Skip to main content

Israel finds Hamas are no longer amateur fighters

By Ben Wedeman, CNN
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
  • CNN's Ben Wedeman says Hamas is a stronger force this time
  • It has adopted commando-like tactics, he says
  • There was cheering at reports of an Israeli solider captured
  • U.S. has little to show for a year of trying to forge peace, he says

Gaza City (CNN) -- Israel's ground incursion into Gaza, which it says is intended to destroy Palestinian militants' tunnels and stop rocket fire into Gaza, has entered its fifth day with the death toll mounting on both sides and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arriving in Egypt. CNN's Ben Wedeman, a veteran Middle East correspondent, puts the incursion into perspective.

How does this incursion compare to previous ones by Israel into Gaza, in terms of military force?

Unlike 2008/09, this incursion seems to be focused on areas with high concentrations of people, initially focusing on the Gaza City neighborhood of Shaja'ia. In '08/09 the focus was on areas where rockets were being fired, which were typically away from highly populated communities.

Deaths mount in Gaza and Israel

And of course at this stage, it's unclear how many Palestinian casualties there have been in these locations. The people have been warned by the Israelis to leave these areas with phone messages, but while many have left, a significant proportion has stayed behind.

My impression is that Israel has mobilized a much larger military force than in 2008/09 and in 2012. This is part of the picture of the Israelis going into heavily populated areas -- which is a much more dangerous operation, as can be seen by the deaths of at least 13 Israeli soldiers on Sunday.

Is Israel likely to achieve its objective of destroying the tunnels, and stopping the rocket strikes?

Palestinians in Gaza celebrate a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas on Tuesday, August 26. After more than seven weeks of heavy fighting, Israel and Hamas agreed to an open-ended ceasefire that puts off dealing with core long-term issues. Palestinians in Gaza celebrate a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas on Tuesday, August 26. After more than seven weeks of heavy fighting, Israel and Hamas agreed to an open-ended ceasefire that puts off dealing with core long-term issues.
Israel-Gaza crisis
Photos: Israel-Gaza crisis Photos: Israel-Gaza crisis
Tunnels cause trouble for Israeli forces
Why Americans are fighting for IDF

So far, Israel hasn't been wildly successful in its stated mission. Since this started, Hamas has been using tunnels in an attempt to ambush and capture soldiers and continues to fire rockets at Israel, although the number fired has gone down. What we see is that as Israel's capabilities have changed, so have Hamas'. Whenever Israel comes up with new tactics, Hamas and other factions seem to find new ways to counter them, such as by using longer-range rockets to fire at Israel, for example.

What is significant now is that Hamas fighters appear to be better trained, with a new set of skills that I don't think Israel anticipated. One Israeli soldier who came out of Shaja'ia was quoted in an Israeli publication that Hamas is fighting like Hezbollah, which waged a successful guerrilla war against Israel's occupation in the 1980s and 1990s, and inflicted high casualties on Israeli forces during the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel in Lebanon.

The last serious street fighting I saw in Gaza was in early 2008, and it was almost like it was "amateur hour," with fighters in Gaza parading around with their weapons but not really able to stop the Israeli forces. Now it appears they've learned they must keep a much lower profile. They've developed what could be called commando tactics, and are taking full advantage of their knowledge of their turf.

How long do you believe this incursion will last? How soon before it realistically is better described as a war?

This is now a war, in my modest opinion -- it's gone beyond a mere incursion. Hamas shows no sign of backing down, and didn't jump at Egypt's cease-fire proposal. They want to show that they're a military force to be reckoned with, and are in it for the long run.

Israel's defense minister said it would take two or three days to destroy the tunnels. If this crisis is to end soon, Israel will have to pull back and Hamas needs to stop firing rockets. In Hamas' opinion, they have achieved one of their objectives, which is to give Israel a bloody nose.

They claim to have captured an Israeli soldier -- as yet this is unconfirmed -- but if true, it would be a huge feather in their cap, in their own terms. When Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured by Hamas in a June 2006 raid near the Israel-Gaza border, it took five years before he was freed, in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners -- so, if true, this will be a huge bargaining chip for Hamas.

Will the death toll already suffered by Israel have a serious impact on public opinion in Israel?

Israelis are used to this sort of death toll from Hezbollah, but not from Hamas. I was on the streets of Gaza on Sunday night, when Palestinians celebrated the claims that an Israeli soldier had been captured.

Shortly afterwards, the guns on Israeli navy boats opened up. The immediate conclusion of everyone in the street was that this was Israel's response to the capture of one of its soldiers.

