On July 8, 2014, after more than 80 rockets were fired in one day from Gaza, Israel launched a military operation against Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in the Gaza Strip. The operation was preceded by a month of escalating violence that began with the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers by Hamas operatives in the West Bank, and continued with the widespread arrest of Hamas leaders and the dismantling of Hamas institutions in the West Bank by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).[1]

This article deconstructs the 2014 Israel-Hamas asymmetric conflict using classical levels of war analysis (strategy and doctrine, operational aspects, tactics and techno-tactics).

The Strategic Purpose: Restoring the Status Quo

One of the IDF’s significant lessons learned from the “Second Intifada” (2000-2005) was Israel would not be able to achieve a decisive military victory in its confrontations with Hamas. It could only achieve a satisfactory security situation that would last an unspecified period of time. Following the 2005 Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip, a move that symbolized the end of the “Second Intifada,” Israel and Hamas went on to wage an additional six major military campaigns. The IDF’s goal for most of these campaigns was to restore the status quo and deter Hamas from waging future violence.[2] The last of these “deterrence operations” was named “Operation Protective Edge” (the 2014 Israel-Hamas conflict). The operation’s declared end state was “restoring security to Israeli civilians living under Hamas rocket fire.”[3] After the discovery of increasing numbers of Hamas’s cross-border tunnels—built so that Hamas combatants could surreptitiously emerge behind IDF lines or inside communities on Israeli land—signaled an immediate and significant threat, an additional military goal was introduced: “dismantling the Hamas tunnel network used to infiltrate Israel.”[4]

 Strategic Balancer: Iron Dome

Hamas began firing rockets into Israel as far back as April 2001. These initial rockets were often homemade with a short range and limited destructive impact. In recent years, however, Hamas and other organizations operating in the Gaza Strip have switched to using military-quality rockets.[5] Since early 2011, the IDF has employed the Iron Dome system to intercept rockets and mortar shells within a range of three to 45 miles. The Iron Dome can calculate the trajectory of a rocket and engages rockets only when they are predicted to explode in populated areas. On the eve of the 2014 conflict, it was estimated that some 8,000 to 10,000 rockets and thousands of mortar shells had been stockpiled by Hamas and the PIJ.[6] The IDF had nine functional Iron Dome batteries (two of them had been rushed into operational service when the conflict began). During the course of the conflict, approximately 4,600 rockets and mortar shells were fired at Israel, threatening 70 percent of Israel’s population. Some 3,600 rockets fell in unpopulated areas and 735 were successfully shot down by the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system, which achieved an unprecedented success rate of 90 perecnt. The rockets (and mortar shells) that breached the Iron Dome’s defenses[7] resulted in four Israeli civilian deaths and the death of a Thai citizen in Israel on a work visa. The effectiveness of the Iron Dome served as a strategic balancer, which allowed Israel’s decision makers more time to develop Israel’s response. As Israel Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon noted, “…the Iron Dome system is saving lives and preventing enormous economic damage. It allows the decision makers to have vast leeway in managing the campaign and in the decisions that we make.”[8]

Doctrine: Bottom-Up “Effects-Based Operations” and Joint “Network-Centric Warfare”

During the 2012 Israel-Hamas conflict, the IDF’s initial war doctrine was a variant of the U.S. Air Force’s “effects-based operations” (EBO). According to the traditional conception of EBO, the enemy’s high-value targets are the first targets to be attacked in order to disrupt the enemy’s strategic “center of gravity” (CoG). In contrast to this approach, in 2014 the IDF created a bottom-up approach. The new doctrine employed in the 2014 conflict posits that the enemy’s CoG will be disrupted by increasing pressure via the gradual ratcheting up of the intensity of attacks and target value as perceived by Hamas. The message Israel wanted to signal to Hamas was to restore the status-quo or else. Hamas’s offensive doctrine was to launch a full-scale attack on what they identified as Israel’s CoG—Israeli political-civilian endurance (also known as “national resilience”).[9] During the initial phase, however, Israeli doctrine did not work as anticipated. Hamas’s defensive doctrine made the strategic difference. Due to Hamas’s inability to counter the overwhelming power of the IDF, the organization transferred most of its activities (offensive, defensive, logistics, and command) underground. Just as the Iron Dome was the game-changer for Israel, the underground network complex became the strategic balancer for Hamas.[10] Reports also indicate that Hamas used “internationally designated safe-haven spaces,” including hospitals, schools, mosques, even United Nations facilities, to house munitions used against Israel.[11] The Israeli military stated that Hamas also fired rockets from such facilities, and has released video and images it claims demonstrate such activity.[12]

