Hamas claims credit as head of elite IDF unit steps down after Gaza raid

Hamas claims credit as head of elite IDF unit steps down after Gaza raid

Terror group says Sayeret Matkal commander’s unexpected decision to leave his position is the ‘direct result’ of its derailing special forces operation in November

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot awards an official commendation to the Sayeret Matkal and Military Intelligence special missions units on March 27, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot awards an official commendation to the Sayeret Matkal and Military Intelligence special missions units on March 27, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group on Wednesday boasted that it had caused the commander of the Israeli military’s elite Sayeret Matkal reconnaissance unit to step down from his position, following a raid by special forces that went awry last year and resulted in the death of a senior officer.

On Tuesday, it was reported that the head of the elite unit — who can only be identified by his rank and first Hebrew letter of his name, Col. “Het” — was stepping down, making him the first Sayeret Matkal commander in 23 years to leave the military immediately after serving in the position. In general, the post is a steppingstone to more senior ranks in the Israel Defense Forces.

A spokesperson for Hamas’s military wing, Abu Obeida, said the group saw Het’s early retirement as a “direct result” of its foiling of an Israeli military operation last year — a counter-operation he called “Operation Spearhead.”

The terror group made a similar boast after then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman announced in November that he was stepping down in light of the government’s policies toward Hamas and the Strip, calling his resignation a “political victory for Gaza.”

Screen capture from a speech given by Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigade’s Spokesperson Abu Obeida on April 17, 2016. (via Facebook)

“The resistance and steadfastness of members of our nation have led to the overthrow of Liberman from his position as defense minister. Today, the commander of Sayeret Matkal is also retiring as a direct result of Operation ‘Spearhead,'” Abu Obeida said in a statement on Wednesday.

On the night of November 11, Israeli special forces soldiers were in the Gaza Strip on an intelligence-gathering raid, the details of which remain under a strict gag order by the military censor.

According to Hamas officials, the soldiers were from Sayeret Matkal and had been conducting a complex operation to bug the terror group’s communications equipment in Gaza. They were said to have been driving through Gaza in civilian vans, approximately three kilometers (two miles) from the border.

Israel has not confirmed any of these claims.

During the operation, their van was stopped at a Hamas checkpoint and a firefight broke out. An Israeli officer — a lieutenant colonel who can only be identified by the first Hebrew letter of his name, “Mem” — was killed in the clash and a second, who went back to recover Mem’s body, was wounded. According to the Israeli military, dozens of Hamas fighters were killed in the initial gun battle and the subsequent airstrikes that were carried out to assist the remaining special forces in making their escape from the Strip.

A helicopter carrying a wounded Israeli soldier who was injured during an operation in the Gaza Strip lands outside Beersheba’s Soroka Medical Center on November 11, 2018. (Twitter)

A day after the raid, Hamas, the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other terror groups in the Strip launched over 500 rockets and mortar shells at southern Israel, killing one person and injuring dozens more, some seriously. It was the largest ever number of projectiles fired from Gaza in a 24-hour period and the most significant battle in the Strip since the 2014 war.

In response, the Israel Defense Forces bombed over 160 sites connected to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, including four sites the army identified as “key strategic assets.”

The battle ended a day later with a ceasefire brokered largely by Egypt and United Nations Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov. While many of the specific details of the agreement remain secret, Israel agreed to a number of economic benefits for Gaza in exchange for relative calm along the border.

On November 14, Liberman announced he was stepping down as defense minister in light of the concessions made to Hamas, notably the decision to allow Qatar to provide tens of millions of dollars to the terror group, which were meant, in part, to pay the salaries of civil servants in the Strip.

The scene inside an Ashkelon apartment where a man was killed by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip which hit the building, November 13, 2018. (Times of Israel)

Terror groups in Gaza cheered his resignation, with Hamas saying it was “an acknowledgment of defeat, of [Israel’s] helplessness against the Palestinian resistance.”

The Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the second-largest terrorist organization in the Strip, similarly claimed the defense minister’s sudden departure as a victory.

“Behold the political slaughter dealt to leaders of the occupation who aren’t capable of dealing with Gaza,” the organization’s spokesperson said in a statement.

“The resistance succeeded not only in deterring the enemy militarily, but also sowed confusion in their political considerations,” the Iran-backed terror group added.

Inside Gaza, people handed out candy and other treats in celebration of Liberman’s stepping down.

In large part because of Liberman’s resignation, the government coalition dissolved in December and new elections were called for April.

The Israeli military launched two investigations into the Gaza raid that went awry in November.

Maj. Gen. Tamir Hyman, the head of the IDF’s Northern Corps, who was named as the army’s incoming Military Intelligence chief, in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

According to the army, one investigation was to be conducted within Military Intelligence, with the findings presented to the head of Military Intelligence Maj. Gen. Tamir Hyman and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot.

In addition, Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon — the former head of IDF Operations — was also charged with a wider investigation into how the army conducts such operations.

Alon was instructed to lead a team to “examine and study the challenges and [make] recommendations at the level of the General Staff, of multiple army branches and of the inter-organizational cooperation between different special forces,” the army said on November 27.

The Hamas terror group conducted its own investigations into the Israeli raid and has arrested of a number of people it suspects of having “collaborated” with the Jewish state.

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