A Knife Fight in a Closet: Initial Implications from the Israel-Hamas War for Taiwan

A Knife Fight in a Closet: Initial Implications from the Israel-Hamas War for Taiwan

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A Knife Fight in a Closet: Initial Implications from the Israel-Hamas War for Taiwan

The October 7 attacks by the Hamas terror organization against Israel profoundly shocked Israeli society. Roughly 1500 Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants conducted a well-practiced operation that overran Israeli border outposts while simultaneously blinding Israeli intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. With Israeli defenses paralyzed, the militants then murdered more than 1,400 people, while taking several hundred hostages. It was the bloodiest day in Israeli history, evoking comparisons to the Holocaust. Militarily, some observers believed that Hamas’ complete penetration of the Israeli security cordon represented an even greater intelligence failure than the Egypt/Syria surprise attack that started the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

In return, the Israeli political leadership has vowed to “eradicate Hamas.” At the time of this writing, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are now engaged in a bloody war against Hamas in Gaza. On October 27, the IDF began ground operations in the Gaza Strip following hundreds of IDF airstrikes. By November 6, the IDF encircled Gaza City (a city of some 650,000 people over 18 square miles, or 46 square kilometers) in the northern part of the Gaza Strip as part of a systemic campaign to isolate Hamas’ military headquarters in the city center. Hamas was aware that Israel would respond aggressively to such a massive terror attack, and prepared massive tunnel/bunker complexes beneath Gaza. These complexes have immense stockpiles of food, fuel, medicine, ammunition, and even underground factories capable of weapon/rocket manufacturing. Moreover, the IDF must fight in densely populated urban terrain, against an enemy utilizing mines, short/long-range rockets, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), mortars, and small-arms. More challenging still, Hamas’ defenses are built around using both the kidnapped Israeli hostages and the Palestinian civilian populace as human shields. Thus, the war can be likened to a knife fight in a dark closet.

On a strategic level, Taiwan’s national security establishment immediately recognized the implications of a war that began as a result of a catastrophic intelligence failure. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), after all, has far more capabilities than Hamas, and the prospect of strategic surprise by the PLA might mean the destruction of Taiwan and not “just” the deaths of hundreds of civilians.

On an operational level, observers must consider that the war is still in a relatively early stage, when details are still fairly hard to ascertain. Both the IDF and Hamas recognize the criticality of the information war, and thus both have attempted to control information flow. The IDF, in particular, has sought to limit communications coming from Gaza, including threatening to halt the establishment of Starlink operations there.

However, given the proliferation of open-source intelligence (OSINT), as well the information released thus far, it is possible to look at several operational implications of the war for Taiwan. In particular, I look at Israel’s rapid mobilization and the IDF’s use of airpower.

Rapid Mobilization as a Deterrent

At the beginning of the war, Israel’s primary concern was the potential for the Lebanon-based Hezbollah terror group to opportunistically open a new front in Israel’s north while the IDF was tied up in brutal fighting in Gaza. Hezbollah is widely considered to be more deadly, organized, and professional than Hamas, with the last round of fighting in 2006 being far harder for the Israelis than they anticipated. Moreover, the Israeli military was in considerable disarray at the beginning of the war. This was not just because of the shock of the Hamas’ attacks, but also because domestic political upheaval over the summer of 2023 had resulted in hundreds of Israeli reservists threatening resignations as a protest. These reservists included elite and specialized personnel, such as senior fighter pilots, special forces commandos, and cyber-intelligence specialists.

Thus, the surprise attack on October 7 meant that the IDF needed to demonstrate its ability to mobilize quickly and efficiently. Prolonged decision-making would have operationally hobbled the IDF, as it is dependent on reservists for protracted fighting. On a strategic level, even the appearance of paralysis or a split Israeli society would have been an open invitation for more of Israel’s enemies to attack. This was akin to Ukraine’s situation in February 2022, when Ukrainian President Zelenskyy’s decision to delay mobilization only served to feed into Putin’s belief that Ukraine was not willing or capable of defending itself.

Israel began mobilizing on October 8. Within 48 hours, roughly 360,000 troops had been mobilized – equivalent to 4 percent of its population. While the mobilization was not perfect—the effort was dependent on an uncounted number of volunteers and donated equipment—the sheer scale from a cold start is an enormous demonstration of Israeli capability, organization, and will to fight. In comparison, it took Russia well over a month to mobilize 300,000 troops, and most of them were poorly armed and trained, with hundreds of thousands choosing to flee.

Once the Israeli reserve was mobilized, IDF planners had the freedom of maneuver and resources to plan two separate campaigns. First, they organized a campaign to isolate and then attack Hamas headquarters in the heart of Gaza City; second, they launched a deterrent campaign against Hezbollah involving massive reinforcement of Israeli military units on the border with Lebanon, as well as an interdiction campaign on the Syrian airports at Damascus and Aleppo. As a result, Hezbollah has not intervened significantly in the war, other than propaganda and nuisance rocket barrages.

