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analysisIsrael at War

The IDF’s meticulous targeting of Hamas in Gaza

In some cases, the IDF chief of staff himself must authorize strikes in sensitive sites.

Israeli troops operating in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, Dec. 2, 2023. Credit: IDF.
Israeli troops operating in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, Dec. 2, 2023. Credit: IDF.
Yaakov Lappin
Yaakov Lappin
Yaakov Lappin is an Israel-based military affairs correspondent and analyst. He is the in-house analyst at the Miryam Institute; a research associate at the Alma Research and Education Center; and a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. He is a frequent guest commentator on international television news networks, including Sky News and i24 News. Lappin is the author of Virtual Caliphate: Exposing the Islamist State on the Internet. Follow him at: www.patreon.com/yaakovlappin.

As it faces an evasive terror army in Gaza that attempts to make itself invisible, embedding itself in civilian areas, the Israel Defense Forces leaves no stone unturned when it comes to the way that it targets Hamas, meticulously following protocol as it fights. 

The balance it must strike is a complex one: Completing what is known as the sensor-to-shooter cycle efficiently and quickly, and destroying time-sensitive targets, while at the same time ensuring that the target has been cleared for a strike, both in terms of hostiles and in terms of noncombatants in the surrounding area. 

As one example, after spending two weeks restoring control in southern Israel following the Hamas massacre, the IDF’s reserve 252 Sinai Division was sent to Beit Hanun in northeastern Gaza, where many of the terrorists who carried out crimes against humanity in Sderot, Kfar Aza and Netiv Ha’asara came from. 

Terrorists from Beit Hanun were continuing to try and infiltrate Israel, while also firing rockets from there at Israeli cities.

As the division took over the city, which by that point had been mostly cleared of civilians, it moved slowly. At this stage, once an immediate threat either to Israeli forces or the Israeli home front was detected, an advanced protocol kicked into action.  

The process is called “incrimination” by the IDF, meaning verification that the target is indeed a military enemy entity, poses a direct threat and that engaging it will not entail harming bystanders. 

Once a target is incriminated, it goes through an additional verification process during which decisions are made on how to deal with it—how to best deal with the threat, and what the after-effects of that solution will be. 

The target data is then transferred to the relevant force for the implementation of the strike.  

If the Israeli Air Force receives the target, it will begin its own analysis— figuring out what kind of munitions should be used, independently qualifying the target and calculating how immediate the threat. 

This entire process, from start to finish, can last between minutes to an hour. 

After it is complete, if the air force is to be the striking party, the pilot will receive strike orders but must have visual contact with the target and verify that no friendly forces or noncombatants are in the target area. The pilot may not rely on the previous target qualification process, and must verify independently before striking. 

The above protocol describes the normal targeting process. In cases where targets are close to hospitals, schools, or mosques, the strike must receive a green light from the IDF commander in the area—and in some cases, even from the IDF chief of staff. 

While this may sound like a lengthy process, the IDF is able to streamline targeting because it has multiple teams that can conduct the process in parallel.

In Beit Hanun, where the IDF had to take on small Hamas terror squads, multiple targets had to be engaged simultaneously. This meant that target lifetimes were very short, on the order of minutes, and the targeting process had to occur quickly. IAF jets, unmanned aerial vehicles and in some cases attack helicopters were already in the air, carrying out their part of the process in tandem with ground forces. Having planes in the air significantly reduced response times. 

When necessary, IDF legal experts were called in to verify that the target was legitimate according to international law. 

The IDF approaches with extreme caution civilian sites used by Hamas as terror bases, such as mosques and schools. In practice, this means that even if Israeli forces are attacked from a school, the military cannot respond without first exercising discretion. 

Senior officers, aware of the supreme need to make every effort to avoid harming noncombatants, are in the field supervising younger IDF personnel. 

The goal is to be sure before opening fire.

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