A Givati Brigade officer assembles his soldiers before the next attack on the Gaza Strip. "Who wants to go into the Izbat Abed Rabbo neighborhood?" he asks. Two soldiers raise their hands. "Who wants to get sent to El Atatra?" Five. "And who wants Tel al-Hawwa?" A sea of hands is raised. Everyone wants to serve in Tel al-Hawwa.
This joke was recited two weeks ago by 17-year-old boys in Tel al-Hawwa. For anyone who doesn't understand, they explained: In Tel al-Hawwa the Israeli soldiers were not greeted by any Palestinian resistance. Therefore the Israeli soldiers prefer to invade it. According to the boys, this joke came out of the Iz al-Din al-Qassam brigade, and it reflects the reality.
This, however, is not the impression of another Tel al-Hawwa inhabitant, a Hamas supporter: He dared to look out the windows of his house from time to time, saw the armed young men and was impressed by their courage to be out in the streets and their ability to roll with agility between the rockets from unmanned aircraft and shells that were landing on them. Indeed, in the Palestinian military organizations practicing eluding missiles has become part of compulsory training.
His impression accords with the official thesis presented by Hamas and its military organizations, as activists recounted to Haaretz: Courageous and intelligent fighting, especially by Iz al-Din al-Qassam, is what prevented the Israeli army from achieving its aim of reoccupying the Gaza Strip. "In 1967 the Arab armies were defeated in six days," say Hamas spokesmen. "In 2009, Iz al-Din al-Qassam was undefeated for 21 days, and the Israeli army had to retreat."
This thesis has raised Hamas' prestige in the West Bank and throughout the Arab world. Statements by the IDF spokesman confirm the Hamas narrative. "The reality of the fighting in the Gaza Strip was especially complex in light of the intensity of the fighting and the use Hamas made of inhabitants as "human shields" - the troops were instructed unambiguously not to open fire on anyone identified as not involved in the fighting, and to help as much as possible Palestinians wounded in the fighting," a spokesman wrote in reply to a question from Haaretz about IDF soldiers who allegedly killed civilians carrying white flags.
"IDF forces were unambiguously instructed not to make use of the civilian populace in the context of the fighting for any purpose whatsoever, certainly not as 'human shields'," he stated in reply to testimonies that an IDF unit had made consistent use of Izbat Abed Rabbo residents as human shields to protect its troops.
Civilians were held in a house that had become a military position, others were forced to break into houses through walls and conduct searches of them - shielding with their bodies the soldiers and the dog behind them; and civilians were sent to find out whether Iz al-Din al-Qassam fighters had been killed by IDF fire on their positions.
In response to a question about orders to open fire on Palestinian rescue teams, the IDF spokesman replied: "The reality of the fighting in the Gaza Strip was especially complex in light of the intensity of the fighting ... IDF forces were instructed unambiguously not to open fire on persons identified as not involved in the fighting, and to help insofar as possible Palestinians injured in the continuous fighting."
Fighting that was intensive, continuous, complex: opposite and complementary narratives of Hamas and the IDF, and both can be believed to the same extent. A complete battle log of the attack and the dimensions of the resistance cannot be drawn up on the basis of these narratives. However, much can be learned from reports by Palestinian inhabitants who are not committed to the Hamas narrative. "Over the course of three years Hamas trained and let people understand that they can repel an Israeli attack," complained a Palestinian Liberation Organization activist who was raised on the ethos of the armed struggle.
But very soon, everybody realized the futility of this training, he added. In the first week of the air attack the Israel Air Force destroyed most of the tunnel network, and blew up the roadside bombs, landmines, cameras and communications equipment. This apparently immediately affected morale.
According to reports from independent Palestinian sources, in the Zeitoun neighborhood the membership of more than 100 young men in Iz al-Din al-Qassam was suspended. They had fled immediately from the advancing Israeli forces. And indeed, on the night of January 3 IDF infantry units had already fanned out over the eastern part of the neighborhood. Inhabitants estimate that in most areas there was resistance only "during the first hour," at most "the first hours," of the ground attack. In houses that became IDF bases residents found, they say, condoms. Proof for them that the soldiers' lives were not in danger.
A student and activist in the Islamic Jihad confided to a colleague: "We were shaking with fear when the Israeli forces drew closer, we screamed and we fled."
Someone in Tel al-Hawwa saw a number of Iz al-Din al-Qassam fighters trying to operate an antiquated Dushka anti-aircraft machine gun. Its trigger mechanism did not work properly, they tied a rope around the mechanism and pulled it and the whole Dushka shook. Several were seen firing RPG anti-tank weapons toward the south and southeast, in the direction of what had formerly been the Jewish settlement of Netzarim, where Israeli forces had taken up position.
"Indian fighting," was the impression of a foreign military man who came to Gaza after the attack. "Shooting and hiding, peeking out and shooting and hiding."
Until a missile from an unmanned aircraft or a helicopter hit them.
A woman in Tel al-Hawwa heard the Iz al-Din al-Qassam brigades holding a roll-call parade every morning, and every day there were fewer of them. Twenty-three Palestinian fighters were killed in the neighborhood: They were not killed in face-to-face fighting, but rather by missile hits. The woman was impressed by the young men's personal courage and she felt sad about them, but when two armed men tried to enter the building where she lived, all the women banded together and prevented them from doing so.
In its recycled answers, the IDF spokesman's office frequently accused the Hamas of having used civilians as "human shields." No evidence was found of Hamas using civilians the way the IDF did, especially in Izbat Abed Rabbo, as detailed above. When it comes to taking up positions in houses that were evacuated of their inhabitants - the Iz al-Din al-Qassam people are not denying this either. In a number of buildings, armed Iz al-Din al-Qassam men paid no attention to people's pleas and stayed there, in empty apartments. Indeed, Hamas is now finding it difficult to rent offices in residential buildings (in lieu of offices that were bombed). The neighbors are afraid.
However, every person who has complained that the IDF bombed his building because Palestinian fighters were located there gets the answer - even from people who are not Hamas supporters - that the IDF bombed and demolished more buildings in which there were civilians than buildings in which there were armed men.
In its recycled replies, the IDF spokesman's office had a lot to say about "an enemy who located the battle arena in the heart of a populated civilian area." Hamas in fact chalks this up to its credit: It did not fall into the trap set by the Israeli army, and did not go out to meet it on open ground. In all the organizations, and particularly Iz al-Din al-Qassam, the decision was taken not to lose fighters. Not to commit suicide. As far as is known, only one fighter blew himself up next to an Israeli tank, and he was a Fatah man.
A strenuous opponent to Hamas, a PLO activist who fought in Lebanon in 1982 is not prepared to criticize Hamas for the urban battlefield. "The resistance forces have a right to manipulate the enemy. We, too, fought from houses in Lebanon," he says. His complaint is about the illusion Hamas created that it was skillful and equipped to resist the attack, "like Hezbollah."
As if in response to the PLO stalwart, a number of members of military organizations told Haaretz that "the Israeli soldiers are cowards. Had they only come out of the tanks and fought us like real men, one-on-one, we would have shown them."
Concerning the cowardice of the Israeli soldier, as an individual, opponents to Hamas and supporters of Hamas are in agreement, as witnessed by the joke from Tel al-Hawwa. And as witnessed by the conclusion of five- year-old Tallal when he returned to his home that was honeycombed with bullet holes, after it had served as a military position: "The Jews are cowards. They were afraid that our fighters were in the cupboards, in the washing machine, in the refrigerator, in the walls and in the doors. That's why they fired so many bullets."
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