Israel prepares for escalation as fighting continues in Gaza

The IDF’s multidimensional unit uses small drones to carry out missions, one of many units working closely with drones and UAVs while fighting in Gaza. (Seth J. Frantzman)

The Israel Defense Forces were on a “high state of readiness in all arenas,” IDF spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said on the evening of January 2, after deputy Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri was killed in Beirut that day. Even though Arouri — a key leader of Hamas — resided abroad, he has been described as an “architect” of the October 7 attack on Israel.

Israel did not take responsibility for eliminating Arouri, and Hezbollah said the killing of Arouri would not go unpunished. “We are highly prepared for any scenario. The most important thing to say tonight is that we are focused and remain focused on fighting Hamas,” Hagari said in the wake of the killing.

Arouri spent years in the spotlight due to his involvement in attacks on Israel. He resided in Beirut where he was killed, after having previously lived in Turkey and Qatar. Born in 1966 near Ramallah, he spent many years in Israeli prison for terrorist activities before being released in 2010. In early September 2023, he met with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Ziad al-Nakhalah in Lebanon, a symbol of his coordination with other Iran-backed groups. In August, Arouri’s support for terrorism was highlighted at a cabinet meeting when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “whoever backs terrorism will pay the full price.”

As Israel prepared for escalation on other borders, the IDF continued to operate in Gaza on January 2 and 3. This included fighting in Khan Yunis and also in the area of Khirbet Khuza’a near the Israeli border. The IDF said on January 3 that forces encountered terrorists in Khirbet Khuza’a who had tried to plant an explosive on a tank. The IDF said troops called in an airstrike to eliminate the threat. “During searches in a school, the troops located a tunnel shaft and photos of weapons. Furthermore, IDF troops struck terror targets, including observation posts and anti-tank launch posts,” the IDF said.

As part of the operations in Gaza, the IDF also sought to highlight the role drones have played in the recent war. IDF units coordinate closely with the air force which operates medium-size and larger UAVs. These are used for reconnaissance and can be used to carry out airstrikes. “Indirect assistance is achieved through UAV operators’ communication with brigade forces and Israel Air Force ground control,” the IDF said on January 3. “The UAV Array carries out various missions including strikes, intelligence gathering, air cover for troops, and rapid support of ground forces. The UAVs accompany the forces from the air, striking terrorists who hide inside civilian buildings and urban areas to approach and attack IDF troops,” the IDF said. Israel uses a variety of drones and UAVs, including the Hermes 450, also known as the Zik. Units such as the new IDF multi-dimensional unit also use smaller quadcopter style drones to carry out missions.

Despite concerns of escalation on January 3, there was relative quiet in terms of rocket threats from Gaza. Nevertheless, there were several incidents on other fronts. In the afternoon, sirens sounded in Dovev and other communities near the Mediterranean following several rocket launches from Lebanon. IDF artillery returned fire. The IDF said that the Israel Air Force also struck a Hezbollah site.

In the Red Sea, the Iran-backed Houthis carried out an attack on the evening of January 2. According to US Central Command, “Iranian-backed Houthis fired two anti-ship ballistic missiles from Houthi controlled areas in Yemen into the Southern Red Sea. Multiple commercial ships in the area reported the impact of the ASBMs into the surrounding water though none have reported any damage.” The Houthis also claimed on January 3 that they targeted another ship. Threats in the Red Sea now also include an Iranian destroyer which recently entered the area.

Taken together, the fighting in Gaza, rocket launches from Lebanon, Iran-backed threats to US forces in Syria and Iraq, and Red Sea tensions showcase the Iranian attempt to inflame various arenas in the region. Israel has said it is prepared for escalation on any of these fronts.

In total, 509 IDF soldiers have been killed in fighting since the Hamas attack on October 7.

Reporting from Israel, Seth J. Frantzman is an adjunct fellow at FDD and a contributor to FDD’s Long War Journal. He is the acting news editor and senior Middle East correspondent and analyst at The Jerusalem Post. 

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