ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 143

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IDF 646th Brigade commander Col. Elad Shushan speaks to The Times of Israel in the central Gaza Strip, January 14, 2024 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
IDF 646th Brigade commander Col. Elad Shushan speaks to The Times of Israel in the central Gaza Strip, January 14, 2024 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
Reporter's notebook'It won't end soon. We're going to be here another year'

In central Gaza, where gunmen lurk underground, a commander sees a long slog ahead

Col. Elad Shushan, head of the 646th Brigade, takes The Times of Israel into the heart of the battlefield, to a Hamas tunnel about to be destroyed by the IDF

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

IDF 646th Brigade commander Col. Elad Shushan speaks to The Times of Israel in the central Gaza Strip, January 14, 2024 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

ON THE GAZA BORDER — Sudden and unpredictable blasts of outgoing mortar fire punctured the air in the otherwise peaceful forest west of Kibbutz Be’eri.

Though it was the site of an unimaginably cruel massacre 100 days before, the kibbutz had managed to reclaim some of its pastoral charm, at least in the woodland outside the devastated border community.

The fields ringing the kibbutz, covered with verdant winter grass, rose in gentle swells. Peacocks bobbed and chattered as they went about their business in a lot next to the yellow kibbutz gate, the very same site that had been packed with IDF troops, ZAKA body retrieval teams, and stacks of terrorist remains in the days after October 7.

On Sunday, the lot was mostly empty, with the exception of a few cars parked in the mud and a convoy of Hummers belonging to the Archimedes unit, a phalanx of soldiers tasked with serving as a mobile command center for Col. Elad Shushan, commander of the 646th Reserve Paratroopers Brigade.

The veteran reservists had temporarily left the battlefield to escort The Times of Israel into the heart of the Gaza Strip, where Shushan was inspecting a major Hamas tunnel exposed the previous night and slated to be destroyed within hours.

It was my first time back in Gaza since I was released from reserve duty weeks earlier, after months serving as an officer in the 98th Division about 15 kilometers to the south near Khan Younis.

Though the soldiers in the Hummers weren’t the same ones I served with, their easygoing humor and the eclectic mix of military-issue and self-purchased gear was immediately familiar.

IDF reservists of the 646th Brigade in the central Gaza Strip, January 14, 2024 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

We were about to drive in open, unprotected jeeps into one of the most active war zones in the world, but the mood was decidedly relaxed among the soldiers, who had just come from there. As we waited to go in, they joked with other forces along the road, grabbed snacks from green military tents, and quickly turned on their phones, which would be banned once inside Gaza, to catch up with the world.

The road to the border took us alongside the edge of the Be’eri Badlands nature reserve and through the conifers of Be’eri forest. As we moved closer to the crossing, we passed logistical outposts for various units operating inside Gaza, small moorings to support troops whose fighting could be heard clearly.

We drove through an open, unmanned gate in the multi-billion dollar border fence, the same barrier that barely slowed terror squads in October. Holes in the fence punched by Hamas bulldozers had been fixed, but it wasn’t hard to discern which sections were newly patched up. The nearly 30 hostages seized from Be’eri almost certainly passed this way before being taken into tunnels and hideouts inside Gaza, where many of them remain.

Anemones grow around burned trees in the Be’eri Nature Reserve, February 4, 2019. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

After about 10 minutes of bouncing along muddy fields through Gaza’s agricultural border area, we pulled into the hastily built brigade bastion where the Archimedes soldiers and Shushan were based.

Broken buildings surrounded the dirt plot, and feral but friendly dogs moved between the parked APCs and Hummers. Soldiers had left graffiti on the walls of some of the buildings, expressing their longing for wives and girlfriends back home, as well as cartoons with no immediately obvious meaning.

“Play stupid games, win stupid prizes,” read one message.

We cleared mud from our boots as best we could on the rug in the entrance to Shushan’s command post, a Gazan home that had been commandeered, and walked up two flights of stairs past mattresses, military gear, and stacks of food.

The energetic brigade commander was sitting over a map, with troop movements and unit positions sketched in marker.

Shushan asked one of the soldiers in the room, an immigrant from Sydney, to bring coffee as we sat down. He hadn’t been home since his forces went into Gaza two months before, but the 42-year-old was at ease and eager to tell the story of his troops’ exploits.

This photograph taken from Rafah shows smoke billowing over Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip during Israeli strikes on January 16, 2024. (Photo by AFP)

His core message, one that he returned to several times, was that Israel’s war against Hamas was not close to being completed.

“It’s not going to end soon,” said Shushan. “We are going to be here another year.”

Two days before, troops under his command foiled a Hamas plan to fire dozens of rockets at Netivot. The attack had been slated for Sunday, when tens of thousands of people were gathered in the city to mark the anniversary of the death of the Baba Sali, a mystical Morocco-born rabbi with a large following.

Shushan told The Times of Israel that they exposed the plot and raided the olive orchard in which the launchers were hidden. The launchers were mostly buried in the ground, with rockets loaded inside.

