After Operation Cast Lead ended in January 2009, Israel and Hamas engaged in sporadic violence for the next thirty-three months. Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense on 14 November 2012, with a “shock and awe” air assault that killed Hamas military chief Ahmad Ja'bari and other key figures. Over the eight-day conflict, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad fired more than 1,456 rockets into Israel, hitting Tel Aviv for the first time. The Israeli Air Force struck more than 1,500 targets in Gaza. On 21 November, a cease-fire—brokered by Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood–led Egyptian government—took effect.
Pillar of Defense seems to have confirmed Israel’s belief in airpower to produce the desired deterrent effect without the need for a ground assault. The 2012 conflict offered the first confirmed use of the newly operational Iron Dome anti-missile system, which Israeli sources credited with intercepting around 20 percent of the projectiles fired at Israel. Pillar of Defense led to a protracted period of cautious calm that ended in the summer of 2014. Three teenage Israeli settlers were kidnapped in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc near Jerusalem on 12 June. Israel accused Hamas of responsibility and carried out a mass arrest campaign across the West Bank. Hamas retaliated with rocket fire from Gaza which was met with Israel air and artillery strikes from mid to late June.
On 7 July Israel decided to launch a full-scale assault, code-named Operation Protective Edge. Its stated objective was to stop Palestinian rocket fire into Israel and deter further attacks. The war developed in three phases.
Phase One: Aerial Assault (8–16 July)
Operation Protective Edge began on 8 July. Israeli planes struck some 223 targets on the first day and 326 on the second. Throughout this first air-only phase, the Israeli Air Force conducted more than 1,700 strikes. Weapons storage and manufacturing facilities, rocket launch sites, command and control centers, military compounds, and individual Hamas senior commanders were targeted.
But unlike the Gaza war in 2008–9 and the opening of the air campaign in 2012, Israel does not appear to have achieved an operational surprise. Moreover, its initial strikes were less successful than during the previous conflicts and, in fact, Israel’s air force (along with the Israeli navy off the coast) completed its assault on most of the planned targets within the first few days. On 12 July, a single Israeli strike on the home of a senior police commander in Gaza City killed 21 Palestinians. By 15 July, there were more than 200 Palestinian casualties, more than 80 percent of them civilians.
Despite the air assault, the rate of Palestinian rocket and mortar fire on Israel was sustained and varied between 115 and 177 a day. Palestinian fire extended beyond the Gaza envelope (the 7-km-wide Israeli area along the Strip’s border) to reach Nevatim Military Airport (southeast of Bir al-Sabi‘), Dimona, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem. For the first time, Hamas tried to infiltrate Israel by sea; it made two successive naval commando forays near Kibbutz Zikim.
On the diplomatic front, Egypt proposed a cease-fire on 14 July. The Israel security cabinet agreed to it the following day but Hamas rejected it, offering a 10-year truce in return for lifting the blockade on Gaza, expanding Gaza’s fishing zone to 10 nautical miles, positioning international forces at the borders, and freeing the West Bank prisoners released in the 2011 Shalit exchange deal whom Israel had rearrested in its June sweep on the West Bank. Following the cease-fire failure, the Israeli army struck dozens of sites across the Gaza Strip, including the Interior Ministry building and a hospital, killing forty-four Palestinians; four children were killed by Israeli shelling while playing on the beach near Gaza City.
Phase Two: Ground Invasion (17–31 July)
On 17 July a Hamas unit used an “attack tunnel” to infiltrate Israel, killing five Israeli soldiers near Sufa, east of Rafah. Israel’s perceived threat from the tunnels led the cabinet to approve a ground attack. It started on the night of 17 July with heavy artillery shelling of Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahiya in the north and incursions near the border fence. Israel estimated it was facing twenty-six battalions of varying size and quality and that Hamas had roughly 25,000–30,000 men mostly organized into six brigades of 2,500 to 3,500 men each, equipped with a mixture of rocket and mortar teams, antitank units with RPGs and some anti-tank missiles, snipers, and infantry units.
On the night of 17 July, the following units launched a ground invasion:
- The 36th Armor Division, comprising the 1st (Golani) Brigade, the 188th Armored Brigade, the 7th Armored Brigade, the 35th Paratroop Brigade, and the 282nd Artillery Brigade.
