Hamas misled, surprised by Israeli air offensive
In an air offensive dubbed “Cast Lead,” Saturday, Dec. 27, some 150 Israeli bombers and helicopters struck 100 targets, destroying dozens of Hamas military compounds across the Gaza Strip in reprisal for the Palestinian long-term missile blitz.
The operation had two elements of surprise:
1. Media reports emanating from official sources in Jerusalem Friday, Dec. 25, conveyed the impression that the major military operation approved by the Israeli cabinet had been called off for the time being, at least until the cabinet reconvened for a reassessment.
2. Egypt misled Hamas, reporting reliable information that Israeli would not strike on Saturday, its Sabbath Day.
Some Hamas commanders and operatives felt safe enough to come out of their hideouts in the tunnels and bunkers under Gaza – estimated at 80 km long – and hold a graduation ceremony on the parade ground at their command headquarters in Gaza City. The Israeli air strike there accounted for the largest number of casualties.
The other 40 air raids destroyed Hamas installations across the enclave. The casualty toll Saturday afternoon was 154 dead and 270 injured, some civilians. According to debkafile‘s military sources, the bulk of Hamas strength escaped harm. They played it safe and stayed underground, also guarding their long-range missile and rocket arsenal.
After the first wave of air attacks, the Israeli military spokesman said the operation was just beginning and would be expanded and deepened as needed. Defense minister Ehud Barak warned Israelis that hard times were ahead.
The expected Hamas reprisals came quickly. Before burying their dead, they sent missiles flying to Ashkelon, then Netivot, where an Israeli man was killed and seven people were injured. Kiryat Gat was hit by a missile and Ashdod’s citizens heard sirens. Both are on the outer perimeter of Hamas long-range missiles and have been unscathed until now.
Israel is holding ready the option of a major ground incursion if Palestinian missile attacks remain at a high level.
A big question hangs over whether Iran will send Hizballah to open a second front from Lebanon in response to the Israeli air operation in Gaza. According to debkafile‘s intelligence sources, the Hizballah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, paid a secret visit to Tehran in the third week of November to clarify this very question. A short while later, the al Qods commander, Gen. Qassem Suleimani, arrived in Beirut. Most probably, they tied up the ends of a possible Hizballah response to the expected Israeli Gaza operation during that visit. Hence the Israeli military spokesman’s warning that the Gaza air operation was just the beginning and could be expanded as needed.