The tactics we have seen Hamas use in their attack on Israel last Saturday have been some of their most sophisticated yet, suggesting a level of planning and preparation we have not witnessed before.
The group used air, sea and land in what in military terms is known as multi-domain operations. It carried out initial strikes on Israeli observation posts using drones before its massive rocket attacks overwhelmed the Israeli Iron Dome defences. These were what are referred to as shaping operations – in essence preparing for the next stage, the physical entry into Israel.
Next was an unprecedented physical infiltration, attacking Israeli civilians and military targets from multiple directions. Underpinning all these activities has been the use of fear tactics against civilians – including by recording and broadcasting attacks in Israeli border communities and a music concert as well as by capturing Israeli soldiers and civilians and taking them back into the Gaza Strip.
Hamas also attacked Israeli military targets killing and capturing people and capturing Israeli military equipment.
Hamas appears to have learned from various sources. They have taken inspiration from Hezbollah’s military infrastructure and rebel warfare strategies. They have received training, funding and weapons from Iran.
The group has utilised lessons from past encounters with Israeli forces, studied the tactics employed by fighters in Jenin in 2002, and incorporated their own innovations in the form of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), tunnel networks, psychological warfare and asymmetric warfare.
Hamas has utilised Iranian expertise in manufacturing homemade rockets and improving their accuracy and range.
Past encounters with Israeli forces, particularly during the 2014 war on Gaza, have taught Hamas the value of urban warfare and the use of civilian infrastructure as shields.
They have incorporated these tactics into their current attack too, using densely populated areas as launching sites for rockets and hiding weapons and command and control centres in civilian structures.
This sets up a dynamic whereby when Hamas is attacked by Israeli bombs, both sides can accuse each other of violating international law. The Law of Armed Conflict prohibits the targeting of an enemy‘s civilians. It also requires parties to an armed conflict to distinguish their fighter forces from their own civilians, and not to base operations in or near civilian structures, especially protected sites such as schools, medical facilities and places of worship.
Hamas appears to have also drawn specific insights from the tactics employed by the Jenin fighters during the Battle of Jenin in 2002. In April 2002, an Israeli assault on the Jenin refugee camp resulted in at least 52 Palestinians killed, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) investigation, including women and children. There were also 23 Israeli soldiers killed and several others injured due to the tactics used by Palestinian fighters. The battle has become a symbol of Palestinian resistance.
The Battle of Jenin was a significant event in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where Palestinian fighters utilised a combination of rebel tactics, IEDs and urban warfare strategies against Israel’s military.
One of the key lessons Hamas appears to have learned from the Battle of Jenin was the effectiveness of IEDs in inflicting casualties and disrupting Israeli military operations. IEDs are low-cost and easily concealable, making them a valuable tool for asymmetrical warfare. Hamas has since incorporated IEDs into its arsenal, using them to target Israeli military vehicles, patrols and installations. Should Israel launch a ground offensive into Gaza, we will almost certainly see these tactics used again.
One of the biggest learnings Hamas gained from the Jenin fighters was the importance of strategic mobility and surprise. During the Battle of Jenin, the Jenin fighters utilised a network of tunnels to move fighters and supplies, evade Israeli forces, and launch surprise attacks. Hamas has since invested heavily in tunnel infrastructure, constructing an extensive network of underground passages that enable them to bypass Israeli checkpoints and mount attacks from unexpected locations. This current attack has taken surprise to a new level.
The use of tunnels and underground facilities will almost certainly have aided the concealment of preparation from Israeli intelligence. However, the effort put into that concealment is yet another level of sophistication not previously seen: The operation would have taken several months to plan.
Hamas will have studied Israeli intelligence gathering, identified Israeli sources and kept them focused elsewhere, so that preparations will have been hidden in what intelligence agencies refer to as “background noise.”
Some of that background noise includes the internal political tensions in Israel itself.
An uneven contest
However, at the end of the day, compared with the sophisticated heavy weaponry and airpower the Israelis have, Hamas has homemade IEDs, rockets and light weapons supplementing a small number of more sophisticated but light weapons smuggled in.
This is why the group relies on asymmetric warfare – using a strategy of hit-and-run attacks, ambushes and sniper fire to minimise their own casualties and maximise the impact of their operations by reducing direct confrontations.
What is not clear is the end state Hamas expects from this latest attack. Unless it can stimulate wider Middle East involvement against Israel, then all it has done is set diplomacy back years and cause the deaths of many innocent civilians in Israel and in Gaza. Whether Israeli or Palestinian, it is always the innocent people who suffer most.
So, will their operational surprise turn into their strategic loss? Only time and more lives will tell.