A tour of the western Negev yesterday, five days after the cease-fire was declared, left little room for doubt. The reservists are being sent home after an emergency call-up, conscripts are going on their leave after four weeks of fighting, the armored vehicles and tanks are being serviced. All the signs suggest that from the point of view of the IDF the current round of the war in the Gaza Strip is over. If the Hamas resumes rocket attacks on Israel - which military intelligence estimates is not likely in the foreseeable future - Israel's response will probably come in the form of air strikes.
It now seems that the time has come for assessments and conclusions. Talks with the two most visible battle commanders in the operation, colonel Ilan Malka, commander of the Givati Brigade, and the commander of Battalion 101 of the Paratrooper Brigade, Lt. Colonel Avi, seem to indicate as such.
Malka led a complex battle in an area crowded with multi-story buildings south of Gaza City, a kilometer shy of the city center. Avi, whose photograph and identity, like that of other battalion commanders, have been barred by the military censor, suffered moderate injuries in hand-to-hand combat with Hamas gunmen, rushed out of hospital against the wishes of the medical staff, and returned to lead his battalion.
Both officers say they are pleased with the way their men fought, and suggest that they could have done more. They also have no pangs of guilt about the enormity of the force the IDF deployed in the Strip. In their view, it was necessary because Hamas operated behind the cover of civilians. The officers insist that their men did everything possible to conduct themselves morally and limit civilian casualties.
Colonel Malka, 41, is married with three children, and at his post for the past 18 months. He is the first commander of the Givati brigade who began his career as a trooper in the unit. During the first stages of the operation, Givati took control of the Zeytun neighborhood to the southeast of Gaza City, "and you realize pretty quickly that even if you have taken over the territory, you have not cleared it completely because there are still [Hamas gunmen] hiding underground. On the second night a gunman emerged between two buildings housing soldiers and began shooting. In such circumstances it is a constant effort to try to prevent friendly fire incidents. A sniper at a window sees a figure and is ready to shoot, and his commander needs to keep him in control and prevent accidents."
The battle Malka is particularly proud of took place two days before the cease-fire. The brigade identified a problematic Hamas deployment between two Givati battalions in the Sabra neighborhood. "We looked for a way to best apply our relative advantage, to penetrate deep and catch them by surprise," he recounts. They focused on al-Hawa, a middle-class neighborhood where a Hamas office complex was situated. "People drew weapons from between the computers. These are tall buildings and it makes things complicated: Every floor had four apartments and it is important to make sure all have been checked. They shot at us, threw grenades from up high - we caught them by surprise but they stayed to fight. At least five cells with rocket propelled grenades engaged the armored vehicles. One armored personnel carrier carrying ammunition was hit by a rocket - if it had caught fire it would have cost us 10 dead soldiers. It would have made the result of the battle entirely different."
Malka takes Hamas seriously, "but during the fighting I reached the conclusion that when you are determined and aggressive, when you do not hesitate and you move forward, they recognize your force and pull back," he says.
Lt. Col. Avi also describes the Hamas fighting abilities as professional. "They prepared for defense and sabotage. We found groups of booby-trapped homes, with the explosives facing the direction from which they believed we would approach. They have people who understand sabotage a lot better than the average platoon commander in the IDF. In one mosque there were booby traps with sensors that would set the explosive off the minute we entered. In the northern Gaza Strip they retreated as we approached. But the further we moved to the center of the city, Hamas resistance became more serious."
In the area where his unit fought, rocket attacks against Israel ceased. "It is just like the marines say: 'Boots on the ground.' There are things that only a ground force can deal with. It may be that a few ranks above us they call this an operation, but at the battalion level, there is no doubt that this is war. We did not use terms like 'routine security operation.' We talked about 'occupying, assault, attack' - war terminology."
Avi is keen to stress that his soldiers did not consciously target civilians. "At Atatra, a neighborhood in northern Gaza, we saw a light in a house and heard screams, and we let the families walk out with a white flag. I was very concerned about harming civilians. When we went into the Strip I told the soldiers: 'We are not like the Russians in Chechnya.' I was glad to see that the guys knew how to hold their fire."
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