Country Risk

Palestinian militants inflict substantial casualties on Israeli forces in Gaza

01 August 2014

Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers carry the coffin of an infantry officer killed during an engagement with Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip on 26 July 2014. Credit: PA

Palestinian militants have killed at least 53 Israeli soldiers since the launch of Israel's latest offensive targeting the Gaza Strip. Mohammed Najib reports from the West Bank on the tactical and operational advances made by militants that have led to this relatively substantial death toll.

A total of 10 Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers were killed in heavy fighting in and around the Gaza Strip on 28 July. Five soldiers were killed when unidentified Palestinian militants used a tunnel to infiltrate into Israel from Gaza and attacked the IDF unit near the Nahal Oz settlement in Israel's Southern district. Separately, four soldiers were killed when a mortar, launched from Gaza, landed in the Eshkolot area of Southern district, while another soldier was killed when his armoured bulldozer was struck by an anti-tank missile, fired by Palestinian militants, in the town of Khan Younis in southern Gaza.

The 10 fatalities on 28 July brought the total number of IDF fatalities to 53 following the launch of a ground incursion into the Gaza Strip on 17 July as part of Operation Protective Edge, which began with a concerted series of air, naval, and artillery strikes from 8 July onwards and has since killed more than 1,100 Palestinians. In clashes across Gaza since the launch of the ground offensive, Palestinian militants - and Hamas in particular - have utilised relatively sophisticated tactics and weaponry to embroil the IDF in heavy close-quarters fighting and have inflicted substantial casualties.

A key element of Hamas's performance in this regard appears to be its emulation of the tactics of Lebanese Islamist group Hizbullah. A senior official in Hamas's armed wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, speaking to IHS Jane's on condition of anonymity on 22 July, stated, "We have benefited from all the Iranian, Syrian, [and] Hizbullah tactical combat schools, and finally formulated [a] Qassam independent one that matches our situation and [leaves us] capable to respond to our enemy's challenge."

Indeed, the day before, on 21 July, Hizbullah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah telephoned the head of Hamas's Political Bureau, Khaled Mashal, and the leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, offering Hizbullah's support and expressing his admiration of the two groups' performance and tactics during the ongoing conflict.

Hamas's tactics and high morale have also attracted recognition from Fatah and Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) officials in Ramallah, in the West Bank, who fought the IDF in southern Lebanon in 1982. A major-general in the Palestinian Authority (PA) security apparatus told IHS Jane's on condition of anonymity on 21 July, "The casualties that the [Izz al-Din al-] Qassam fighters caused since the eruption of this operation… are more than what we caused in all [the] PLO wars in southern Lebanon."

Going underground

Hamas's continued launching of rockets into Israel during the initial air strike phase of Operation Protective Edge, in addition to infiltration attempts into Israel itself, seemed designed to try and provoke the IDF into a ground incursion, a situation the group had seemingly been preparing itself for. Reports in Israeli newspaper The Times of Israel on 25 July claimed that Hamas had invested "millions of dollars" in digging a significant network of large and wide tunnels beneath Gaza City - referred to as "Gaza Underground" - as well as inside Israeli territories around Gaza that have played a key role during the ongoing clashes.

Not only has the tunnel network provided refuge from Israeli air strikes, allowing Hamas's command and control network to remain intact and operational, but it also allows a certain freedom of movement for Hamas fighters. This enables them to infiltrate positions - in Gaza and on the border with Israel, as well as into Israeli territory itself - to launch surprise attacks targeting the IDF.

In so doing, Hamas appears to be attempting to create the spectre of a continual potential threat to IDF ground units in Gaza, thereby undermining IDF morale. Hamas is also keenly aware of the impact of inflicting casualties on the IDF - not just in the Palestinian Territories and Israel, but in the wider Middle East region - and so it and the PIJ are striving to combine tactics and their geographical knowledge and advantage to inflict maximum casualties on the IDF.

