An Israeli military commander has revealed to Newsweek how his soldiers were planning to mount a ground offensive into the Gaza Strip should another conflict break out between the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the Palestinian fighters operating out of the Mediterranean territory.
As the decadeslong Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to erupt into violence, some of the largest escalations this century have been fought between the IDF and Gaza-based Palestinian factions led primarily by the Islamist movement Hamas. Major engagements have taken place in recent years, with thousands of rockets pounding Israeli cities and the IDF bombarding the Gaza Strip, but not since 2014 have IDF personnel invaded the Palestinian stronghold by land.
Now, however, IDF Colonel Beni Aharon tells Newsweek that Israeli forces “have a new plan,” the main component of which deals with “maneuvering in Gaza” itself.
“There have been a lot of operations over 20 years, every four or five years you have a big operation, and the rest of them are from the air,” Aharon, who serves as a brigade commander, said. “Sometimes it can result in the quiet that we want to make, but sometimes it’s not enough. And when our civilians are in danger, we want to have a plan that can stop this, and this plan is going to do it correctly.”
The new strategy was the subject of an IDF exercise conducted last month simulating a near-future conflict in Gaza. Its title: “The Path of Fire.”
The tactics involved what Aharon referred to as “the most powerful units in the IDF.” Specifically, he said the IDF would only employ the most advanced and heavily armored tanks and personnel carriers such as the Namer, which the Israeli Defense Ministry has claimed to be “the most protected armored combat vehicle in the world.”
In addition to heavy weaponry, the armored fleet would be equipped with the Identify & Alert System, a high-tech platform that another senior IDF officer previously told Newsweek allowed Israeli troops to digitally map out the battlefield in real time.
“Today, we have a kind of computer in the tanks that can communicate with all the computers in the IDF,” Aharon said. “So, if there’s any intelligence soldier with a radio listening to the enemy and they understand that there is an anti-tank missile in a building, the tank commander can see it, put it in his computer and destroy it.”
Aharon said the fast pace of such conflicts and the speed in which enemy combatants can disappear into the surroundings of their own turf meant Israeli forces have only “like a minute” to respond.
In fact, Aharon said that one of the biggest challenges the IDF has faced in taking on Hamas and allied groups has been their use of a sprawling system of subterranean tunnels allowing them to evade Israeli detection in the midst of the battle. So, while he said that the IDF “can hear and see maybe anything in the Gaza Strip,” he also said that “Hamas knows this” and has since shifted its own strategy.
“We put a lot of effort into overseeing what happens in a more sophisticated way above the ground,” Aharon said, “but, on the contrary, terrorist organizations are hunting us all the time through their tunnels.”
Another major difficulty Aharon identified based on the IDF’s past experiences operating within Gaza itself is the cost incurred by such conflicts on civilians within the strip.
Israeli officials have repeatedly accused Hamas and other Palestinian factions of using human shields and killing their own through rocket misfires, while Palestinian movements have accused the IDF of killing scores of civilians through its bombings of the densely populated territory as well as regular raids conducted in other regions where Palestinians are present such as the West Bank and Jerusalem.
In one recent example, Hamas issued a statement mourning the death of 14-year-old Omar Khamour, who was said to have been “killed at the hands of the Israeli occupation troops in a raid on the Dheisheh refugee camp in the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem.”
“Hamas condemns the killing of Khamour as a crime against humanity that adds to the Israeli occupation’s escalating crimes under the current extremist government,” the statement added. “We denounce the world’s silence on the settler-colonial occupation’s repeated crimes against Palestinian children and reiterate that the Palestinian people will continue to defend their land until liberation and return.”
Initially founded in the 1980s as a Palestinian splinter of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas played a fundamental role in the two major Palestinian uprisings, or intifadas, the last of which ended with Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005.
Hamas would go on to take control of Gaza after the group’s legislative electoral victories the following year gave way to a violent split with left-wing Fatah, which heads the Palestinian National Authority based in the West Bank.
Efforts to reconcile the two major Palestinian political factions have yet to produce a lasting result and Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly delayed plans to hold another round of legislative elections in which Hamas may be poised for more gains.
In the meantime, Hamas has continued to oppose any normalization of ties with Israel and has maintained a constant state of combat readiness through its military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades.
Speaking to Newsweek about the IDF’s new strategy for conducting operations within Gaza, still today under effective Israeli blockade, a Hamas spokesperson said that “there is no doubt that the Palestinian resistance, led by Hamas and its military wing, the Al-Qassam Brigades, possesses a strong resistance in the Gaza Strip, and this resistance has resisted the Israeli occupation and stood strong.”
“This resistance defends our Palestinian people, our Islamic and Christian sanctities and the Al-Aqsa Mosque,” the Hamas spokesperson added.
The Al-Aqsa Mosque is considered to be among the most sacred sites in Islam and is one of several locations revered by the three Abrahamic religions within Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, known to Jews as Har Habayit and to Muslims as Al-Haram al-Sharif. Access to the compound has been a source of controversy between Jewish and Muslim worshippers, occasionally leading to broader violence that has sparked recent conflict between the IDF and Hamas.
And, as the IDF prepared itself for the next battle that could erupt at any moment, Hamas too was honing its warfighting prowess.
“Hamas strengthens its resistance with preparation, equipment and development, as it continues day and night to develop its combat capabilities in anticipation of any Zionist aggression on the Strip,” the Hamas spokesperson said.
“The resistance, led by the Al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, has brave fighters who faced the occupation and its soldiers in the wars waged by the occupation against the Gaza Strip,” the spokesperson added.
Aharon too acknowledged that Hamas retains significant capabilities even after repeated IDF operations targeting the group.
“Our enemy is sophisticated, he adapts very fast, and he is learning all the time,” Aharon said. “We know that once we take one step against him, he will take one step against us.”
As a result, the IDF is taught to expect the unexpected.
“This is the first thing in the battlefield, that you know that you’re probably going to be surprised by the enemy every time,” Aharon said, “because the enemy who is against you, he is human, he is always thinking and, if he sees you have a vulnerable spot, he’s going to hit you there.”
“With my experience, the enemy has always tried to surprise us, and I believe he’s going to do it in the next war,” Aharon said. “We try to train our minds so that, even if the enemy does surprise you, the enemy will not make you lose, so you can stand up and ensure the opposite happens.”
Aharon also acknowledged that “Israel, in the past few years, has been vulnerable to soldiers falling in the battlefield, we know it.”
The new battle plan, however, will include a comprehensive set of tactics demonstrating what he called “the right way to go from Israel to the Gaza Strip, stay safe and hit the target and go back with all the soldiers, so it’s low price.”
“We’re going to do it together, so the air and the sea and the ground forces [are] together,” Aharon said. “In all the tactics, we are training to do them together in the Gaza Strip. It’s a very small place, but we develop tactics that can help us to do it in the right way, in the right place.”
“We’re going to surprise Hamas,” he said.
But even as the tensions between Israel and the Gaza Strip set the stage for another war, Aharon noted that an even more powerful foe lies in wait across Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. Here, the Hezbollah movement has access not only to rockets, but also precision guided missiles and other equipment ready to be used against Israeli forces.
Aharon said that Hezbollah, which is closely aligned with Iran, is considered by the IDF to be “the big enemy” and that the group is aware its arsenal “can be a very big problem for us.” As such, he said, “we try to be ready for both kinds of wars.”
“But we believe that we need to be ready also for the Gaza Strip,” Aharon said, “and we try to make it as simple as we can and we try to bring all the best, advanced tanks as well as the Namer.”
“We have to win,” he added.