As Hamas militants learn from previous wars and from other terrorist groups, the Israel Defense Forces is discovering that its enemy is no longer fleeing at the sight of a tankful of soldiers.
As more injured soldiers were evacuated Sunday from the intense fighting in Shujaiyeh and brought to a makeshift landing-strip near Kfar Aza by the Gaza borders, the local commander ordered troops to move operations to behind a grove of trees, hidden away from media camera crews.
The numbers of casualties hadn't yet been cleared for publication and the last thing the IDF wanted was footage of wounded, bandaged soldiers being stretchered out of the war zone.
The Blackhawk helicopters ferrying their load to hospitals in southern and central Israel swooped in low, firing off flares to ward off heat-seeking missiles. In the space of two days, the limited ground incursion has become a re-run of the Second Lebanon War, with Israel's high-tech army playing a game of hide-and-seek with small missile teams.
One officer, a veteran of Gaza operations, who left the fighting area for a few hours, told Haaretz: "I've been to Shujaiyeh before, but I've never seen it – or Hamas – like this before. Their equipment and tactics are just like Hezbollah. Missile traps and IEDs everywhere – and they stay and fight instead of melting away like in the past."
In the wake of the 2006 Second Lebanon War, the IDF improved its fleet of armored personnel carriers (APCs), including more heavy Achzarit APCs and the new Namer, based on the Merkava tank. New Merkava MK IV was also acquired and equipped with TROPHY anti-missile systems, which is essentially a miniaturized version of the Iron Dome for armored fighting vehicles.
But the numbers of these new tanks and APCs at the army's disposal are still far from sufficient for supporting a major ground operation and seven of the 13 Golani soldiers who were killed in the fighting in the early hours of Sunday were in a 50-year-old M-113 APC, which was hit first an improvised explosive device (IED) and then by a missile.
"The new APCs are better – but they're also vulnerable to missiles, especially in this environment, where they have little room to maneuver. You have to continuously shift your location and in a place like Shujaiyeh there isn't much room," another officer told Haaretz.
Three other Golani soldiers, including a deputy battalion commander were killed when another missile hit the building in which they had set up their temporary headquarters.
But while the problems of operating in a cramped urban environment are well-known to the IDF from previous operations in Gaza, the level of Hamas fighting and relative professionalism has surprised the IDF to some degree.
"It's not a disaster, we can still handle them and we've killed many more of their fighters than they have ours but they are certainly one level above what I would have expected" said one IDF officer. "You can see they have learned both from Hezbollah and from watching us."
The Golani Brigade attacked Shujaiyeh on the third night of the ground offensive. Military sources said this was due both to the delay in the evacuation of civilians from the neighborhood and a reluctance by the IDF to immediately hit the area, which is seen as one of the most significant Hamas strongholds, a hub of tunnels and rocket launches, while the operation was still being conducted on a "limited" basis.
"We didn't go in on Friday because we were holding back" said an officer with knowledge of operational plans for Gaza. "The directive was for a limited operation but the tunnels which were revealed and Hamas' launching from Shujaiyeh We were certainly surprised by the extent of what we found there. The only problem is that fighting in a place like Shujaiyeh is Hamas' dream scenario, since we offer them so many targets. It's exactly what we were trying to avoid."
Despite the casualties on both sides, the IDF maintains that the fighting in Shujaiyeh was unavoidable and yielded major results in terms of tunnels and other Hamas infrastructure discovered and destroyed. While the Palestinians claim that between at least 60 civilians were killed in the fighting, the IDF insists that at least two-thirds of the casualties were Hamas fighters.
On Sunday night, IDF artillery and attack helicopters were raining fire over Shujaiyeh for a second night running, as close quarters combat continued. Neither side is giving up on the strategic location that has become a symbol of what is now looking like more like a war and what has already led to so much bloodshed.
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