“They’re running low on rockets,” Shushan explained, “so they’re concentrating their fire on holidays and events.”

Despite the apparent success, two days after we spoke, some 50 rockets were fired at Netivot and surrounding areas, in one of the largest barrages in weeks out of Gaza.

Even as the IDF draws down forces from other parts of the Strip, the 646th Brigade continues to expand its operations in central Gaza.

Last week, IDF Spokesman Daniel Hagari and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told foreign outlets that the IDF was shifting to a new stage of the fight that focused more on targeted operations.

Shushan said that talk about a shift to a new phase of the war, in which fighting is less intense, had left people with a mistaken impression regarding the battles that lay ahead.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant receives a situational assessment at the IDF’s Northern Command base on January 5, 2024. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

“The term ‘third stage’ is confusing the public,” he said.

“We haven’t stopped and moved to a new phase. There is only adjusting to the enemy, where he has been struck and where he hasn’t been struck. There will be more pinpoint strikes, which will over time be increasingly carried out by active units and not reserves.”

Counting bodies

Shushan, who grew up in Yated, an agricultural community near the Gaza border, was supposed to take command of the brigade on October 8. But hours after Hamas began its assault on October 7, Shushan understood that the IDF needed all the forces it could muster as quickly as possible and took the reins a day early.

One of his first acts was to activate the brigade’s reconnaissance battalion, showing up at Kibbutz Be’eri in the afternoon with 100 paratroopers.

His men searched for terrorists and helped families escape from their homes.

Screenshot from a video broadcast on the Israeli TV channel Kan 11 showing Hamas terrorists bursting into Kibbutz Be’eri on October 7 (YouTube)

While Shushan was fighting Hamas infiltrators and saving Israeli civilians, he also tried to calm his mother, hiding in her safe room in Yated.  He lost contact with her when her phone died, but she succeeded in fleeing safely to Eilat.

Shushan only understood the immense scale of the massacre the next day, as he cleared bodies along Route 232. The reservists piled dozens of bodies onto trailers as they searched bomb shelters and fields.

On October 9, the brigade helped clear Be’eri of slain Hamas terrorists. He counted 104 bodies.

Shushan’s soldiers didn’t join the initial ground operation into Gaza, instead serving as a reserve force for the northern theater. During this time, the brigade was sent to Jenin in the West Bank where it carried out a major raid on foot into the heart of the city’s refugee camp.

The brigade joined the 99th Division’s offensive into central Gaza in early December, and since then has battled to keep a corridor from the border toward the coast secure. Shushan’s forces have been slowly pushing northward against Hamas’s Zeitoun Battalion, and southward against the Nuseirat and El Bureij Battalions.

IDF reservist of the 646th Brigade in the central Gaza Strip, January 14, 2024 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

The Zeitoun and El Bureij battalions have disintegrated as fighting units, and the remaining fighters are reconstituting in smaller formations, Shushan said. Nuseirat, however, is still operating as a coherent unit, though he said the last week had seen that battalion also begin to fall apart.

Earlier this month, one of the 646’s battalions began going through central Gaza’s al-Azhar neighborhood, dubbed by Israeli officials the “Towers neighborhood” for the 31 apartment buildings allegedly populated by Hamas officials.

Damage at the Nuseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip on November 17, 2023, amid ongoing battles between Israel and Hamas. (Mahmud HAMS / AFP)

“We discovered that every house has a shaft, and a whole underground network connects them, including the school and the mosque,” said Shushan.

They’ve found hundreds of rocket launchers and dozens of rocket workshops.

The brigade has lost five soldiers in the effort to clear the area. In every episode, Hamas fighters used tunnels to attack IDF forces.

“The clearing phase takes a long time because there is a very significant underground network,” Shushan explained. “We are able to attack everything above ground quite easily, but know of a lot of terrorists are waiting for us underground. ”

A Hamas tunnel uncovered by reservists of the 646th Brigade in the central Gaza Strip, January 14, 2024 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Many of the decisions on where to attack come from the work of a major who serves as the brigade intelligence officer. Using a range of sources, the officer, a startup executive with a PhD, has created a map of the tunnel network in the sector, one that he is continuously updating as new intelligence comes in.

“We have started in a systematic fashion to go from tunnel to tunnel, to attack shafts based on intelligence, to get to the main routes and to destroy them,” said Shushan. “That determines the pace of the attack.”

Main street

Leaving the command post, Shushan took me to see a major Zeitoun Battalion tunnel that would be destroyed that evening.

We drove through small orchards and neighborhoods of single-family homes in a convoy of four Hummers, crossing Salah A-Din street, the main north-south artery in Gaza, in the process.

IDF 646th Brigade troops in the central Gaza Strip, January 14, 2024 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Pieces of cinderblock, shards of glass, and twisted pipes lined the sides of the roads, lying beneath the listing skeletons of the houses that were still standing.

Wild dogs and the occasional cat sniffed around the wreckage.

