Report from the Gaza Front: A New Playbook

by October 2023
Israeli tanks and military vehicles take position near Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip, October 13, 2023. Photo credit: REUTERS/Violeta Santos Moura

I spent the first days of the war on the Gaza border, mostly near Kibbutz Zikim. On the fifth day, October 11, I went to the Gaza border city of Sderot and spent time in the community, speaking with locals and also with the police. From these conversations and also discussions with members of the Israel Defense Forces, I learned about the difficult first days of the war. While the general motto in Israel is “we will win” and “unity,” the actual task of what comes next will be challenging.

>> Reports from the Gaza Front: Read more from Seth J. Frantzman

Israeli forces have been gathering around the Gaza border for a week now, since the massacres on October 7. Israel faces a well-known enemy that has morphed into a much more dangerous threat than in the past. On Friday morning October 13, almost a week into the war, the IDF called for civilians in Gaza to leave their homes and head south, apparently a prelude to increased IDF operations in the northern Gaza Strip.

“The Hamas terrorist organization waged a war against the State of Israel and Gaza City is an area where military operations take place. This evacuation is for your own safety.” Israel has already dropped thousands of munitions on Gaza, striking buildings and hitting Hamas targets. Overnight on October 12/13, the Israel Air Force struck 750 military targets, the IDF said. This included underground Hamas tunnels and other compounds.

So far the war appears to be following a similar playbook as the past. Israel has done this before in Operation Cast Lead in 2009 and also Operation Protective Edge in 2014. In those campaigns Israel mustered forces along the border and launched ground incursions after days of airstrikes. Israel has also conducted numerous short operations over Gaza in the last decade, usually involving air strikes. This policy however has not succeeded.

Smoke rises following Israeli strikes in Gaza, October 9, 2023. Photo credit: Ahmed Zakot / SOPA Images/Sipa USA via Reuters Connect
Smoke following Israeli strikes in Gaza, October 9, 2023. Photo credit: Ahmed Zakot / SOPA Images/Sipa USA via Reuters Connect

On October 7, Hamas launched a massive attack on Israel. This included using small drones to strike at observation posts so that Israel’s technological superiority was nullified. It also involved thousands of terrorists attacking 29 points along the border and overwhelming IDF units along the border, so that other terrorists could move through gaps in the fence and attack Jewish communities. The terrorists carried maps of their objectives with them. In Sderot, a city of 30,000 close to the Gaza border, Hamas members came into the city in large numbers, estimated by police at over 200 terrorists. They headed for the police station where 29 Hamas fighters attacked 12 Israeli police. The police, outgunned, eventually could not withstand the attack and the enemy took over the station. It eventually had to be flattened to get rid of the threat.

In Sderot, a quick reaction force of a counter-terrorism unit, bolstered by numerous police, now armed with M-4s, was able to stop the attack. Although there were many casualties, the city was saved. However, along the border the 19,000 residents of 20 communities were often left to their fate. At Erez, a small kibbutz founded in 1949, the hundreds of residents heard shooting. The kibbutz like all communities on the border has a local security team of veterans with firearms. Those men went to confront the attack but they soon realized that their small team was facing a huge number of terrorists armed with RPGs and sniper rifles. They called for help from across the road, from Kibbutz Or HaNer. The security team of the second kibbutz arrived and held off the terrorists for most of the day. According to them they felt completely isolated and alone, wondering had happened to the army, which is usually present to stop attacks. They didn’t know the whole border had suffered similar attacks. 

At other communities along the border, the horror had just begun. In the kibbutzim of Kfar Aza and Beeri, people were massacred with terrorists roaming the area, and waves of people from Gaza coming through the fence to loot and murder. It took most of the day for commandos and elite units to reach these areas and mount a defense. By then it was too late for hundreds of residents.

The worst massacre occurred at the one-thousand person music festival near Kibbutz Re’im. Hamas here planned to cut off the youth at the festival, who had partied all night, by sending gunmen to the road and shooting cars trying to flee. The gunmen came upon a number of Israeli bedouin who were working as mini-bus drivers. They murdered the bedouin and then began shooting at cars. More than 260 young people were murdered at the festival. Other people from Gaza heeded the call and arrived to kidnap and assault the survivors. Eventually an Israeli tank came up with police and was able to provide some protection. Elite units that had arrived at Re’im, bolstered by infantry units, eventually contained the attack here.

