KFAR AZA - As the fighting in the Gaza Strip rages, two very different narratives are being written – particularly in the eastern neighborhoods of Gaza City. Israel is presenting the push as a battle against the hub of Hamas' terror infrastructure, primarily the so-called 'terror tunnels' – the underground passages reaching from buildings on the outskirts of built-up areas, running under the border and emerging close to Israeli kibbutzim and farms.
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The Palestinians, for their part, are presenting it clear and simple as the Massacre of Shuja'iyya, the suburb of Gaza City which has seen the fiercest fighting of Operation Protective Edge. According to Palestinian sources, dozens of civilians have killed in the bombed-out houses and streets.
The identity of the casualties on the Palestinian side is already becoming the subject of hotly contested versions and the controversy will only become even more acrimonious in the coming days.
The IDF claims that, since the start of the ground offensive on Thursday night, it has killed around 110 Palestinian militants; military sources reports that troops are facing stiff armed resistance in Shuja'iyya.
A request for a two-hour humanitarian truce, officially presented to Jerusalem by the International Red Cross, seemed at first to have been turned down by Israel, which was concerned that Hamas would use it to evacuate its fighters from Shuja'iyya. An hour later, the IDF announced it would accept the temporary truce – but only in the Shuja'iyya area. In addition, Israel said it would be opening a military field hospital by the Erez Crossing this evening for wounded from Gaza. It was unclear how any civilians would make their way to the hospital, as Hamas was preventing even foreign journalists today from leaving the Strip.
What began on Thursday night as a "limited" ground operation, specifically targeting the tunnels in a relatively narrow strip of around 1.5 kilometers from the border fence, expanded 48 hours later into a full-scale onslaught on Shuja'iyya and its environs.
IDF sources have given two reasons for this development: the discovery of the full extent of Hamas' subterranean network, including around 20 tunnels reaching under Israeli territory and any more connecting tunnels used for hiding explosives and rockets; and Hamas' attempts to draw the Israeli troops into the built-up areas using anti-tank missiles and snipers. Second Lieutenant Bar Rahav was killed from one of these missiles, which hit the Puma armored personnel carrier in which his engineering combat unit was maneuvering; Bnaya Rubel, a sergeant in an infantry unit, was killed from sniper fire. Their deaths bring the total of IDF fatalities since the beginning of the ground offensive to five.
At this point, there are swirling masses of rumors on both sides of the border regarding the number of fatalities. The IDF has reported 56 soldiers wounded; one of them, Golani Brigade Commander Ghassan Alian, was moderately wounded and evacuated to Soroka Hospital in Be'er Sheva, returning to his soldiers after receiving treatment.
IDF officers have acknowledged the significant escalation in fighting since last night, using descriptions such as "taking off the gloves" and "it's not an operation now, it's a war."
A number of units that were being kept in reserve have already been moved up to the frontline. One officer expressed concern that the level of casualties in Shuja'iyya could erode the international support Israel has enjoyed until now and create diplomatic pressure to end the operation sooner than expected, at terms which would be less advantageous to Israel.
While these developments could have been foreseen and occurred in previous operations, Israeli sources admit that they have been surprised by the extent of the tunneling under the border and that once the government ordered the IDF to destroy them, there was no holding back an operation on this scale.
This "blind spot" in Israeli intelligence can be explained by the strict compartmentalization of the digging operation in Gaza, which was not carried out not by Hamas members, but by families from Rafah which specialize in tunneling. These families controlled the smuggling tunnels from Egypt and were brought in as contractors by Hamas. Israel is now claiming that a large proportion of the concrete it allowed into Gaza in recent years for civilian building was used in the tunnels' construction.
Hamas is still refusing a longer-term ceasefire and while the level of rocket fire, especially to ranges further than 40 kilometers from Gaza, has been reduced significantly over the last two days, the assessment is that the organization could go on fighting for at least two weeks, launching rockets on Israeli territory and engaging with the IDF units within Gaza.