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Analysis

Evaluating Israel’s ‘Operation Shield and Arrow’

The Israeli defense establishment can be satisfied with its recent performance; however, Hamas, Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed groups are fomenting chaos and will need to be addressed sooner rather than later.

Israel's Iron Dome air-defense system fires an interceptor at rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, in Sderot on May 10, 2023. Photo by Flash90.
Israel's Iron Dome air-defense system fires an interceptor at rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, in Sderot on May 10, 2023. Photo by Flash90.

On May 8, Israel launched “Operation Shield and Arrow” with the elimination of three senior members of Iran-backed terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip. The IDF identified the three as Khalil Bahtini, Jihad Ghanam and Tareq Izzeldin.

Bahtini was a senior PIJ commander who had been in charge of the recent rocket attacks against Israel and served as a liaison with the group’s politburo, the Israeli military said. Ghanam held command responsibilities that included weapons and money transfers between PIJ and Gaza’s ruling Islamist terrorist group, Hamas. Izzeldin coordinated between PIJ cadres in Gaza and the West Bank and was “planning multiple terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians,” the military said.

Following the Israeli military strikes, the Joint Operations Room (JOR) of the Palestinian factions launched “Operation Revenge of the Free” (ثأر الأحرار) and began a campaign of rocket and mortar fire targeting Israeli communities and cities, including Tel-Aviv and the outskirts of Jerusalem.

The Joint Operations Room 

Hamas founded the JOR in 2017. It comprises approximately 12 armed Palestinian factions coordinating military operations against Israel during conflicts.

While Hamas leads the JOR, it appears it did not participate in firing rockets at Israel this time around. Hamas’s absence on the battlefield was a positive development for the Israeli defense establishment, which therefore chose to not strike Hamas targets during the conflict. In its statements, the JOR expressed unity and coordination among its members—despite Hamas refraining from direct involvement.

During the conflict, Palestinian militant groups fired approximately 1,500 rockets, or approximately 298 per day, at Israel over five days of fighting, according to the Israeli military. In the May 2021 Gaza conflict, Hamas, PIJ and other armed Palestinian groups fired approximately 4,340 rockets in 11 days, or about 434 daily. The discrepancy in the number of rockets fired in 2021 and 2023 supports the conclusion that Hamas sat out active combat during last week’s campaign.

Ten armed terror groups participated in the conflict

According to open-source statements and evidence gathered by Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal, 10 Palestinian terror groups participated in “Operation Revenge of the Free.” These included Palestinian Islamic Jihadthe Palestinian Mujahideen Movementthe Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinethe Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestinethe Popular Resistance Movementthe Popular Resistance CommitteesAl-Aqsa Martyrs BrigadesAbdel Al-Qadir Al-Husseini BrigadesAl-Ahrar Movement and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command.

While 10 is a substantial number, almost all likely played a supportive role by shelling Israeli communities near the Gaza border, leaving PIJ to spearhead rocket attacks on major Israeli cities such as Sderot, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Other armed Palestinian groups, such as Salafi-jihadist organizations, have not produced statements or evidence indicating they joined active combat.

Eighteen terrorists killed during the conflict

PIJ said 11 members, including six senior figures, one field commander and four regular fighters died during the conflict. In a communique, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine acknowledged that five members died “while performing their jihadi duty.” Lastly, the Palestinian Mujahideen Movement said a field commander and a fighter died due to “shelling from the occupation in east Gaza while carrying out their jihadi work.”

Including terrorists, 33 Palestinians were killed in the fighting. According to the IDF, four Palestinians died from rockets fired by the terrorists.

Assessing the conflict

The Israeli military had four important objectives in “Operation Shield and Arrow”: 1) Eliminate PIJ leaders; 2) Keep Hamas from entering the conflict; 3) Prevent a notable attack by Palestinian groups; and 4) Restore deterrence by signaling to Hamas, Hezbollah and other regional foes that Israel will preemptively strike if threatened.

The IDF quickly achieved its primary objective by eliminating three PIJ leaders, and strikes against other senior terrorists in the following days were an added success. Removing key leadership figures disrupts planning and future attacks on Israeli targets. It is easier to replace tunnels and rockets than a commander with years of battle experience.

The IDF also achieved deterrence, at least partially. PIJ is unlikely to venture into another round of conflict in the near future without Hamas’s assistance. However, in recent years, the gap between military operations in the Gaza Strip appears to be shrinking. It has been less than a year since “Operation Breaking Dawn,” when Israel launched a preemptive strike on PIJ leadership to thwart planned attacks. In 2021, Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem, prompting the launch of “Operation Guardian of the Walls,” and in 2019, Israel killed PIJ commander Baha Abu al-Ata in “Operation Black Belt” after months of repeated rocket fire toward Israel.

In the recent operation, the IDF largely denied PIJ any significant achievements. However, rockets fired at the Tel Aviv area did kill of one person, and a Gazan worker was also killed by a rocket near the settlement of Shokeda.

According to the Israeli military, PIJ was thwarted by an airstrike on at least one occasion when it attempted to deploy an anti-tank guided missile team at the Gaza border.

PIJ’s failure became apparent when it published a false claim on May 13 that it had attacked an Israeli military position with an anti-tank guided missile, causing casualties.

Following the claim, a security source speaking to the Long War Journal denied the incident took place, adding that a mortar had landed near a tank but did not cause damage.

The Israeli military achieved most of its objectives while denying PIJ and other armed Palestinian organizations a significant achievement in the fighting. The Israeli defense establishment can be satisfied with its recent performance; however, stronger, more formidable opponents like Hamas, Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed groups are fomenting chaos and will need to be addressed sooner rather than later.

Joe Truzman is a contributor to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’s Long War Journal.

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