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Posted on Dec 30, 2008 in War College

The Guns of Gaza – Israel Attacks, Hamas Reacts

By Ralph Peters

Israeli Defense Forces make preparations near the Gaza Strip. Courtesy IDF.

Israel’s targeting capabilities revealed a new level of sophistication.

(SPECIAL TO ARMCHAIR GENERAL, Dec. 30, 2008) Last Saturday, Israeli Defense Force aircraft launched over a hundred tons of precision-guided ordnance against a wide range of terrorist-related targets in the Gaza Strip. Extraordinarily well-planned and well-executed, that first wave of attacks was only the beginning.

Serious military observers were struck immediately by the changed mentality of the IDF and Israel’s government. In 2006, timidity, dithering and confusion led to a self-inflicted defeat. But the Israelis learned the hard lessons. When the first F-16s with blue and white insignia screamed in over Gaza last weekend, it became clear that the IDF—or at least its air arm—meant business this time.


Map of Israel. Click for full image. Courtesy University of Texas Libraries.“Operation Lead” began with an artful deception effort. After Hamas refused to renew the truce that had been in effect and began launching unguided rockets against Israeli cities and towns again, the terrorists expected swift retaliation. In fact, Hamas welcomed the prospect, since its leaders knew the population of Gaza was wearying of their rule and the misery it fostered. The terrorists wanted a bloody exchange to rally Palestinians behind them again.

But the fanatics behind Hamas never expected the force and scope of Israel’s retaliation. Israel even blindsided them as to the timing. Instead of launching pin-prick raids and tightening up its grip on Gaza’s border crossings again, Israel re-opened a number of crossings to allow humanitarian aide into Gaza, while Israeli political leaders stated publicly that attacks weren’t in the offing.

Accustomed to manipulating the world media, Hamas assumed that its complaints about the humanitarian situation had carried the day. The terrorists relaxed, proceeding with business as usual, launching more rockets into Israel, keeping their weapons workshops busy and even holding an open-air graduation ceremony for a new class of their political police.

When the first wave of Israeli strikes hit home, it was clear that the IDF’s targeteers had advanced far beyond the U.S. Air Force’s conception of “Shock and Awe,” which had been to bomb empty buildings in the dead of night in order to demonstrate our capabilities—never bothering to take the enemy’s all-or-nothing mentality into account. The IDF, in contrast, went in to kill as many terrorists as they could.

Initial targets attacked over the weekend included terrorist headquarters, arsenals, bomb factories, training compounds, police torture facilities, a mosque used to hide ordnance, Islamic University sites used as “safe” covers for terror operations, and a number of rocket-launching positions. By Monday, the IDF had shifted to employ late-generation U.S. bunker-buster bombs to destroy as many as forty smuggling tunnels under the Gaza Strip’s southern border with Egypt. As I write, air attacks continue to punish Hamas.

Pros—and Cons
The good news is that Hamas is being punished severely. The bad news is that punishment won’t be enough to do more than buy Israel some time.

First, the positives:

Israel’s targeting capabilities revealed a new level of sophistication. Precision at a level previously brought to bear against a single target after much deliberation was successfully applied to hundreds of strikes conducted in rapid succession. This means, first of all, that Israel’s various intelligence elements did a superb job in identifying targets.

Map of Gaza Strip and Israel, May 2005. Click for full image. Courtesy University of Texas Libraries.And, as I can attest from my own experiences in Israel during the 2006 war, there’s more to such targeting than saying, “That’s it, that’s the building.” Working in densely urbanized Gaza, where 1.5 million people crowd into an area just twice the size of the District of Columbia, means countering the now-widespread terrorist tactic of putting arms caches, safe houses, training centers, barracks and headquarters in the immediate proximity of schools, clinics, mosques and tenements. Israeli target cells work with weaponeers to decide the best angle of attack to make sure a collapsing building falls into the street, not on the kindergarten to its other side. The IDF even narrows targeting down to specific floors and windows, avoiding the destruction on an entire apartment building, for instance, if only an upper floor needs to be hit. Make no mistake: Unlike their terrorist enemies, Israelis go to great lengths to limit civilian casualties.

