Deep in Gaza, a Lopsided Battle
Raid Illustrates Disparities in Firepower, Casualties
By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 10, 2003; Page A01
GAZA CITY -- Mohammed Jibril, 13 years old and terrified, heard the cannons of 60-ton Merkava tanks booming from the bottom of the narrow lane that runs past his house in the heart of Gaza City. Above him, he recalled, AH-64 Apache helicopters spit missiles from the sky.
Inside an armored personnel carrier at the foot of the lane, Lt. Col. Tal Hermoni was working his radio, trying to coordinate the Israeli air and ground attacks against Palestinian gunmen darting through the alleys and twisting streets barely three city blocks away.
Mohammed watched the men scrambling around him, including his father and older brother. Most were shooting at Hermoni's tanks with AK-47 assault rifles, he said. He also saw some Palestinian fighters throwing hand grenades and others in black ski masks planting mines in the paths of the tanks.
"Suddenly, I saw a tank missile hit a man in the head just in front of me," the youngster said, his breath coming in gasps. "He was torn to pieces, flying through the air. There was nothing left for the ambulance but pieces of meat."
By daybreak on Sunday, Jan. 26, after seven hours of street battles and helicopter assaults, the casualty toll was 12 Palestinians dead, including Mohammed's brother, and 62 wounded, his father among them. A 13th Palestinian man died of his injuries later in the week. Although Israelis and Palestinians described the fighting as one of the most intense urban battles in the Gaza Strip during the past 28 months of conflict, no Israeli soldiers died and none was injured.
That has been the consistent pattern of the grueling standoff between Palestinians and Israelis: urban guerrillas armed with assault rifles and homemade explosives battling a military partially financed with U.S. money and equipped with some of the most lethal fighting machines in the world. The result is a startling imbalance in casualties.
An estimated 735 Palestinians have been killed in the Gaza Strip. The comparable death toll for Israeli soldiers is 41. Another 23 Israelis, most of them Jewish settlers, have died in war-related violence. Throughout Israel and the Palestinian-inhabited territories of Gaza and the West Bank, more than 1,800 Palestinians and 700 Israelis have been killed in the conflict.
The primary reason why so many more Palestinians are killed than Israeli soldiers is that the Palestinians are overwhelmingly outgunned. To a large degree, the Israeli military's modern equipment allows it to inflict casualties on Palestinians from a distance, significantly reducing its own losses.
Palestinians, in contrast, fight with Kalashnikov assault rifles, hand grenades and crude, homemade bombs and missiles, most of which are fashioned from drainage pipes and scrap metal in back rooms or auto workshops. Their deadliest weapon has been the suicide bomb, whose victims are mostly civilians inside Israel. In clashes here in Gaza, the most successful tactics of Palestinian fighters have been to pick off soldiers outside the safety of their armored vehicles and lay explosives in the roads and sandy pathways.
Another critical factor in the high Palestinian death toll is the environment in which the conflict is being fought. An estimated 1.3 million Palestinians are corralled into the Gaza Strip, a narrow coastal sliver of sand. They are segregated from Israel by electrified fences and heavy military patrols, making the Gaza Strip one of the most densely populated war zones on the globe.
Approximately one of every four Palestinians killed in the Gaza Strip has been a child or youth under the age of 18 who, in many instances, was playing, sleeping or standing in the wrong place at the wrong time, according to an analysis of tallies from three Palestinian human rights organizations that monitor deaths in Gaza.
"Tanks are made for open fields, army-against-army battles," said Hermoni, who has spent nearly half of his 33 years in the Israeli military, and who led one of the two armored battalions that entered Gaza City on Jan. 25. "Their use inside urban areas is almost against its original mission."
This is a reconstruction of the battle between Hermoni's unit and Gaza City's street fighters. It is based on interviews with more than 60 participants and witnesses, including Israeli soldiers and Palestinian residents and fighters, as well as reviews of infrared videos taken by the Israeli military, television footage shot by Palestinian camera crews during and after the fighting, and medical records of the dead and wounded.
A Dangerous Mission
Hermoni -- square-jawed, cleft-chinned, plain-spoken -- gathered his young soldiers at their base in the Jewish settlement of Netzarim in the central Gaza Strip on Saturday evening, Jan. 25. The night's mission, Hermoni told his men, was to attack car repair shops and metal foundries where, according to Israeli security services, Palestinians were building homemade mortars and Qassam missiles.
Unlike in the West Bank with its porous borders, Israeli military officials here boast that only a handful of Palestinian militants have escaped the Gaza Strip and that no Gaza resident has been implicated in a suicide bombing inside Israel. The threat here is directed almost solely at Israeli soldiers, Jewish settlements inside Gaza and a few Israeli communities within range of the inaccurate but frightening projectiles that Palestinians fire over security fences.
