23 February 2024

Israel Sets Deadline for Rafah Ground Offensive Within Weeks

Thomas Grove

Israel gave Hamas a Ramadan deadline to return the hostages held in Gaza or face a ground offensive in Rafah, the first timeline it has provided for looming operations in the city that have become a source of tension with the U.S.

“The world must know and Hamas leaders must know if our hostages are not home by Ramadan the fighting will continue and expand to Rafah,” Israeli war-cabinet member Benny Gantz said Sunday.

Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, is set to begin around March 10 and has in recent years been a flashpoint for violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Israel has launched airstrikes on Rafah—a southern Gaza city where more than one million Palestinians are sheltering—in recent weeks and threatened to send in troops, as heavy fighting continues around Khan Younis, further north. Israel says the two cities are Hamas’s last strongholds in the strip and it thinks hostages are being held there. Last week, Israel rescued two hostages from a residential area of Rafah.

The Biden administration has warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against conducting an operation without a credible plan to ensure the safety of civilians in Rafah, which had a prewar population of 300,000.

Netanyahu said over the weekend that he had spoken with President Biden and other world leaders. “I tell them clearly: Israel will fight until complete victory is achieved,” Netanyahu said. “And yes, that also includes operating in Rafah, of course after we allow civilians in the fighting areas to evacuate to safe areas.” Aid organizations and civilians living in Gaza have said that people have nowhere else to go, having been displaced by the war and followed Israeli instructions to move south to Rafah.

How Israel will invade Rafah

Edward Luttwak

To the immense chagrin of those calling for a ceasefire, victory remains Israel’s war objective — and it is far from a distant prospect. Of the two key metrics that will decide its victory, one is mostly satisfied, while the other could soon follow.

The first, the destruction of Hamas’s infrastructure, can be measured in the hundreds of kilometres of subterranean tunnels that the IDF has penetrated, cleared and thoroughly wrecked. Since many of these housed rocket workshops, a clear indication of progress is the drastic decline in the number of them launched from Gaza each day: first thousands, then hundreds, then a few, then none.

The second vector of progress — the killing or capture of fighters and military leaders — cannot be measured so easily. Towards the end of January, Hamas’s death toll was reported as approximately 9,000, and yesterday it was reported as 12,000. Moreover, when one fighter is killed, another is sufficiently wounded to be removed from the battlefield.

Because they live very safely in Qatar, none of Hamas’s top political leaders has been killed, so far. Khaled Mashal, the group’s emeritus founder, Khalil al-Hayya, its propaganda chief, and senior leader Ismail Haniyeh are all in luxury suites in Doha. Back in Gaza, meanwhile, Israel has not yet captured Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas field commander who orchestrated the October 7 attack, and who had learned to speak Hebrew in an Israeli prison, where he was successfully treated for a dangerous brain tumour while serving time for multiple murders.

But it seems that Sinwar had understood little about the Israelis. Clearly he did not expect Israel to launch such such a sustained and bloody counter-offensive. But they did, and were soon in his luxury Khan Yunis mansion. From there, Israeli troops followed an escape tunnel monitored by a CCTV camera, whose footage would show Sinwar and his family fleeing. Today, it is very likely that Sinwar, along with Hamas’s surviving officers and men, is now the target of Israel’s final offensive: in Rafah, hard up against the Egyptian border.

Hamas Isn't Fighting a Cyberwar

Mathew J. Schwartz

Cybersecurity experts say every future conflict will likely involve cyber operations. If so, why didn't Hamas deploy cyber operations in its latest war with Israel?

The answer may be that Hamas' military planners purposefully didn't order any change in the long-standing tempo of its cyber operations to avoid tipping its hand. In a report, researchers from Google's Threat Analysis Group and Mandiant said that the volume of known cyber operations by Hamas stayed consistent ahead of its storming of Israeli towns nearby the Gaza Strip last October. Hamas' war planners also don't appear to have tried to coordinate their ground attack with cyberattacks.

The researchers' assessment is that this was by design and that "Hamas intentionally did not use cyber operations to tactically support the Oct. 7 attacks," Sandra Joyce, head of global intelligence at Mandiant, told reporters Monday.