Their efforts have been remarkably successful thus far. While there have been almost 400 KIA in Israel’s air-strikes to date, at most a few dozen civilians have died. Certainly, any civilian deaths must be regretted, but given the cheek-to-jowl nature of life in Gaza, the IDF’s kill ratio of better than 15 dead terrorists to each dead civilian indicates an unrivaled targeting mastery. (Compare Israeli efficiency and precision with the abysmal performance of the Russian air force over Georgia last summer, when Russian pilots took days to take out in-the-open targets even with their latest-model guided bombs.)

December 29, 2008. Israeli soldiers of the Home Front Command's Search and Rescue Unit evacuate those injured by a Grad missile attack on Ashkelon, Israel. Courtesy IDF.Although the global media, as always, have leapt to criticize Israel and defend the terrorists, Hamas has had unusual difficulties making a convincing case for Israeli callousness. The terror organization’s rhetoric about a slaughter of the innocents simply isn’t backed up by the current evidence. Nonetheless, Hamas and its external allies will continue to fight the propaganda war, convinced that it’s the most reliable means to force Israel to break off the fight.

And that brings us to the bad news. While the thousands of terror rockets Hamas has launched at Israel over the years excited no serious protests from international forums, humanitarian organizations or activist groups, the reflexive criticism of Israel’s efforts at self-defense have been deafening. Part of this is fashionable Leftist politics, and a good bit of it is anti-Semitism. But there’s another ugly element in play that no one wants to discuss: Leftwing racism. There’s an unspoken assumption among terror’s apologists that Arabs really are inferior and can’t be expected to behave with morality and restraint, but that “white” Israel should do everything perfectly. Indeed, Leftist condescension in the form of excuse-making and narcotizing pity has been instrumental in retarding Arab progress.

By and large, the global media—a herd with the instinctive behavior of all herds—is Israel’s consistent enemy. Factor rage and jealousy in there, too.

The greatest difficulty for Israel, though, is a practical one: Even the best-conducted air campaign cannot decisively defeat an enemy such as Hamas. Thus far, we’ve seen effective punitive strikes that have cost the terrorists dearly, but, when faced with a religious-fanatic enemy who sees every struggle as a zero-sum game, you have to go in on the ground and kill terrorists in devastating, paralyzing numbers if you want to effect decisive change.

That’s the dilemma Israel now faces.

To Invade, Or Not To Invade?
Although the evidence is clear that the IDF’s air arm has learned a great deal from the Lebanon debacle of 2006—and that Israeli political leaders drew tough conclusions, as well—it remains to be seen whether Israel’s concept of the employment of ground forces and its grasp of what it takes to achieve a meaningful victory have progressed as far as its stand-off-targeting efforts.

To date, Israel has mobilized almost 7,000 reservists and combat units have deployed along the border with the Gaza Strip. Yet, ground force activity to date suggests that political leaders are maneuvering so that they’ll have a full range of options as to how—and if—to continue combat operations, but that no final decisions have been made.

In order to shatter Hamas to the extent that it would remain no more than a minor threat for years, it would be necessary for Israel to conduct a full-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip and to root through every building, room, closet and sewer tunnel, killing every terrorist its soldiers found.

(While top Israeli officials already have ruled out such an extensive operation in public, their remarks could be part of an ongoing deception operation—we just don’t know.)

The problems with that approach are many. First, urban operations would mean high Israeli casualties, always a sensitive issue in this small state that’s ever struggling for its survival. Second, Israel either would need to kill as many terrorists as possible on the spot, or face the need to confine and administer a massive population of new prisoners—handing global radicals yet another cause. Third, the carnage and destruction and duration of such an effort would allow the world media to paint Israel in the worst possible light and to rally hostile regimes and Western terror-sympathizers against the Jewish state.

Could Israel accept the casualties? Could it do what has to be done on the ground? Could it endure near-universal condemnation as terrorism’s apologists around the world called for its censure, for embargoes—and for more terrorism?

We don’t know, because the Israelis don’t know. Statesmen and generals in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are debating these issues as you read these words.

And there’s another crucial factor in play: The change of presidential administrations looming in the United States.

