Exactly three years after Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, the IDF is preparing for a replay.
"The one thing we can know for certain is that the next major operation or war we will have to fight will be in an urban area filled with civilians," says Colonel Amir Baram, commander of the IDF's Paratrooper Brigade.
"That will be the situation if we have to go back into Gaza, which, if anything, is more built-up than it was three years ago, and it will be true too if we fight in South Lebanon as Hizbollah has concentrated its installations and missile launch-pads inside villages and towns."
To prepare for such an eventuality, the IDF has recently intensified its urban warfare exercises. In the past, it prepared mainly to face the armies of Arab countries in "open-country" warfare but the realisation that almost all potential conflicts will of an "asymmetrical" nature has caused the IDF to construct new installations patterned after the architecture of Palestinian villages and refugee camps and Lebanese towns. "Hamas and Hizbollah have both totally rebuilt and strengthened their military infrastructure in Gaza and Lebanon, while boosting the range and accuracy of their missiles," says a senior intelligence officer. "It can only be a matter of time until we will be forced back in there again."
"We are not preparing the combat units only for fighting in urban areas," says a senior officer involved in training, "they also have to be prepared to deal with large civilian populations during the lulls between fighting. That's why every fighting battalion and brigade now has a 'humanitarian officer' to co-ordinate work with the local population. This person is an integral part of combat headquarters and an Arab-speaking intelligence officer.
We can’t sit by while hundreds of thousands are under threat
"Over the past year, they have also been taking part in large-scale exercises so the commanding officer can get used to the fact that he also has to take care of humanitarian affairs, though we'll try and make sure we spend as little time as possible within civilian areas."
"It's not just because Israel was criticised after Cast Lead by human-rights groups," says Captain Tzvi Katz, a reserve officer who recently underwent a humanitarian officers course, "it's also due to the realisation that, if a battalion does not have someone taking care of these matters, it will delay us from carrying out our missions and hamper the army on a strategic level."
While the border around Gaza has been relatively calm in recent weeks, Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian organisations have been launching sporadic missile attacks against Israel.
On Tuesday, Israel carried out two attacks in Gaza on groups that were allegedly planning to carry out a terror attack on Israel, through the Egyptian border. Last month, IDF chief of staff, Lieutenant General Benny Gantz said that "if there is no choice, we will know how to operate in Gaza and we will take the initiative when that happens. It will be orderly and painful but we can't sit by while hundreds of thousands of citizens are under active threat."