JERUSALEM: The Israeli army’s death toll in Gaza is already almost twice as high as during a ground operation in 2014, a reflection of how far it has pushed into the enclave and of Hamas’ use of guerrilla tactics and an expanded arsenal.
Israeli military experts, an Israeli commander and a Hamas source described how the Palestinian group has used a big weapons stockpile, its knowledge of the terrain and a vast tunnel network to turn Gaza’s streets into a dangerous maze.
At their disposal, they have arms ranging from drones rigged with grenades to anti-tank guns with powerful twin charges.
Since Israel’s ground campaign began in late October, about 110 Israeli soldiers have been killed as tanks and infantry thrust into the cities and refugee camps, based on official Israeli numbers. About a quarter were tank drivers.
That compares with 66 in the 2014 war, when Israel launched a more limited three-week ground incursion, but the goal then was not to eliminate Hamas.
“There is no comparing the scope of this war to 2014, when our forces mostly operated no deeper than a kilometre inside Gaza,” said Yaacov Amidror, a retired Israeli major-general and former national security adviser who is now at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA).
He said the army “has yet to find a good solution for the tunnels”, a network hugely expanded in the past decade.
Israel’s offensive was started after the Oct 7 rampage by Hamas gunmen who Israel said killed 1,200 people and took more than 200 hostage – some of them now freed.
Since the war began, close to 19,000 people have been killed in Gaza, sparking international demands for a ceasefire and even calls from Israel’s staunch friend the United States for a shift in strategy and more precise strikes.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday Israel would fight war “until absolute victory”. Israeli officials have said it could take months before being complete.
“It has been a challenge from day one,” Ophir Falk, foreign policy adviser to Netanyahu, told Reuters, saying the attack had come with a “huge price” in Israeli soldiers.
“We know that we’re going to probably have to pay an additional price to complete the mission.”
Hamas has shared videos on its Telegram channel this month showing fighters with bodycams weaving through buildings to launch shoulder-held rockets at armoured vehicles. One of them, posted on Dec 7, was from Shejaiya, east of Gaza City, an area where both sides claimed heavy fighting.
In another post on Dec 5, a camera rises from a tunnel, like a periscope, to scan an Israeli camp where soldiers rested. The post said it was later hit by an underground blast.
Reuters could not verify the images.
A Hamas source, who spoke to Reuters from inside Gaza on condition of anonymity, said fighters moved as close as possible to start ambushes “taking advantage of the land we know like no others do”, often moving around or emerging from tunnels.
“There is a huge discrepancy between our power and their power, we don’t fool ourselves,” he said.
Hamas has not said how many of its soldiers have been killed. Israel’s military has said it has killed at least 7,000. The group has previously dismissed the Israeli number, saying it includes civilians.
Hamas spokespeople outside Gaza did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment on this story.
An Israeli commander, who fought in 2014, said the increased scope of this operation meant more troops were on the ground, giving Hamas the “defender’s advantages”, so higher troop losses were to be expected. He asked not to be named because he is an active volunteer in this war.
Israel’s military does not share numbers of troops involved or other operational details.
Israel’s Channel 12 television showed one army reservist unit, wary of booby-trapped doors, smashing through the wall of a building to enter a room to find a munitions cache.
Mirroring tactics used in 2014, Israel’s military has shared images on social media showing routes smashed through built-up areas by bulldozers so troops can avoid existing roads that might have landmines.
Even in some districts in north Gaza where many buildings have been pounded into rubble, bouts of fierce fighting have continued.
BUILDING UP FORCES
“Hamas made some huge steps to build up its force since 2014,” said Eyal Pinko, a former top official with Israel’s intelligence services who is now at Bar Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
He said some modern arms, such as Russian-designed Kornet anti-tank missiles, were smuggled in with the help of Hamas’ ally Iran. But he said Hamas had learned building other weapons in Gaza, such as RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenades, and the militants now had a bigger munitions reserve.