The Obama Factor
Israel struck last Saturday for several reasons. First and foremost, it had already endured over a week of terror-rocket attacks launched from the Gaza Strip—as many as 100 strikes on a single day. No state could tolerate such attacks upon its people and its territory. Second, Israel had intelligence (since proven correct) that Hamas had used the recent truce to smuggle in longer-range rockets capable of hitting Israeli coastal cities (and a nuclear reactor) up to forty kilometers from Gaza. Third, Israel had amassed the targeting information it needed—but almost all targeting data is perishable. The fourth reason was Israel’s own impending elections. The present government needed to prove it could act with resolve and effectiveness, after the mess it left behind in Lebanon. The burgeoning opposition had already criticized the incumbents for their failure to protect Israel’s citizens. With the polls only a matter of weeks away, it was time to act.

December 30, 2008. An Israeli Air Force fighter jet takes off for a mission in the Gaza Strip. Courtesy IDF.

The fifth, and far from the least, reason why Israel attacked when it did is the Obama Factor. Given the president-elect’s elusiveness on the Middle East, Israel simply doesn’t know what to expect after the change of American administrations, but its leaders understood that they could count on support from President Bush in his final days in office (Israel certainly alerted the U.S. that the strikes were coming—and may even have tipped off Egypt, which now views Hamas as hostile and dangerous.)

Indeed, the Bush administration has shown well-reasoned support for Israel’s latest response to terrorism; that said, one of the strongest arguments Israel’s government must be weighing against a large-scale ground operation in Gaza is that the Obama administration could withdraw American support, cut off the flow of replacement munitions (thus encouraging Hezbollah to act up again), and attempt to mediate as an “honest broker,” forcing a cease-fire on Israel and, in essence, rescuing the terrorists and leaving Israel frustrated and embarrassed yet again.

President-elect Obama’s coyness has done great harm in this regard. No one knows where he ultimately will come down on the chimerical Middle-East peace process. Fears that he’ll be resolutely pro-Islam appear wildly exaggerated, but even a lesser shift could do catastrophic damage. The new president may even turn out to be a firm supporter of Israel in the end—but Israeli intelligence, for all its many skills, can’t offer political leaders assurance on that point.

The next few weeks will be interesting, to say the least. While the president-elect’s policy of staying out of matters of state while repeating that we have only one president at a time has been wise and admirable in general, these are exceptional circumstances. Obama’s refusal to step forward in support of Israel and underscore the Bush administration’s position has introduced new uncertainty into the least certain, and most volatile, portion of the globe.

Ralph Peters is a long-standing member of the Armchair General team. A retired Army officer, world traveler, columnist and author, his most-recent book is Looking For Trouble: Adventures in a Broken World.


  1. There is a huge problem with your headline:
    “The Guns of Gaza – Israel Attacks, Hamas Reacts”
    It is BACKWARDS! Hamas attacked Israel there by breaking the standing truce so therefore Israel had no other choice but to react. I hope they level the entire region once and for all. If any other country wants a piece of Israel… let them take their best shot, because I hope and pray Israel flattens them as well.

  2. This article really helped to explain the immediate stuation on Gaza but it didn’t do anything at all to assuage my fear that America voted in the wrong man to our top job.

    While I do agree that it’s admirable that Barrack stays out of the decision making for now I worry that that is because he doesn’t have the first idea how to handle this or any other international crisis that should come along.

    Israel SHOULD go in on the ground but unless the U.S. is willing to back their play the likeliest outcome will be death to a free jewish state.

  3. Amen, John. This article is a real disappointment from a site and magazines I love and trust. The coverage that only takes into account history from point X is a disservice. It’s like saying, “US Bombs Midway, Japanese React,” with no mention of Pearl Harbor. Likewise these claims that Arabs own the land that go back to the Ottomans, as if the thousands of years of Jewish history — and the fact that Judaism ITSELF predates Islam — never happened.

    Who fired the first rockets? Who said NO to extending to truce? Hamas often says their greatest wish is to die at the hands of the “Zionists.” I think what Israel is doing is wonderful: giving them their heart’s desire in Gaza. What I don’t get is why, if they’re so hot to reach shangra la, these terrorists hide behind women and children and stash their weapons in mosques. Seems to me if they’re so brave, they’ll come out in the open. I really hope they thank Israel for giving them all these martrys they celebrate over.

