January 23, 2009

The Gaza Campaign - Part One

Air attack on Rafah Air attack on Rafah

From mid-day on December 17, 2008 to the early hours of January 18, 2009, the Israel Defense Forces conducted Operation Cast Lead, a punishing air and ground action against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. During the operation, approximately 1300 Palestinians died, as well as 13 Israelis (10 were IDF personnel). More than 5000 Palestinians and 500 Israelis were wounded.

As with most IDF operations, Cast Lead was well-planned, well-executed and based on excellent intelligence. It consisted of distinct phases: a week-long air campaign, an initial ground incursion followed by penetration of urban areas of Gaza City.

The following information was provided to me by Israeli defense sources during visits to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Gaza.

The air campaign

The air campaign Airstrike areas in red

The week long first phase of the operation was a stand-alone air campaign. Although the air defense environment was assessed as good, the pilots were ordered to make liberal use of infrared missile countermeasures - that means dropping a lot of flares.

The Israeli Air Force had developed a list of 600 preplanned targets, the so-called "target bank." This bank consisted of five types of targets:

- rocket manufacturing facilities
- rocket/weapons storage facilities
- rocket launch positions
- leadership targets (homes and offices)
- tunnels on the Egyptian border

The first wave of attacks were timed to put about 70 fighter aircraft on target simultaneously at exactly 11:30am on Saturday, December 27. The initial sorties struck 120 targets. The remaining targets of the target bank were hit over the next week.

The Israelis were very aware of the negative public opinion that would be mounted against them once pictures of bomb damage hit the airwaves all over the world. For the most part, they calculated that into the equation. They did try to minimize civilian casualties - phoning warnings to residents of buildings on the target list, employing only precision guided munitions and using an Israeli-developed small bomb. The small bomb, precision guided as well, carried only a 25-pound warhead. It was meant to kill the target and limit damage to surrounding residences.

One objective of the air campaign was to decrease the number of rockets fired at cities in southern Israel. This objective was technically met - the numbers did decrease day by day, from more than 100 to less than 20. That said, despite relentless pounding by one of the world's best air forces, Hamas was still able to fire both al-Qassam and Grad rockets throughout the three week operation. Targets included the cities of Sderot, Ashkelon, Kiryat Gat, Ashdod and Beersheba.

After one week, the Israeli military leadership determined that the operation's overall objectives had not yet been met and that it was time to authorize the IDF to launch the ground campaign.

Israeli air operations continued throughout the campaign. After the target bank was exhausted, pilots were directed to targets of opportunity by intelligence and surveillance system operators.

The coverage of Gaza's skies was completely dominated by the Israeli Air Force. When I visited Gaza the day after the ceasefire was declared by Israel, there were numerous F-15 fighter jet sorties visible, as well as the nonstop buzz of unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles.

(to be continued)