- The 162nd Division, comprising the 933rd Nahal Brigade, the 401st Armored Brigade, and the 215th Artillery Brigade.
- The 643rd Gaza Territorial Division, comprising the 84th Givati Brigade, Territorial Brigade North, and Territorial Brigade South.
These divisions, in turn, controlled Special Forces task forces, the Naval Flotilla, canine units, and specialized unmanned aerial vehicle (drone) units.
The Israeli ground campaign focused largely but not solely on the tunnels. Overall, the Israeli army discovered 100 km of tunnels inside Gaza, reportedly including thirty-two cross-border tunnels, many of which, however, were still under construction. According to outside analysts, only twenty-two crossed the Israeli border and not all had reached their destination. Nonetheless, Hamas still successfully used five tunnels before Israel could interdict them.
The Battle of Shuja‘iyya
Located in the heart of Gaza City, Shuja‘iyya was a densely populated urban neighborhood home to approximately 100,000 civilians. According to Israeli sources, this was Hamas’s stronghold with approximately 800–900 fighters and at least six cross border tunnels originated from it. The 1st Golani Brigade launched the attack against the neighborhood, and it led to one of the fiercest battles of the war.
The Israeli army planned to send in dismounted soldiers to look for the tunnels, and some troops had to rely on older US-made thinly armored M113s for movement in the packed neighborhood streets. On the night of 19 July, the brigade began its advance, while other 36th Division units maneuvered elsewhere along the fence near Gaza as part of a deception effort. The deception failed, however. As Golani units crossed the fence line, they came under fire. Two out of three platoon commanders in the leading battalion were wounded. Hamas fighters hit an M113 with an RPG, killing seven Israeli soldiers, and the brigade commander and two battalion commanders were wounded.
In response, the brigade called in air support and artillery fire. Senior US officers who had access to the 21 July Pentagon summary of Israeli operations were reportedly stunned to learn that eleven Israeli artillery battalions—a minimum of 258 artillery pieces—pumped at least 7,000 high-explosive shells into the Gaza neighborhood. The Israeli air force dropped about a hundred 2,000-pound bombs (i.e., 200,000 lbs of explosives). When the battle of Shuja‘iyya ended on 20 July, 13 Israeli soldiers had been killed. Palestinian casualties included at least 65 killed, of whom 35 were women, children, and elderly people, and 288 were wounded. But despite the onslaught in Shuja‘iyya, on 22 July, the Gaza resistance launched a missile that disrupted international flights at Ben Gurion airport, which proved that Israel had been unable to stem the rocket fire.
Action in the North, Center, and South
To the Golani’s north, the 162nd Division faced less intense action. But on 21 July, Hamas fighters emerged from a tunnel inside Israel approximately 1.1 km away from Sderot and fired an anti-tank missile, killing four soldiers, including a Nahal battalion commander; he was one of the highest ranking Israeli officers killed in the conflict. A few days later, on 25 July, Israeli troops engaged with a force of Hamas fighters; two were killed and the company commander was wounded in the action. Amongst the worse examples of Israeli attacks on civilian targets, one took place in the 162nd Division’s area of operations on 24 July, when 15 Palestinian civilians were killed and 200 wounded in a strike on a United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) school being used as a shelter near Beit Hanoun.
Facing the central Strip, Israel had deployed the 188th and 7th Armoured Brigades with the aim to advance all the way to the sea. But on 19 July, they were told instead to focus on the tunnel network after Hamas fighters emerged from a tunnel about 4.7 km from Kibbutz Be’eri, southeast of Gaza City, and engaged Israeli troops. A battalion of the 7th Armored Brigade found two tunnel openings within Gaza borders. The 188th Armored Brigade faced difficulties because dozens of its early model Merkava tanks malfunctioned.
In the southern Gaza Strip, the three southernmost Israeli units—the 84th Givati Brigade, the 35th Paratrooper Brigade, and the 460th Armored Brigade—were engaged in fierce action. On 23 July, three paratroopers were killed and another three were wounded when they entered a booby-trapped house. But two days before, the 84th Givati Brigade had been involved in a grave incident in Khuza‘a, a small agricultural village just outside of Khan Yunis. Israel told the civilian population to evacuate the town on the morning of 20 July, but the following day, Israeli air force bombed the roads into the village and elements of the brigade moved into it. According to international reports, Khuza‘a was put in a state of siege as Israeli troops prevented the population from leaving, despite being short of food and water. Israeli soldiers also reportedly killed civilians, including some waving a white flag.
