Between late April and early May 2021, several events converged to create a new Israeli-Palestinian political-strategic dynamic: Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas’s decision of 29 April to postpone the Palestine Legislative Council (PLC) elections, Israeli police actions against Palestinian worshippers in al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan, and renewed Israeli eviction threats against Palestinian families living in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood near Jerusalem’s Old City. On 10 May, the last day of Ramadan, extreme right-wing Israelis commemorated Israel’s 1967 occupation of East Jerusalem, sparking protests in which dozens of Palestinians were injured in clashes with the police on the Haram (al-Aqsa) compound. That same day, Hamas issued an ultimatum to Israel to withdraw its troops, police, and settlers from the compound and from Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood by 6:00 p.m. As the deadline passed, Hamas and other Gaza-based resistance forces launched Operation Sword of Jerusalem with a barrage of 150 rockets into Israeli territory, including six toward Jerusalem, marking the first time the city had been targeted since the 2014 conflict. Israeli counteraction, named Guardian of the Walls, began that evening with airstrikes on Hamas targets, including an attack tunnel. According to the Palestine Health Ministry, 20 civilians including 9 children were killed in these attacks.
Operation Sword of Jerusalem / Guardian of the Walls
Over the subsequent eleven days of the confrontation, a basic pattern was established: Israeli air strikes and Hamas rocket counterfire, interspersed with a few ground and naval attacks. On 11 May, Hamas fired 711 rockets and mortars at Israel, the highest single day total in the history of conflict. Israel carried out intensive strikes demolishing the 13-story Hanandi Tower in Gaza city (allegedly housing senior Hamas military intelligence officials) and Hamas's main police headquarters. On 12 May, Israeli airstrikes destroyed two multistory buildings in Gaza City, the al-Shorouq and al-Jawhara towers containing Palestinian government and news organizations. (Israel claimed they housed Hamas military headquarters and intelligence offices.) Hamas responded by firing tens of rockets at Israel, as well as an anti-tank guided missile that killed one Israeli soldier, and in the first incident of its kind, Iron Dome is said to have intercepted a Hamas unmanned aerial vehicle (drone) that had crossed into Israeli territory.
By 13 May, Israel claimed to have hit more than 600 targets in various locations in the Strip. Israel also claimed to have shot down a Hamas drone aimed at the Tamar offshore energy platform and to have thwarted seven anti-tank missile attacks. At around noon on 14 May, an Israeli army tweet claimed that a ground offensive had begun. This was part of an elaborate plan to lure Hamas fighters into their underground shelters in anticipation of the supposed ground offensive, whereupon they would be eliminated in a massive air strike. Hamas responded cautiously by sending only a limited number of fighters into the tunnels, and some 12 Israeli Air Force squadrons comprising 160 aircraft struck over 150 underground targets in the northern Gaza Strip but without significant success. In other attacks, Israel destroyed a branch of the Islamic National Bank, which Israel claimed was handling the funding of Hamas operations.
On 15 May, an Israeli airstrike destroyed the high-rise al-Jalaa building in Gaza City, which housed a number of news organizations, including the Associated Press and Al Jazeera. The attack sparked widespread international condemnation; US Secretary of State Antony Blinken did not confirm Israel’s claims that the building housed a Hamas electronic warfare unit. On 16 May, an Israeli airstrike on an alleged Hamas tunnel network in the al-Rimal neighborhood in Gaza City resulted in 42 civilians deaths and several demolished buildings.
The second week of combat began on 17 May. Egypt was reportedly brokering a ceasefire deal. For the first time since the fighting began, six rockets were fired toward Israel from Lebanon but all fell within Lebanese territory and were ascribed by Israeli sources to a small Palestinian faction and not Hizballah. The Israeli Air Force dropped more than 100 precision munitions overnight against some 16 kilometers of tunnels in approximately 20 minutes. Elsewhere, the Israeli Navy allegedly thwarted a Hamas naval action in the northern Gaza Strip, destroying a Hamas submersible.