Throughout the aerial phase, the IDF was unable to mitigate the emerging threat of the cross-border tunnels[13] and, in response, the IDF quickly shifted into the ground phase. The doctrine for the IDF’s ground phase was the Joint “Network-Centric Warfare (NCW)” model. Military analysis of the strategic failures of the 2006 Lebanon War had led to a transition in the IDF operational concept. The coordination between ground, air, and naval forces, and intelligence, led to a vast combined training effort, the unification of military language, and an effective network connection between forces.

Operational Level: Air-Ground-Air

In the wake of the 2012 conflict, the IDF began prioritizing a list of targets throughout the Gaza Strip based on their degree of importance to Hamas.[14] During the first ten days of the aerial phase of the 2014 operation the IAF dropped hundreds of tons of ordnance and attacked 1,950 targets in the Gaza Strip.[15] One of IAF’s major considerations was to respond in proportion to the operation’s military necessity by using only precision-guided munitions (PGMs).[16] According to Palestinian official estimates, this phase’s death toll produced approximately 223-240 fatalities.[17] However, due to Hamas’s adaptation via asymmetric defensive doctrines (underground domain and human shields), the IAF failed to achieve its operational goal of diminishing Hamas’s rocket fire.

On July 14, 2014, Egypt intervened in an attempt to broker a ceasefire (based on the agreement stipulated in 2012). Israel accepted this overture, but Hamas continued to fire rockets into Israel. On July 17, Hamas’s Special Forces infiltrated Israel by means of a cross-border tunnel. Dismantling Hamas’s tunnel network thus became a military necessity.[18]

Because the IAF could not resolve the tunnel threat from the air, the IDF shifted its operational activity from a campaign dominated by aerial precision standoff attacks to “military operations in urban terrain” (MOUT). During the ground phase, the IDF maneuvered two miles inside the Gaza Strip with five brigade task forces augmented by Special Forces battalions. During the 18 days of the ground phase, IDF forces succeeded in destroying 13 tunnels (six to seven of which were cross-border) and 60 fighting shafts, neutralizing 13 others and disrupting six.[19] The IDF ground forces withdrew from the Gaza Strip on August 4, 2014.

After several ceasefire attempts failed the IAF targeted four senior leaders of the Hamas armed branch, targeted Hamas’s head of finance, and destroyed several of the largest buildings in the Gaza Strip.[20] On August 26, Israel, Hamas, and the PIJ accepted an Egyptian-mediated ceasefire as the first step in long-term truce talks.

Tactics and Techno-Tactics: Cycle of Adjustment

When Hamas realized that the Iron Dome system effectively intercepted its rockets, the organization tried to rebalance the asymmetric equation by deploying naval commandos to raid the southern shores of Israel and by using cross-border tunnels for attacks, capturing soldiers and kidnapping civilians. The IDF managed to discover and respond to some infiltrations while at three tunnel incidents Hamas’s Al-Nokhba (elite forces) infiltrated Israel and killed eleven IDF soldiers before either escaping or being killed by the IDF.[21]

The Israeli ground phase had two major goals: creating severe damage to Hamas’s tunnel complex and inflicting significant damage to Hamas’s organization and its infrastructure.[22] The IDF ground forces were active mainly at nighttime due to their night-vision advantages. Daytime was spent resting and regrouping in shielded areas.[23] Their limited ground maneuver was supported with close-range artillery (even direct fire on several occasions),[24] attack helicopters, and ground-launched PGMs.[25] For the first time in the IDF’s history, IAF attack planes equipped with diverse PGMs switched their operational role to providing close-range tactical support for ground forces.[26] The IDF also perfected its new approach of “intelligence-based warfare,” which dictates that tactical intelligence is delivered constantly (even during the actual fighting) for the benefit of operational activities all the way down to company and platoon commanders through Command, Control, and Communications (C3) systems.[27]

