As Israel prepared to launch its assault into Gaza in late December, it braced for substantial casualties among its own troops. Commanders warned their men of Hamas' suicide commandos, missiles that could smash tanks and knock helicopters out of the sky, and long-range rockets that could reach deeper into Israel. Yet, when the dust had settled, the Islamist militants' primary military achievement had been to maintain its rocket fire into Israel throughout the 22-day conflict. Of the 10 Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza, four were victims of friendly fire accidents.
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The militants continue to fire rockets: On Tuesday, a medium-range Grad missile struck the Israeli port city of Ashkelon in what may be Hamas' closing shot before an Egyptian-brokered truce finally takes effect. Hamas and its supporters have claimed victory as a result of simply being able to survive the fierce Israeli onslaught. And, as a result, Hamas says, Israel lost the political battle; — its pummeling of Gaza and the heavy civilian death toll inflicted has offended many former supporters, while Hamas' political position has been strengthened. But in battle, Israel clearly held the upper hand. During the conflict, very little of Hamas' force of 15,000 fighters appeared, and neither did its feared arsenal of Iranian-supplied weapons. (See images of Gaza digging out)
Several senior Israeli officers provided TIME with a detailed account of the military campaign. "There was never a single incident in which a unit of Hamas confronted our soldiers," one Israel Defense Forces official says. "And we kept waiting for them to use sophisticated anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles against us, but they never did." Israeli military reported only four attempts by suicide bombers instead of the dozens they had feared from Hamas' special kamikaze unit.
So what happened to Hamas? Israeli military officials offer a triumphalist explanation in which the Islamist militants simply wilted in the face of Israel's overwhelming firepower. By this reasoning, Israel had over-inflated the Hamas threat. The militants are able to lob dozens of crude, badly aimed rockets into southern Israel, but that may be the limit of their abilities. And Israeli officials are congratulating themselves for their tactics. "Hamas and [Lebanon's] Hizballah are worried that Israel has broken the DNA code of urban fighting," says reserve Brig. Gen. Shalom Harari, while cautioning that Hamas' military planners are probably already at work planning ways to block the military's next assault if fighting breaks out again in Gaza, as it undoubtedly will.
Not surprisingly, Hamas disputes the Israeli account. One Gaza commander in Hamas' fighting force, the Izzedin al-Qassam brigades, said the Islamists' plan had been to draw Israeli troops into the crowded urban neighborhoods of Gaza City, where the Israelis would lose the protection of helicopter gunships circling overhead. "We were fighting a modern 21st century army, and we're just a guerrilla resistance movement," he notes. "What did you expect — for us to stand in a field and wait for the Israelis to mow us down?" Indeed, in the classic guerrilla playbook, the insurgent army avoids going toe-to-toe with a conventional force armed with vastly superior weapons, armor and air support. If he has a choice, the guerrilla seeks to survive to fight another day, and allows his adversary's momentum to work against him in terms of the war's political impact.
Israel halted its advance on the edges of Gaza City, calling a ceasefire on Jan. 18, and Hamas' guerrillas — if indeed they were waiting in ambush — went unchallenged. Still, Israeli war strategists are at a loss to explain why Hamas failed to use the anti-aircraft missiles that Israeli intelligence was sure that Iran had provided. "It's an enigma," one IDF officer says. "The air over Gaza was thick with drones, helicopters and F-16s, and Hamas didn't fire a single missile at them." Two possible explanations: either Israeli intelligence was wrong and Hamas simply didn't have the weapons, or the militants are saving them for the next round.
Israel may have confounded Hamas plans to defend Gaza by entering Gaza from three directions, avoiding the main roads which Hamas had mined and booby-trapped. Officers say that Hamas and other Gaza militant groups had prepared a defensive wall using "hundreds of explosives, mines and booby-traps." But for the most part, the Israeli forces were able to go around it, cutting straight to the coastal road and moving down toward Gaza City, and then methodically dismantling Hamas' defenses.
Once they had established positions inside Gaza during the first 48 hours of the ground assault, the Israelis then launched forays against targets but largely kept to the edges of crowded refugee camps and neighborhoods where Hamas might be lurking. Each battalion commander, using the vision provided by a pilotless drone overhead, advanced his men slowly, working out what one officer described as "micro-tactical solutions" as they moved along. In house-to-house searches, soldiers avoided entering through doorways, which might be booby-trapped. Some Israeli human rights organizations claim that soldiers used Palestinian detainees to clear houses. But usually, the soldiers crashed through walls. Troops were also ordered not to enter Hamas' tunnels; dogs and little robots were sent down instead. And, as one officer explains, "Everything suspicious was bombed." Civilians were urged beforehand to flee, but casualties swiftly mounted as the Israeli juggernaut rumbled through Gaza. Over 1,300 Palestinians were killed in the offensive, nearly half of them civilians.
By the end of the conflict, Hamas was still firing rockets, but far fewer. Its rocketeers made easy targets. Within less than a minute after Hamas fired a rocket, the Israelis were able pinpoint and destroy the launch site. As one senior Israeli officer says, "Everyone is digesting the lessons of the Gaza war — us and them." And neither side expects last month's showdown in Gaza to be the last.