October 7, 2023. The biggest problem of this type of operation would be its financial, human, and equipment costs on Israel’s side. It cannot also be ignored that there are UN forces, including a contingent from Poland, on the demarcation line between Israel and Lebanon.
A full-scale military operation would require the Blue Helmets to be informed in advance and allowed to evacuate freely, not to mention other repercussions in the UN Security Council space. At this point, all permanent members of the UNSC could critically assess this type of armed action by the IDF. The US would not like regional escalation and the need for a stronger involvement/evacuation of its military resources, seeing the strategic problem in Yemen, but also other attacks on its military. For France, the problem would be their relationship with Lebanon and regional interests, which the government in Paris has repeatedly argued in the international arena. Similar assessments could be made in the case of Great Britain, which would have to expect a more significant terrorist threat on its territory. China and Russia and their position towards Iran and the Middle East, including the Arab countries, are very well known. For some time now, this has translated into minor changes in the perception, especially of Russia, in Israel itself.
Nevertheless, it must also be seen that such an operation would lead to the mobilization of Hezbollah’s resources and the IDF conducting a strike without even the necessary surprise effect. The attitude of other countries in the region and beyond to this type of border conflict remains an open question. For example, in addition to Iran, the political interests of Arab countries, as well as the previously mentioned France and the USA, are visible in Lebanon.
The arguments in favor of an armed crackdown on Hezbollah, using the maximum available IDF forces, are primarily internal social attitudes defined by the reception of the events of October 7, 2023. Although, in this case, doubts are raised by the current new wave of political disputes questioning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel. An important argument for the strike could be the mobilization of military resources for operations in Gaza, which allows us to think about using this process for another military operation. However, the visible mobilization of internal resources, related to numerous attempts to fire rockets at Israel by Hamas terrorists, can be effective in switching the direction of the strike and struggling with the probable retaliation of the Hezbollah missile offensive. Nonetheless, we can see that the easy repetition of Op. Peace for Galilee, or even the border war in 2006, is fraught with numerous strategic and political doubts.
Continuation of combat operations in the West Bank and maintaining pressure on the border with Lebanon
Continued fighting with Hezbollah on the border with Lebanon, but without crossing the delicate line of a full-scale armed conflict, with a simultaneous full-scale strike(s) of the IDF and other security formations on the West Bank.
The primary goal would be to enter the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority (Hamas de facto controlled Gaza) in order to eliminate the remnants of Hamas and minor terrorist structures, including new organizations at the stage of formation. The key would be to search for caches of weapons, ammunition, and explosives, which could be used in two ways - to harass Israel, in the form of missile attacks or planting improvised explosive devices (IEDs), but also in the long-term to rebuild Hamas potential. Bearing in mind that there have recently been a large number of illegal arms transfers from Jordan to the West Bank.
Moreover, there is a belief by the IDF that terrorists may have MANPADS systems in this area, as indicated by the tactic of using attack helicopters in anti-terrorist operations in 2023, before the Hamas attack. It would be risky to engage in further heavy urban clashes and also to lose the ability to appeal to any negotiating partner on the Palestinian side.
Additionally, international critical statements should be expected to put negative pressure on expanding IDF operations to the West Bank (from Arab countries to partners from the USA and the EU). It should be assumed that the entry of a heavy troop group into the West Bank would also lead to an escalation of border operations as far as Hezbollah is concerned.
It is time for a waterfall of covert operations and point strikes
De-escalation in the conventional dimension while continuing the campaign based on secret operations and special operations forces raids.
The highly probable scenario is transferring the burden of action from the IDF’s conventional troops to the tandem of special operations forces and intelligence services (conventionally, but very conventionally, Mossad takes over the baton from the IDF). The advantage of this type of solution would be the possibility of continuing to pursue Hamas and striking targets related to Hezbollah, but without becoming involved in disputes of a political and diplomatic nature in the international arena.
We are talking about directing the conventional firepower to clandestine operations and raids of commando groups, supplementing it with the destruction of targets by the air force or even the navy. It could be much more comfortable for Israel’s allies, led by the US, but also provide an opportunity to rebuild relations with the countries of the region while maintaining constant pressure on terrorists and their allies. We are talking about the operational use of significant intelligence gains from entering Gaza.
It should be remembered that the activities in Gaza involve not only the kinetic destruction of logistic bases and terrorist militias but also the collection of vast amounts of data from HUMINT (including the interrogation of captured terrorists from various levels of Hamas et consortes) and the collection and analysis of data obtained from the seized equipment. In the latter case, it is no secret, as the Israelis themselves boasted that they managed to intercept, for example, Hamas’s underground server rooms. Nevertheless, it must be assumed that the Israeli intelligence and army might have more operational hits - we are talking primarily about computers, smartphones, and other devices. We need to mention probably several more conventional intelligence data based on various notes and manuals on the operation of Hamas and other terrorist structures.