Hamas’s most common urban warfare tactics included rigging houses and even entire streets with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), supplemented by Rocket-Propelled Grenades (RPGs) and snipers. The IDF’s countertactics were slow but very effective. They used massive firepower (artillery, tank fire, and mine-clearing line charge systems) to undermine Hamas from a safe distance. Additional countertactics included sending tanks and D9 bulldozers into Hamas compounds followed by infantry forces, which swept buildings for tunnels and weapons.[28] When confronting anti-tank missile threats, the IDF used the Merkava MK 4m equipped with a Trophy active protection system (APS). The APS was able to handle modern anti-tank guided missiles such as the Russian Kornet.[29]

The IDF has been aware of the tunnel threat for over 10 years and knew the approximate location of 31 of them.[30] Over the course of the ground phase of the conflict the IDF learned of their exact routes and began to slowly dismantle them.[31] However, the Israeli forces did not initially grasp the complexities of operating in close-quartered underground surroundings.[32] Because of the IDF’s environmental disadvantages, it took the IDF longer than expected to disable the tunnels. Hamas benefited from certain advantages that created two tactical problems for the IDF. First, Hamas was able to use cross-border tunnels in order to emerge behind IDF forces inside Israeli territory. Second, Hamas was able to navigate tunnels and attack shafts inside the Gaza Strip and accordingly surface in an unpredictable pattern.

With the exception of the Battle of Shuja’iyya, most of the close combat encounters during the ground phase were Israeli initiatives. Hamas’s “regular” forces would typically withdraw as more IDF troops advanced, usually leaving their weapons and equipment behind and transforming into non-combatants.[33]

Another example of the asymmetric character of the battle was that while the IDF functioned in brigade task force formation and dominated the above-ground dimension, Hamas needed just one opportunity to capture an Israeli soldier in order to achieve strategic success.[34] Hamas almost managed to do so by means of tunnels in both Shuja’iyya and Rafah. The IDF responded to these kidnapping attempts with heavy fire, mostly delivered by artillery. The IDF was successful in averting soldier abduction; however, it is suspected that Hamas acquired the remains of two IDF soldiers. In the Rafah incident alone, 41 Palestinians were killed.[35]

Lessons: Technological Advantages and Improvised Solutions

As in the asymmetric conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, weapons such as mortar shells, anti-tank missiles, IEDs, and sniper rifles caused most of the IDF’s casualties.[36] The use of APS-equipped tanks and heavily armored infantry fighting vehicles[37] reduced the potential casualty rate on the Israeli side. Main battle tanks proved their worth in the urban warfare terrain, as Hamas fighters withdrew from engagement when they appeared.[38] The IDF’s “intelligence-based warfare” approach worked effectively, but the IDF still struggled to adjust to Hamas’s tunnel-based warfare and found itself in an unfavorable position when lured onto a battlefield it did not control.[39]As part of the IDF’s improvisational combat culture, soldiers from the Givati Infantry Brigade tackled the tunnel threat using an adaptation of the ancient Roman Legions’ tactic during the Bar-Kokhba Revolt (132-136 AD)—smoke. Givati soldiers (followed by other units) used large smoke grenades and industrial fans to smoke out Hamas fighters from the tunnels and also to identify, using pillars of smoke, tunnel shafts.

At the operational level, over the course of the conflict Israel managed to attack 5,226 targets while Hamas and the PIJ managed to fire an average of 90 rockets and mortar shells per day throughout the conflict. Yet, by dismantling vast portions of Hamas’s tunnel complex, the IDF destroyed one of the most strategic assets of the organization.[40]

As part of the bottom-up EBO doctrine, the Iron Dome missile shield provided Israeli decision makers with enough flexibility so they would not have to immediately attack rocket launchers located close to civilians—attacks that could have caused major collateral damage. As a defensive mechanism, the Iron Dome intercept system gave Israeli decision makers the option to build up Israel’s international legitimacy by allowing them to accept several ceasefires while ensuring minimal damage to the Israeli home front. Hamas in its turn failed in most of its tactical actions and operational plans, yet it adjusted itself to Israel’s doctrines by shifting the confrontation to an underground surrounding (both offensively and defensively). On August 26, 2014, all sides agreed to an open-ended ceasefire once again mediated by Egypt.


