As the IDF digs in, where have Hamas fighters gone?

Terrorists have barely emerged from their tunnels in the last few days, according to a colonel in Gaza

November 16, 2023 12:38

Most of the Israelis soldiers currently on the ground inside the Gaza Strip were not even born the last time the IDF operated in the parts of Gaza City they are now in.

Thousands of them are now patrolling places like Jabalia and Al-Shati, massive neighbourhoods that still cling on to the name “refugee camps”.

The last time Israeli troops patrolled there was before the Oslo Accords were implemented and the Palestinian Authority took over in 1993.

In the previous Israeli ground offensives in 2009 and 2014, the government, under international pressure, decided to pull back on the outskirts. Now almost no place is out of bounds.

“We spent years practising on simulators a battle in Gaza City, in these places,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Oshik of the Nachal Brigade, in a convoy going into Al-Shati on Tuesday evening. “Every officer from company commander upwards had to know the streets we would be operating in, but none of this ever believed it would happen.”

Now Nachal have been in Al-Shati for a week, the third week of the ground offensive, and as the soldiers of its 931 battalion gathered around the convoy in the dark, they were mainly excited at the prospect of a warm dinner finally arriving from the field kitchen the battalion had set up in a forest outside Gaza, instead of yet another evening eating tuna from combat rations.

“You get used to everything,” says one of the soldiers. “Sleeping a few hours while there are explosions all around you and not being able to ever take your helmet or flak jacket off.”
Some of the units have even started holding their regular ceremonies inside Gaza.

Behind the battalion’s command post, the commander of the IDF’s canine unit had just arrived to promote one of his officers and senior dog-handlers.

The Paratrooper Brigade earlier that day had handed out the coveted red berets to their youngest intake of fighters, by now combat veterans, in a short parade overlooking the Mediterranean.

Some officers warn of troops getting too used to being in Gaza and starting to make operational mistakes. “We need Hamas to keep us on our toes,” said one colonel. “But they’ve barely emerged from their tunnels in the last few days.”

One of the biggest questions the IDF’s intelligence officers have been asking in recent days is: where have the Hamasniks gone?

Standing orders are very clear — no one is allowed to go into a tunnel and while there are dogs with cameras and various robotics that can go inside, there’s a limit to how deep they can penetrate.

“We will know in a few days whether they are there and still alive. They will have to come up at some point when the air and water start to run out. Or perhaps the bombing from the air was so powerful, many of them are dead.”

There’s another possibility that the IDF prefer not to talk about: that there are tunnels running deep under the Wadi Gaza dry riverbed and large numbers of Hamas terrorists have made it to the southern sector of the Gaza Strip, where more than two million Palestinians, over half of them uprooted from the north, are now concentrated.

The tunnel networks there, under Rafah and Khan Younis, may not be as extensive as under Gaza City, but they are complex enough. And it’s unlikely Israel will be able to into there with anything near the firepower they’ve used on the largely destroyed city to the north.

Meanwhile, tunnel shafts are constantly being discovered, often inadvertently when a heavy IDF vehicle finds itself stuck in one that has opened up in a street churned up beneath the tank tracks.

The lead armoured truck in the convoy had to be winched out of one that nearly swallowed its cab, on the way out of Al-Shati around midnight.

“This was easy,” said one of the combat mechanics. “We had an armoured bulldozer sinking almost entirely into a shaft yesterday. But if something like this had happened in the past, we would have immediately been targeted by missile ambushes and just brought out the driver and left the vehicle in the hole.

“Now we’ve got so many drones and thermal cameras giving us eyes on everything moving on the surface, we can take the time and save the bulldozer.”

“I’ve began to worry more about an accident harming my soldiers, with all the tanks and trucks manoeuvring, than rocket attacks,” says a company commander. “And now that the rains have started, and everything gets stuck in the mud, it’s more dangerous.”

Back in Jerusalem this week, there was no mud yet, but things were stuck. This was supposed to be a stormy winter session in which the Knesset continued to tear itself up over the Netanyahu government’s judicial overhaul.

Instead, there’s a war and a new emergency coalition (the same old coalition with Benny Gantz’s party temporarily joining them) and an agreement not to pass any controversial legislation not connected to the war effort.

That doesn’t mean the “legal reform” has gone away. Last week Justice Minister Yariv Levin tried to cut a deal with members of the Judicial Appointments Committee, proposing to finally convene the committee to select new Supreme Court justices.

He offered a compromise: to appoint Yitzhak Amit, a veteran judge, by the “seniority” system which Levin has tried to replace; and in return, he would get to select two new judges, ultra-conservatives to his liking.

It was a non-starter. Gantz, along with the opposition, has refused to make any deals while the war is still raging, but it was a short episode that reminded everyone that politics are still happening.

The Knesset is only half-full. Most of the ministers prefer to pretend they have war-related things to do elsewhere (though only the five members of the war cabinet are actually involved in directing the war), leaving mainly opposition and strictly-Orthodox MKs in the building. That doesn’t mean there’s any lack of plotting.

The conversations in the corridors are on one topic: how and when will the government be removed once there’s a ceasefire.

Until a few days ago, the preferred option was a “constructive no-confidence vote”, which would have installed a new prime minister. Now that seems to be off the table.

“An alternative prime minister would have to come from Likud, so that the Likud rebels voting to remove Netanyahu would at least be able to say they weren’t handing power to another party,” explains one MK who is deeply involved in the plotting.

“But now that Gantz has spent a month far outstripping both Netanyahu and Lapid in the polls, he doesn’t want to give Likud a chance to rebuild their party before another election when he’s so far ahead.”

So now the option most discussed is somehow dissolving the Knesset once there’s a ceasefire and heading for another election, but then it won’t be Likud MKs rebelling, as they know most of them will be losing their job if an election is held in the not too distant future.

The man most being mentioned as “the one who will betray Bibi” is now Shas leader Arye Deri who has been quietly building his alliance with Gantz — and by helping him dissolve the Knesset, can also ensure Shas will be in the next government.

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November 16, 2023 12:38

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