Hoisting themselves from a tunnel underneath the Gaza border, the Hamas gunmen sprinted through desert brush to attack an Israeli military post and kill five soldiers, retreating with a bounty of captured machine-guns.
The strike at Israel’s border with Gaza at Nahal Oz, recorded by a militant and broadcast on the group’s television station, demonstrates how Hamas’s one-time ragtag Al-Qassam Brigades militia has transformed itself into a disciplined force and inflicted greater damage on Israel’s vastly larger army than ever before. Sixty-four soldiers died, the most in a military conflict since the second Lebanon war in 2006, and more than six times the number of troops killed in Israel’s last ground war in Gaza in 2009.
Weapons that Israel says were smuggled from Iran and a playbook inspired by Lebanon’s Hezbollah forces were key ingredients that enabled Hamas to hold out against Israel’s monthlong offensive. Confronting Israeli troops head-on was a change from previous wars where Hamas mostly fought through hidden bombs and booby-trapped buildings.
Hamas “succeeded in exacting a price from Israel and causing serious damage and losses among its soldiers,” Yoram Schweitzer, a senior research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, wrote in a report. The military campaign “strengthened its hegemony among all the organizations operating in Gaza,” he said.
To be sure, Hamas has suffered serious setbacks. Israel killed three of its senior military commanders in an overnight attack. The group lost hundreds of its fighters during the war, about two-thirds of its 10,000 rockets and dozens of attack tunnels, some of which cost as much as $3 million to build, according to Israel. There are also international moves afoot to give the rival Fatah movement, led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, new powers in Gaza.
While the losses in Gaza were tremendous, “this is not likely to have a major material impact on Hamas the organization,” said Youssef Munayyer, executive director of the Washington-based Palestine Center, a research group. “At the end of the day, Palestinians blame Israel for their plight and will support resistance to it more than acquiescence to it.”
Besides the tunnels, Hamas spent the past five years digging passages throughout the small coastal territory, which enabled them to surprise Israeli soldiers by popping up behind them. The subterranean network was inspired by the example of Hezbollah, which burrowed through south Lebanon with the help of consultants from North Korea, where tunneling has become a virtual military art form.
A U.S. federal court in Washington last month found North Korea and Iran liable for damages from 2006 missiles fired at Israel from Lebanon. A 2010 study by the Congressional Research service cites intelligence sources as saying North Korea trained Hezbollah to build tunnels.
In Gaza, “the tunnel network became something of an equalizer,” Munayyer said, allowing militants to kill more Israeli soldiers than they did six years ago.
While tensions had grown between Hamas and Hezbollah over the Lebanese group’s support for Syrian President Bashar Assad, the two Islamist groups closed ranks against their common Israeli enemy.
In a July 25 speech, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah pledged “all means of support” to the “Palestinian resistance” in Gaza, meaning Hamas and other militant groups. Hamas and Hezbollah are both designated terrorist organizations by Israel and the U.S. Both came to prominence in part by carrying out suicide bombings that killed hundreds of civilians.
The Al-Qassam Brigades promised revenge today after Israel’s nighttime killing of its commanders. “Killing our leaders won’t weaken us,” the group said in an e-mailed statement.
Israeli forces, who according to Gaza officials killed more than 2,000 Palestinians in the fighting, suffered the worst losses to Hamas from battles in Gaza City’s Shuja’iya neighborhood and Rafah in the south. Thirteen soldiers died in a single day in Shuja’iya.
When the chairman of the Israeli parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee announced an inquiry into the Gaza military campaign, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri called it a “a clear Israeli admission that their army was defeated by the Palestinian resistance.”
The committee’s chairman, Zeev Elkin of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, told Army Radio on Aug. 3 that the panel will investigate all the tough questions raised by the war, including why Israel didn’t destroy the Hamas tunnels even though they knew about their existence years ago.
The committee expects to hear testimony from Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and senior army commanders, he said.
“Al-Qassam has been preparing for an intensive operation like this for years,” Adnan Abu Aamer, a political scientist at Gaza’s al-Ummah University. “The fighters’ performance on the ground surprised the Israelis and truly impressed Palestinians and the Arab world.”