Over the past decade Israel and Hamas have engaged in six major military campaigns. IDF’s main goal in these campaigns was not to achieve a decisive military victory, but rather to restore the status quo and deter future attacks. Since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007 (from the Palestinian Authority (PA)/Palestinian Fatah), the military campaigns have ended with Egyptian-mediated ceasefire agreements. In the 2014 conflict, Israel strived for a ceasefire agreement that would restore the security of its citizens for a lengthy period of time.[41] Due to the effectiveness of the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system, Hamas’s imminent threat was shifted from rockets to infiltration via cross-border tunnels and short-range mortars. The IAF failed to resolve the tunnel threat from the air causing Israel to launch a ground attack. IDF’s ground phase was slow but mostly effective. Although it took much more time than first expected, the IDF’s ground phase managed to achieve its secondary goal and disable the imminent threat posed by tunnels.

It is too early to know if Israel achieved its main objective, but as of the end of November 2014, Israel had severely damaged Hamas’s tunnel network and infrastructure, denied Hamas most of its 10-point list of demands,[42] and thwarted Hamas’s desire for conflict mediation through Turkey and Qatar, because Israel had secured Egypt as the sole mediator.

Hamas achieved several objectives in this conflict as well. It gained international legitimacy, garnered power in the Palestinian political arena, shut down Israel’s international airport for 48 hours, caused the suspension of Israel’s southern train line, threatened 70 percent of the Israeli population until the last day of the conflict, and managed to utilize its counter-doctrine in a manner that resulted in international criticism against Israel.

It appears that the question of which side was more successful during the conflict remains open. The fragile deadlock between Israel and Hamas remains, with both sides already preparing for the next round.

Elad Popovich is a visiting research fellow affiliated with the Roger Hertog Program on Law and National Security at Columbia Law School, and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Haifa. He is an Israel Institute Doctoral Fellow and serves on the Israel Bar Association’s military and security national committee. He previously served as secretary and an executive committee member of the Association of Civil-Military Scholars in Israel.

[1] Hamas’s armed branch is the Ezzedeen Al-Qassam Brigades. For consistency, this article uses just “Hamas.”

[2] Efraim Inbar and Eitan Shamir, “Mowing the Grass: Israel’s Strategy for Protracted Intractable Conflict,” Journal of Strategic Studies 37: 1 (2014); pp. 65-90.

[3] “Special Report: Operation Protective Edge,” IDFblog.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Yiftah S. Shapir, “Lessons from the Iron Dome,” Military and Strategic Affairs 5:1 (Tel Aviv: INSS, 2013).

[6] Most of these rockets were of the type 122mm Grad (maximum range of 12-25 miles and a 40-48 pound warhead). Hundreds of them were 333mm M-75/Fajr-5 (maximum range of 50 miles and a 130-200 pound warhead) and dozens were 320mm R-160/M-302 (maximum range of 100 miles and a 330 pound warhead).

[7] And the Israeli bomb shelters’ second line of defense.

[8] “Iron Dome Breaking Records,” IsraelDefense (Hebrew), July 26, 2014.

[9] As Hizb Allah before them; see Ron Tira, The Nature of War: Conflicting Paradigms and Israeli Military Effectiveness (Portland: Sussex Academic Press, 2010), pp. 85-108.

[10] See Eitan Yitzhak, “Underground,” Ma’arachot (Hebrew), Vol. 422 (Tel Aviv: Ma’arachot, 2008), p. 27.

[11] “Secretary-General, Outraged at Rockets Found in United Nations-Administered School in Gaza, Directs Full Review, Swift Implementation of Security Plan,” Secretary-General, SG/SM/16045, July 23, 2014; “UN Admits its Schools in Gaza Were Used to Store Hamas Rockets,” WorldTribune.com, July 23, 2014; Gili Cohen, “Mosques Used for Military Operations, Say Hamas POWs,” Ha’aretz, August 26, 2014.

[12] “Hamas Acknowledges its Forces Fired Rockets from Civilian Areas,” AP and Ha’aretz, September 23, 2014.

[13] There was intelligence on 31 tunnel starting points in the Gaza Strip, but none on their exit points were inside Israel.

[14] See Amos Harel, “No End in Sight for Operation Protective Edge,” Ha’aretz, July 9, 2014.

[15] GOC IAF Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, remarks made after Security Cabinet meeting, July 10, 2014.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Ministry of Health Emergency Operation Room Sitrep on Gaza,” State of Palestine – Ministry of Health, July 17, 2014.

[18] Shapir, “Lessons from the Iron Dome”.

