More than 24 hours after the end of Operation Warm Winter in the northern Gaza Strip, its commanders, from the Givati and the Barak armored brigades, met Tuesday for a debriefing. While the resistance they encountered was fierce, they said, it was less organized than they thought it would be based on information about Hamas' increasing strength.
The 48-hour operation focused on the area between the Sajiyeh neighborhood east of Gaza city, and Jabalya to its north.
Two Israel Defense Force soldiers were killed and eight wounded, one moderately. The Palestinians reported 70 dead, and another 50 killed in other incidents since the flare-up last Wednesday.
The operation's commanders say they wanted to remain in the area for a while, but their instructions were to end the incursion early on Monday.
Two Givati battalions took part in the operation, along with special forces, engineering units and the Sa'ar armored battalion. Infantry fighters penetrated around three kilometers west of the border fence before they were discovered. Fierce fighting then broke out around built-up areas and orchards. The two Israeli casualties were shot point-blank during the first two hours of the fighting.
Givati officers said troop morale was high. In some cases wounded soldiers and officers refused to be evacuated to the hospital. In one instance, a platoon commander saw a Palestinian throwing grenades out of a window. He approached the Palestinian under fire, sustaining injuries from shrapnel, and threw a grenade into the window, killing the Palestinian. In another instance, the deputy commander of a tank force repeatedly returned to the battle site to evacuate the wounded under heavy RPG fire.
Hamas has two brigades in the area of the fighting, but the officers said they were only partially organized. The moment Hamas realized that the advancing IDF forces were relatively large, they withdrew. Most of their attempted offensive actions were from a distance and caused little damage. The army estimates that approximately 100 to 150 gunmen were involved in the fighting, but the Israeli troops came up against no more than 50 gunmen at a time.
The Palestinians were clearly trying to coordinate their moves by radio, and their deployment reflected some organization, the IDF officers said. Hamas was well-equipped with weapons, night-vision gear and flack jackets. They fired dozens of RPGs at Israeli tanks, hitting a few, but not penetrating them.
According to reports from Gaza, dozens of Palestinian civilians were also killed in the fighting. The army says the fighting took place in a densely populated area, and Hamas gunmen sometimes using families hiding in their homes as human shields. The army also said the rules of engagement prohibit intentional firing on civilians, however in cases where a source of fire was clearly identified as coming from a home, permission was given to open fire without determining whether civilians were also present.
The officers said some of the Palestinian civilians were hit by "heavy and inaccurate" Palestinian fire. In one case the commander of the brigade reconnaissance force saw a boy of about 10 sent to bring a weapon from a dead gunman after another gunman was killed trying to retrieve it. The commander ordered his men not to fire and the boy delivered the weapon to other armed men.
The Givati officers said no Qassams were fired during the operation from the five-square-kilometer area from which most of rockets on Sderot originate. "To stop the fire completely, we'd have to stay in the area all the time, " an officer conceded. However he also said he hoped the killing of the Hamas men would make the organization realize that there was is a price to be paid for shooting the Qassams.
The officers seemed to be trying hard to show that the lessons of the Second Lebanon War had been learned. They emphasized the importance of joint training with the infantry, Armored Corps and the Air Force. They also said that Givati commander Colonel Ilan Malka was present in the field throughout the fighting. One of the harshest criticisms in the Second Lebanon War regarded the absence of senior officers at the front.
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