For months, Israeli helicopters have pummeled scores of suspected workshops from the air; tanks and bulldozers have demolished dozens of others on the fringes of cities and refugee camps. This would be different, Hermoni recalled telling his men -- the first time in the current uprising that an Israeli commander took his tanks into the heart of Gaza City. The mission, he warned them, would be difficult, dangerous and particularly sensitive because of the potential for civilian casualties in such a populous setting.
Just before 10 p.m., a column of 30 to 35 Israeli tanks and personnel carriers and an assortment of armored vans and bulldozers began clanking toward downtown Gaza City. First Sgt. Gil Levinson, 21 and two weeks from finishing his mandatory three-year service in the army, braced himself against the open hatch of an armored personnel carrier that been reinforced with extra sheets of armor plating and metal netting. His job, he recalled, was to guide the driver and gunner inside.
Levinson, thinking back to that night, said he could not shake a nagging fear: "That I would die before coming back."
Ingrained in his psyche and training were the images of three Merkava tanks that were disabled when they rolled over Palestinian explosives during the past year. Seven soldiers died in the three incidents. They were a reminder that he was not invulnerable, no matter how crude the Palestinian weapons.
As Levinson's APC drove up Salahedin Street, he said, the downtown area seemed eerily abandoned.
"Then there was a boom," he said. "My reflex was to get down. A missile hit the vehicle next to us. There was a lot of smoke, and little metal pieces flew out of the missile. One hit my flak jacket. But I had to stay outside, someone has to do it. We started shooting back."
The camera in an overhead drone, recording its infrared video in negative black-and-white imagery, captured the black flash of a missile streaking toward Hermoni's command APC. Inside, Hermoni said, he heard a bang and a thud that shook loose a cloud of sandy dust. The homemade missile, with its stubby body and crudely fashioned tail fins, caused no serious damage to the men or their machine.
The Israeli armor on the ground and AH-64 Apaches in the air unleashed a barrage of bullets, antitank rounds and missiles toward a cluster of Palestinian men in an alleyway next to the sprawling Shejaeya Market, just north of the tanks on Salahedin Street.
Hussan Fayyomi, 21, dashed toward the alley, like many of his neighbors. He immediately spotted one of his cousins, Ahmed Fayyomi, 22, a fighter for the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant group associated with Yasser Arafat's Fatah organization. That night, however, Ahmed was not carrying a gun, Hussan recalled. Instead, Ahmed screamed at him: "Go back! Go back!"
A missile fired from an Apache helicopter slammed into the pavement three feet from where Ahmed stood, next to a whitewashed concrete storefront, Hussan said. Hot shrapnel sliced through Ahmed's flesh and splattered his blood on the wall. He died on the spot, Hussan said.
Hussan was knocked to the ground. All around him, he recalled, men fired their rifles wildly at the war birds in the sky.
"You are wounded, you see your cousin die in front of you. All your friends are there, most from the resistance," Hussan said. "They are fighting with Kalashnikovs and hand grenades. It was like toys against a tank."
Loudspeakers blared appeals from the minarets of mosques across the city: "Join the struggle! Join the struggle! God is Great! Come help the injured! Help the injured!"
Adham Hattab, 17, a restaurant worker who had taken a first-aid training course last summer, heard the calls from the mosque. "Let's go," he urged Amjad, his 16-year-old brother who knew nothing about first aid but dreamed of going to college and becoming an engineer.
The two teenagers sprinted the five blocks from their parents' house and into the chaos unfolding at the marketplace, according to accounts Adham Hattab gave his father, Yosef. By the time they got there, the tin-roofed market, with its dozens of stalls of clothes, shoes and cosmetics, was ablaze.
Apache helicopters sprayed the market with their M230 automatic cannons, spewing out inch-thick rounds as long as a man's hand. One of those rounds punched a ragged hole through the side of his brother's face, and he lived only a few minutes, according to the doctor who examined his body when it was taken to Al Shifa Hospital.
Khaled Shallof, 17, a student, and Mohammed Obed, 20, also responded to the summons. They, too, succumbed to the overwhelming fire from Israeli gunships and tanks.
Within one hour of mayhem, four young Palestinians lay dead in the alley: Three -- Amjad Hattab, Shallof and Obed -- had come to assist the wounded. The fourth was Ahmed Fayyomi. Two wounded men later died at the hospital: Ahmed Ahmed, a Palestinian military intelligence officer who was caught in the battle while walking to his duty station, and Muner Morsi, a fighter for the radical Islamic Jihad group from the nearby Jabalya refugee camp.
