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Why Hamas is a more formidable foe in Gaza this time

Christa Case Bryant, Kristen ChickThe Christian Science Monitor

Israel is facing a far more formidable Hamas than in its last face-to-face battle, thanks to the group's extensive tunnel networks, ambush tactics, anti-tank missiles, and stepped-up production of rockets.

Veteran soldiers say this is not the Hamas of 2009, but a far more organized force that has adopted many of the same tactics and weapons seen in the fierce 2006 urban warfare in Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah.

To be sure, that has not put Hamas anywhere close to on par with the Israeli military. But it does present Israel with several strategic challenges.

The first and most immediate is on the battlefield, where it’s already lost more than three times as many soldiers than in 2009.

The second is how to prevent a much savvier Hamas from rebuilding in Gaza or creating a similar threat in the West Bank, whose dusty hills overlook Israel’s main airport and largest cities.  

The third, and perhaps most important, is Israel’s ability to discourage Hezbollah from using similar tactics in a future war if Israel were to invade Lebanon again.

“It’s widely assumed in Israel that Hezbollah is carefully watching what’s going on in the Gaza Strip…. The more effective Israel can be against Hamas, the more Hezbollah will be deterred” from repeating such tactics, says Daniel Nisman, president of the Levantine Group, a geopolitical risk and research consultancy in Tel Aviv. 

Several 'firsts' for Al-Qassam Brigades

Gaza analyst Adnan Abu Amr says there are several firsts for Hamas’s armed wing, the Al-Qassam Brigades, in this conflict: attacking Israel by sea, sending a drone into Israel, and engaging in such heavy face-to-face fighting with the Israeli military.

Such measures have been honed both through physical training and careful study. Mr. Abu Amr says that at a training camp earlier this year, he saw fighters eagerly fine-tuning their battle skills but also studying the tactics of Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, and other militant groups – even the Haganah, the pre-state Jewish paramilitary organization from which the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) was formed.

In Shejaiya, there was "zero" distance between Israeli and Hamas fighters, he says, adding that Qassam inflicted so many casualties because it surprised Israel with its extensive tunnel network and anti-tank weapons.

Such weapons, now being used systematically for the first time in Gaza, are similar to those responsible for 50 of 52 Israeli tanks destroyed in the 2006 Lebanon war. Among them are the Russian-made Kornet and Concourse models, which likely came via Syria to Hezbollah and then to Hamas.

Hamas official Musheer al-Masri boasted to the Monitor about Al Qassam’s Kornet rockets, saying that they had hit IDF vehicles and vowing, “Gaza will be a big grave for the Israeli soldiers.”

One of the worst attacks occurred on Sunday, when Hamas launched an anti-tank missile at an APC in Shejaiya, killing at least six soldiers. A seventh is missing but presumed dead. Altogether, 28 soldiers were killed in the first four days of the ground invasion, compared with a total of 10 in the last such incursion, which lasted two weeks. Four more have since been killed.

“I've been to Shejaiya before, but I've never seen it – or Hamas – like this before. Their equipment and tactics are just like Hezbollah,” one Israeli officer told Haaretz, referring to the neighborhood that’s seen some of the heaviest fighting. “Missile traps and IEDs everywhere – and they stay and fight instead of melting away like in the past.”

Investing in training

Acquiring such fatal weapons is only part of the equation, however; both Hezbollah and Hamas have invested heavily in training.

An Israeli soldier who fought in the 2006 Lebanon war says while IDF anti-tank units typically enter battle with very few live firings of an anti-tank missile under their belts, Hezbollah fighters have as many as 20 such opportunities to refine their skills. 

“I personally saw a Kornet fired at a bulldozer cockpit from 4 kilometers (2.4 miles) away. That’s expert marksmanship – you can only do that with lots of training,” he says, referring to the 2006 Lebanon war. “[Hamas is] showing the same marksmanship with anti-tank missiles.” 

A senior Israeli military intelligence source says Hamas has also been using RPG-29s as well as IEDs, and booby-trapping the entrance to tunnels and homes – both Hezbollah trademarks.

IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner says the Israeli forces have seen more organized squads and “extensive” use of anti-tank missiles by Hamas, compared with 2009, when it was “a bunch of people with guns.”

But the improved leadership is not translating into real success, he says. “When we are meeting them in the battlefield, they take a few shots but then retreat back into a tunnel and try to escape.”

While the IDF has downplayed the challenge posed by Hamas’s tunnel network, many credit it as providing Hamas its biggest leg up in this fight. Hamas learned from Hezbollah, which had an estimated 1,000 facilities by the time of the 2006 war. But given the relative ease of digging in Gaza’s sands as opposed to Lebanon’s rocky hills, the Gaza tunnel network is vaster, says Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror (res.), head of Israel’s National Security Council from 2011-13.

“This is a very good example of something we met in 2006 but was adopted and became much more sophisticated and enhanced by Hamas,” he says.

How Hamas acquired know-how

If Israel was surprised by the extent of Hamas’s capabilities, it was not surprised by its intent. Hamas has steadily been acquiring know-how from Hezbollah and Iran, its longtime sponsor.

“This type of technological innovation, this type of learning between Hamas and Hezbollah goes far back,” says Matthew Levitt, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute who has written books about both organizations.

In 1992, for example, more than 400 Hamas operatives deported by Israel to southern Lebanon learned key militant tactics from Hezbollah before returning. During the 1990s and the second intifada, which broke out in 2000, Hamas launched many of the suicide bombings that killed hundreds of Israelis.

After Hamas won 2006 Palestinian elections, it declared openly that its fighters had gone to Lebanon to train and brought back funding from Hezbollah. Later that year, the deputy head of Israel’s internal security agency, the Shin Bet, said that experts were making trips to Gaza to introduce Hezbollah’s fighting strategies as a model for Hamas.

The following year, in 2007, Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin said in a rare on-the-record briefing that Hamas’s dispatching of dozens of operatives to Iran was “a strategic danger, more than any weapons smuggled into Gaza.”

Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon went so far as to claim in 2011 that Hezbollah has a special unit, called 1800, to train Palestinian militants and would even send agents to the Gaza Strip to do so.

Hamas denied the claims, and Hezbollah is extremely secretive about such activities, making it hard even for insiders to know the extent of such training.

Randa Slim, an adjunct research fellow at the New America Foundation who is working on a book about Hezbollah, says that Hezbollah plays a key role in helping Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC). 

"Hezbollah is the trainer par excellence for the IRGC for Arab resistance groups, as well as for Arab Iranian proxies," including Alawite militias, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, she says.

To be sure, Hamas had a significant falling out with Iran and Hezbollah in early 2012, when it publicly opposed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s oppression of the Syrian uprising. But there have been increasing signs of rapprochement in the past few months, including a series of meetings between Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

"There was a dent but not a deadly blow,” says Dr. Slim. “At least there is a grander narrative or mission of fighting against Israel that still provides enough glue and enables the relationship to be healed over time."