The all-clear had sounded in Nir Am quarter of an hour prior but soldiers were still walking the kibbutz's paths in helmets and full combat gear on Monday morning. The fact that two Hamas attack teams had emerged from a tunnel exit only a few hundred meters away from the fence and in the ensuing firefight killed four soldiers, including a battalion commander, before they were killed themselves, was hard to shake off.
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For three hours the members of the kibbutz and guests at the small motel (mainly journalists) had to remain indoors while the soldiers made sure no Hamas fighters had managed to get inside. The fact they had been wearing IDF uniforms, including regulating combat netting on their helmets, made everyone all the more jumpy. The calm was finally restored to the leafy kibbutz, disturbed every few minutes by the booms from a nearby artillery battery giving covering fire for the IDF forces fighting a few kilometers away in the eastern suburbs of Gaza.
The Hamas teams had been spotted first by IDF surveillance towers. The women soldiers operating the screens had received strict orders to constantly scan not only their sectors of responsibility across the fence in Gaza but also what the military ironically calls "the depth" - nearby Israeli territory where the infiltrators may have emerged undetected from under the ground. That was how the attackers who took out a tank and captured Gilad Shalit in June 2006 got through without being detected. That is still the vulnerable area, up close to the Israeli villages. And destroying those tunnels is a dangerous job, as seen in the deaths of three IDF paratroopers who were blown up by a Hamas booby trap while entering a tunnel entrance on Wednesday morning.
By any military parameter the IDF is beating Hamas on the battlefield. The complete disparity in manpower, hardware and training make any other outcome impossible. But Hamas has learned how to exploit a wide range of soft spots on the Israeli side. A host of opportunities present themselves in Hamas' attempts to challenge and undermine the close-knit, Westernized and relatively affluent society.
The proximity of the easternmost buildings in Gaza's urban sprawl and the Israeli kibbutzim closest to the border makes the tunnels a potent threat. There is nothing new about this but in recent days, as Hamas has made at least five attacks through tunnels and around twenty of them have been revealed since the start of the ground offensive on Thursday night, IDF officers have been forced to admit they are astonished by the extent of Hamas' tunnelling operation. This intelligence "blind spot" is being explained by the fact that Hamas didn't use its own members to do the digging but families from Rafah down south which made their living from smuggling tunnels to Egypt. In the last two years, the Egyptian army destroyed many of these tunnels, cutting off most of that route, but Hamas offered new employment to the diggers in their secret subterranean operation.
Even if the intelligence had been aware of its full extent, it would still have been difficult to prevent the tunnel project from outside the border fence. Instruments to detect digging fifteen meters underground are still under development and may not be entirely effective. People living at Nir Am and other villages near the fence will remain exposed both to mortar shells and rockets from the air and tunnels beneath their feet.
Israel's small territorial size and the short distances from Gaza to the country's center is another soft spot as we see now with the suspension of flights to Ben Gurion Airport by many foreign airliners, now extended by the American FAA for another 24 hours. So far over 2,000 rockets fired by Hamas and Islamic Jihad at Israeli targets have killed "only" three civilians, but one rocket landing in Yehud, near the airport, has paralyzed much of the travel to Israel's only international airport. Hamas tried repeatedly to target the airport but its chances of actually hitting a high-value target there, through the Iron Dome's shield, is tiny. The hit on Yahud didn't cause any casualties but it brought Hamas an unexpected bonus and today more rockets were fired in the airport's general direction.
Hamas of course is much more aware of the Israeli sensitivity to its soldiers being taken captive. The organization does not hold a live Israeli soldier now, though it is trying very hard, but they have tried very hard to exploit the fact that missing Golani Sergeant Oron Shaul's body has yet to be fully recovered and identified. The moment they managed to scavange part of his uniform, or a dog-tag, from the battlefield and had his name and number, they immediately acted to sow confusion and despair in Israel with false claims of having taken him prisoner.
At least 150 Hamas fighters have so far been taken prisoner by the IDF and are currently undergoing questioning, but for Hamas this will all be worthwhile if they can take even one prisoner of their own. They know this is probably Israel's softest spot.