Sunday, December 28, 2008

Precision Intelligence

Day Two of Israel's campaign in Gaza is drawing to a close, with the IAF expanding its attacks, and ground forces preparing for a possible invasion.

According to the Associated Press, there have been "some 300 air strikes since midday Saturday," targeting scores of Hamas facilities. Media accounts suggest that at least 290 Palestinians have died, describing the violence in Gaza as "the deadliest since Israeli troops captured the area during the 1967 war."

As you might expect, the dispatches fail to note that most of the dead are Hamas leaders, or members of the terror group's security forces. In fact, one air strike reportedly occurred during a graduation ceremony at a police training academy, killing scores of Hamas operatives.

And that underscores another element of the Israeli assault--also ignored by the western press. The IAF campaign has been based on precision intelligence, maximizing the airstrikes' effectiveness. The Jerusalem Post reports that Israel's intelligence services have been "preparing the battlefield" for more than a year, gathering data on Hamas facilities and key personnel.

The Post's Yaakov Katz also notes that the IDF plan included a key deceptive element. That's hardly a surprise; the Israelis have launched virtually every military operation with measures aimed at confounding their enemies. But in this case, the deception seemed aimed at countering media leaks that would prevent Israel from achieving tactical surprise.

The decision to launch such a blow against Hamas on Saturday was made during last Wednesday's security cabinet meeting. A secret meeting was held again on Friday between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, where the timing was finalized.

After several of the decisions from Wednesday's cabinet meeting were leaked to the press, Barak decided on a strategy of deception - to deceive Hamas into believing that Israel was not planning to strike back.

Barak took two actions to achieve this - the decision to open the Gaza crossings on Friday (which was announced on Thursday) and leaking to the press that there would be another cabinet meeting on Sunday to decide whether to attack. This created the perception that Israel was holding off on an operation when in reality it was fueling and arming its aircraft.

While some of the Hamas facilities were relatively easy to spot, the identification of others required more time and effort. Pinpoint attacks that took out terror leaders are one example; Sunday's "tunnel campaign" are another. In the latest round of air attacks, Israeli jets struck more than 40 smuggling tunnels that run beneath the border between Egypt and Gaza.

Many of the passages are small and built by hand, without the large dirt mounds and boring machines usually associated with the construction of underground facilities--clues that intelligence analysts often look for. But the Israelis still managed to locate them, denying the Palestinians key resupply routes for weapons and commercial goods. That will put further pressure on the terrorists, reducing their ability to launch new rocket and mortar attacks on Israel.

So far, Israel's air campaign seems to be achieving desired results. The leadership of Hamas has been severely crippled and the number of Kassam strikes against southern Israeli towns and settlements has dropped dramatically. Just over 20 rockets were fired from Gaza on Sunday, compared with 120 on Saturday--most of them before the IAF airstrikes began at midday.

Of course, the real test for the IDF (and Israeli intelligence) would be a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip. Prime Minister Ehud Barak has refused to rule out that option, declaring that "now is the time for fighting." Israeli tanks were reported on the Gaza border Sunday, and a limited call-up of reserves is reportedly underway.

Once they cross the border, IDF armor, infantry and special forces units will face anti-tank missiles and IEDs, among other threats. But the Israelis have been absorbing the lessons of the Second Lebanon War for the past two years and one thing is certain: any ground incursion into Gaza will not be a repeat of 2006. That attack was both haphazard and reluctant, launched only after the IAF was unable to stem Hizballah rocket fire into Israel.

If an invasion is approved, IDF forces will enter Gaza with clear objectives and some sort of exit strategy. A decision on a ground assault hasn't been made, but could come as early as tomorrow. On the other hand, that could be another element of the Israeli deception plan.

ADDENDUM: While the Israelis are being criticized for the "heavy" loss of life, the air campaign has been remarkably precise, in many respects. On Saturday, a BBC correspondent described an attack on a Hamas compound only 20 meters from his residence. The reporter (and his apartment building) escaped unscathed; the terrorist target was heavily damaged. Based on that report, we'd say the weapon used was a U.S.-made Small Diameter Bomb, designed specifically for precision strikes in urban terrain.

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