"This is potentially because the operational security risks from a cyber operation really outweighed the assessed potential benefit," she said. Likewise, early evidence suggests the militants' planners used nondigital means to evade Israel's known digital dragnet capabilities (see: Intelligence Failure: Surprise Strike on Israel by Hamas).

"We didn't see something like in Ukraine, where in the days and weeks preceding the invasion, we saw this very large uptick in wiper activity," Joyce said.

Prewar cyberespionage operations tied to Hamas or Hamas-linked groups last year typically involved "phishing and malware lures with topical political themes, basic custom backdoors and widely available remote access tools such as njRAT and Xtreme RAT, and malware obfuscation tools purchased on underground forums," Google said. "Mobile spyware is also common."

Hamas Cyberattacks Ceased After the Oct. 7 Terror Attack. But Why?

Nate Nelson

Cyber threat actors linked with Hamas have seemingly ceased activity ever since the terrorist attack in Israel on Oct. 7, confounding experts.

Combination warfare is old hat in 2024. As Mandiant said in a newly published report, cyber operations have become a "tool of first resort" for any nation or nation-aligned group around the world engaged in protracted conflict, be it political, economic, or warlike in nature. Russia's invasion of Ukraine — preceded and supported by historic waves of cyber destruction, espionage, and misinformation — is, of course, the quintessence.

Not so in Gaza. If today's playbook is to support resource-intensive kinetic war with low-risk, low-investment cyber war, Hamas has thrown out the book.

"What we saw all through September 2023 was very typical Hamas-linked cyber espionage activities — their activity was very consistent with what we've seen for years," Kristen Dennesen, threat intelligence analyst for Google's Threat Analysis Group (TAG), said in a press conference this week. "That activity continued on until just before October 7 — there wasn't any kind of shift or uptick prior to that point. And since that time, we haven't seen any significant activity from these actors."

Failing to ramp up cyberattacks prior to Oct. 7 might be construed as strategic. But regarding why Hamas (irrespective of its supporters) has quit its cyber operations instead of using them to support its war effort, Dennesen admitted, "We don't offer any explanation as to why because we don't know."

Hamas Pre-Oct. 7: 'BLACKATOM'

Typical Hamas-nexus cyberattacks include "mass phishing campaigns to deliver malware or to steal email data," said Dennesen, as well as mobile spyware via various Android backdoors dropped via phishing. "And finally, in terms of their targeting: very persistent targeting of Israel, of Palestine, their regional neighbors in the Middle East, as well as targeting of the US and Europe," she explained.

The Devastation of Gaza Was Inevitable

Barry R. Posen

As of the middle of February, the Gaza Health Ministry reported more than 28,000 Palestinians dead in the war precipitated by the murder, rape, and kidnapping conducted during Hamas’s raid on Israeli border settlements and towns on Oct. 7, 2023. Press accounts estimate that in the northern Gaza Strip, almost 80 percent of buildings may be damaged or destroyed. To avoid being caught up in the most intense fighting, according to the United Nations, as many as 85 percent of the 2.2 million people in Gaza may have left their homes as of mid-December. The scale of death and destruction arising from Israel’s legitimate counterattack has precipitated charges of war crimes and genocide against Israel in the International Court of Justice.

Why a Demilitarized Palestine Won’t Work

Anchal Vohra

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long resisted the concept of a two-state solution, but rarely so explicitly as in the months since the Oct. 7, 2023, attack on Israel by Hamas and the subsequent war in Gaza. U.S. President Joe Biden insists, however, that there’s a path forward for an independent Palestine in cooperation with Netanyahu’s government.

Houthi Lethal Underwater Drones Adds New Threat to Red Sea


Merchant ships and warships in the Red Sea have been under frequent attacks from anti-ship cruise missiles, anti-ship ballistic missiles, explosive surface drones, and aerial drones. Now a new threat has emerged from underwater.

On Feb. 18, U.S. Central Command announced naval forces in the Red Sea destroyed an uncrewed underwater vehicle (UUV) in Houthi-controlled waters around Yemen. This is the first time that the Houthi Movement has been observed operating UUVs since attacks began last October.