The battle between Israeli air power and resistance rockets continued over the next two days. On 18 May, Hamas launched rockets at six Israeli Air Force bases in southern and central Israel; no injuries or damage was reported. Israel claimed to have destroyed another 9 miles of Hamas tunnels overnight, dropping over 100 precision guided munitions on roughly 65 targets in the span of 30 minutes. On 19 May, the Israeli army conducted another phase of attacks on the tunnel system, dropping 122 precision guided munitions on roughly 40 military targets across at least 10 kilometers of tunnels, all in the span of 25 minutes. Meanwhile, four more rockets were fired from Lebanon toward Haifa including one intercepted by the Iron Dome, but Israeli security officials once again suggested that a Palestinian faction, not Hizballah, was responsible
On 20 May, the final full day of conflict, Palestinian resistance forces fired 420 rockets at Israel, the second most of any day since the fighting began. Israeli forces struck at the residences of senior Hamas officials, and Hamas fighters scored a direct hit with an anti-tank missile on a military bus north of the Gaza Strip minutes after ten Israeli soldiers left the vehicle. The fighting ended on 21 May, after both Hamas and Israel agreed to a ceasefire brokered by Egypt, Qatar, and the UN, to commence at 2:00 a.m.
On 21 May, the Gaza Health Ministry reported that 248 Gazans had been killed, including 66 children, 39 women, and 17 elderly people, and 1,948 had been injured. On 27 May, Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar said that 57 Hamas fighters, 22 Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) fighters, and one member of the small Popular Resistance Committees had been killed during the fighting. Hamas officials subsequently estimated that the war cost the Gaza economy US$479 million, while a World Bank report issued soon after the war estimated that Gaza had suffered $380 million in physical damage and $190 million in economic losses. Some 1,000 buildings, including four high-rise towers, were totally destroyed, according to UN estimates, while Hamas estimates put the figure at 1,500 plus another 56,000 damaged. Critical recovery needs included assistance to around 45,000 individuals (including 7,000 children) and housing needs for residents of more than 4,000 destroyed or partially damaged homes. By mid 2021, UNICEF estimated that half of the water network was damaged and nearly 800,000 people had no access to piped water, as groundwater wells and reservoirs, desalination and wastewater plants, water delivery networks, and pumping stations all sustained significant damage. In the first move of its kind, Egypt committed to a $500 million reconstruction program in three residential cities, including nearly 4,000 apartments, signalling its growing role in seeking to “stabilize” Gaza and maintain its political say in the Strip.
Eleven Israeli civilians were reported directly killed by resistance rocket and mortar fire and 330 were wounded, most of them superficially; many anxiety attacks were reported. One Israeli soldier was killed. Hamas rocket fire severely disrupted routine daily life for people living as far north as Netanya and as far south as Eilat, and Israel’s “mixed” cities saw unprecedented protests from Israel’s Palestinian citizens and Arab/Jewish street violence sparked by events in Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Israel claimed to have killed some 50 senior Hamas and Palestine PIJ operatives killed along with about 200 fighters. It also claimed to have destroyed over 1,500 targets, including some 100 kilometers of Hamas’s tunnel system (the “metro”) in Gaza City, Rafah, and Khan Yunis. The resistance’s weapons-manufacturing and military-buildup capabilities, its research and development centers, dozens of administration offices, 11 buildings, and 5 banks were all attacked.
The May 2021 conflict stands out as one initiated by Hamas with a clear political objective, the first since its 2007 Gaza takeover. The organization sought to capitalize on PA President Abbas’s deeply unpopular decision to cancel the PLC elections and rising Palestinian-Israeli religious and political tensions in Jerusalem; it wanted to position itself as the prime defender of Palestinian rights, as compared to the PA and its associated “mainstream” arm, Fatah, both of which were seen to be in direct or indirect collusion with Israel. The Sword of Jerusalem was not only a challenge to Israel but an attempt to transform Hamas into the primary Palestinian political address, armed with broad political legitimacy drawn from its readiness to confront Israel, much as Fatah had acquired its political standing in the past.
