TEL AVIV — On a high floor of the Israeli defense ministry, a top intelligence officer sat down with a small group of foreign journalists Wednesday night to run through his slide show on the 50-day Gaza war — what surprised the Israelis about their enemy Hamas and what did not.
With the condition of anonymity, the Israeli general discussed casualty figures, tunnel architecture and rocket deployment for Hamas and other belligerents.
He presented himself as a grandfatherly wonk, a numbers guy. He conceded that intelligence is not an exact science.
Here is what he said:
Those rarely seen Hamas rocket launchers? Turns out they were buried.
Journalists who covered the war in Gaza have been panned by Israel supporters, including former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, for their failure to document Hamas militants firing rockets from civilian areas.
Critics have suggested that the reporters were cowards, dupes or intimidated. Israel’s top military intelligence officer had another explanation: There was nothing to see.
“Most of the rocket launchers were underground,” he said.
Hamas cadres did not gather around a cannon and light a fuse. That was two wars ago. In the current conflict, they buried their launchers and fired by remote control from concealed locations, often hundreds of yards away.
The Israeli intelligence officer said, “It made it very hard to find and target.”
Harder still to get a photograph.
Did Israel kill a lot of civilians or a lot of combatants? (Or both?)
The Israelis say there were 2,127 casualties on the Palestinian side during the Gaza war — a total that is very close to the numbers provided by the United Nations.
To date, the Israeli military has determined with “100 percent certainty” that Israeli forces killed 616 combatants and “terrorist operatives.”
The intelligence officer said the Israeli tally includes 341 from Hamas, 182 from Islamic Jihad and 93 from smaller factions.
In a speech last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put the number at “approximately one thousand” dead terrorists, so the Israel Defense Forces number is still about 400 short.
The Israeli intelligence officer said the count continues, and that 805 remain “unknown.”
The general said Israeli forces have confirmed that they killed 706 civilians. This number likely includes many of the 253 women and 495 children in the U.N. tallies.
In the end, the general said the Israelis believe that 45 percent of the dead will be combatants or “terror operatives,” and 55 percent civilians.
“Or basically one to one,” he said, rounding up in Israel’s favor.
The United Nations says its preliminary studies suggest that civilian deaths approached 70 percent of the total.
Hamas was hit hard, but not that hard
If the percentages hold, the intel chief said, Israeli forces killed no more than 5 percent of the enemy — of an estimated total of 16,000 Hamas and 5,200 Islamic Jihad soldiers in the field, plus those from the smaller factions.
A handful of senior Hamas and Islamic Jihad commanders were killed. The general would not comment on whether the supreme commander of Hamas's military wing, Mohammed Deif, died in an Israeli airstrike or not.
Hamas wants a SEAL team
The general said that Israeli intelligence knew that Hamas was training amphibious assault teams.
“They weren’t navy commandos,” the intelligence officer said. “But they were in very, very good shape.” They received training outside Gaza; the general would not say where.
They managed to swim in scuba gear two or three kilometers underwater, transporting duffel bags with light arms and rocket-propelled grenades, before emerging on a beach near an Israeli military installation, he said.
Hamas now has its own 'birds'
The Gaza militants launched several drones into Israeli airspace. At least two were shot down; one appears to have returned to the Gaza Strip with aerial photographs.
“They were not Western-style UAVs,” the intelligence officer said. “It had an engine and it flew.”
There were miles and miles of tunnels
During the war, the nightmare of jihadists popping out of tunnels in the middle of a kibbutz drove Israeli public opinion that the war was necessary. There were 32 offensive tunnels dug with the intention of putting Hamas militants under the border fence. Fourteen of the tunnels reached the Israeli side.
In addition, there were “dozens and dozens of kilometers” of tunnels under the Gaza Strip, the general said.
“It allowed them to move, conceal, surprise and disappear,” he said. “It is low-tech but effective.”
Despite reports in the Israeli media of vast “underground cities” in Gaza, the intelligence officer described more limited accommodations. In a few, there were “small ditches” where a cadre of militants could survive in an underground cave, living off boxes of dates. One group was down there 10 days, he said.
The general said Israeli intelligence believes that there are also tunnels beneath the Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. He declined to say whether that is where top Hamas political and military leaders spent the war.
Syringes with tranquilizers and plastic handcuffs were found in two offensive tunnels and on the body of one suicide attacker. The intel chief suspected that the prize targets were Israeli soldiers, not civilians.
Hamas dropped rockets on its own people
The intelligence chief said Hamas and the other factions started the war with more than 10,000 rockets. He estimated that they have 2,500 or 3,000 rockets left, as well as “thousands and thousands” of mortars.
Most were assembled in Gaza.
The intelligence chief said it is not important how lethal the rockets were. He said the aim was to instill terror, to force a million Israelis to run into shelters.
So Hamas succeeded, in part.
Of the 4,500 rockets fired by Hamas and allies, 875 fell inside Gaza. Many were lobbed at Israeli soldiers during the ground offensive, but others were duds or misfires that landed short, meaning Hamas dropped explosives on its own people.
It is even possible, the intelligence chief said, that some of that fire was intentional.
What happens next?
The intelligence officer said it was clear — and he had the videotape from drones to prove it — that Hamas and the other factions fired their rockets from, and sometimes within, the courtyards of mosques, hospitals, cemeteries and schools.
According to the most recent polls, Hamas and its “military approach” are more popular than ever among Palestinians.
The intelligence chief said Hamas is pragmatic but will not relinquish power in the Gaza Strip. “I think they want to govern in Judea and Samaria,” he said, using the Hebrew terms for the West Bank.