Just a few days earlier, CENTCOM issued a press release about the January U.S. Coast Guard interdiction of a weapons shipment from Iran to the Houthis in Yemen. The catch included components for uncrewed surface vessels (USVs) and, notably, uncrewed underwater vehicles (UUVs), according to the photos released by CENTCOM. The weapon seizure connects Houthi’s UUV threat to Iranian-supplied vehicles and techniques.

Iran has a long tradition of unconventional naval warfare which has become more refined in recent years. Many of these platforms are now uncrewed, including boats, aerial drones and underwater drones, based on images systems released by the Iranian government. Hamas has also touted its possession of UUVs in Gaza, according to images the armed group released in November as reported by Naval News.

The U.S, has not released details about the UUV destroyed by U.S. forces this week or the parts seized. The photographs released show a propeller (screw) section that is consistent with UUVs used by Iran.

Houthi Rebels Cry Havoc! And Let Slip the Drones of War

James R. Holmes

The world wonders: What is the endgame in the low-grade maritime war in the Red Sea, and when will we get there? My answer: Don’t hold your breath. Yemen’s Houthi rebels don’t need to mount much of a threat to shipping to achieve their goals, while the U.S.-led naval coalition needs to completely defeat the Houthi threat to prevail. Coalition leaders likely will balk at what needs to be done. And if they don’t, land warfare in Yemen lies in store. Seldom does ground combat in the Middle East end swiftly or neatly. Regardless, the auguries point to protracted, indeterminate fighting between shore and sea.

Disruption in the Red Sea

Since 19 November, the Houthis have pelted commercial shipping passing through this critical waterway for trade and commerce, conducting 30 antiship missile or drone attacks and scoring 14 hits. As insurance rates skyrocketed, major shipping firms such as Maersk began rerouting merchantmen around the Red Sea, directing them to take the longer and more arduous but also safer route around the Cape of Good Hope into the South Atlantic. Shipping-firm executives profess little faith in navies’ ability to restore order to regional waters.

In a bid to restore maritime security, Washington has assembled a coalition dubbed Prosperity Guardian to police the sea. To date, U.S. destroyers have brought down 21 missiles and 50 drones bound for merchant traffic. After U.S. leaders ordered missile and air strikes against shore positions in Yemen, Houthi rocketeers took U.S. Navy and coalition warships under fire as well. A missile closed to within a mile of the destroyer USS Gravely (DDG-107) last week before being swatted down by the Gravely’s close-in weapon system.

Martial Logic

What does the future hold? Let us peer through a glass darkly, discerning the nature of this limited but consequential sea war. Carl von Clausewitz, who knew a thing or two about affairs of arms, explains that “the first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish by that test the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive.”

How Houthi Attacks in the Red Sea Threaten Global Shipping

Noah Berman

Since mid-November 2023, the Yemen-based, Iran-backed Houthi rebel group has attacked dozens of commercial ships in the Red Sea, with no signs of slowing down. An exodus of shipping companies from the region now threatens to scuttle supply chains and increase consumer prices just as global inflation begins to ebb. The United States has announced an international security initiative to protect commercial vessels and has launched strikes on Houthi sites in Yemen. Some experts worry the response could catalyze a wider regional conflict.

Why are the Houthis attacking ships in the Red Sea?

The Houthis say their strikes are directed at boats with Israeli interests, and that the attacks will continue until Israel ends its war in Gaza. But in practice, the Houthis have targeted ships indiscriminately, experts say. Shipping is notoriously opaque, with vessel ownership and operation, crew nationality, and flag of registry often differing. Fearing attacks, major shippers including global leader A.P. Møller-Mærsk have announced plans to avoid the Red Sea and the Suez Canal—diverting some $200 billion in trade.

Where Ships Are Being Targeted

Reported incidents of Houthi targeting of vessels between November 19, 2023 and January 2, 2024

How could Houthi attacks affect the global economy?

The Red Sea is one of the most important arteries in the global shipping system, with one-third of all container traffic flowing through it. Any sustained disruption in trade there could send a ripple effect of higher costs throughout the world economy. This is particularly true of energy: 12 percent of seaborne oil and 8 percent of liquified natural gas (LNG) transit the Suez Canal.