Palestinian terror group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, is reportedly on the hunt for suspects it believes may have aided the Israeli special forces in a raid nearly two weeks ago, and is specifically looking for a small van spotted in surveillance footage, according to a Saturday report in the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar.
The van is alleged to have been used by the Israeli forces or those who are suspected of helping them, dubbed “collaborators,” according to the report.
On November 11, a group of Israeli soldiers was discovered deep in southern Gaza during an operation that went awry, resulting in a deadly clash that left one senior IDF officer and seven Palestinian fighters dead. The incident touched off a day of fierce rocket fire from the Strip and retaliatory Israeli airstrikes.
A Hamas official said earlier this week that the forces appeared to have been attempting to install equipment that would make it easier for Israel to eavesdrop on Palestinians in the coastal enclave.
“The Zionist enemy tried to achieve a major security breakthrough. It apparently tried to install equipment and build something that would make it easy for it to kill, hack and abduct,” deputy Hamas chief in Gaza Khalil al-Hayya told the Hamas-affiliated Al-Aqsa TV last week.
The Saturday al-Akhbar report cited a Hamas official saying the group seized some parts of the Israeli spying equipment the forces had been trying to install, which he said was similar to equipment previously seized from a “spying cell” in May.
Hamas was particularly proud of having published photographs on Thursday of what it claimed were Israeli special forces personnel who were involved in last week’s raid, according to the Lebanese report, which called it a “blow” to the Israeli military censor.
The photographs were distributed on social media along with the email address and two phone numbers of the Gaza-ruling terror group’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, in order to allow people to provide information about the operation. Pictures of the two cars allegedly used by the Israeli special forces during the raid were also published.
Though freely available on the internet, the photographs could not be published by Israeli media by order of the military censor. The censor approved the publication of the pixelated photograph used in this article.
According to a Hadashot TV report Friday, Hamas forces have been carrying out random searches and setting up roadblocks in recent days as they try to find more details of what Israel has been up to in the Strip,
The Palestinian group fears that elite Israeli troops have been operating for an unknown length of time under their noses in the Strip, including running a base, according to the report.
According to the Hadashot news report, which it said was broadcast under the careful scrutiny of the Israeli military censor, Hamas is struggling to figure out exactly what the IDF team was doing in Gaza.
Hamas believes the Israeli troops in the incident crossed into Gaza at an official crossing point, where they would have shown identity papers of some kind, the TV report said. It indicated that Hamas believes Israeli special forces maintained a military base in a house in Gaza operating under the guise of a charity, Hadashot news reported.
Hamas is asking how long had the Israeli base been operating in Gaza, and are there others, the Israeli TV report said. Apparently, the Israeli forces had cars at their disposal — including a Mercedes and a Volkswagen — and weaponry, it added.
In a highly irregular public statement, the censor Thursday called on Israelis not to share any information they have about the raid, even if they think it benign.
“Hamas is working now to interpret and understand the event that occurred within Gaza on November 11, and every piece of information, even if it is considered by the publisher as harmless, is liable to endanger human lives and damage the security of the state,” the censor said.
Hamas on Thursday further claimed that the IDF forces were from the Sayeret Matkal elite reconnaissance unit, and that they crossed into Gaza via an official border crossing. The Israeli military censor permitted publication of these claims, which were not confirmed.
The raid, in which an Israeli lieutenant colonel — who can only be identified by the first Hebrew letter of his name, “Mem” — was killed and another officer wounded, degenerated into a gunfight in the street and a frenetic car chase.
The Israeli special forces unit was forced to hastily retreat, calling in airstrikes for cover and the elite search-and-rescue Unit 669 to evacuate them by helicopter.
Recordings of the radio chatter by Hamas fighters were obtained by Hadashot television news earlier this week, which gave no indication as to their origin and declined to broadcast the audio recording itself, “in order not to expose a source,” the news network said.
The authenticity of the recordings has not been confirmed by Israeli authorities, which have remained almost entirely silent on the nature and outcome of the raid.
According to the Hadashot broadcast, the Israeli special forces team was first identified as suspicious by Hamas security officials, possibly police officers, who saw the car passing by them on the outskirts of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip.
“To all forces and positions, a blue Volkswagen is driving suspiciously and very fast near the Islamic University,” one official says on the radio, according to the transcript.
“There are suspicious people in the vehicle. They’re dangerous. Approach with caution,” he adds.
It is clear from later chatter that, at this stage, the Hamas forces still believe they are dealing with either a criminal gang or, possibly, a militia group not under their control.
According to an account of the events provided by Hadashot, Hamas forces then begin trailing the car and are soon engaged in a chase through the streets of Khan Younis. As one Hamas vehicle chases the IDF unit from the west, other Hamas units set up a roadblock to the east.
At some point, someone opens fire. It is not clear from the Hadashot report who it was, but earlier reports from Gaza said Hamas believes the IDF force opened fire first.
The Hamas radio traffic then resumes, according to the transcript. “The car ran through our checkpoint and fired at us from the vehicle. All forces, converge on this location. Everyone must converge on the area to deal with this situation.”
It is only then, with the IDF force believing it is exposed and an IDF rescue operation underway, that Hamas officials reportedly realized they were dealing with Israelis.
“Fighter jets are suddenly above us. Everyone be careful,” a voice says over the radio. And shortly after: “Listen carefully to our instructions. They’re Jews.”
It is roughly at this point that the IDF commander in the field, Lt. Col. Mem, is hit by Hamas gunfire, and mortally wounded.
The Israeli forces stop fleeing, step out of their car and face the pursuing Hamas force. The IDF soldiers charge, apparently killing the entire Hamas team. An Israeli helicopter then fires a missile that destroys the Hamas force’s vehicle, the report said.
An IDF officer who went back to the Israelis’ car to pull Mem’s body free was wounded in the crossfire.
Under the watchful eye of the hovering IDF chopper, the Israeli force then flees on foot toward the rescue helicopter’s landing site.
That account, drawn from the Hamas radio traffic, suggests the operation was exposed by little more than an alert Hamas patrol. Once exposed, the Israeli response, which was already praised over the past week by Israeli leaders as “heroic,” appears to have included preventing the capture of IDF soldiers, successfully retrieving both the fallen member of the force and the wounded officer.
Hamas officials are said to view the gun battle as a failure, because their primary goal — according to the Hadashot report — was to capture the IDF soldiers who had placed themselves so nearly in Hamas’s grasp.
The raid sparked a massive retaliation by Hamas in the form of some 500 rockets and mortar shells fired at Israeli towns and villages on November 12 and 13, before Israel and Hamas acquiesced to an Egyptian-proposed ceasefire.
The ceasefire, in turn, led to the resignation of then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman, in protest, and a week of political chaos, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to hold his razor-thin majority coalition together and avoid early elections, a task in which he was ultimately successful.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.