Hamas appears to have calculated (a) that Israel would refrain from an all-out ground offensive, (b) that it could absorb Israel’s counterstrikes, and (c) that it would be better placed at the end of hostilities to address both its immediate Gaza-centred demands and pursue its broader politico-strategic goals at the expense of PA/Fatah. Operationally and despite Israel’s intensive air campaign, Hamas’s first two assumptions appear to have been largely confirmed by the course of events. As in previous conflicts, Hamas and the resistance factions demonstrated their ability to sustain a steady rate of rocket fire throughout the 11 days of combat; they averaged around 300 to 450 rockets daily despite Israeli forces’ counterbombardment—50 to 100 percent higher than the volume of fire in the 2014 war. Furthermore, nearly twice as many rockets were lobbed at more distant cities such as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (roughly one out of six), implying that Hamas increased the proportion of long-range rockets, with at least one strike reaching Israel’s Red Sea port of Eilat (almost 200 kilometers away) using a new 250-kilometer range Ayyash-250 rocket. Western reports confirm that Hamas and PIJ did not target civilian population centers exclusively; they fired rockets at six or more Israeli airbases, as well as at offshore oil platforms. Rocket strikes caused fires in a powerplant, a petroleum depot in Ashkelon, and the Ashdod-Eilat pipeline and shut down air travel at several Israeli airports. Hamas countered the Iron Dome system by firing coordinated salvoes of up to 50 rockets to overwhelm the Dome batteries with more targets than they could engage simultaneously. New multiple-rocket launcher systems clustering 6, 9, or 12 rockets together were designed to achieve these surges. Low trajectory launches were also intended to lower the odds of interception.
One notable development was Hamas deployment of several unmanned combat systems. One of them, the Shihab attack drone, appears to be a Gaza-built copy of the Iranian HESA Ababil-2, although Israeli sources claim that this had little effect. Some Hamas rockets may have been intercepted by Tamir (Iron Dome) missiles reportedly installed on Israeli Navy Sa’ar-5/6 class corvettes. Hamas’s use of anti-tank missiles also seems to have been of limited effect, although the range of ground confrontations was itself limited. Hamas deployed new naval assets (remotely controlled submersibles) and displayed advanced cyber and electronic intelligence warfare capabilities.
After the ceasefire was announced, senior Israeli officials reported that Hamas still possessed some 8,000 rockets, implying only modest attrition from Israeli strikes. The launchers often fired while concealed in covered spaces including tunnels and garages, meaning they were rarely detectable prior to launch. Toward the end of 2021, Israeli sources reported that Hamas was developing new operational techniques as a result of the lessons learned from Guardian of the Walls. Hamas members were said to be reviving past modes of attack by training for infiltration into Israeli territory and finding the means to overcome Israel’s 75-kilometer-long steel wall around the Strip. Hamas is said to be investing in areas such as cyber warfare, new unmanned aerial vehicles and attack drones, and various naval and anti-tank weapons.
Hamas’s success in conserving manpower and military assets did not, however, add up to a clear strategic gain or a transformation of Hamas’s political fortunes. The immediate boost to Hamas’s popularity and standing among Palestinians was not sustained in the ensuing stalemate over the conditions for Gaza reconstruction, a prisoner exchange with Israel, and significant relief in lifting the siege, regardless of Israel’s subsequent readiness to allow more Gaza workers into Israel. Consequently, the points scored by Hamas against the PA/Fatah did not translate into a tangible transformation in Hamas’s posture as a credible Palestinian political address or alternative pole, despite improved relations with Egypt and a renewed international effort at stabilizing the economic situation in the Strip. In short, the overall picture on the Gaza/Israel front remained much as it has been since the war of 2008/9—a standoff with little change in Hamas’s ability to alter the status quo.
Israel was largely taken by surprise by Hamas’s initial strike and seems to have misjudged the Hamas leadership’s willingness to act in defense of Jerusalem and to pursue politico-strategic goals. In form, however, Israel’s approach was closer to that of the 2012 Pillar of Defense operation than that of 2008/9 Cast Lead or 2014 Protective Edge, insofar as it was primarily an airpower/rocket strike contest with limited ground or sea action. Israel seems to have made a special effort to target senior Hamas and PIJ cadres and technicians as part of a decapitation campaign, as well as an all-out effort to destroy the metro. However, despite Israel’s claims to the contrary, the anti-tunnel campaign also seems to have fallen short of expectations. According to Hamas leader Sinwar, the tunnels extended for 500 kilometers and remained 95 percent intact after the war.