A highly notable and successful example of this occurred on 19 July, when Izz al-Din al-Qassam militants lured a force from the IDF's Golani Brigade into a minefield in the Shujaiya area of Gaza, before then attacking the unit's Merkava Mk 4 main battle tanks (MBTs) and M113 armoured personnel carriers (APCs) with anti-tank missiles. Six IDF soldiers were killed in the attack, while a seventh soldier - Sergeant Oron Shaul - went missing. While Hamas subsequently claimed that Shaul was alive and had been captured by its fighters, Israel stated that the soldier was likely to be dead. A further six Golani Brigade soldiers were killed in separate clashes in Shujaiya on the same day, and the unit's commander, Colonel Rasan Aliyan, was also wounded, underlining the intensity of the fighting.

The significance of the IDF death toll of 53 soldiers becomes greater when compared with the last major IDF air and ground offensive in Gaza - the three-week Operation Cast Lead from December 2008 to January 2009 - in which 10 IDF soldiers were killed, four of whom died in friendly fire incidents. Meanwhile, the IDF has claimed to have killed more than 200 Hamas and PIJ militants, although as expected, both groups have claimed to have suffered far fewer casualties.

Tactical emulation

The greater IDF death toll in Operation Protective Edge to date is in no small measure attributable to the refined tactics utilised by Hamas. Indeed, a senior IDF commander told IHS Jane's on 22 July, "The IDF has expected Hamas fighters' surprises, but they have succeeded in showing distinguished capabilities and fighting tactics."

Unsurprisingly, Hamas's military performance has led to comparisons with Hizbullah, and in particular the latter's tactics and operational methods during the 2006 war with Israel. A senior PA military officer, speaking to IHS Jane's on condition of anonymity on 24 July, stated, "It's very clear that Hamas has adopted Hizbullah fighting tactics in tunnels digging and fighting in urban areas."

Hamas has further replicated other aspects of Hizbullah's operational methods, such as the attempted use of naval commandos to infiltrate Israel by sea, the launching of two unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into Israel - which were shot down with Patriot missiles on 14 and 17 July - and the use of mobile or concealed rocket launch sites. Hamas has also shown that its rocket capabilities are approaching those of Hizbullah, with rockets reaching almost 120 kilometres from Gaza. Furthermore, the targeting of Tel Aviv airport with rockets - with a rocket landing one mile from the airport's runway on 22 July, leading the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to temporarily ban flights to Israel - underlines Hamas's ability to inflict economic damage on Israel.

Another tangential explanation for the high rate of IDF casualties during Operation Protective Edge is the fact that the armed wings of Hamas and the PIJ have co-operated and co-ordinated strongly, rather than competing, during the fighting on the ground, enhancing both groups' already substantial capabilities.


With a political resolution to the conflict seemingly distant as of 28 July, heavy fighting is highly likely to continue in the short term, especially as Hamas and Israel maintain diametrically opposing views on the basis of any ceasefire agreement. Hamas's objectives will be to inflict maximum damage and casualties on Israel - both against military forces operating inside Gaza and through rocket attacks on Israeli territory - to exact political concessions in return for any ceasefire agreement, and to maintain its offensive and operational capabilities.

The extent to which the group will be successful in this regard remains to be seen, but the course of the fighting to date has seemingly done much to raise the group's morale and prestige - both domestically and regionally - at a time when it was suffering as a consequence of the election of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt and his government's subsequent isolation of Gaza.

The impact the IDF offensive in Gaza has on Palestinians in the West Bank will also be significant. Hamas is likely to be attempting to use the clashes to inspire and catalyse a third intifada (uprising) in the West Bank in order to stretch the IDF and occupy its forces across two fronts. The IDF has moved its key operational elite brigades, such as the Golani Brigade, into Gaza as part of Operation Protective Edge, with reservists deployed to the West Bank. A significant upsurge in violent protests, even if it does not develop into an intifada, would create a substantial security issue for the Israeli government and could lead to violent unrest among the Palestinian population in Israel itself.

A senior PA intelligence officer in Ramallah, speaking to IHS Jane's on 27 July on condition of anonymity, claimed that it is only a matter of time before there is an upsurge in violent activity in the West Bank. The officer stated that as the conflict in Gaza continues, and Palestinians in the West Bank become cognisant of the scale and severity of casualties and damage caused by the IDF offensive, there will be no credible choice but the eruption of violent unrest against IDF targets in the West Bank.

Copyright © IHS Global Limited, 2014

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