Phase Three: Intermittent Hostilities and Final Cease-Fire (1–26 August)
On the evening of 31 July, US Secretary of State Kerry and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon announced a 72-hour cease-fire agreed to by all parties, to begin on 1 August and to be followed by negotiations for a longer term agreement in Cairo. However, the cease-fire failed to hold; it was followed by a series of cease-fire announcements and breakdowns.
The Hannibal Directive
For the Israeli side, the 31 July cease-fire was not applicable to the search and destruction of tunnels. Consequently, the cease-fire broke down almost immediately when Israeli soldiers encountered Palestinian fighters emerging from a tunnel. Two Givati Brigade soldiers were killed, and one was believed to have been abducted. The Israeli army rapidly activated the Hannibal Directive, which allows for the use of force as necessary to stop the capture of Israeli soldiers, even if this endangers their life. It sent its troops hundreds of meters into the tunnel and unleashed at least 2,000 missiles and shells on nearby neighborhoods, decapitating fleeing civilians and shredding vehicles and ambulances attempting to evacuate the wounded. At least 160 Palestinians were killed, and the resistance factions resumed rocket fire into Israel. The following day the Israeli army announced that the missing soldier was dead.
Thereafter, the situation on the ground remained largely static as the Israeli army pursued its aerial, naval, and ground assault for the fourth week running, killing 268 Palestinians, including two strikes on 3 August, one of which killed 10 members of one family in the Rafah area, and another on a UN-run school that killed 10 and wounded 30.
After a 72-hour cease-fire on 5 August, the Israeli army withdrew its ground forces. For the next ten days, hostilities resumed punctuated by successive cease-fires. On 19 August, Israel tried and failed to assassinate Hamas military commander Mohammed Deif, but it killed his wife and seven-month-old son instead; in response, the resistance fired more than fifty projectiles into Israel.
During the last week of August, the Israeli army continued to pummel the Strip. It hit 330 targets and razed several high-rise buildings to force an unconditional cease-fire on Hamas, killing at least 100 Palestinians and injuring dozens. During the week, Palestinian fighters launched more than 900 rockets and mortars into Israel, primarily toward Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and areas in the south.
On 26 August, the parties agreed to an open-ended cease-fire. It included an easing of the blockade, with Gaza’s border crossings opened to goods as well as reconstruction materials; an extension of Gaza’s fishing zone from 3 to 6 nautical miles, and a reduction of the Israeli-enforced buffer zone along the border fence inside Gaza from 300 to 100 meters. Issues and demands relegated to subsequent discussions included the release of Palestinians who were freed in the 2011 Shalit exchange deal and rearrested in June 2014; the handover of the remains of Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza during the hostilities; and a viable commercial seaport and airport for the Strip. None of these issues were subsequently resolved.
Casualties and Material Losses
According to a UNOCHA report (published on 3 October 2014), the total Palestinian death toll was 2,189 (including those who died of their injuries after the cease-fire), of which 1,486 were civilians. As many as 513 children were killed, and 70 percent of them were under the age of 12. At least 142 Palestinian families lost 3 or more members in a single incident, and some 11,100 Palestinians, including 3,374 children, were injured. The UN agency confirmed 557 deaths among fighters; 146 deaths remain unverified. The scale of the damage was unprecedented: According to UN statistics 17,800 houses were destroyed and severely damaged so as to make them uninhabitable, 153,000 homes were damaged but still habitable, and 252 schools and 78 hospitals were damaged. A 2014
Seventy-one Israelis were killed, including 66 soldiers and 5 civilians. Israel's medical service Magen David Adom reported that during the fifty days of fighting, its teams treated 842 civilians, including 6 who were killed by shrapnel and another 36 who were injured. The war caused almost $55 million in direct damage to private and public infrastructure and another $443 million in indirect damage.
