JERUSALEM (AP) — Before Israel invaded the Gaza Strip, Hamas vowed to turn the territory into a “graveyard” for Israeli soldiers, and the military braced for dozens of fatalities. The results were markedly different.
The Islamic militant group’s fighters put up little resistance to Israel’s crushing offensive, and the army — still smarting from its stalemate with Hezbollah guerrillas in their 2006 conflict in southern Lebanon — emerged relatively unscathed and more confident.
Israel wrapped up its three-week offensive over the weekend, leaving behind widespread devastation and a death toll of more than 1,250 Palestinians, according to Gaza medical officials. In contrast, Israel suffered just nine combat deaths, four of them from “friendly fire.”
To be sure, Hamas’ battlefield losses could be offset by other gains, depending on how postwar politics play out. By standing up to Israel and firing hundreds of rockets into the Jewish state throughout the fighting, it appears to have boosted its standing, especially in the Arab world.
Yet soldiers returning from the battlefield said they were surprised by the lack of resistance from Hamas, a group that receives backing from Iran and had vowed to inflict heavy losses on Israeli troops.
In an interview, an infantry reservist who fought in Gaza said he and his comrades experienced only light combat during over a week inside. They took no casualties, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because army regulations prohibit troops from giving interviews.
“There was some sniper fire and a few mortar shells, but face-to-face — nothing like that,” he told The Associated Press, crediting the army’s use of overwhelming firepower. The infantry were backed by tanks, artillery and airstrikes as they made their way into Gaza.
Another soldier offered a similar assessment.
“We set a date with Hamas, and they didn’t come. They were afraid to come and face us, and they ran away,” the unidentified soldier told Army Radio on Monday from an encampment just outside Gaza.
Israel opened the offensive with a weeklong aerial barrage. The surprise bombardment on the first day, Dec. 27, might have crippled Hamas, erasing many of its bases and driving its leaders into hiding. With an eye toward maintaining control in Gaza after the fighting, Hamas also might have decided not to risk its militiamen in battle.
Whatever the reason, Hamas fighters — using booby traps, missiles, mortar shells and light weapons — inflicted little damage on Israeli forces. For a guerrilla group operating on its urban home turf, it wasn’t much of a fight.
One senior military officer said Israel partly owed its light casualties to luck. He mentioned a company of infantrymen from the Givati Brigade who spent a night in a commandeered school.
In the morning, a soldier discovered the wire of a bomb that was supposed to blow the building up. The militants who were supposed to press the detonator apparently fled before the soldiers arrived, the officer said.
The army expected much fiercer fighting and dozens of Israeli fatalities, defense officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the information was classified.
Despite its losses, Hamas remains firmly in control of Gaza, and the fact that it took on Israel is likely to boost its image. Throughout the fighting, the group managed to keep firing rockets and hit deeper than ever inside Israel — perhaps its main military achievement.
“There was a world war against Gaza. We, at least, were happy that somebody was able to retaliate,” said Hatem Wahdan, a 49-year-old from the northern town of Jebaliya who spent much of the fighting sheltering in a U.N. school.
Hamas claims its fighting strength is intact.
Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister of Gaza, declared a “heavenly victory” Sunday in an address televised from his hideout.
Abu Obeida, a spokesman for Hamas’ military wing, claimed at a news conference Monday that Hamas fighters had killed 80 Israeli soldiers and shot down four helicopters. “We did not kneel down, we did not surrender, we did not raise the white flag,” he said.
The Israeli army called his account “completely wrong.”
Despite the initial praise for Hamas, the events of the past weeks could eventually hurt the group’s standing among Palestinians and abroad, said Jamil Rabbah, director of Near East Consulting, a Palestinian polling institute based in the West Bank.
“What I’ve been seeing in many Internet chat rooms over the past two or three days is: `Where is Hamas? … What happened?’,” he said.
Hamas’ results were far short of Hezbollah’s performance in its 2006 war with Israel.
The Lebanese guerrilla group killed 120 Israeli soldiers during a month of hit-and-run fighting in southern Lebanon and an additional 40 Israeli civilians with rocket attacks, drawing adulation in the Arab world.
Hezbollah has far more freedom of movement than Hamas and better equipment. But with both backed by Iran and motivated by radical Islamic theology, the two groups had become conflated in the minds of Israelis.
That view was fueled by military intelligence reports that Hamas had turned itself from a ragtag militia into a Hezbollah-style force of many thousands that prepared fortifications and booby-traps to greet invading Israeli troops.
During the fighting, Hamas sent out text messages to reporters claiming its fighters destroyed tanks and armored personnel carriers, blew up a house full of Israeli troops, and captured two soldiers. All of those things were accomplished by Hezbollah in 2006. None was true this time.
Both sides have an interest in inflating the results of the Gaza fighting: Hamas wants to avoid the humiliation of appearing weak, while Israel wants to give the impression that it crushed a formidable foe.
“Whoever reads the Israeli media would think the military fought the most glorious war in its history, but that isn’t accurate,” said Israeli military analyst Reuven Pedatzur. “There wasn’t even one battle.”