SHATI CAMP, Gaza Strip — Inside a bullet-ridden and blown-apart school on the outskirts of Gaza City’s Shati camp, troops of the Nahal Infantry Brigade’s 50th Battalion have set up a temporary encampment, as the Israel Defense Forces works to clear the area of Hamas operatives and infrastructure.
The classrooms, those that are still mostly safe to enter, have been converted into living quarters, a command center, sniper positions, storage for food and equipment, and a synagogue.
The school’s courtyard is now a parking lot for IDF tanks and armored personnel carriers.
Fighting between IDF troops and Hamas in the area has left its mark. The walls of the school are decorated with bullet holes, with other areas much more heavily damaged by airstrikes and tank shelling.
In one of the classrooms, the commander of the 50th Battalion, Lt. Col. Tomer (his last name was withheld by the IDF for security concerns) sat down with The Times of Israel and another reporter to discuss his unit’s operations in the Gaza Strip so far.
He said that even before entering Gaza, the 50th Battalion was hard at work. For the past two years, the battalion had been in the West Bank, amid a rise in terror attacks. On the morning of October 7, the battalion was called to southern Israel to fend off Hamas’s devastating onslaught. Four soldiers of the battalion were killed and another nine were wounded during the fighting in southern Israel.
From there, the battalion was taken on flights to northern Israel, where the soldiers were stationed on the Lebanon border for a week, amid a rise in attacks by the Iran-backed Hezbollah and allied Palestinian terror factions.
After a week on the northern border, the 50th Battalion was taken back down south to prepare for the ground offensive in the Gaza Strip, which formally began on October 28.
“We were the first infantry brigade to enter the territory of the Strip,” Tomer said, while noting the differences between the tasks of armored combat teams — which had entered Gaza before them — and the infantry teams.
“The armored combat teams’ task is to advance and push forward, while we reach all the other nearby areas and clear them,” he said.
“For example, we were the first brigade to enter Shati. The armored brigades didn’t enter [the camp], they just isolated the area,” he said, adding that it is next to impossible for tanks to maneuver in the narrow streets of the camp. “It’s hard to make effective use of tanks in a refugee camp, they don’t have space to move.”
“The [armored teams] moved on relatively large roads, but everything that was around the roads was not taken care of, and we had several battles along the way,” Tomer said.
“This was the method, and I can tell you it worked extremely well,” he said. “[Achieving] operational control, and later entering [on foot] to clear the area.”
Israel’s hold on northern Gaza appears to be more and more secure. Since The Times of Israel’s last entry to the Strip, Israeli flags have been planted on the side of the road leading to Shati, as well as on dozens of buildings in the area; trucks ferrying portable showers were being brought to frontline staging grounds; and soldiers in areas more distant from the fighting were being lenient with wearing protective gear.
Hamas fight ‘like mice’
Tomer described the battalion’s most major operations and battles against Hamas as they entered the Strip, starting with a Hamas position on northern Gaza frontlines, where the now-razed settlement of Nisanit once stood.
“There’s a relatively wide tunnel network up to that position. It’s a frontline position, and [Hamas] knows how to fall back. We raided it, captured it, cleared the area, blew up all the underground infrastructure and continued forward,” he said.
He said that troops didn’t see any Hamas operatives in that area. “It’s a position that was relatively comfortable for Hamas to lose. Pretty quickly, they fell back.”
In an area just north of Shati, the 50th Battalion spent a week clearing the ground of Hamas infrastructure, where troops encountered several Hamas operatives.
In one of the battles, Cpt. Beni Wais, 22, a company commander in the 460th Armored Brigade’s 195th Battalion, was killed by an RPG fired by Hamas at his tank.
The Nahal troops returned fire, killing four Hamas gunmen who had ambushed the forces, from a distance of about 30 meters. Two soldiers of the 50th Battalion were also wounded in the firefight, Tomer said.
“This was the first time as a battalion commander that I understood that clearing the area doesn’t mean just clearing the area. We understand we need to occupy every area, because the enemy at this stage was like mice,” he said.
“The enemy would disappear, reach anywhere they want to get to via the well-prepared tunnels. Come up, go down. If they don’t want to be somewhere — they go down. If they see tanks, they go down. If they see infantry forces, maybe they come up. They play where it is most comfortable for them,” Tomer said.
“It was then that we understood we needed to think a bit differently about our methods,” he said. “We decided we were going to force the mice out of the holes.”
Tomer said the forces carried out “a certain action” to bait Hamas into coming out of their tunnels, and then strike them with heavy firepower. The operation involved infantry forces, snipers, combat engineers, and air support from a combat helicopter and an armed drone. “Everything fired, everything killed,” he said.
“Between 11 and 20 terrorists were killed in that battle, which lasted five hours, and there were zero casualties to our forces,” Tomer added.
Moving forward in the area, he said troops found dozens of tunnels and an “astronomical” amount of weapons belonging to Hamas.
When asked whether Hamas’s level of resistance was more or less than he expected, Tomer said it was less.
“I thought very quickly, the enemy’s systems fell apart, and it turned into guerrilla warfare. There isn’t a defense system that I’m fighting against, there are cells that seek out opportunity,” Tomer said.
“I don’t feel like I’m dealing with a significant enemy system here, but it’s no less dangerous,” he added.
‘Nothing that can stop the IDF’
In the last week of fighting in Shati, the 50th Battalion has killed at least 13 Hamas operatives, but only a handful were in direct combat. The rest, according to Tomer, were in preemptive attacks.
“Close-quarters combat is great, we are serious fighters, but the significant advantage the IDF has is the technology to reveal the enemy,” he said.
Clearing Shati, now that it has been “isolated” by armored forces, has been slow, as the infantry troops work to avoid Hamas booby traps and potential ambushes.
Tomer said the troops are not entering alleyways or even through the main entrances to buildings in the camp. Instead, they are blowing holes through the walls, clearing the building, and moving to the next, without ever needing to be exposed in the streets. In many of the buildings, he said, troops found explosive devices planted by the doors.
However, the 50th Battalion troops were ambushed a number of times, Tomer said.
In one incident, Tomer said Hamas “carried out a counteroffensive while we were in a building. They fired an RPG at the home and carried out an assault.” Two soldiers were hurt by the RPG fire, including one who lost one of his eyes.
Tomer said one of the commanders managed to kill two Hamas gunmen as they broke into the building. The troops then left the building and attacked the other Hamas operatives who were still outside, killing another two.
In another incident, he said a Combat Engineering Corps’ armored D9 bulldozer — subordinate to his forces — was attacked by an anti-tank guided missile while carrying out a risky mission in Shati. As the bulldozer was burning up, a tank officer under Tomer’s command drove into the battle zone to rescue the two combat engineers. As the door of the tank closed shut with the two soldiers rescued, an RPG was fired by Hamas at them, he said.
Tomer said the IDF is operating in a “very, very level-headed” manner, in order to prevent casualties to Israeli forces. At least 52 soldiers have been killed during the ground offensive so far.
Asked about where things were heading from here, Tomer was unable to answer. “In terms of our mission, I don’t know where we’re headed next, but I know we will deepen our achievements wherever needed,” he said.
“I can tell you that my feeling as a battalion commander after 18 days of fighting, is that there is nothing that can stop the IDF combat teams,” he said.
“I really feel that there is nothing that the battalion will be told to do that we do not know how to do,” Tomer said.
“It doesn’t matter what mission we are given in Gaza, there may be fewer casualties or more casualties, but in the end, the combat team will fulfill the task.”
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