Aftermath of the Hamas attack on the Nova Festival near Kibbutz Re’im. Photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Over the next days the task of pushing back to the border was completed. At Zikim, the road runs from the beach to Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, a community founded by survivors of the Holocaust. These areas were also attacked. Hamas targeted the home front base at Zikim, near the beach. It also struck the communities on the border. Eventually by October 8, Israel brought up tanks, manned by reservists, to intervene. The tanks did the job, backed by infantry and police, to secure the border.

Israel has faced Hamas for decades. In the 1990s it faced bus bombings and attacks carried out often by Hamas members that were designed to inflict mass casualties using bombs. This kind of attack continued through the early 2000s. However, once Israel withdrew from Gaza and Hamas won elections in the Palestinian territories, it was able to seize power in Gaza. Hamas had always been more popular in Gaza. However, its ability to seize power from other Palestinian factions showed how effective it had become. It was also brutal in its governance, throwing opponents off buildings and dragging bodies behind motorcycles.

Hamas governed Gaza and began to import weapons and build rockets and missiles. The threat initially included short-range rockets that could threaten Sderot and communities near the border. However by 2012 they were able to reach Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. They also benefited from the chaos of the Arab Spring, importing weapons from the Egyptian Sinai. It took years to cut off this arms flow. When Abdel Fatah al-Sisi came to power in Egypt he was able to reduce threats from Sinai. However Hamas, backed by Iran and with its leaders travelling between Lebanon, Qatar and Turkey, was able to continue to increase its threats. It established tunnels that went under the border and it built more rockets. In 2014, Israel conducted a limited invasion of Gaza to stop the tunnel threat.

Israel’s general view of Hamas was that it could be stopped by a combination of carrot and stick. It would receiving funding from Qatar to keep Gaza afloat and it would be contained via technology at the border. A new border fence, above and below ground, was built. 

Israel also focused on defeating Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a smaller Iranian proxy group in Gaza. When there was rocket fire, Israel would take out empty border posts. Even when there was a flare up such as 2021, Israel conducted mostly precision air strikes. The consensus was that ground invasions did not help. Israel had to focus on threats from Iran and Hezbollah. The north was more important. However, Iran changed the playbook in 2022 and 2023. It encouraged PIJ in the West Bank to increase threats from Jenin. Israel was forced to launch a campaign in Jenin to neutralize PIJ.

With Israel’s focus shifting to the West Bank city of Jenin, and also to the northern border with Hizbollah, Hamas was able to plan a massive attack. 

Members of the IDF Flotilla 13 commando unit conduct an operation to retake an IDF military post overrun by Hamas. Photo credit: IDF/Handout via REUTERS

Now Israel has to weigh how to conduct a ground invasion. The whole of the border area has become a military zone, a much larger zone than in the past. The 19,000 residents of border communities and the 30,000 residents of the city of Sderot are either evacuated or are mostly in the process of leaving. This is unprecedented in Israeli history. Even in the 1948 war or 1950s and 1967, when Israel faced much stronger enemies, it did not remove civilians from the border. 

Today Israel is taking a gamble. Hamas holds more than 100 hostages. It has already faded into the civilian population of Gaza. Israel can’t afford a long campaign like the US did in Mosul or Raqqa against ISIS, working with local forces for years to defeat ISIS. Israel has to change its game plan in Gaza and not do what it did in 2014 or 2009. Otherwise, Hamas will merely emerge and be ready to inflict more casualties. It’s also unclear if Israel can crack down on Hamas in the West Bank and also Hamas’s role in the region. Hamas has operatives in Lebanon and has worked with Iran and Hezbollah. 

Iran’s goal is to create a multi-front war against Israel and inflame the West Bank. Israel has conducted a campaign in Syria to reduce Iranian entrenchment there. Like the process of managing the conflict in Gaza, it is unclear how successful the campaign in Syria (called “the campaign between the wars”) has been. Israel has shown in the past an ability to improvise under pressure (think Ariel Sharon’s cross-Canal attack in 1973), and that ability is being called on again today.

>> Reports from the Gaza Front: Read more from Seth J. Frantzman

Seth J. Frantzman
Seth J. Frantzman is the senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post. He has covered several wars in Gaza and the war against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq as well as reporting from the greater Middle East since 2011. He is an adjunct fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD).
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