[19] “Target After Target: Operation Protective Edge Main Events,”IDF Website (Hebrew), August 29, 2014.

[20] Nidal al-Mughrabi and Maayan Lubell, “Israeli Air Strike Kills Three Hamas Commanders in Gaza,” Reuters, August 21, 2014.

[21] Aaron J. Klein and Mitch Ginsburg, “Could Israeli Soldiers, Not Civilians, be the Target of the Attack Tunnels?” The Times of Israel, July 29, 2014.

[22] Lt. Col. Eli, battalion commander (Givati Infantry Brigade), IDF YouTube Channel, July 27, 2014.

[23] Lt. Col. Bark, reconnaissance battalion commander (Nahal Infantry Brigade), Channel 1 News, July 22, 2014.

[24] Lt. Col. M., battalion commander (Artillery Corps), IDF YouTube Channel, July 27, 2014.

[25] Unlike attack helicopters, which can support ground forces for limited time periods, the ground-launched Spike-NLOS system allows for the advantage of deadly long-range firepower, always accessible, day and night, and in almost all types of weather.

[26] Brig. Gen. Nitzan, IAF intelligence group commander, as cited in David Greenwald, “Coming First, Going Last,” IAF Journal (Hebrew), Vol. 218, August 1, 2014; Shir Cohen, “Fire from the Sky,” IAF Journal (Hebrew), Vol. 218, August 1, 2014.

[27] “IBW: Tactical Intelligence Down to the Junior Commanders at the Front,” IsraelDefense, January 17, 2014.

[28] The directive was to shoot a shell, fire a missile, or send a D9 bulldozer through every house before sending in an infantry soldier; Col. Ofer Vinter, Givati Infantry Brigade commander, Channel 1 News, July 31, 2014.

[29] The system managed to intercept at least 10 AT missiles.

[30] In the aftermath, the IDF discovered 32 tunnels (6 to 7 of them were cross-border) and 60 attack shafts.

[31] This was conducted by air attacks or by the IDF’s combat engineering tunnel warfare platoon (SAMOOR) using standard issue explosives or the specially designated emulsion (“Emulsia”) explosives injection system.

[32] Maj. Gen. (res.) Israel Ziv and Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, Channel 2 News, July 25, 2014; Brig. Gen. Nitzan, IAF intelligence group commander, as cited in Greenwald, “Coming First, Going Last.” See also “Situational Surprise” in Zvi Lanir, Fundamental Surprises (Tel Aviv: Center for Strategic Studies, 1983).

[33] Lt. Col. Bark, reconnaissance battalion commander (Nahal Infantry Brigade), Channel 1 News, July 22, 2014.

[34] Col. Eliezer Toledano, paratroopers infantry brigade commander, Uvda, August 7, 2014.

[35] “Debriefing ‘Hannibal Directive’ Incident in Rafah: Conclusions and Unanswered Questions,” IsraelDefense, September 22, 2014.

[36] Forty percent of the IDF’s casualties were caused by mortar shells.

[37] Such as the Namer IFV (Merkava chassis-based) and the Achzarit APC (T-54/T-55 chassis-based).

[38] Author interview, Cpt. D., infantry platoon commander, August 27, 2014.

[39] Rashid Khalidi, “War on Gaza: Military Strategy and Historical Horizons” [panel talk], The Center for Palestine Studies and the Middle East Institute, September 19, 2014; Col. Eliezer Toledano, paratroopers infantry brigade commander, Uvda, August 7, 2014.

[40] IDF Chief-of-Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz, IDF YouTube Channel, July 27, 2014.

[41] “PM Netanyahu’s Statement and Press Conference at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv,” Israel Prime Minister’s Office, August 2, 2014.

[42] (1) [Withdrawal of Israeli tanks from the Gaza border]; (2) Freeing all the prisoners that were arrested after the killing of the three youths; (3) Lifting the siege and opening the border crossings to commerce and people; (4) Establishing an international seaport and airport which would be under U.N. supervision; (5) Increasing the permitted fishing zone to 10 kilometers; (6) Internationalizing the Rafah Crossing and placing it under the supervision of the U.N. and some Arab nations; (7) International forces on the borders; (8) [Easing conditions for permits to pray at the Al Aqsa Mosque]; (9) Prohibition on Israeli interference in the reconciliation agreement; (10) Reestablishing an industrial zone and improvements in further economic development in the Gaza Strip.

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