Things are heating up fast in Gaza, and while I two days ago thought an Israeli incursion into Gaza with ground forces unlikely, it seems a very real possibility today.
As the event s are unfolding fast, this will not be an in-depth analysis, as chances are it would then be outdated by the time I publish it, but rather a few rough points. Keep this is mind, as I believe there is a somewhat higher than normal probability that the information and analyses presented here might be outdated or flat-out wrong. Note that I rely mainly on Israeli sources, as I believe these generally are of a higher quality.
Brief background: The current round of violence started after three Israeli teens were kidnapped and murdered during mid-June, with Israel publishing the names of two Hamas-associated persons it believes are responsible. The brutal murder of a Palestinian teenager followed, with six Israelis being arrested and charged with the murder in a joint operation by the Israeli police and internal security service Shin Beth. In the meantime, accusations surfaced that another teenager, a Palestinian holding a US passport visiting his relatives, had been beaten by soldiers or riot police as they arrested him for rock throwing. Both the rock throwing charges and the cahrges against the people involved in the arrest are now being processed by Israeli authorities, and the verdicts are still open.
However, the Hamas barrage is not a new thing, as rockets and mortar shells have been falling continuously over Israeli territory (ie. territory inside the 1948 armistice line that is generally regarded as the international border of Israel), with March being the busiest month of the beginning of the year with 65 rockets and mortars fired in 23 different attacks. See the Wikipedia list of incidents found here.
Currently, large parts of South and Central Israel, including Ashdod, Ashkelon, Sderot and Beersheba, have most everyday activity suspended. This means that schools and universities are closed, and that most businesses are either partially or totally shut down. To this loss of income comes the direct damage caused by the rocket barrage, with the Israeli Tax Authority having received 99 claims for property damage (35 vehicles, 52 buildings, 12 agriculture-related) since Saturday, for a total value of over 2 million Euro [jpost.com].
Naturally, a host of mental problems amongst the targeted civilians, such as PTSD, are also caused by the ongoing attacks.
Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz states that three brigades are grouped outside of Gaza, with the Nahal Brigade being named [haaretz.com]. The Nahal Brigade is usually subordinated to the 162nd Division stationed on the West Bank. Before the information arrived, my personal guess had been that either the Paratrooper Brigade or the other infantry brigade of the 162nd , the Kfir Brigade, would be the striking force together with an armoured brigade and the Givati Brigade (infantry), but with the transfer of the Nahal the Kfir seems set to remain on the West Bank. The Golani Brigade is mentioned as having called up reserves for an offensive into Gaza, but whether or not this elite infantry unit is one of the three now deployed is not completely clear [haaretz.com]. All in all, the IDF have received permission to mobilize 41 500 reserves, not all of which necessarily will be called up, and not all of which belongs to the frontline units about to take part in the possible ground war [jpost.com].
Hamas has once again brought out its proverbial big guns, including the Syrian M302 (an Israeli designation), a 302 mm artillery rocket developed in Syria from the Chinese WS-1B. A crude rocket by western standards, the 150kg warhead is still capable of causing considerable damage to soft targets like civilian buildings, if it actually manages to hit something. This very much holds true for the rest of Hama’s arsenal as well, which includes the “homemade” Qassam light and M-75 heavy rockets, as well as different medium rockets manufactured for the Soviet BM-21 Grad MLRS and Iranian heavy rockets of the Fajr-series. This lack in accuracy is one of the reasons why Hamas has chosen to target Israeli population centers in pure terror bombings, instead of trying to take out military targets or strategic infrastructure.
It seems that the strategy of Hamas is to try and drag Israel into a ground war, where the Israeli technological and tactical edge will not be as deciding as it is in the current rocket/air-campaign. In addition to being able to target Israeli ground forces at closer range, the collateral damage likely to stem from such a campaign will most likely benefit Hamas in international media, especially as Hamas has placed likely targets in the midst of the civilian population [IDF].
What is noteworthy is that Hamas is trying to create a more total war, targeting Israeli communities further away than before, with Hof HaCarmel Regional Council just south of Haifa being the northernmost target as of Wednesday evening [jpost.com]. Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Hadera have also been targeted, as well as the Israeli nuclear power plant in Dimona [jpost.com]. The most spectacular new angle of attack was the seaborne insertion of terrorists on the beaches close to Zikim, which were eliminated through a combined ground, sea and air operation by the IDF. The released videos,  & , show the incident from both the air and the sea, and while the operation as such was a failure due to the swift and determined response, it seems in the video that it was in fact combat swimmers that Hamas had sent across the border, and not the “traditional” tactic of sending terrorists on jet-skis or highs-speed boats. An abandoned parachute have also been found close to the village of Yad Mordechai, possibly linked to an airborne insertion from nearby Gaza [jpost.com]. A second seaborne attack on Zikim took place Wednesday evening. This time the IDF confirmed that the attackers were in fact divers [jpost.com].
A wedding in Ashdod being disrupted by rocket fire from Gaza.
The Israeli strategy, meanwhile, seems to be to try and target both active launch sites as well as the infrastructure and logistics behind the operations, including Hama’s armories, depots, homes of leading figures, staff buildings, and key personnel. Rockets launched that are deemed dangerous are intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-rocket missile system, creating a number of spectacular YouTube-clips in the meantime. The Israeli government seems to hope that this response will either cause Hamas to run out of rockets or force them to call for a cease-fire, something which Abbas have already called upon Sisi to do [jpost.com]. On the other hand, Israeli analyst Daniel Nisman have noted a lack of reports of successful attacks by IDF on the stockpiles of Hama’s heavy rockets, which might indicate that the air campaign is not producing the desired results [@DannyNis]. In any case, as stated above, the IDF continues to prepare for a possible ground assault, in case it is deemed necessary.
As have been seen before, the end of this “battle” will be determined by at which point Hamas is ready to stop its rocket barrage, either due to a perceived victory /obtaining certain goals, due to running out of rockets, or due to the pressure of the Israeli response. When Hamas stops (or deescalates) its shelling, the IDF usually quits its retaliatory strikes, meaning less suffering on both sides. Exactly why Hamas now launched their offensive and possibly the kidnapping operation is unclear, but the creation of the new Palestinian unity government this spring is probably involved in the reasoning in some way. Hamas might be trying to make sure that their hardliner-appearance is unscathed while teaming up with a more moderate partner. Another possibility is that the kidnapping was simply executed to take advantage of the fact that Hamas can freely operate on Fatah-controlled area again, and that the rest was more or less improvised from there. A third alternative is that they are trying to force Abba’s hand, by heating up the conflict, and thereby forcing him to take a hard stance on the Israeli answer or risk losing political support at home. Obviously, it might also be a combination of the three.