  4. The prolonged siege of Gaza and the deliberate economic meltdown has left the young generations of Gaza bitter, angry with one option only: to join Hamas.
    The effect of the long lasting blockade of goods and access to medical services were questioned by many humanitarian organisations as war crime. Many wesetern and political reporters questioned its effect on securing ‘legitimate security for Israel’

    Hasan Nasr Allah

  5. You two idiots (the author of the article and the scumbag who reponded to it) should trade places with school kids getting blown up over there. Hmm lets see, 450+ dead Palestinians and over 2100 wounded in airstrikes over the past week while the Israelis have suffered 19 dead since 2002! (source:
    The Israelis need to go in an engage Hamas on the ground, not kill and maim civilians with airstrikes. Its bad enough that they have had Gaza under siege all this time trying to crush a group their own intelligence organ helped nurture. I don’t deny Israels right to exist, but the Palestinians deserve to live as well. They should not be punished collectively for the actions of bad apple terrorists. And as for you John, shame on you for advocating what would amount to genocide.

  6. John and Millard, I believe the author probably expects the majority of those who might read his article in AG would already be aware of the pre-existing conditions leading up to the Israeli counter-offensive.

    Hugh, you ought to be familiar enough with politicians of all sorts to realize that the author doesn’t have any more idea than anyone else what the future reactions to international events will be by Obama. Politicians from all countries routinely take actions opposite their previously stated positions.

    Hasan and Tony, the Palestinians voted for Hamas to run their government. They don’t have the excuse of being a victim of circumstances beyond their control any longer. They aren’t any different than the millions of civilians killed in Europe in WWI and II. They chose poorly.

  7. Not a fair fight.
    Little rockets vs. superpower class weapons.
    Palestinians have no choice starve under blockade or fight.
    Jews are new nazis.
    I am for the underdog.
    Jews leave them alone.
    Jews are doomed. Not enough babies or bullets to win.
    World against new nazis.

  8. Any attempt to compare policy, or conditions, between Israel and movements like Hamas or the Hezbollah must start with the basic fact that such movements have the objective of destroying Israel completely. This objective is ideologically motivated, rooted in religion and racism, both immune to rational discussion and diplomacy.
    The only counter is the total eradication of the means to pursue the attacks on Israel. The Germans did not decide in 1945 that some arrangement was possible: their forces, their means of production, and their state organization were destroyed. The German people realized that they were not going to be top nation and built their own democratic state.
    When the population that supports Hamas, or Hezbollah, conclude that trying to destroy Israel is nto a good idea, then there may be some peace.

  9. We didn’t have any option. After eight years of Hamas attacks,

    our government had to do something.. The loss of life on both sides

    is terrible. Peace is very far away, at the moment.

    The problem is, that Hamas doesn’t want any kind of permanent


  10. To root man

    Israel is fighting Iran and Syria via its hit and run terrorist armies, Hamas in Gaza and Hesbolla in Lebanon. How many fronts do you count on the ground there?

    Then there are the propaganda fronts attacking Israel’s right to protect its citizens from indiscriminate rocket attacks. There were no protests, few editorials complaining about attacks on Israeli civilians suffering years of unrelenting collective punishment for “the occupation” ( ie for living in Israel). This front against Israel includes all the countries of Europe and the middle east.

    Add to this the diplomatic front that calls to Israel to stop its defensive attack before Israel can ensure the goal of preventing future rocket fire from Hamas. This would see a humiliating Israeli retreat and encourage future attacks against Israel’s citizens. This front includes the member countries of the UN.

    As you said there are not enough guns and bullets on Israel’s side. To this I would add, there never were and never will be.

    I say Israel is the underdog. Now do you support Israel?

    PS: please stop calling Jews the new Nazis. Even if you have no respect for the Holocaust victims, let me remind you that today we are hearing a loud cry from the Arabs populations of “death to Israel”, “death to the Jews” ” etc. Not so long ago the Mufti of Jerusalem supported and worked with Hitler during WWII and after WWII Arab countries took in Nazi’s escaping justice.