We stopped on a dirt road surrounded by tattered greenhouses. Soldiers were waiting for us, kneeling in the sand as they looked down into a pit where a concrete tunnel emerged from the ground.

Shushan’s reconnaissance battalion had located the tunnel while attacking northward in the direction of Gaza City.

“We’d found many of the shafts,” he explained. “But there is a street underground. They pop out of the shafts, not the street.”

IDF 646th Brigade commander Col. Elad Shushan (R) inspects a Hamas tunnel in the central Gaza Strip, January 14, 2024 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

The week before, Shushan’s deputy Yonti Bahat was seriously injured by gunmen who emerged from one of those shafts less than 100 meters away. His life was saved by his younger brother Nadav, who happened to lead the force that quickly evacuated him to a hospital.

Destroying only the shafts is Sisyphean, said Shushan. “Hamas knows how to make a new shaft within a couple of days,” he noted.

The brigade has to find and shut down the main underground avenues.

Finding a tunnel like the one beneath our feet is a major accomplishment, Shushan said: “We are talking tunnels that they worked on for a decade.”

This image from video shows a Hamas tunnel under an apartment near Gaza City believed to have been used as a hideout by Yahya Sinwar, in a video published by the IDF on December 29, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

“It pushes them back a couple hundred meters,” he continued. “Then we advance and find the next main avenue.”

The brigade has been focusing on locating the tunnels running north and south, which allow fighters to bypass Israeli attempts to isolate Gaza’s cities from each other.

This is the third such tunnel they’ve found.

“But the internal networks still exist,” he cautioned.

IDF reservists of the 646th Brigade treat a Gazan child in the central Gaza Strip, December 2023 (646th Brigade)

Standing in the pit in front of the open tunnel, Shushan said it was an important intersection in the tunnel network below the neighborhood.

The soldiers called the destruction of the tunnel a “closing of the circle” after it was used by the Hamas fighters who wounded Bahat.

It took two days to take the tunnel down, but on Tuesday evening, the 646th closed the circle.

A lost child

Before the war, the area where the 646th Brigade is operating was home to hundreds of thousands of people. Today, few remain, though troops did recently encounter dozens of civilians huddled in a school in the southern part of their sector.

Palestinians flee to the southern Gaza Strip on Salah al-Din Street in Bureij, Gaza Strip, Nov. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

The brigade suspected Hamas fighters were among the families and raided the school, separating the men from women and children, who were taken to a nearby home.

According to Shushan, troops found 10 suspected Hamas members, who they transferred to Israel for questioning. The other 30 men in the school were released to head south toward protected zones.

There is a not an UNRWA site, school, mosque, or kindergarten in which we didn’t find weapons. None.

The use of civilian infrastructure by Hamas is widespread, said Shushan. He claimed schools and mosques were more of a threat than regular homes.

“There is not a UNRWA site, school, mosque, or kindergarten in which we didn’t find weapons. None. One hundred percent,” he claimed.

“UNRWA interacts daily with Israeli Authorities including the Israeli security forces,” an UNRWA spokesperson told The Times of Israel.

“We would expect any such allegations to be brought to us in a formal manner with evidence so we can take appropriate action, rather than in public statements,” the spokesperson continued.

“In cases of breaches, we have procedures in place to address breaches, as the UN takes very seriously the sanctity of its premises both because we adhere to the humanitarian principles including neutrality and out of concern for the safety and security of our premises.”

IDF reservists of the 646th Brigade treat a Gazan child in the central Gaza Strip, December 2023 (646th Brigade)

In December, reservists from the 646th Brigade encountered a small figure moving toward them at 2 a.m. The rules of engagement instructed the soldiers to open fire on anything that emerges in front of their position at night, but the troops understood the figure was a child.

They found she was hungry and dehydrated, as well as barefoot. They fed her, let her rest, and treated her wounded feet before handing her over to the Palestinian Red Crescent.

“The treatment she got, I would want that for my own daughter,” said Shushan.

Maturity and judgment

Shushan is commanding reservists for the first time.

“They are people with maturity and judgment who understand the complexity of the mission,” he said.

“They understand that they are here to fight for the next generation… for the security of their own children.”

He has not been releasing any troops from reserve duty, and motivation remains high, said Shushan.

IDF vehicles in the central Gaza Strip, January 14, 2024 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

The day I visited was the hundredth day since October 7. In Israel, families of hostages and much of the rest of the country were marking the occasion with rallies, protests, strikes and other events meant to highlight the plight of the more than 130 hostages who had spent 100 days in Hamas captivity.

But in Gaza, among the troops of the 646th Brigade, none were even aware that it was the hundredth day of war.

They don’t follow the news closely, and did not seem stressed by the months away from school, jobs, and family.

More months of fighting lay ahead if Israel was to get rid of Hamas once and for all, said Shushan.

“If we don’t want to have to be [back] here in another month or two years, if we don’t want our kids to have to deal with Hamas, it will take another year.”

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