The Gaza war once again called attention to the interplay between information (and the social media) and the legal dimension of modern warfare. Following the war, the International Criminal Court launched an investigation into possible war crimes by both Hamas and Israel, including the possibility of disproportionate force by Israel and indiscriminate rocket fire by Hamas. Be that as it may, one telling feature of the Gaza conflict was the strategy mismatch between Israel’s purely military and operational objectives to degrade Hamas’s military capabilities, and Hamas’s information-based strategic objectives of delegitimizing Israel’s campaign in global opinion and degrading the Israeli army’s operational advantages as a result. Israel’s serious misstep in its attack on the international press in al-Jalaa building as well as its use of twitter as a means of deception played an important role in undermining its international credibility and information campaign. Israel remains at a permanent disadvantage in the moral/psychological domain, for if Hamas is a “terrorist” organization as Israel claims, it can only be expected to perpetrate terror and cannot be expected to behave as civilized states (which Israel claims to be). Complaining of Hamas “terrorism” thus has little resonance, particularly in light of the imbalance of power and the relative human and material cost. In another paradoxical twist, the more effective Israel’s defences, the less it can claim the status of victim.
As part of what appears as a process of cyclical experimentation in the use of force, Israel appears to have revived its faith in airpower during the May 2021 confrontation. One fundamental reason was the development in Israeli electronic intelligence surveillance and targeting techniques, as well as a growing confidence in the ability of the Iron Dome and associated systems to blunt the worst effects of the Palestinian resistance’s mortar and rocket fire, thus obviating the need for a ground attack on any substantial scale. In this respect, Operation Guardian of the Walls did in fact reveal some significant military developments on the Israeli side. Israeli sources noted that the army deployed Artificial Intelligence means on a large scale for the first time, for locating and attacking resistance targets, using autonomously directed drones and other combat vehicles heralding a new era of robotic warfare. Anti-missile laser defences were also deployed for the first time, potentially cutting down considerably the cost and reaction time to resistance fire and allowing for the hitherto difficult prospect of interdicting mortar as well as rocket fire. The prospect of a much more cost-effective laser-based defence may prove to be one of the most important technological challenges facing the Palestinian resistance forces in the near future.
New Israel combat technologies have also allowed for the development of highly advanced Special Forces “ghost units” armed with the latest detection and command and control equipment (although it remains unclear whether these forces were actually tested in battle in May 2021). Most important was the development of an integrated air-land-sea battle vision in which all units would have instant access to vital battlefield information and would be able to react with unprecedented speed and in the appropriate deadly manner to unfolding developments on the battlefield.
A fully integrated and “open terrain” regime augmented by armor-ization, Artificial Intelligence, drone and robotic capabilities, and stand-off weaponry may add to Israel’s temptation to resort to an all-out ground war in the future. As Israel seeks to have a complete picture of the surface (air, land, sea), the resistance is likely to burrow further underground (and undersea) and more deeply enmesh with the civilian population. Without “above” space for maneuvre, underground may be the resistance’s only relatively free space left to prepare for counterattack. It is also likely to drive the resistance to concentrate further on Israel’s vulnerabilities and to target sensitive economic and civilian sites, and seek to develop precision weaponry so as to economize on its resource deployments and rationalize its targeting strategies, including greater efforts at striking at military targets, further building on Hamas’s “qualitative disruption” capabilities as an antidote to Israel’s power of “quantitative destruction” as manifest in the various rounds since 2008/9.
As the resistance goes further underground (but not necessarily giving up on the “surface” altogether), the Israelis are likely to seek to bomb deeper in Gaza and to develop new means of subterranean warfare. Meanwhile, Israel’s search for a perfect intelligence vision of battle where every enemy position is known and every hostile movement predicted and pre-empted could spur it to contemplate, once again, the prospects of a quick war entailing relatively little cost. This may be the next phase in the long battle for Gaza.
One notable side effect of the Gaza war was the emergence of a new Israeli threat perception as a consequence of the unity intifada in which Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians in the territories occupied in 1967 rose in protest in May 2021 against Israeli actions in Gaza. The protests and violent clashes in mixed Arab/Jewish towns and cities gave rise to an Israeli belief that a potential internal threat could be as consequential as the external threats and could hinder the movement and deployment of Israeli troops seeking to confront an external threat such as a war on the northern or southern fronts. This adds a new and hitherto relatively unrecognized dimension to the Israeli security debate, not just relating to the threat posed by the Arab population, but to the need for a more comprehensive security doctrine that encompasses the whole range of state control of the population and the means of enforcing it.