Up until last weekend, Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” in the Gaza strip seemed to be just another hard round of fire between the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Gaza’s ruling party, Hamas — the latest in a cyclical pattern of violence that repeats itself every two or three years.
Then Israel sent in the troops.
Although Israeli soldiers also entered Gaza on foot during the high-casualty Operation Cast Lead in 2009, this new war in Gaza — a joint air, sea and land offensive — is, by all accounts, the largest yet in scale and intensity.
As of press time, 611 Palestinians had been reported killed by Israeli weapons since the operation began on July 8 — more than 70 percent of them civilians, according to the United Nations. On the Israeli side, two civilians have died from Palestinian rocket and mortar fire, and 27 soldiers have fallen in battle— the biggest loss the IDF has suffered since the Second Lebanon War, eight summers ago.
“Why are they killing the people? It’s murder!” Yousef Al Sweity, a doctor at the Al Awad Hospital in Gaza’s northern Jabalia refugee camp, now at fully capacity, asked in an interview with the Journal.
In a word: tunnels. What began as a routine yet brutal attempt to knock out some of Hamas’ rocket-launching infrastructure with F-16 missiles took an unexpected turn on July 17. As world politicians pushed for a ceasefire and Israeli troops rested on the border, ready for a possible ground invasion, 13 terrorists popped out of a tunnel leading from Gaza to the outskirts of Israel’s Kibbutz Sufa.
By that night, Israeli troops were on the ground in Gaza.
“We will be striking the infrastructure," IDF spokesman Peter Lerner said when the ground op was announced. "We will be striking the operatives in order to safeguard the civilians of the state of Israel — especially issues to do with tunneling, that was exemplified earlier today.”
An Israeli truck is seen near a tunnel, which was used by Hamas militants in an attack on July 21, near Kibbutz Nir Am on July 22. Photo by Baz Ratner/Reuters
Soon after, a second pack of militants from Gaza tried to infiltrate Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha, another of Israel’s southern border villages. They wore IDF uniforms as disguise and carried guns and anti-tank missiles.
They exited “just two kilometers from here,” 83-year-old kibbutz resident and co-founder Yehuda Kadem told the Journal, pointing to the east.
When IDF soldiers patrolling the area in an army jeep confronted the invaders, two Israelis were killed, including 20-year-old Adar Barsano.
“He decided to take on nine terrorists,” said Barsano’s cousin Maor, speaking over the phone from his home in Encino, California. He choked back tears, fighting to get the words out. “A 20-year-old kid from Nahariya took on nine people who wish nothing but death to every Israeli in the world. But he had the heart of a lion, and I’m sure he had no hesitation. He gave his life defending innocent civilians and essentially saving their lives.”
Later that day, a third group of Hamas militants — this time carrying handcuffs and tranquilizers — were caught sneaking out of another tunnel in the area.
“What’s more dangerous is that they’re not coming to kill us, but to capture us,” Kadem said. (A move that would give Hamas a major bargaining chip in negotiations with Israel.) “Can you imagine?”
Daniel Nisman, a former IDF combat soldier and current security analyst and president of the Levantine Group, explained: “When they had that first tunnel incursion, that was a red light — an alert for the cabinet. They understood they had to be preemptive.”
However, he said, Israeli leaders perhaps “didn’t understand how extensive” the operation would become.
An Israeli soldier sits atop a mobile artillery unit in a staging area outside the Gaza Strip on July 22. Photo by Amir Cohen/Reuters
The ground invasion began as the opening sequence to every Israeli and Palestinian mother’s worst nightmare. As the sun set on July 17, shining red through a thick layer of gunsmoke over Gaza — a horrifying, apocalyptic Mars-scape — the young Israeli soldiers stepped into enemy territory.
For the first two nights, IDF soldiers searched for tunnels in mostly open areas of northeast Gaza and pushed through one small Bedouin village, reportedly clearing their way with artillery, flares and smoke bombs.
The third night was catastrophic by comparison. On live-streamed video from cameras pointed toward the low-income and densely packed neighborhood of Shujaya, in east Gaza City, incessant rounds of artillery fire could be heard blasting through residential streets all night long.