    PPS: Traditionally Israel has never won by bullets or by bullets alone but as you can see the promise that nation of Israel will be eternal has been kept. You might want to think about that nonsensical historical fact.

  11. When the IRA shoot some Rockets on the British Parliment in the eighties, die the RAF bomb the shit out of Londonderry? Did they send MBT’s to kill the wifes and children of PIRA’s? Did they fire 155 mm WP on Marketplaces in Belfast?

    Think about it…
    After all, Peace was possible without that kind of carnage.


  12. @Riggins:
    It does not matter if a people ‘chose poorly’ (though it is an interesting fact that we are only willing to promote democracy as long as people vote for parties we, the west, think of as ‘proper parties’) killing civilians still constitutes a war crime.
    Charges were not brought after WWII because one side had been beaten completly both material and morally. You cannot very well ask for the pilots of the Bombers over Hamburg and Dresden and Hiroshima, or the people who send them there, to be punished when you just killed a lot of jews and chinese.
    That does not make it right though.
    And for Israel this is even less of a good strategy.
    They basicly fight a war they cannot win in the long run, because their own foreign policy makes sure that the recruits for the Hamas and other radical parties will always be there.
    Whether you want to acknowlodge it or not, the Hamas are not terrorists, as in ‘isolated, deluded individuals’. They are the people. They are the Avatar of the wrath of the Palestinian people. And you cannot kill the wrath.
    The only belligerent solution would indeed be a genocide in Gaza. Apart from only a policy change could help.
    I predict that this little war will damage Israel more than the Hamas. The Hamas might even come out of this as the moral victor, if they play there cards right.

  13. I agree completely with Tony; for every Israeli dead there are 75+ Palestinians dead. Israel should go into Gaza and fight/kill the Hamas terrorists only- not the poor, starving civilians. Also Israel is talking bullshit about sending medical aid to the Palestinians; i have seen pictures and the conditions there and can easily deduce that they are receiving no aid whatsoever. Some Americans are so blind to what is right in front of them! The bloody Jews are picking off the poor Palestinians one by one and they have no option but to stay and try to fight them. The Palestinians are so ill equipped that they have to throw rocks at the Israeli tanks that run over their homes. Anyone who cannot sympathize with the Palestinians and thinks that the Israeli are doing the right thing are bloody fools! May God punish the Israeli for their massacre of the Palestinians!

  14. I particularly like the bits in the article attributing every criticism whatsoever to either ‘anti-semitism’ (i do not need to hate jews to have a problem with their foreign policy) and ‘leftwing racism’ which the author defines as a stance were it is assumed that the arabs or palestinians cannot be accepted to behave civilized (just one small side note: how civilized is the palestine policy of the israelis (note that i write israelis, not jews) exactly?) while ‘white’ Israelis should.
    Yeah, that is quite a nice try at painting every criticism as a sign of craziness in itself. And it is bulls*** as well.
    Israel has a human rights record that is, mildly put, appaling. We do not just talk legalized torture here or the fact that the Shin-Bet is hardly accountable to anybody, but also war crimes and atrocities, like such nice gimmicks as grenades filled with nails and other things.
    The Fact that Israel is still a member of the international comunity reeks more of a different kind of racism, if you a aprdon the pun, mainly a kind of racism that feels that Israel is not bound to the same standards of conduct as other countries, or for that matter, even the Palestinians.

  15. I can’t stand the conflict anymore. I can’t see how any side is justified anymore. On both sides people have been killed for absolutely no reason, seeing as peace will not be achieved at any rate because of fanatics, on both sides of the conflict. How can anyone justify fighting in a perpetual conflict that sparks up after a few years despite ‘cease fires’ which are more a byword for ‘break times’ . I was for Israel at one stage, but not anymore. I’m opposed to Hamas because it has no regards neither. I’d say I hope for a peace resolution, but thats a pipe dream. Good luck to them, their vainities will achieve nothing, but heart ache for their peoples’.

  16. i think that the war is not a solution to our problems at the moment. Us Americans can only hope for the survival for our receeding econonmy. With the wars, it will be harder than ever and foolish for us to try. let Hamas and Israel fight their own war! Why do we have to get our selves messed up in everything?
    my brother is in the military and the shit he has been through is bad. he agrees with me!


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