If there is any doubt that Operation Protective Edge has become a full-scale war against Hamas, a drive through the Gaza border region quickly dispels any uncertainties.
After countless rocket attacks, mortars and the discovery of a series of cross-border Hamas tunnels, designed to send murder squads into Israeli villages and towns, the southern regions near the front lines have become a war zone.
South of Ashkelon and Sderot, in the Eshkol and Sdot Negev regions, civilian life has all but vanished and the IDF’s heavy presence is paramount.
Military Police checkpoints pepper the roads, and army traffic dominates. In a field by the roadside, thick black smoke rises from a fire sparked by a Hamas mortar attack.
Iron Dome interceptions and Color Red rocket-warning sirens are frequent. Up above, a military helicopter swoops down, lands on a field and picks up a wounded soldier.
Every few minutes, the booming thud of IDF artillery fire reverberates under the blazing July sun.
Once thriving villages appear desolate.
Many Israeli families, terrified by the prospect of Hamas gunmen emerging from tunnels to massacre them, have evacuated the area.
Those that remain mostly stay in their homes. A number of farmers have stayed behind to work their fields, to avoid financial ruin and tend to their animals.
Across the border, inside Gaza, the IDF is working to locate and destroy as many tunnels as it can.
Its mission is to save this region from Hamas’s subterranean terrorism, and to lift the paralysis of daily life caused by incessant Gazan projectile fire.
To get to the Gazan tunnel shafts, which often begin inside civilian homes a few kilometers within the Gaza Strip, infantry soldiers backed by the Armored Corps last week raided Gazan districts such as Shejaia, in the northeast of Gaza. This is the Gaza tunnel network’s capital.
Under the partial shade of a tree, in a dusty clearing near the border, a senior army source from the Artillery Corps provided a chilling account on Sunday of the battles that raged there. On July 20, a Golani infantry force sent to search for tunnels came under a massive attack by Hamas’s Shejaia Battalion.
This Hamas formation is the largest in the guerrilla army, made up of between 800 to 900 highly trained armed men.
The Golani Brigade in Shejaia sustained heavy casualties, the source recalled, after Hamas intelligence units mapped out its location.
Operatives sent the information to waiting terrorists in tunnels. In a coordinated fashion, the gunmen emerged from “the metro under Shejaia,” the source said, referring to the tunnels, and launched a massive wave of antitank, mortar, sniper and automatic gunfire from buildings surrounding the Golani force.
“I saw that enemy cells had come to within 40 meters of our forces,” the source added.
At this stage, the Artillery Corps mapped out the location of enemy forces, in Gazan civilian residential buildings – areas where the IDF had previously told civilians to evacuate.
The Artillery Corps Support Unit watched the battle with alarm, and took drastic action, the source said.
“Otherwise, I knew we would be getting 600 body bags back.”
It instructed all of the Golani soldiers to enter their namer (“leopard”) armored personnel carrier, and launched a wave of shelling, some of which fell on the namers, which are built to withstand such strikes. Three artillery battalions rained fire on Shejaia, in a bid to rescue the Golani soldiers. As this occurred, the source said, Hamas continued to blast the soldiers with mortars from all around the neighborhood.
“We heard them say over the radio: Fire is coming down on us.”
After 20 minutes of shelling, silence ensued.
“There were no more Hamas mortars, no more antitank missiles, no more automatic weapon fire,” the source said.
Ten buildings lay in ruins.
“I can say that we did everything we could to warn the civilian population before the war began.”
“My heart aches for the noncombatants who were killed. This is a war in every way, not an operation. I visited our forces in Shejaia, and saw what I did with my own eyes,” the source said. “And what we did there was nothing less than close support for the [infantry] corps.”