Many Palestinians stuck in Shujaya sent out Tweets and texts of distress, but medical personnel said they couldn’t reach the neighborhood due to the unrelenting artillery fire.
Meanwhile, young Israeli soldiers found themselves face-to-face with Hamas. “Antitank weapons, explosive devices, booby-trapped buildings — all the weapon systems Hamas has specialized in are now being used against IDF soldiers,” wrote Israeli political correspondent Nahum Barnea for the news site Ynet.
During a short humanitarian ceasefire the next morning, thousands of Shujaya survivors fled however they could — by foot, bare and bloodied, squeezed onto small carts or, as one photo showed, into the scooped mouth of a bulldozer.
Gaza residents now refer to the first night of fighting in Shujaya as a “massacre.”
“During the horror night of the Shujaya massacre, we received more than 400 patients,” said Mads Gilbert, a Norwegian doctor who has volunteered in Gaza during all three wars with Israel, in a TV interview. He described some of their injuries: “We see amputations, we see shrapnel wounds to the body, we see burns. We see all the consequences of an army using the most sophisticated, modern, dreadful weapons against a large, civilian, totally unprotected population.”
In its defense, the IDF said in a statement: “We have been warning civilians they should evacuate for days. Hamas ordered them to stay, it's Hamas that has put them in the line of fire." (Human-rights organizations operating inside the strip, however, said many of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who had been ordered to evacuate had no place to go.)
“Of all places in the Gaza Strip, Shujaya is like the nerve center,” said Israeli security analyst Nisman of the IDF mission. “First of all, the tunnel network comes together there. [Hamas] makes weapons there, has bunkers there… and a lot of rockets are physically being launched from there.”
Nisman, whose younger brother is currently fighting in Gaza, said tanks likely shelled the streets of Shujaya to clear a path for soldiers on foot — striking everything and everyone in their way.
“It’s pitch black,” he said. “When you're an 18-year-old kid from Nahariya, and you know there are snipers and things like that, when someone runs out into street, you get very nervous and you might shoot. … I literally can’t imagine a more difficult fighting area than Gaza on the planet.”
A Palestinian woman walks past the rubble of a residential building in Gaza City that was destroyed in an Israeli air strike on July 22. Photo by Mohammed Salem/Reuters
In some cases, a constant battering of artillery shells weakened family homes and caused them to collapse on residents inside.
Al Sweity, the doctor at Al Awad Hospital in northern Gaza, said the influx of patients had skyrocketed from the combination of air and land warfare. “The injuries now are mostly people who were crushed — either hit directly by missiles, or their houses dropped on their heads,” he said. “Rarely you find one still alive under the house.”
The doctor’s voice was full of pain and panic as he described the hundreds of pregnant Palestinian women who had been delivering premature or aborted babies at Al Awad Hospital as a result of their injuries.
“The situation is not equal,” he said. “We are poor people living in a big jail seized for seven years. We can’t defend ourselves against these modern weapons and great technology.”
Since that first night in Shujaya, life and death on the ground in Gaza has only become more horrific. On July 21, Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Kouddous visited the former site of the Abu Jamaa family home, where he said it took relatives 12 hours to dig 24 bodies out of the rubble — including the gray corpse of an infant in diapers. “One member of Abu Jamaa family was cut in half,” Kouddous tweeted. “Father had to visit 2 hospitals to collect body. Half went to one hospital & half to another.”
Despite these hellish war scenes, Hamas has refused any cease fire that does not significantly ease Israel’s siege on the Gaza strip. And within Israel, even with the Israeli death toll rising, the resounding cry is to finish the job.
In a poll conducted among Jewish Israelis by right-wing newspaper Israel Hayom on July 20, 80 percent responded that they supported the ground incursion — and 71 percent said they would even like to see it expanded.
This same fervor was on display at a peace rally on July 19 in central Tel Aviv, where a right-wing crowd showed up to out-shout peaceniks, fly Israeli flags and sing national songs.
Right-wing activists showed up to protest a peace rally in Tel Aviv on July 12. Photo by Simone Wilson
A 27-year-old student at the counter-protest named Lidor told the Journal: “I myself am much more emotional because we are on the ground now. But it’s the only solution. You won’t be able to stop Hamas unless you’re on the ground.” (He and others at the rally did not wish to give their full names, due to wartime tensions.)
