When directly confronted on the ground, Hamas became a less threatening enemy than previously estimated, the Nahal infantry brigade's chief senior intelligence officer, Maj. S (full name withheld for security reasons) told The Jerusalem Post on Monday.
Nahal units remain deployed outside of Gaza together with other infantry divisions, as Israel currently fights a war of attrition with Hamas and limits itself to air power.
Maj. S recalled how Hamas "ran away from the battlefield" in northern Gaza after Nahal entered the Strip last month, as part of the army's mission to destroy Hamas's network of cross-border attack tunnels.
A small number of Hamas units in north Gaza did put up a serious fight, exhibited determination to engage the IDF, and killed a total of six Nahal soldiers during the ground offensive, Maj. S said. But "in comparison to what we expected, this was less. From the moment the ground offensive began in our sector of northern Gaza, the enemy ran away. Its commanders disappeared on the first day of the air campaign.
We did not encounter a single enemy commander in combat the moment the ground maneuver began." Maj. S noted that this was a "complete antithesis" to the IDF's tradition of placing commanders in forward positions in advancing units.
A few Hamas cells engaged in firefights with Nahal units, killing, among others, the commander of Nahal's Gefen Battalion, 38-year-old Lt.-Col. Dolev Keidar, who Maj. S knew personally.
But on the whole, after Nahal entered Gaza and deployed significant firepower, Hamas failed to respond with an organized and prepared counter-strike against advancing IDF units, he said.
Hamas's commanders remained in hideouts, while its regional battalion guerrillas hid in civilian population centers, from which they continued to direct projectile fire at Israel. "They fired from refugee camps, UNRWA schools, hospitals and mosques. All of these things are documented," the intelligence officer said.
"The asymmetry between them and us is very large, not only in terms of operational techniques, but also in terms of values. We always try to deploy our forces far from Israeli communities to avoid exposing them to enemy fire. Hamas do the opposite, acting in the heart of their population center to use it as a human shield for their activities.
This creates many challenges," Maj. S stated.
As the Nahal brigade's intelligence officer, Maj. S holds daily situation evaluation meetings with field commanders, and acts as a bridge between Military Intelligence and the infantry brigade, ensuring that its officers are aware of the latest intelligence on Hamas.
"We have been in combat mode for almost 80 days. It began in Judea and Samaria, with Operation Brother's Keeper [to search for the three Israeli teenagers kidnapped and murdered by Hamas near Hebron], and continued with Operation Protective Edge, which brought us to the Gaza sector," he said. "Soldiers, commanders and reservists have seen very little of their homes during this period," he added.
Maj. S carries out operational analyses of all aspects of combat. He makes use of a range of technological means to gain a picture of the challenges lying ahead.
"This includes evaluating the situation of the enemy before we enter combat, and while in combat, to understand its location, status, and plans," Maj. S explained.
"These days, we can really track the enemy, and pass on alerts to units that are maneuvering in the field. We can then attack and destroy the threat with all the means at our disposal. We do all of this while tackling the challenge of directing our firepower at threats and seeking to avoid harming the Gazan civilian population, which is not tied to Hamas's activity," the officer said.
"We have dedicated a lot of energy and resources to try and prevent harm to noncombatants. We have been ordered to do this dozens of times, from the chief of staff to the brigade commander. Our orders are to seek out and confront our attackers, while avoiding harm to noncombatants," he added.
"In order to achieve this, we have to have a grasp of the territory, on a variety of levels. To understand where the enemy is located, and to be equally aware of where it is not located. Then, we must direct our firepower precisely at the enemy and its infrastructure. We do this on the basis of intelligence gathered on threats, both before the conflict, and more recent intelligence, which is very dynamic. We get information from the bottom, sides, and from above," Maj. S said, hinting at the sources of input at his disposal.
On the basis of the latest information, "We constantly evaluate the situation, and think about where it is better to focus our offensive efforts, and where we should be careful. Intelligence never rests," he added.
Today, even the most junior field commanders receive relevant and valuable intelligence, Maj. S said.