Military Dimensions: The Israeli Arsenal Deployed against Gaza

The Israeli Arsenal Deployed against Gaza during Operation Cast Lead


The gross disparity between the military resources available to Israel and the Palestinian factions during Operation Cast Lead (OCL) could make a comparison between their two “arsenals” seem absurd. Yet this and the following document devoted to Palestinian weaponry not only highlight the imbalance but help the reader better appreciate the dynamics at play in the broader conflict.

The compendium that follows does not pretend to be a complete list of Israeli armaments, but rather to provide as full an idea as possible regarding weapons known or suspected to have been deployed during OCL. Because a mere listing of weapons used by Israel is not particularly instructive, efforts have been made to describe the features of the weapons and equipment and how they were used. Particular attention has been paid to how the various branches of Israel’s military operated together in what was for the Israel Defense Forces a truly innovative battle plan uniting air, ground, and naval components.To this end, readers are given a broad picture of the different stages of the operation.

Israel’s argument that the technical advancement and precision of its weaponry allows it to be more careful and humane in the execution of war is a valid one. But this begs the question of why such a high percentage of Palestinian casualties and other losses of OCL were civilian (see the casualties charts in this section for details). What does this mean about Israel’s conduct of the war? From the launch of operations, concerns were raised regarding Israel’s conduct in terms of legality, proportionality, and the use of Gaza as a testing ground for new weapons. This document does not intend to render a verdict on these issues, although factual detail relevant to these questions is provided where possible.

This document was compiled by IPS Senior Research Associate Michele K. Esposito.


Overview of OCL

Israel opened Operation Cast Lead (OCL) at midday on 27 December 2008 with a 3-min. 40-sec. “shock and awe” campaign involving 64 warplanes hitting more than 50 Hamas-related security targets across the Gaza Strip. Thereafter, the first phase of the operation (27 December 2008–3 January 2009) comprised ongoing air and naval bombardment of Hamas-controlled security posts, smuggling tunnels, and symbols of Hamas rule (e.g., Palestinian Authority [PA] ministries, jails, and presidential compounds). According to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), more than 100 tons of explosives were dropped in the first 9 hours of combat alone. During this initial phase, the IDF worked through a list of targets that had been at least 6 months in the drafting.

The second phase began around 8:00 p.m. local time on 3 January when, after the IDF had done all it could to strike preselected targets from the air, ground forces began to cross into Gaza to secure control of areas from which Palestinian rockets were being fired into Israel and to conduct more precise targeting of Hamas-affiliated tunnels and installations, rocket-launching teams, and other targets. This ground advance, which focused on controlling open areas and encircling towns and refugee camps but stopped short of making deep incursions into densely populated areas, brought tanks, artillery, and other armored vehicles into play. The infantry’s first move was to cut an east–west swath roughly from the Qarni and Nahal Oz crossings to the former Netzarim settlement on the coast. From 3 January through 18 January, when Israel announced a unilateral cease-fire, ground forces operated mostly north of this line. Meanwhile, air and naval bombardments continued across the Strip, in coordination with ground operations.

During the last week of the offensive (from 12 January), Israel mostly hit targets it had damaged previously and struck Palestinian rocket-launching units as they emerged, while the Israeli government debated whether to open a third phase of the operation to deal Hamas a “knockout blow.” The politicians were ultimately swayed against opening a third phase by military and intelligence assessments indicating that shifting the goal to destroying Hamas would require weeks of deep ground incursions into Gaza’s urban areas and refugee camps that would result in heavy casualties on both sides, inevitably erode the very strong domestic support for the war, and result in stronger international criticism.

During phases 1 and 2 of OCL, Israel relied heavily on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) to provide critical surveillance and remote strike capability. While UAVs primarily provided support to other IDF units, they were frequently also the primary tools for executing strikes.

This aspect of integration and cooperation among the various branches of the IDF was key to OCL. According to Defense Technology International, OCL marked the first time that infantry commanders on the ground were allowed to direct UAVs, helicopters, and warplanes independently, without having to run operational orders through air force command. Each brigade commander at the front was assigned a dedicated UAV squadron and an air-support controller team to provide them with real-time surveillance data from UAVs and other assets. Commanders on the ground could then immediately call in air strikes from attack helicopters waiting on standby or from drones and warplanes already over the combat zone. At least a dozen UAVs were kept in the air over Gaza at all times to detect Palestinian movements and to direct aircraft, tanks, and artillery (including naval artillery) to the targets. Action time was so quick that Israeli intelligence sources reported that F-16 aircraft could identify and fire air-to-ground missiles within 30 seconds of surveillance data being sent.

Logistically, infantry units typically entered Gaza preceded by UAVs at a distance of 500 yards. The UAVs were used to clear the area ahead (firing antitank and antipersonnel weapons as needed) and to guide troops by relaying advice regarding safe routes of entry and advancement. If infantry units were ordered to take or reach a target, they would first call in artillery or air power and then move in behind tanks and armored bulldozers, riding in armored personnel carriers (APCs) to avoid to the extent possible operating in the open.
In terms of troop strength, OCL’s ground offensive involved three paratroop/infantry brigades and one armored brigade, artillery support, and special engineering and intelligence units. This is the equivalent of one reinforced division or, in Israel’s case, slightly more than 10,000 troops. By comparison, Israel deployed 5 divisions in the West Bank (operating in an area nearly 16 times Gaza’s size) during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 and 4 divisions during the 2006 Lebanon war (operating in an area more than twice Gaza’s size). Four brigade commanders, all colonels, fought on the front lines with their troops throughout OCL’s two-week ground offensive: Herzi Levy of the paratroopers brigade; Avi Peled of the Golani Brigade; Ilan Malka of the Givati Brigade; and Yigal Slovick of the 401st Armored Brigade. This highlights one major lesson the IDF learned from its 2006 Lebanon war: Whereas striking the enemy from a distance and operating remotely are always preferred to close combat, there is no replacement for having eyes and leadership on the ground during battle.

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