Shujaiyeh Could Be the Key to the Warfare in Gaza

Hamas and Israeli forces are fighting each other on the ground in the Gaza City neighborhood. For Hamas, Shuj'iyya is a new symbol of steadfastness. For the world, the civilian casualties are reason to push for a cease-fire.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israeli soldiers put on their gear on the side of a road across from the Gaza Strip July 18, 2014.
Israeli soldiers put on their gear on the side of a road across from the Gaza Strip July 18, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The fighting in the Shujaiyeh neighborhood in eastern Gaza City may go down as the most important in the current round of hostilities between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The Israel Defense Forces has not been forthcoming about details, most of which has so far come from not entirely reliable Palestinian sources. As usual over the past month, wild rumors are spreading through the social media networks, which are filling the vacuum left open by the traditional news media.

From reports in Arab media outlets, the following approximate picture can be put together of the situation as of early afternoon Sunday: After focusing over the previous two days on discovering and destroying Hamas-built tunnels in a relatively narrow strip of land on the western (Gaza) side of the border fence, Israel has another large ground force into the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian sources reported heavy exchanges of gunfire in Shujaiyeh. Hamas’s defensive array is arranged in semicircles, from the Israeli border to the seat of their rule deep inside Gaza. Unlike the tunnels that the army dealt with previously, Sajaiya is part of the defensive arcs located farther inward, and a Hamas battalion that is considered relatively strong is deployed there. The Israel Defense Forces Golani Brigade troops who operated there during Operation Cast Lead also encountered more serious resistance, while Hamas operatives in other areas fled after offering almost no resistance to the Israeli troops.

While Shujaiyeh is not particularly significant from a military perspective, it seems that those who planned the operation assumed that a large-scale conflict with Hamas there would lead to many casualties on Hamas’s side. We can also assume that it was necessary to deal with the threat of the terror tunnels there, too, since Shujaiyeh is only about two kilometers from Israel, near the Karni border crossing and Kibbutz Nahal Oz. In any case, this is the first time during the operation that Hamas has dealt with the army on the ground, in the heart of the urban area.

The weekend’s incidents show that Hamas, which has been showing a strong fighting spirit in the current round of conflict, is trying to pick off troops by its intensive use of the terror tunnels to enter Israeli territory, since it fears the IDF will demolish the tunnels over the next few days. But so far, most of the battle over the tunnels has been taking place in relatively open terrain, with no large population nearby. According to broadcasts from Shujaiyeh since Sunday morning, the IDF has been firing heavy artillery there together with heavy bombardment from the Israel Air Force, alongside house-to-house fighting. As was anticipated, this kind of urban warfare in a crowded area has cost dozens of lives. While many of the casualties are gunmen, shocking photographs of many corpses of women and children killed in the fighting are being distributed to the media. It appears that many buildings have been destroyed. From the Palestinians’ perspective, a new Gazan symbol of resistance is being created that will be spoken of for years to come. From the political and international standpoint, Shujaiyeh will be an incentive for increased foreign intervention.

Israel had agreed to a two-hour humanitarian cease-fire in Shujaiyeh, from 1:30 P.M. to 3:30 P.M., that was facilitated by the International Committee of the Red Cross to allow for the evacuation from the neighborhood of Palestinian casualties, but according to the IDF Hamas violated the cease-fire and fighting resumed. At 3:30 the IDF said it would extend the cease-fire until 4:30 P.M.

Israel’s inner cabinet will presumably need to decide soon whether to continue the military pressure on Gaza and expand the operation or bring it to an end in accordance with the goals determined in advance.

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