The Role of Anti-Access/Area Denial in Controlling Escalation in Gaza
In August, Israelis living in the communities in the vicinity of Gaza demonstrated in the streets of Tel Aviv, chanting “Bibi, Bibi, wake up the south is burning.” In the wake of recent attacks coming out of Gaza, the Israeli protesters were demanding a more aggressive military response that would either re-establish deterrence or lead to the retaking of the Gaza Strip and the ousting of Hamas.
Gaza’s most recent terror campaign, which started in March, has used measures ranging from rocket and mortar attacks, including attacks on the southern city of Ber-Sheva, to the use of incendiary kites and balloons that have caused large-scale damage to agriculture and forestry, to attacks against soldiers along the border. However, calls for a more aggressive response have gone unheeded, even by Israel’s right-wing defense minister, who threatened less than two years ago to destroy Hamas if it were to challenge Israel. Though more than 150 Palestinians have been killed trying to break through the border fence or in attempted terror attacks, Israel’s retaliatory airstrikes to the mortar and rocket fire have been confined to “real estate“ targets that have not killed many Hamas operatives. No offensive ground operation has been initiated. In contrast, previous rounds of escalation in 2008–9, 2012, and 2014 led Israel to initiate more intense military operations.
Why has Israel’s response to the current hostilities been so restrained in comparison to previous rounds of violence?
Hamas’s development of asymmetric area-denial capabilities and doctrine since 2014 has countered the traditional military strengths of Israel’s precision-strike and maneuver systems, rendering military access into and movement in Gaza a costly endeavor. This has tempered Israel’s traditional preference for offensive ground operations, eliminating one incentive for escalation. Both sides are more deterred and cautious of overstepping. This provides an opening for regional efforts to bring about a cessation of hostilities.
Hamas’s Asymmetric Style of A2/AD
Anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) refer to military capabilities designed to deter or delay the deployment of enemy forces into a given theater of operations or to prevent their effectiveness of operation once in a theater. The concept is usually associated with the military competition for access and movement between peer or near-peer rivals, such as the United States and its allies versus China or NATO versus Russia. However, it can also have relevance for the asymmetric context in a geographically limited sphere of military operations, such as Gaza, where a non-state actor threatens a state. A2/AD is a conceptually useful tool in explaining escalation control in the recent round of hostilities between Israel and Hamas.
Hamas’s operational concept during Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014 — when the last major clash took place — included both offensive and defensive elements. The offensive operations sought primarily to undermine Israel’s sense of security. During the operation, Hamas conducted four raids into Israeli territory through offensive tunnels, triggering an Israeli maneuver aimed at locating and destroying the tunnels that penetrate into Israel which allow Hamas fighters to attack Israel’s rear. Since the end of the operation, even though Hamas kept trying to build offensive tunnels, Israel’s solution to the problem, based on new technology for detection and destroying underground spaces, has since deprived the organization of this capability.
Also in the category of offensive operations, Hamas launches rockets and mortars against Israel with the intent of making it difficult for Israeli civilians to go about their daily lives. Here too, however, Israel’s Iron Dome air-defense system has proven effective in intercepting launches targeting populated areas.
In contrast, Hamas’s defensive operations during Operation Protective Edge proved more successful. The group relied on subterranean warfare from a developed tunnel system located in the towns and refugee camps inside the Gaza Strip. The defensive element caused significant Israeli casualties while improving the survivability of the Hamas combatants. As Elad Popovich writes:
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.
The Israeli military has found technological solutions to Hamas’s offensive capabilities — specifically, the underground tunnels into Israel — but it has been less successful against the group’s defensive tunnel network within the Gaza Strip. As such, Hamas — under the leadership of its new leader, Yahya Sinwar, who took over in February 2017 — has changed its military strategy to focus on developing the Gaza tunnel network rather than on the border-crossing tunnels.
The significance of this shift in strategy is that Israel would now have to maneuver into the densely populated Palestinian cities and refugee camps, saturated with tunnels under houses and fighting positions, in order to destroy Hamas’s military capabilities. This is designed to make an Israeli maneuver costly, thereby deterring the operation entirely or cutting it short because of pressure from the Israeli public and regional and international actors to stop the fighting. Hamas understands that in the absence of a viable alternative to its control of Gaza, a costly military operation that will result in no long-lasting positive change is politically unfeasible for Israel.