In Taiwan’s case, replicating Israel’s feat should be considered aspirational – and as a warning. Taiwan will likely face a far higher volume of cyber-attacks—and even insider sabotage attacks—designed to delay mobilization. If the political order for mobilization comes late, then these efforts would likely be compounded by PLA Rocket Force strikes on mobilization centers and logistics nodes. Thus, Taiwan must consider both the political triggers for mobilization as well as ensuring that once the order goes out, mobilization can be conducted in a rapid yet resilient way. This requires practice at scale.

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Image: IDF Merkava tanks assembling near Gaza, October 12, 2023. Rapid Israeli mobilization and assembling of forces was critical in deterring Hezbollah from full-scale intervention in the conflict. For Taiwan, rapid mobilization will likely be significantly more difficult: the PRC will likely seek to slow down mobilization through both non-kinetic means such as cyberwarfare or through outright firepower strikes. Taiwan must practice mobilization under realistic conditions to replicate the Israeli feat. (Source: Reuters)

Airpower as a Shield and Force Multiplier

One of the reasons why Israel could mobilize so quickly was because of the IDF’s air dominance. This air dominance allowed the IDF to defend against Hamas’ standoff strike capability. During the initial surprise attack, Hamas fired over 3,500 rockets into Israel. However, Hamas could not meaningfully disrupt Israeli mobilization; they were not given any space to do so, as Israel instantly struck back with persistent airpower. One day after the initial attack, the IDF struck over 800 targets, ramping up to over 7,000 targets by October 25. The IDF started by striking rocket launchers and firing areas, followed by attacks on command centers and munition factories. This expansive air campaign drastically reduced the number of rocket attacks that Hamas was able to carry out.

With the announcement of an impending ground campaign, the IDF started use of penetrating munitions against the vast Hamas tunnel system. Finally, with the commencement of the ground campaign, the IDF began a general bombardment of Gaza City to force the militants into the tunnels. As ground troops advance, F-35s have provided close air support, sometimes using 2000-lb GBU-31 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs). The use of this type of heavy munition in close proximity to ground forces is a demonstration of the professionalism and jointness of the IDF. It is also a testament to the incredible tactical effects of airpower to enhance the ability for ground forces to maneuver, despite a lack of overwhelming numbers. This is particularly important for Israeli armor, which has notably been able to effectively fight with relatively limited infantry support despite the known presence of Hamas fighters armed with anti-tank guided missiles.

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Image: Israeli Air Force (IAF) F-15A armed with 2000-lb GBU-31 JDAMs, fitted with solid nose plugs to penetrate hardened targets. The IAF’s technical sophistication combined with practice of joint warfare allows the IDF to exercise airpower for strategic, operational, and tactical effects. Conversely, Hamas’ complete lack of ability to contest the air domain means the IDF can persistently, quickly, accurately, and massively target forces on the ground, allowing the Israelis to selectively box in and overwhelm the defenders. (Source: Israeli Air Force)

This use of airpower integrated with ground attack is something that the PLA wishes to achieve, and will undoubtedly seek to learn from this war. The PLA knows full well that in any full-scale invasion of Taiwan, a primary limiting factor for them will be logistics. Even if a beachhead is established or a port is seized, throughput will be highly constrained. This would be highly problematic, as urban combat requires immense resources, including everything from tanks to armored bulldozers to mine clearing vehicles to specialized engineering and assault teams. Even in terms of sheer numbers, previous operations have indicated that the standard 3:1 force ratio advantage by the attackers is often insufficient for urban warfare, instead requiring a 6:1 force ratio. Thus, as the PLA becomes a more joint force, they will likely rely more heavily on airpower to provide the same type of persistent strikes that have allowed the Israelis to economize on manpower.

This indicates several key objectives for Taiwan. First, Taiwan’s air power can be used in the early phases of a conflict to contest air space relatively close to Taiwan proper, buying time for Taiwanese forces to mobilize. Second, survival of mobile air defense and keeping even a skeleton manned fleet alive is critical. These will help prevent the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) from achieving air dominance and thus being able to provide persistent fires as well as close air support operations for their landing forces.


Israel’s fight in Gaza is still in a relatively early phase. As of November 6, the IDF has surrounded Gaza City and cut the Gaza Strip into two parts, seeking to slowly force Hamas into a killbox where airpower can be applied in mass. Israeli commanders have said that they believe this war will be protracted, with continual raids even after the end of major ground maneuvers.

However, even now, some lessons are clear. Decisive, rapid mobilization is a powerful deterrent. Letting a technologically and operationally savvy enemy control the air is fatal. Taiwan must be able to achieve the former and avoid the latter.

The main point: The Israeli-Hamas War demonstrates the importance of rapid, efficient mobilization as a method of deterrence. It also shows how deadly persistent airpower can be, even against entrenched defense, when integrated with ground maneuver. Taiwan thus must practice the ability to conduct a rapid mobilization as well as double down on strengthening a multi-layer air and missile defense.