Israel and Hamas Prepare for the Next Gaza War

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Mamud Hams / AFP / Getty

Palestinians inspect the rubble of houses destroyed in the Israeli air strike that killed senior Hamas leader Nizar Rayan in his Gaza home

As Israel prepared to launch its assault in Gaza in late December, it braced for substantial casualties among its troops. Commanders warned their men of Hamas' suicide commandos, missiles that could smash tanks and knock helicopters out of the sky, and long-range rockets that could reach deep into Israel. Yet when the dust had settled, the Islamist militants' primary military achievement was to maintain its rocket fire into Israel throughout the 22-day conflict. Of the 10 Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza, four were victims of friendly fire.

The militants continue to fire rockets. On Tuesday a medium-range Grad missile struck the Israeli port city of Ashkelon in what may be Hamas' closing shot before an Egyptian-brokered truce finally takes effect. Hamas and its supporters have claimed victory as a result of simply being able to survive the fierce Israeli onslaught. As a result, Hamas says, Israel lost the political battle — its pummeling of Gaza and the heavy Palestinian death toll has offended many former supporters, leaving Hamas' political position strengthened. But in battle, Israel clearly held the upper hand. During the conflict, very few of Hamas' 15,000 fighters appeared, and neither did its feared arsenal of Iranian-supplied weapons. (See pictures of Gaza digging out.)

Several senior Israeli officers provided TIME with a detailed account of the military campaign. "There was never a single incident in which a unit of Hamas confronted our soldiers," one Israel Defense Forces (IDF) official says. "We kept waiting for them to use sophisticated antitank and antiaircraft missiles against us, but they never did." The Israeli military reported only four attempts by suicide bombers instead of the dozens they had anticipated from Hamas' special kamikaze unit.

So what happened to Hamas? Israeli military officials offer a triumphalist explanation in which the Islamist militants simply wilted in the face of Israel's overwhelming firepower. By this reasoning, Israel had overinflated the Hamas threat. The militants are able to lob dozens of crude, badly aimed rockets into southern Israel, but that may be the limit of their abilities. And Israeli officials are congratulating themselves on their tactics. "Hamas and [Lebanon's] Hizballah are worried that Israel has broken the DNA code of urban fighting," says reserve Brigadier General Shalom Harari, while cautioning that Hamas' military leaders are probably already at work planning ways to block the Israeli military's next assault if fighting in Gaza breaks out again, as it undoubtedly will.

Not surprisingly, Hamas disputes the Israeli account. One Gaza commander in the Izzedin al-Qassam brigades, Hamas' fighting force, said the Islamists' plan had been to draw Israeli troops into the crowded urban neighborhoods of Gaza City, where the Israelis would lose the protection of helicopter gunships circling overhead. "We were fighting a modern 21st-century army, and we're just a guerrilla resistance movement," he says. "What did you expect — for us to stand in a field and wait for the Israelis to mow us down?" Indeed, in the classic guerrilla playbook, the insurgent army avoids going toe-to-toe with a conventional force armed with vastly superior weapons, armor and air support. If he has a choice, the guerrilla seeks to survive to fight another day and allow his adversary's momentum to work against him in terms of the war's political impact.

Israel halted its advance on the edges of Gaza City, calling a cease-fire on Jan. 18, and Hamas' guerrillas — if indeed they were waiting in ambush — went unchallenged. Still, Israeli war strategists are at a loss to explain why Hamas failed to use the antiaircraft missiles that Israeli intelligence was sure that Iran had provided. "It's an enigma," one IDF officer says. "The air over Gaza was thick with drones, helicopters and F-16s, and Hamas didn't fire a single missile at them." Two possible explanations: either Israeli intelligence was wrong and Hamas simply didn't have the weapons or the militants are saving them for the next round.

Israel may have confounded Hamas' plans to defend Gaza by entering the territory from three directions, avoiding the main roads which Hamas had mined and booby-trapped. Officers say Hamas and other Gaza militant groups had prepared a defensive wall using "hundreds of explosives, mines and booby traps." But for the most part, the Israeli forces were able to go around it, cutting straight to the coastal road and moving down toward Gaza City before methodically dismantling Hamas' defenses.

Once they had established positions inside Gaza during the first 48 hours of the ground assault, the Israelis launched forays against targets but largely kept to the edges of crowded refugee camps and neighborhoods where Hamas might be lurking. Each battalion commander, using a vision provided by a pilotless drone overhead, advanced his men slowly, working out what one officer described as "micro-tactical solutions" as they moved along. In house-to-house searches, soldiers avoided entering through doorways, which might have been booby-trapped. Some Israeli human rights organizations claim that soldiers used Palestinian detainees to clear houses. But typically the soldiers crashed through walls. Troops were ordered not to enter Hamas' tunnels; dogs and little robots were sent down instead. And, as one officer explains, "everything suspicious was bombed." Civilians were urged beforehand to flee, but casualties swiftly mounted as the Israeli juggernaut rumbled through Gaza. More than 1,300 Palestinians were killed in the offensive, nearly half of them civilians.

By the end of the conflict, Hamas was still firing rockets, but far fewer, and its rocketeers became easy targets. Less than a minute after Hamas fired a rocket, the Israelis were able pinpoint and destroy the launch site. As one senior Israeli officer says, "Everyone is digesting the lessons of the Gaza war — us and them." And neither side expects last month's showdown in Gaza to be the last.

See pictures of heartbreak in the Middle East.

See pictures of life under Hamas in Gaza.