The battle in the Shejaiyya neighborhood of Gaza City, between heavily armed Hamas “fighters” and IDF soldiers, has been much in the news due to heavy casualties on both sides. The neighborhood, which is just a few kilometers from the Israeli border, has over the last few years been heavily fortified by Hamas. They have built under the densely populated civilian neighborhood an underground terror headquarters, including storage areas for rockets, bombs, and other weapons. There are also tunnels that cross the border into Israel, used to infiltrate Hamas attackers.
Regarding the fighting in Shejaiyya: it is reasonable to assume that the main reason there was so much resistance, was the lack of surprise. Four days prior to entering Shejaiyya, the IDF demanded again and again from the residents to evacuate. Towards the entrance, the IDF started a heavy artillery attack on the outskirts of Shejaiyya. The Hamas and Islamic Jihad, therefore, had four days and a warning of a few hours that the IDF is going in. This is why – as opposed to Hamas fighters escaping to their hiding places when the IDF launched the sudden ground attack – this time they hid traps, prepared anti-tank ambushes and waited for the Golani brigade, tanks and bulldozers to come in.
Another reason is that Shejaiyya is in effect a military compound prepared for fighting, which is planted in the heart of the civilian population. All of the assets that are important for the terror organizations are there: welding workshops for manufacturing rockets, labs for making explosives, rocket warehouses, hidden rocket launchers, command centers, and a tunnel system that enables the terrorists to move between these facilities quickly without being concerned about getting hit from the air. There are also entrances to tunnels that lead into Israel.
Shejaiyya’s location makes it preferable in the context of distance and as an observation point – for shooting towards the local surroundings as well as towards the Tel Aviv area and northwards. This is why it’s not surprising that Hamas and Jihad decided to fight for Shejaiyya, and they had time to prepare for such fighting.
Golani did what they came to do, fought and died, but it is quite clear that they continued and completed the mission, including extricating their [wounded and dead] friends.
That was the reason that the IDF began a heavy attack on Shejaiyya in the morning, with artillery, planes, helicopters and tanks. There was concern that Hamas will try to grab bodies of soldiers who lay dead in the streets, or wounded Golani soldiers. In order to cover the rescue mission and prevent [the terrorists from] coming close, the IDF shot into the neighborhood, and this is why many Palestinians who were not involved in the fighting were hit – including women and children. These photos did, and are still doing, damage for Israel in the international arena. But, as just said, there was a necessity to act in order to prevent the kidnapping of dead or injured soldiers. It seems the international community understands this.
(The words of an IDF officer to the journalist Nahum Barnea):
“Shejaiyya probably has the most concentrated number of tunnels in Gaza. The neighborhood is dense, the homes are high, some have five or six stories… Many residents fled. Some stayed. Hamas people were threatening them with weapons. I saw this with my own eyes. We dropped warning pamphlets on them telling them to leave; we called them on the phone; we shot towards the outskirts of the open areas; we shot close to the houses. We could not do more than this. Anyone who had half a brain left and whoever stayed, stayed.”