After almost four years of cyclical escalation and de-escalation in the Gaza Strip, Israel and Hamas are at it again. And with both sides having conducted hundreds of airstrikes and rocket strikes against one another in the last six days, a major battle on the ground in Gaza is likely if diplomacy fails.
But despite years of preparation on both sides and the introduction of new technologies -- Hamas's long-range rockets and Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system, in particular -- the parameters of the conflict remain essentially unchanged. Israel has broadened its target set inside Gaza, while Hamas has widened the geographic scope of its operations to include the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem areas. But with preparations for a ground invasion currently underway, Operation Pillar of Defense could very well evolve into a "Cast Lead" redux.
Indeed, intelligence collection and operational planning for this offensive have been underway virtually since the end of Operation Cast Lead in January 2009, as have the development of doctrine and the readying and training of specific forces. Israeli objectives in this operation also closely mirror those of Cast Lead -- in particular, reducing rocket threats to southern, and now central, Israel; damaging the military capabilities of Hamas and other armed groups in Gaza; and restoring Israel's ability to deter attacks from Palestinian forces in Gaza.
Unlike Operation Cast Lead, however, Israel's defensive operations now form a major part of its response to the Gaza based threat. In addition to civil defense exercises and the national attack warning system, both leveraged in 2009, Israel now boasts the Iron Dome counter rocket system, which has successfully intercepted as many as 90 percent of rockets deemed a threat to targets inside Israel, according to the government.
Still, the centerpiece of Israel's operation in Gaza has been a comprehensive aerial attack on multiple target sets within Gaza. The air operation, which began on Nov. 14, has been directed at military targets and Hamas associated infrastructure. Based on the relatively low number of Palestinian casualties -- roughly 110 killed, including both civilians and fighters -- in the first six days, the strikes seem to have been relatively precise. Israel has also used leaflet drops to provide warning to civilians.
Preparations for a ground operation in Gaza are well advanced and could probably be conducted on very short notice. Elements of several brigades are in the border area, including two high-quality regular infantry brigades (Paratroop Brigade and Givati Infantry Brigade), the 401st Armored Brigade, and perhaps another armored brigade. The Gaza Territorial Division, which is normally responsible for security along the Gaza border, is likely being reinforced with additional reservists, combat units, artillery, and engineers. Israel has mobilized perhaps 16,000 reservists, and is prepared to mobilize as many as 75,000. This would give the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) the capability to launch a multi-division scale offensive in Gaza.
Meanwhile, Hamas' armed wing, the Ezzedeen al-Qassam Brigades (EQB), and other armed groups in Gaza, such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees, continue to fire rockets into Israel and will likely take part in any ground battle that ensues. In addition to avenging the killing of Ahmad Jabari, Hamas' military commander, Hamas seeks to compel Israel to stop its air campaign, deter an Israeli ground operation, and demonstrate active "resistance" against Israel. In addition, Hamas wants to prove that, regardless of Israel's actions, it can continue to threaten the Jewish state with rockets, a capacity that Israel will have difficulty completely eliminating.