“The end result on a strategic level,” Lidor said, “has to be the disarmament and the fall of the reign of terror of Hamas.”
Amnon Ilan, a lifelong Tel Aviv resident in his early 80s who has served in every Israeli war since the War of Independence, carried a sign directed at Israel’s leading left-wing party. “People of Meretz, your kibbutzim are also under fire,” he had written. “Don’t give backwind to our enemies.”
These kibbutzim — the sleepy green farming communities that line Israel’s border with Gaza — are nobody’s idea of a warzone. But these days in Israel, their skies are loud with drones, and gunpowder sours the garden air.
Israeli soldiers sleep beneath a tree in the farm community of Kibbutz Nir Am on July 21. Photo by Baz Ratner/Reuters
“I heard them shooting at us this morning,” said Dorit, a 50-year-old woman sitting on her neighbors’ porch in Kibbutz Nir Am on July 21. She was referring to group of Hamas militants who had, hours earlier, crawled through one of their tunnels and approached the outskirts of the kibbutz — before being shot down by the IDF.
Although Dorit said she’s been living under rocket fire for 14 years, this was the first time she had experienced an on-foot attack by Hamas.
“That’s the confusing thing about this place — it’s pastoral, with very nice sunsets and simple people,” Dorit said. “But we’re all soldiers here.” As she spoke, Israel’s Iron Dome defense system blasted a rocket directly overhead — creating a poof and a bang like an exploding firework — and Earth-shaking booms arrived every few seconds from Gaza on the horizon.
“I think about the people there,” Dorit said. “There’s no one to take care of them, like we have here.”
As Hamas makes use of its millions of dollars in tunnel infrastructure before its handiwork is destroyed by the Israeli army, nearly every kibbutz in southern Israel has had an infiltration scare over the past week. Even just driving between kibbutzim on July 21, this reporter was halted in traffic for half an hour while IDF snipers surrounded the area.
“There is a terrorist running around here,” said a plainclothes, off-duty soldier who had rushed to the scene with his gun.
Argentina-born Kadem said he and his wife helped found Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha in 1953, when the area “was just a desert — open, empty, yellow, with a single tree.” Speaking on his front patio with war planes roaring overhead, he said the kibbutz was visited in the early days by some petty criminals from Gaza — but also by many day laborers with whom he was very friendly.
But little by little, he said, he watched both sides adopt a more extreme ideology. “Every time a bomb exploded in a bus, a movie, a cafe, Israel moved more to the right,” he said.
An Israeli fire fighter hoses down a fire that broke out after a rocket landed in Kibbutz Nir Am on July 9. Photo by Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
Terrorists shooting and sending rockets over the fence have since become a significant threat to Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha. But until October 2013, when Israel discovered an elaborate underground pathway nearby, “We had no idea there were tunnels they could take to this kibbutz,” Kadem said.
The extent of Hamas’ tunnel network has baffled even the intelligence-heavy IDF: Far out-performing previous estimates, 66 access shafts to 23 tunnels have been discovered during the current ground invasion.
However, analysts are unsure where Israeli leaders will take this war once the tunnels run out. Barnea, writing for Ynet, wrote on July 21 that destroying tunnels to Israel’s kibbutzim “is highly important and life-saving. But within two or three days, the number of uncovered tunnels will drop and the forces will be stuck in one place.”
He wrote that “the cabinet will face a cruel dilemma: Should the forces move forward, deep into Gaza, and risk losing many soldiers and a mass killing of Palestinian civilians, or pull out while being fired on and give Hamas the victory?”
And another wild card — the missing body of IDF soldier Oron Shaul, which Hamas claims to have captured — could keep them there even longer.
The Israeli public appears ready to stick it out. Said 27-year-old Tel Aviv resident Lidor of his brother, a soldier on the ground in Gaza: “I don’t believe something would happen. I don’t want to picture it. But if it did, it would be kiddush hashem [in God’s name]. It would mean he’s like a martyr. He’s not going over there to kill civilians — he’s going to protect me.”
For the latest from Israel follow @simone_electra.