For Hermoni, this was the most dangerous moment of the mission: sending his men outside the APCs and exposing them to enemy fire while they ducked into darkened workshops to plant the explosives that would turn the shops into heaps of twisted tin and pancaked concrete roofs.
"We try to isolate the area, [but] there's shooting, you can't avoid it," he said. "In this instant you can get into big trouble."
First Sgt. Lior Ezer, another 21-year-old soldier two weeks from finishing his military service, crouched inside one of the dust-filled APCs. "I could hear bombs and shooting. I didn't know what was happening outside. It was frustrating."
Minutes later he was outside. "We were afraid of sharpshooters on the roofs and in the windows."
There was reason for his fear. Barely one block uphill from Hermoni's men, in the neighborhood of Zeitoun -- Arabic for olive -- dozens of armed fighters had swarmed into the street. At the top of the street, near the Shama Mosque, Rami Issa, a 25-year-old Islamic Jihad fighter, lugged a Kalashnikov and an armload of explosives. Half a block away, Mustafa Rohmi, 25, and Alla Khalifa, 23, both members of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, clutched their Kalashnikov rifles.
About a block down the hill from them, Ashraf Khel, 22, a Palestinian police officer who taught children to read the Koran in his spare time and was also a fighter for the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas -- fired a homemade missile at tanks in the main street below.
Bader Jibril, another Palestinian policeman and father of 13 children, raced into the street, along with scores of other neighbors.
"All of us grabbed weapons and came out into the street," Jibril said. "I'm not with the resistance, but in case of invasion or penetration, we all join. We started shooting everything at the tanks."
The tanks immediately roared back and Khel collapsed, according to witnesses. An Apache helicopter shot a missile into the pavement farther up the street. It barely dented the pavement, they said, but sent shrapnel cutting through the bodies of Rohmi and Khalifa. Khalifa died 20 feet from the shuttered green doors of the candy shop he owned with his brother.
It was just about 2:30 a.m. when young Mohammed Jibril watched Rami Issa run to the street corner and lob a hand grenade toward the tanks below. Seconds later, Mohammed said, he saw a tank shell rip off Issa's head.
Bader Jibril, Mohammed's father, returned to the house with a shrapnel wound. When he arrived, another son, 23-year-old Eyad, snatched his father's gun and darted into the street. Eyad, a taxi driver, was hit in the head and legs with shrapnel and bullets as he ran toward the tanks. He lay in the street bleeding for an hour before he died, according to family members and hospital officials.
The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades claimed him as one of their fighters in posters memorializing his death the next day.
Panic as Tanks Return
A few blocks away, rescue workers, Palestinian gunmen and curiosity seekers had filled the intersection called Askula Square after Israeli tanks withdrew at 2 a.m. Soldiers had finished demolishing an automotive shop in an operation that also flattened the house above it and two adjacent stores.
Ten minutes later, the tanks unexpectedly returned.
"People started running in all directions," said Nael Naasan, 20, a tailor who had joined the crowd. "The tanks started shooting randomly, launching missiles, shooting everywhere. Some houses were burning from the shrapnel. They broke all the street lights."
Dozens of people, fighters and noncombatants alike, raced toward a cemetery that sprawls across a hill above the square. Wesam Hassan, a 24-year-old traffic officer who normally worked the intersection and lived nearby, poked his head from behind a phone booth, hoping to join the rush to the cemetery.
"A soldier saw him and shot him with a machine gun," said Naasan. "No one could pull him to safety. No ambulances could come."
Hassan died in a pool of blood that remained smeared on the sidewalk and nearby wall for several days.
From inside the cemetery, other Palestinian fighters launched missiles at the tanks below and members of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades began handing out guns and hand grenades to anyone willing to join the battle, according to a half-dozen witnesses.
By early Sunday morning, the Palestinian death toll had risen to 12: Four men died at the market and one man wounded there died at a hospital; five men died near the Shama Mosque; and one was killed at Askula Square. Mohammed Nakhalah, 21, a civilian, died of injuries at the hospital, though it was not recorded at which site ambulances found him. A 13th man, who was wounded at the market, died later in the week.
All the Israeli soldiers returned safely to their bases. They had destroyed four automotive and metalworks shops.
Maj. Gen. Doron Almog, who oversaw the entire battle from his command post just outside the Gaza Strip, where he monitored some of the live images from the overhead drone, said the Israeli military made the point that "we can arrive at any point in the Gaza Strip; it doesn't matter if it's a refugee camp or any place in town."
As for the lack of Israeli casualties after such an intense fight, seven hours after it ended he concluded, "We have better technology, we have good intelligence, and last night -- we had luck."