Of course, with such a significant intelligence gain, a delay in translation and data analysis should be assumed. However, it should also be noted that the Israeli services are in a more comfortable position than, for example, the Americans after 9/11 due to a different approach to learning Arabic (including local dialects and specific cultural codes). We need to mention the new opportunities that arise with the widespread use of digital tools by the Israeli intelligence services and military, especially if we are talking about Big Data analysis and the use of solutions in the so-called Artificial Intelligence (AI) field.
The disadvantage of this solution is, of course, the greater risk of the forces involved. In the case of conventional operations, forces can rely on firepower, systematic capture of space controlled by the enemy, and constant contact with their lines. However, commanders, operators, and officers of intelligence services do not have this comfort if we think about commando raids and secret operations. However, we cannot rely solely on air strikes, as they are susceptible to problems in target acquisition and damage assessment if they are not combined with activities in other domains. Nonetheless, if we take into account Israel’s previous experience in this area, it should be considered a valuable addition to the possibility of defeating terrorist structures and their allies. Note that so far, the Israeli Air Force has been able to freely strike several targets on a regional scale, although most of the operations have not been officially confirmed.
It must also be taken into account that secret operations and commando activities carry the risk of losing/reducing field agent resources in the environments where terrorist organizations operate. Operational or even tactical successes in the short term may translate into sensitivity in the coming years, especially since terrorists are increasingly seeking professional support, e.g., from Iran, not only when it comes to missile technologies but also counterintelligence. It carries the risk of exposure of, for example, Mossad’s human assets in other countries. Not to mention the fact that although the political risk of covert operations is lower than that of full-scale military operations, a failed action may have several repercussions; Israel experienced this, at least to some extent, after the failed Mossad operation in Lillehammer in 1973.
However, it is difficult today to assume that Hamas and its resources will always be properly tracked in various countries in close cooperation with local services, and therefore such a risk in this scenario will have to be taken into account. However, there may be more significant problems in the case of services from outside the Middle East because many local mukhbarats do not have to be so skeptical about actions against Hamas.
After the current conventional defeats in Gaza, Hamas will probably seek to regroup in safe countries, and that is why Israel needs to start foreign actions. We are, of course, talking about restoring the operational capabilities of this terrorist organization, but also when it comes to the financial sphere, not to mention the possibility of carrying out terrorist attacks on Israeli targets or targets identified with Israel as a response to the defeat in Gaza. Operations of this type may have a broader dimension, but the impact on Lebanon, Syria (Iran’s logistics hub), and other regional countries will undoubtedly be crucial.
Of course, this type of military and intelligence combination solution is imperfect. First of all, it will not be possible to weaken the logistic structures of, e.g., Hezbollah fully, but also Hamas affiliates outside Gaza itself. Moreover, it will not be possible to limit (at least quickly) the ability to launch missile strikes - saturating and harassing the country’s air defense.
To sum up, Israel currently faces many operational and strategic questions regarding its continued crackdown on Hamas and other terrorist organizations. For now, the focus is on the future of Gaza, but a broader range of topics must be considered. The involvement of Yemen’s Houthi in the activities, attacks on American soldiers in the region by other pro-Iranian forces, as well as uncertainty towards Lebanon further cloud the situation. It creates the need to consider the diverse positions of other countries, not to mention the attitudes of the entire US political scene during the election year. Another problem is the diagnosis of internal politics in Israel itself.
Therefore, without excluding any scenario of the development of the situation (this is probably what recent years have taught us best in the security and defense space), it can be concluded that the most comfortable one at the moment would be the one with the dominance of special operations (synergy of the activity of special units and the intelligence services apparatus), supported by point conventional strikes. It will put pressure on terrorist structures but give space for normalization with countries in the region interested in improving security.
However, one can also risk a rather bold statement (seeing the conventional actions in Gaza) that the war with Hamas today needs to mainly focus on blowing their financing and communication systems. Without both elements, a terrorist organization can try to operate effectively based on smaller cells and a dispersed system. This state of affairs translates into a smaller scale of threats comparable to those of October 7, 2023. Moreover, that will be an occasion to gain the initiative in anti-terrorist-police activities rather than involve the state’s full potential.
Of course, this does not mean systemic peace but creating a situation between war and peace, a typical Middle East grey zone. Unfortunately for world security, however, this is the most optimistic vision of the regional future that we can discuss today. Bearing in mind the highly developed and complicated networks of dependence of Hezbollah, Hamas, PIJ, and other terrorist organizations on various state actors ideologically focused on fighting Israel. The Israeli state is, therefore, in a challenging situation, where the vision of the fighting is spread over the coming years, and any signs of optimism, e.g., resulting from the Abraham Accords and the possibility of a broader regional shift towards establishing peace relations, are disappearing or hiding.