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Israel Anticipated a Stronger Hamas in Gaza War

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 4, 2009; Page A06

JERUSALEM -- The small house near Gaza City posed no immediate threat -- there was no sniper fire or evidence it was wired with explosives. But as the Israel Defense Forces approached with plans to position soldiers on either side, Maj. Gur Rosenblat said he still regarded the structure with suspicion, and called in a bulldozer to tear it down.

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There was nothing inside.

"A suspicious house between two platoons? I could not leave it," said Rosenblat, a commander in the Israeli reserve. "We took risks to avoid civilian damage, but we tried to make the risks as low as we could. I needed to complete my mission and bring my soldiers back to their families."

The three-week war in the Gaza Strip, launched in late December to undermine the ability of the Islamist Hamas movement and other armed groups to fire mortar shells and rockets into Israel, won broad support among the Israeli public.

But the government has since faced allegations from Israeli and international critics that its forces were too heavy-handed in their attempts to weed out Hamas fighters, weapons stores and other equipment from the densely populated territory of 1.5 million people. Nearly 1,400 Palestinians died in the fighting, Palestinian health officials said; the Israeli death toll was 13.

Interviews with Israeli officers and soldiers who took part in the assault, along with a review of IDF information released during the war, indicate that Hamas fighters did not significantly challenge the assault and that the gunmen who did used tactics and weapons that were largely ineffective. Israeli officials had feared Hamas would deploy Iranian-supplied antitank missiles, for example, but such weapons do not appear to have been used against Israeli forces.

At the same time, Israeli soldiers, determined to avoid the casualties Israel suffered during a 2006 war against the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, moved decisively and quickly against perceived threats, backed by about 2,800 airstrikes.

"During the second Lebanon war, we should apologize for why we lost so many tanks and choppers and soldiers, and now during the Gaza Strip war we should apologize for why we didn't," said an Israeli commander, whom the IDF made available for an interview on the condition that his name not be used. "When you go to fight with 10,000 soldiers and tanks inside a combat area with so much explosives and so many tunnels, you prepare yourself for any kind of surprises. According to this you don't take risks."

Ultimately, Hamas "was less professional than we expected it to be," the commander said, and was unable to cause significant Israeli losses. Israeli soldiers said they were on guard against an extensive list of possibilities, including the gunfire, mortars and suicide bombers that are Hamas's main tools as well as the types of antitank weapons that Hezbollah used with devastating effect in Lebanon.

IDF reports during the war indicate no tanks or armor were lost to Hamas fire during what the military called Operation Cast Lead.

The IDF said Hamas did make widespread use of booby traps and roadside bombs, and described homes with petroleum-soaked walls, mannequins dressed like fighters and rigged to explode, and situations in which Hamas gunfire and movement seemed designed to draw IDF forces down streets littered with explosive traps.

But such tactics largely failed. IDF releases at the time reported one instance of an Israeli soldier being harmed by a booby-trapped house, though an IDF spokesman said there were "a few very near misses."

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