Reserve-duty paratroopers who completed a month of duty in the Gaza Strip last week say that facing militant groups such as Hamas was like taking part in a "mini-war."
During the patrol company's operations deep in Palestinian territory, four Hamas militants and one Israel Defense Forces soldier, Sergeant-Major (Res.) Ehud Efrati, were killed. "The people we killed weren't terrorists, they were soldiers," an officer in the company told Haaretz.
"In a direct confrontation, the IDF has superiority over them, but in all parameters - training, equipment quality, operational discipline - we are facing an army, not gangs," he said.
"On the professional level, Hamas in the Gaza Strip is nothing like the terrorists we dealt with before. We saw the bodies of their men after the incidents. They had elastic bands on their pant legs. How many reservists do you know in the IDF who are that well kitted out, with elastics on their pants?"
In a move fairly rare for reservists, the paratroopers were part of the offensive operations in the Strip. For the past several months, the IDF has been carrying out raids a few kilometers into Gaza on a regular basis. Within the space of about two weeks, the company had three live-fire incidents with Hamas - a lot for a reserve force that ostensibly was called up for ongoing security operations.
Efrati joined the next operation, too. This time they encountered a Hamas cell on the edge of Absan, a village west of Khan Yunis. Two Hamas men died in the brief, close-range battle. The paratroopers were impressed by their adversaries' discipline and good equipment. "The fingerprints of Iran and Hezbollah are all over it," a veteran intelligence officer said. "The Palestinians never looked like this."
On the bodies of the Hamas fighters the reservists found, in addition to their weapons, night-vision equipment identical to the IDF's. And it was not from Israel. "It's available on the Internet, you can order it from eBay and have it sent to an Arab country and then smuggle it to Gaza," the intelligence officer said.
The Palestinian cell managed to get very close to the border fence, near Kerem Shalom, and plant a large explosive device which exploded without causing injuries. The reserve company's next operation, on October 29, was to hit the Hamas cells that were firing mortar shells regularly on Kibbutz Kerem Shalom.
Two and a half kilometers from the fence, into the strip, suspicious movement was detected. A secondary force readied a makeshift ambush. The two armed Palestinians apparently heard something. One let off a burst of gunfire from about 90 meters away, without aiming. One bullet hid a grenade on Efrati's vest. It exploded. He was killed instantly.
The reservists say, however, that the incident did not end in defeat. They recovered quickly, killing one of the gunmen and wounding the other, who fled toward Rafah. "When we returned to the fence we counted off. Forty-one men went out; 40 returned. I don't wish that feeling on any commander," an officer in the company said.
Fighting on the fence
The skirmishes between the IDF and Hamas in recent months are in a predefined theater, a situation that is expected to continue at least until the Annapolis summit due later this month.
The IDF operates within a band about three kilometers beyond the perimeter fence, reaching the outskirts of Gaza City, Khan Yunis and Rafah. The ground-force raids are aimed at hitting the units launching Qassams and mortar shells into Israel, keeping Hamas from establishing permanent positions near the border and gathering intelligence on the terror networks by making arrests in residential areas.
Hamas, which provides a support "umbrella" for the smaller organizations launching the rockets, dispatches cells to harass the IDF. It also deploys defensive forces at the entrances to settled areas based on its analysis of the IDF's routes.
The result, say the reservists, is that every penetration into the Gaa Strip of more than one kilometer faces coordinated resistance from Hamas. "Shooting, sharpshooters, mortar shells. Pass the one-kilometer mark, the war is on. They're not suckers," a company officer says.
In the absence of approval for a major operation in Gaza, the IDF has opted for an intensive series of small operations. The driving force behind them is the commander of the Gaza Division, Brigadier-General Moshe Tamir. Probably the leading IDF expert on these types of tactics, Tamir learned his craft a decade ago in Lebanon from then Northern Command head Amiram Levine. The weak spot of the method is the relatively high risk to soldiers' lives.
The reserve officers accept both the method and their role of being in the advance force. "If these missions were left to the regular soldiers, like before the withdrawal from Lebanon, no one on the home front would understand what's happening in Gaza. Every reserve soldier who returns home from a month in Gaza says exactly what's going on there to the civilians around him," the officer says.
They also know they'll be called back to Gaza within a few months for a major offensive assault. Their commanders are already readying them with cliches about "two trains heading full force at each other."
In contrast, perhaps, to what the public has heard, they don't blame anyone. They were equipped and trained properly and feel ready for their appointed missions. "We didn't come to whine. The state must see to two things: To compensate properly the few who bear the burden of reserve duty and to [budget] sufficient reserve days for training so the failure of the Second Lebanon War isn't repeated."
And it is very important to them to speak about Ehud Efrati, their friend for over 20 years. "At Ehud's funeral his father, Avishai, said the state must protect the people of Sderot," an officer in the company says.
"That was true nobility, and it is typical of his family. Ehud was a hero, pure and simple. To go forward, at his age, with a wife and three children, one just a few months old - that is true heroism. Ehud knew he was doing something important. His children, when they grow up, need to know that."
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