Terrorists Sneaked in via Tunnel; Attacked 3 Targets Simultaneously

Hamas yesterday scored one of its greatest operational victories of the last six years against the Israel Defense Forces, pulling off an attack on an IDF outpost near Kibbutz Kerem Shalom that ended with one soldier kidnapped, two dead and four wounded.

Two of the Palestinian attackers were killed; the other six made it back to the Gaza Strip safely. According to the Palestinians, the abducted soldier - Corporal Gilad Shalit, 19, of Mitzpeh Hila in the Galilee - suffered moderate wounds to his stomach and chest, but is in stable condition.

The incident began shortly before dawn, at about 5:30 A.M., when eight Palestinians crossed the border between Gaza and Israel via a tunnel that they had dug over the past several months. The assailants belonged to three different organizations: Hamas, the Popular Resistance Committees and a previously unknown group called Jish al-Islam ("the Army of Islam"), apparently comprised of Fatah breakaways.

The tunnel was apparently very deep and almost a kilometer long, emerging into Israel about 300 meters east of border fence, just north of Kerem Shalom. Despite the army's numerous lookout posts in this area, no soldiers noticed the Palestinians emerging from the tunnel.

After they emerged, the Palestinians split into three groups that attacked the outpost almost simultaneously. The southern strike force, consisting of two Palestinians, attacked the outpost's "pillbox" and even tried to scale it with a ladder, sparking a fire fight in which both assailants were killed. Three soldiers were wounded during this fight, one moderately and two lightly.

The second strike force wasted most of its ammunition, which included a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) and hand grenades, on an empty armored personnel carrier that had been stationed near the outpost as a decoy.

However, the northern strike force scored a major success: Under cover of a line of trees, it was able to approach a tank located about 600 meters north of the pillbox undetected and attack it with an RPG and hand grenades. The attack killed two of the four-member crew: the commander, First Lieutenant Hanan Barak, 20, of Arad, and the loader, Staff Sergeant Pavel Slutzker of Dimona. It also seriously wounded the driver and moderately wounded Shalit, the gunner, though Major General Elazar Stern, the head of the army's Personnel Directorate, later told Shalit's parents that he left the tank "on his own two feet." Apparently, none of the crew managed to return fire.

After the attack, the six assailants left alive returned to Gaza overland, rather than via the tunnel, using either a small bomb or an antitank missile to blow a hole in the border fence. According to army sources, the entire incident lasted about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, a large IDF force had been summoned to the area and began conducting searches for wounded soldiers and any remaining Palestinian assailants. When they found the tank and realized that Shalit was missing, a kidnapping alert was declared and forces were sent into Gaza to search for him. The four wounded soldiers were taken to Soroka Medical Center in Be'er Sheva for treatment.

Brigadier General Aviv Kochavi, commander of the Gaza Division, said that it took some time until the army realized that Shalit had been kidnapped, because the area around the tank was strewn with objects that the rescue forces feared might be booby-trapped, and it therefore took the forces some time to reach the tank. He said it seemed likely that the attackers also booby-trapped the tunnel before they left.

IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz said afterward that he viewed the results of the attack very gravely. "This wasn't the outcome we would have hoped for," he said.