Enemy that keeps his distance

AFP Photo / Said Khatib
If Hamas has a plan to lure invading Israeli troops into the dense warrens of Gaza's built-up areas by demonstrating passivity it might explain the performance of the organisation’s military wing in the battle so far.

In an article headlined “Where is Hamas?”, the military affairs commentator of the newspaper ‘Yediot Achronot’, Ofer Shelach, writes that in the first 10 days of Israel’s ground operation, which has brought it to the edges of Gaza City and several refugee camps, the army has not encountered resistance from any organised force as large as a squad – that is, about 10 men. Army spokesmen report dozens of clashes every day and even speak of fierce fighting but the absence of detailed accounts of such encounters suggests that they may involve only individuals or small groups emerging from tunnels or houses.

“It’s not clear whether Hamas isn’t offering opposition because it can’t,” writes Shelach, himself a reserve paratroop officer, “or whether it’s waiting for the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) to reach a place where Hamas prefers to do battle.”

Many officers in the field believe the former is the more likely explanation. They say they cannot discern any clear command structure in the forces opposing them or any well-organised resistance.

Before the war, Hamas’ military arm was reported to consist of 15,000-20,000 men organised in several brigades under a divisional command. This was even greater than the number of Israeli troops which entered the Gaza Strip less than two weeks ago – four infantry brigades backed by a number of tanks. A cadre of several hundred Hamas fighters was believed to have received intensive military training in Iran or with Hezbollah in Lebanon. The force was said to be armed with the latest Russian-made anti-tank missiles – the kind effectively used by Hezbollah in its battle with Israel in 2006 in Lebanon, and other modern weapons smuggled into Gaza through tunnels under the Egyptian border, including possibly anti-aircraft weapons. Hamas was also said to have sophisticated roadside bombs like those used in Iraq, prepared under Iranian guidance. In previous smaller-scale Israeli incursions, Hamas mines succeeded in destroying several Israeli tanks.

On Monday, an Israeli tank force entering the strip at its 6-mile wide waist cut across it and reached the sea in a few hours without reports of a single missile being fired at it. Israeli planes and helicopters operating in profusion over the strip have not encountered any anti-aircraft fire except from conventional machine guns.

Army spokesmen claim that 300-450 Hamas fighters have been killed since Israeli troops entered the strip but in view of the absence of evidence of pitched battles it is not clear how that happened unless those killed in preliminary air strikes are included. The army did not permit Israeli reporters to accompany troops in the first days of fighting and even now permits only pool reporters who are confined to specific units, sometimes inside an armoured vehicle, so no clear picture has yet emerged of what has taken place on the ground.

Ten Israeli soldiers have been killed so far in Gaza, a very small number for an operation of this size, and half of these were killed by other Israeli troops in so-called “friendly fire” incidents. One combat engineer looking for booby traps was killed when he entered a room by a suicide bomber who grabbed him before detonating himself. Several other suicide bombers, including women, are reported to have been shot dead before causing Israeli casualties. Hamas fighters emerging from tunnels in Israeli army uniforms have attacked from close quarters several times without causing any fatalities before being killed themselves.

For years, Hamas has been releasing footage, often shown on Israel television, of large groups of fighters marching in formation with RPGs on their shoulders, green bandanas bearing quotations from the Koran on their foreheads, or undergoing military exercises. Masked Hamas spokesmen were heard on these clips taunting Israel and issuing dire threats about the fate of any troops entering Gaza. On the very eve of the war, a spokesman warned that if Israeli troops enter, “our children will be collecting your body parts”.

It is possible that the “shock and awe” of Israel’s week-long preliminary air attack and the massive artillery barrage that accompanied the entry of ground troops sapped Hamas’ will to fight. The deliberate targeting of Hamas commanders in Israeli air strikes may also be a factor. It cannot be ruled out, however, that a coherent defence will emerge if Israeli troops attempt to penetrate deeply into Gaza’s built-up areas.

Abraham Rabinovich for RT