How much effect will the pressure/condemnation from the United Nations (and in the off-mic remarks from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry) have?

I believe the U.N. remarks will have no effect in Gaza. There is a perception there that the U.N. "talks but doesn't walk" -- it's toothless in other words. Hamas realizes it has few friends in the outside world.

The remarks of the White House last week though will not go down well in Israel, I believe. And the comments of John Kerry on Sunday -- which left some wondering whether he was criticizing Israeli assurances that its ground offensive in Gaza would be limited -- indicate American patience may be wearing thin. After one of his deputies mentioned the latest number of Palestinian casualties, Kerry was heard to say, "It's a hell of a pinpoint operation."

It is estimated that 70% of the more than 500 Palestinians killed in Israel's assault have been civilians. Washington has tied itself to Israel, and that country's right to self-defense, therefore the U.S. is going to feel some responsibility. Americans support Israel rhetorically, but this high Palestinian death toll is very problematic for the U.S. This is why Kerry may be feeling uncomfortable -- he spent almost a year trying to forge a Mideast peace deal, and what's he got to show for it now?

Kerry seeks Gaza cease-fire amid rising casualties

Peter Wilkinson in London contributed to this report.

Part of complete coverage on
Tensions in the Middle East
Here's a look at some of the most serious conflicts involving Israel and its neighbors -- conflicts that have spanned more than six decades.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1517 GMT (2317 HKT)
A video released by ISIS shows the beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley and threatens the life of another American if President Obama doesn't end military operations in Iraq.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 0904 GMT (1704 HKT)
19-year-old Udi Segal explains why he won't join his country's military.
August 23, 2014 -- Updated 0028 GMT (0828 HKT)
The sights at the Gaza zoo couldn't be sadder, after it was nearly destroyed during recent Israel-Hamas conflict.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Both Hamas and Israel have chosen conflict over real peace negotiations again and again in the past, writes Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Mohammed Najib says Hamas' objectives also include ending its political isolation.
August 8, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
With so many conflicts, on so many fronts, here's a quick look at what's happening.
July 5, 2014 -- Updated 1429 GMT (2229 HKT)
Alan Elsner: How Israel reacts will be decisive turning point for both Israelis and Palestinians.
August 8, 2014 -- Updated 2059 GMT (0459 HKT)
The Israel-Gaza conflict impacts families on both sides. Karl Penhaul speaks to the family of a militant killed in Gaza.
August 7, 2014 -- Updated 0141 GMT (0941 HKT)
A sense of Egypt's historic role and the traditional animosity of their military toward Islamist radicalism have propelled Egypt to take a central role in the on-off cease-fire talks.
August 6, 2014 -- Updated 2150 GMT (0550 HKT)
If the Gaza truce holds and Israel's Operation Protective Edge comes to its conclusion, some things are certain.
August 6, 2014 -- Updated 1626 GMT (0026 HKT)
CNN's Tim Lister says, to secure peace, Israel needs to offer Gazans a better future.
August 5, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Tensions between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been strained for years.
August 6, 2014 -- Updated 1316 GMT (2116 HKT)
Images from the conflict between Israel and Hamas depict apparent civilians, caught in the middle.
August 5, 2014 -- Updated 1306 GMT (2106 HKT)
Hamas must be tamed through politics, not the failed strategy of war, argues Ed Husain.
August 4, 2014 -- Updated 1355 GMT (2155 HKT)
It may have started as a TV debate about the Israel-Hamas conflict, but it's now turned into an online war of words.
August 4, 2014 -- Updated 1820 GMT (0220 HKT)
Hamas' political leader, who lives in Qatar, sits down with CNN for an exclusive interview.
August 4, 2014 -- Updated 1043 GMT (1843 HKT)
Nafoz Mohammed is living in a cramped two-room apartment with 16 other people, hours holed up in fear.
August 3, 2014 -- Updated 0454 GMT (1254 HKT)
Karl Penhaul visits a destroyed section of Gaza and learns how the bombing has affected one student's aspirations.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 0615 GMT (1415 HKT)
The birth of a child is normally a joyous occasion, but it is tinged by sadness and anxiety in Gaza. Ian Lee reports.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Amid the Gaza conflict, experts try to figure out who's in charge of "the resistance."
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1010 GMT (1810 HKT)
The opening was so small that CNN's Wolf Blitzer -- no physical giant -- had to bend down to climb inside.
Follow CNNArabic for the latest news and analysis from the Middle East and rest of the world.