Hamas and the Resistance
Between Pillar of Defense 2012 and Protective Edge 2014, Hamas pursued a systematic process of developing its military capabilities. On the broad strategic plane, this included (a) building up its military infrastructure in the Gaza Strip and extending its presence into the West Bank where possible and (b) developing an offensive doctrine based on “taking the war to the enemy” via, inter alia, attack tunnels and commando raids by land or sea. Hamas’s main strategic goals were to raise the cost of any future Israeli assault and to strengthen its deterrent capabilities, and hence its negotiating power as regards the siege.
With Israel’s introduction of Iron Dome in 2011, Hamas sought to “stretch” the anti-missile system by expanding the extent of attacks, placing greater emphasis on precision missiles and longer and wider reach, and by developing its mortar units, since unlike rockets and missiles, mortars cannot be intercepted by the system, and despite their limited range they can pose a serious threat to Israel around the Gaza envelope.
Hamas’s investment in building an extensive underground defensive system largely paid off in allowing for greater tactical flexibility when faced with a ground attack. But their potential to inflict damage on Israel was not fully realized during Protective Edge. The tunnel system’s most significant achievement was ensuring the safety of the command echelon. Hamas and the resistance can be credited with having found the means of surviving Israel’s various offensive methods, including intelligence surveillance and precision targeting.
The resistance further displayed its ability to overcome the siege by focusing on indigenous means of arms’ production rather than on outside arms supplies, a move also necessitated by the emergence of a new hostile military regime in Egypt after 2013. Hamas set about developing its drone capability, as well as nourishing its nascent capabilities in electronic and cyberwarfare.
Although Israel initially seems to have believed that airpower alone had demonstrated its “deterrent” effect on Hamas in 2012, the course of the confrontation during Protective Edge and the emergence of the threat of attack tunnels led Israel to revive the notion of a land assault. But without a more radical objective such as a long-term reoccupation of the Strip and/or uprooting the resistance, the limited incursions of 2014 could only bring relatively limited results.
In 2014, Iron Dome’s exact effectiveness remained open to debate, but Israeli analysts argued the Dome relieved political pressure on Israeli leaders to bring the conflict to a rapid conclusion. Conversely, as the war dragged on, and as Israel fired 32,000 artillery shells (compared to the 8,000 artillery shells fired in 2008–9), its rationale for killing Palestinians began to come under greater international scrutiny. Protective Edge, like its 2008 and 2012 predecessors, confirmed the emergence of “lawfare” (i.e., using law as an instrument against a military adversary) as a crucial element in modern warfare, particularly considering the continuing international visibility of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.
According to Israeli and US sources, the Israeli army revived its investment in Trophy-protected vehicles from rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank guided munitions such as the Namer and the more recent Eitan wheeled armored personnel carrier.
One lesson drawn by Israel was to invest in anti-tunnel technology and to build a new underground defensive wall, which was begun in 2017. In the years following Protective Edge, Israel made a massive investment in electronic surveillance and intelligence gathering and in integrating all aspects of information and combat data into an interoperative system on the battlefield. This is underpinned by similar investments in artificial intelligence, laser technology (as a means of interdicting mortars and missiles), and the use of robotics for the more arduous and deadly combat tasks, such as tunnel warfare.
Be that as it may, Hamas and the resistance established a new equation during Protective Edge based on “qualitative disruption” of Israeli life versus Israel’s ability to inflict “quantitative destruction,” the net result being what one Israeli analyst described as “an asymmetric tie.” How this equation can play out in the future remains a question.
Cohen, Raphael S. et al. From Cast Lead to Protective Edge: Lessons from Israel’s Wars in Gaza. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2017.
Harel, Amos and Gill Cohen. “Massive Artillery Shelling May Have Caused Numerous Civilian Fatalities in Gaza.” Haaretz, 15 August 2014.
“IDF Completes Underground Anti-tunnel Barrier surrounding Gaza.” The Times of Israel, 5 March 2021.
Perry, Mark. “Why Israel’s Bombardment of Gaza Neighborhood Left U.S. Officers ‘Stunned.’” Al Jazeera America, 27 August 2014.
Siboni, Gabi. “Operation Cast Lead, Pillar of Defense and Protective Edge: A Comparative Review.” In Anat Kurz and Shlomo Brom, eds., The Lessons of Operation Protective Edge. Tel Aviv: Institute for National Security Studies, 2014.
Siboni, Gabi and A. G. “Military Lessons for Hamas from Operation Protective Edge.” INSS Insight, no. 700 (21 May 2015).