Could Israeli soldiers, not civilians, be the target of the attack tunnels?

Intelligence source says Hamas seeks the ostensible prestige and legitimacy of abducting a soldier

Weapons found inside a tunnel near Kibbutz Sufa on the Israel-Gaza border on July 17, 2014. (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Office/Flash90)
Weapons found inside a tunnel near Kibbutz Sufa on the Israel-Gaza border on July 17, 2014. (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Office/Flash90)

Hamas operatives aim primarily to abduct soldiers and not to penetrate into civilian communities along the border with Gaza, a senior intelligence source said Monday.

“The central objective is to kidnap a soldier,” he said, “to replicate the success of Gilad Shalit.”

The assertion was borne out hours after the interview, when it became clear that a squad of Hamas gunmen had infiltrated into Israel Monday evening, near Kibbutz Nahal Oz, and directed their attack at an army post south of the kibbutz.

The Hamas squad launched an anti-tank missile at an army barracks adjacent to an IDF watchtower and then stormed the position, attempting to drag one of the soldiers into a tunnel. The soldiers in the tower, an army spokesperson said, “identified an attempt to abduct a soldier,” and opened fire, killing one of the attackers.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, several hours after the infiltration attempt, stated that the “sole purpose” of the cross-border tunnels from Gaza to Israel is “the destruction of our citizens and killing of our children.”

The army, in its English-language Twitter feed, wrote: “Last night, terrorists infiltrated Israel through a tunnel in order to attack civilians in the community of Nahal Oz.” 

Asked whether Hamas’s goal might be soldiers rather than civilians, an army spokesperson said, “We expect that they are trying to abduct or kill civilians but will make do with a soldier, too.”

The intelligence source, however, said that of the nine cross-border tunnels detected, none actually stretches into the grounds of a civilian community. “They could have gone 500 meters more, into the kibbutz,” he said. “Why didn’t they do that?”

The source made clear that Hamas operatives are not opposed to the killing of civilians and that the random rocket fire into Israel over the past three weeks is more than ample expression of that fact; he also noted that intent aside, any infiltration represents a grave risk to civilians, but indicated that, for reasons of prestige, Hamas, which appears to be striving to emulate Hezbollah in all elements of its combat doctrine, seeks a soldier and not a random civilian.

There has been over the course of Operation Protective Edge one naval infiltration into Israel, near Kibbutz Zikim, and five underground invasions. On the first day of the ground operation, July 8, Hamas frogmen were spotted in the water and gunned down quickly in the sands. The objective of their infiltration mission, beyond stirring panic and shedding blood, was not clear.

The tunnel infiltration attacks have all had similar characteristics. In each case, as with the June 2006 abduction of Gilad Shalit, the operatives surfaced several hundred meters within Israel and several hundred meters away from a civilian settlement. In each case anti-tank missiles were fired at soldiers, either in passing vehicles or static posts.

An additional security source noted that, as in the Shalit case, the Hamas operatives have surfaced in areas “where there is constant military activity.”

The footage of the July 21 attack near Kibbutz Nir Am, in which four soldiers were killed by an anti-tank missile fired at their jeep, shows that the Hamas gunmen were not in motion or en route to a kibbutz but rather had camouflaged themselves in the field, laying an ambush for an army patrol, the source indicated.

Monday’s attack, too, seemed explicitly geared toward attacking soldiers. According to a preliminary army investigation, a squad of Hamas operatives surfaced some 150 meters inside Israel, south of Kibbutz Nahal Oz and near the Karni Crossing. They approached an army guard post and fired an anti-tank missile at an administrative building, killing five soldiers.

In the adjacent watchtower, known as a pillbox in army slang on account of its cylindrical shape, two soldiers, belatedly, spotted an operative dragging a body toward the mouth of the tunnel. They shot and killed the man; the rest of the Hamas squad scurried back underground.

A Hamas spokesman, cited on the Ynet news site shortly after the attack, said: We tried to abduct a soldier in the infiltration attempt, but the situation on the ground did not allow it.

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