Gaza conflict takes toll on Hamas rocket stocks and tunnels
IDF says it has destroyed 30%-40% of militant rockets and six tunnel shafts; Hamas has killed 29 soldiers and disrupted flights
After more than two weeks of intense fighting in Gaza, both Hamas andIsrael have racked up significant military achievements, albeit at the cost of hundreds of lives.
About 140 militants have been killed in Gaza over the past two weeks, amounting to around 20%-25% of the total Palestinian death toll, which is mostly civilian. The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) says it has destroyed 30%-40% of militant rocket stocks. Adding in the 2,100-plus rockets fired from Gaza since the start of the conflict, it says the overall rocket capability of Hamas and other groups has been halved.
It says there has been a 30% decline in rocket fire in recent days, although the Israeli military spokesman Peter Lerner said on Tuesday it was too early to say whether this was a significant trend.
Israeli troops on the ground have discovered at least 66 shafts leading to 23 tunnels – usually used for smuggling and storing goods and weapons – six of which have now been destroyed. Approximately half the tunnels lead under the border into Israel, says the IDF.
According to the military analyst Alex Fishman, about 3,000 tons of explosives have been dropped on Gaza in the first 15 days of the conflict – more than was deployed in the 22-day Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9.
On the other side, by Wednesday morning Hamas had killed 29 soldiers, a huge morale booster to its fighters and a grievous blow to Israel. It says it has also abducted a soldier, though it is thought more likely that it is holding a soldier’s body – still a significant bargaining chip.
Its rocket fire has caused fear and panic among Israelis in south and central Israel, with sirens sounding many times a day warning people to seek shelter. A big achievement from Hamas’s perspective has been thedisruption of flights to and from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport. Airlines from the US, Europe and elsewhere suspended flights, citing security concerns, after a rocket hit a house near the airport.
Hamas has rockets in its arsenal capable of reaching most cities and towns in Israel, apart from the far north and south – a big advance on previous conflicts. The Syrian-made M302 has a range of 160 miles, according to the IDF. However, Hamas’s missiles have so far failed to cause serious damage or casualties. Two Israeli civilians have been killed to date, and more than 420 rockets have been shot down by Israel’s vaunted missile defence system, Iron Dome.
The asymmetry between a well-resourced and equipped professional state army and paramilitary groups that have been operating under siege conditions for seven years or more is clear in this conflict. Even so, the IDF has encountered fiercer fighting than it expected on the ground.
“We have to admit we were facing good fighters, very well equipped with sophisticated weapons systems, accurate weapons, heavy weapons including mortars, booby traps,” a senior military source told the Guardian after the battle of Shujai’iya, Israel’s bloodiest assault in the two-week Gaza conflict. “It was very difficult fighting. It’s very difficult for us to surprise them. They were simply waiting for us.”
He said Hamas had the advantage of knowing when and where Israeli ground forces would strike following warnings given to civilians to evacuate specified areas by given deadlines. Hamas fighters hid in apartment buildings ready to ambush the IDF. They had also booby-trapped buildings and tunnels.
Israeli forces have discovered a much more extensive network of tunnels than expected. The labyrinth of interconnected passages, bunkers, command centres, weapons stores and underground rocket-launching sites, with multiple shafts, has been dubbed Lower Gaza by some. Hundreds of thousands of tons of concrete have been used for construction of tunnels, some of which are 30m below ground and run for several miles.
The tunnels have posed huge tactical challenges for the IDF. Large numbers of troops are needed to guard military engineers who are exposed to Hamas sniper fire, anti-tank missiles and rocket-propelled grenades while working on detonating tunnel shafts.
The IDF has tacitly admitted it may not find, let alone destroy, the entire network. “The end position of this mission needs to determine that these [tunnels] no longer lead to Israel,” Lerner said.
The senior military source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “Our goal now is to finish the job by destroying as many tunnels as we can, if not all of them. It’s very difficult for me to say all of them because there’s always a chance we don’t know [the location of] all the tunnels – and what you don’t know, you simply don’t know.”
Israel’s political and military leaders will have to weigh the danger of getting drawn deeper into ground fighting in urban areas, where Hamas has considerable tactical advantages and could inflict significant losses on troops.
Fishman said diplomatic efforts to broker a ceasefire were adding to the pressures on the IDF. “We are entering a race against time until some kind of ceasefire is decided. At that point, the political and military echelons will face a genuine dilemma: which infrastructure can [Israel] give up [on destroying] and which infrastructure must be destroyed? For this reason, the army is already focusing its efforts against the most vital infrastructure,” he wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s largest-circulation newspaper.