Hamas’s present approach is designed to raise the costs of Israeli attempts to enter Gaza costly and to limit its freedom of operation if it does enter, through low-tech defensive subterranean warfare. This constitutes a form of asymmetric A2/AD. Significantly, this strategy mitigates Israel’s offensive advantages in the realm of high-precision strike and protective armor maneuver capabilities.
Israel’s Technological A2/AD Response
Through the incorporation of advanced technologies, Israel has successfully countered Hamas’s offensive capabilities. Israel has developed and successfully employed anti-tunnel technology, allowing it to discover and destroy attack tunnels dug from within the Gaza Strip into Israel. Complementing this, Israel is in the midst of building a deep, concrete subterranean wall along the border with Gaza supplemented by a high, sensor-based fence above ground. Also, Israel has started constructing a naval barrier to prevent infiltration from the sea.
In addition, Israel continues to enhance and expand its Iron Dome air defense system, which has been successful in intercepting rockets and mortars launched from Gaza towards Israel. Israel has also developed improved countermeasures against booby-trapped unmanned aerial vehicles.
However, even though Israel commands a monopoly on precision-strike systems and maneuver dominance, these area penetration capabilities are limited in their abilities to neutralize Hamas’s defensive urban fortifications without a large loss of life on both sides. Given existing political realities, both a large-scale military operation to overthrow Hamas that has no workable exit strategy, or alternatively, a limited military incursion into Gaza that comes with a high casualty rate, are unacceptable to the Israeli public.
Asymmetric A2/AD and Escalation Control
For historical and cultural reasons, Israel has always preferred offensive operational initiatives on enemy territory over defense and attrition. Less than two years ago, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, highlighted this proclivity in an interview with the Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds, saying if Hamas were to force a new round of hostilities on Israel, then it would be its last “because we will completely destroy them.”
However, even though Hamas has indeed forced a new round of violence, Israel has opted for a strategy of prevention and attrition rather than a decisive offensive operation to re-establish deterrence. In contrast to the developing interest in the concept of A2/AD between peer/near-peer rivals in a maturing precision-strike environment, the case of Gaza highlights that, in asymmetrical conflicts, low-tech A2/AD strategies can be effective in neutralizing significant conventional and technological advantages. Insofar as deterrence is an exercise in cost calculation, the improvement in Hamas’s A2/AD capabilities has raised the threshold for the onset of an Israeli offensive effort.
Paradoxically, Israel’s improved ability to deny access and absorb mortar and rocket attacks from Gaza, along with Hamas’s improved ability to absorb a land attack by Israel and to draw it out and make it costly, have together raised the escalation threshold, allowing for higher levels of violence of certain types without the conflict spiraling out of control. Both sides have been able to absorb and contain continued violence of fluctuating intensities since the present escalation started in March.
The Utility of the A2/AD Concept in and Around Gaza
The use of the A2/AD concept in the case of Gaza highlights a particular manifestation of a long-running strategic problem and helps to clarify a number of implications.
First, Hamas’s success in raising the perceived price for an Israeli offensive operation has moderated the Israeli predisposition for maneuvering warfare and put the country in a defensive posture. Rather than escalating, it has relied on airstrikes, the interception of rockets and mortars, and heightened border security. The defensive postures adopted by both sides have increased the space for escalation control and permitted a dialogue led by the Egyptians for a return to calm.
Second, for traditional armies in asymmetrical conflicts, technological advances do not necessarily reinstate offensive advantages. While technological innovation has played a critical role in shoring up Israel’s A2/AD capabilities to counter Hamas’s offensive tactics, it has failed to overcome the advantages of a disappearing enemy, concealed in tunnels or among the civilian population. Low-tech asymmetric military strategy, as the situations in Syria, Afghanistan, and Gaza show, can circumvent the most advanced attack and penetration capabilities available to modern armies.
Last but not least, though the concept of asymmetrical A2/AD does not tell the whole story, it is useful in conveying the patterns of competition for access and denial in the Gaza conflict, and helps to explain both sides’ mutual awareness for the price they will pay for spiraling escalation. As Luis Simon pointed out in War on the Rocks last year, “there’s something to be said about the sort of parsimony that a concept such as A2/AD brings with it.”
Shimon Arad is a retired colonel of the Israeli Defense Forces. His writings focus on Middle East regional security topics.