‘We were dying anyway. What else could we do but fight?’

The Sunday Times

Despite the devastation in Gaza, Hamas fighters are being hailed as heroes by Palestinians who were already living in poverty and squalor

By Miles Amoore, Gaza

GAZA’s most famous ice cream parlour seemed an unlikely place to bump into four war-weary Hamas fighters.

The young men grinned boyishly beneath neon streetlights as they slurped fluorescent green crushed-ice drinks, delighting in a taste they had almost forgotten after a month inside a concrete tunnel eating only dates and tuna.

Men crowded around them, shaking the fighters’ hands and kissing their cheeks.

For now, at least, they are hailed as heroes in Gaza — despite the scene of destruction around them: during a month of vicious combat with Israel’s vastly superior forces, more than 1,900 Palestinians — many of them civilians — have been killed and 10,000 wounded. Entire neighbourhoods lie in ruin; at least 65,000 people are without homes.

“We have shown the Israelis that we are stronger than they thought,” said Abu Mohammed, a tall, lithe 21-year-old in tracksuit bottoms and a polo shirt. “Everyone supports us now.”

His boast is not empty propaganda. Hamas has inflicted a surprisingly heavy toll on Israel, killing 64 of its soldiers, six times the number who died during the last Gaza invasion. The war is estimated to have cost Israel more than $2bn.

For the first time in decades, Hamas fighters have launched raids inside Israel. Its home-made rockets, now able to strike all the country’s largest cities, forced the closure of its main airport for two days. Hamas fighters repelled a beach assault by Israeli naval commandos and flew a drone into Israeli airspace.

“Although Hamas were totally outmatched militarily, they were able to inflict much higher damage than anyone expected,” said Nathan Thrall, who studies Gaza for the International Crisis Group.

Yet Hamas’s ultimate success — and the group’s survival — depends on what it can salvage from the rubble. If it fails to extract concessions from Israel, its strong performance on the battlefield will count for little and the death and destruction for nothing.

As mediators in Egypt this weekend struggled to break the deadlock, Hamas continued to trade rocket fire for airstrikes. Five more Palestinians died yesterday.

Hamas wants Israel and Egypt to lift their economic blockade of Gaza; Israel wants Hamas’s al-Qassam brigades to disarm. Neither side’s demands are likely to be met, yet analysts expect Hamas to win some concessions, perhaps even an easing of the blockade.

“Politically there’s no denying that Hamas has gained a great deal,” said Thrall. “They have inspired Palestinians with the belief that they can, with their own two hands, have a chance at ending the Israeli occupation. That’s a very significant achievement.”

It is a mood reflected on the street. “Everyone here stands side by side with Hamas now,” said Rafiq al- Kaferna, 52, choking on tears. He had returned home to find the vegetable business he had built up over 20 years in ruins. “They [Israel] destroyed our buildings and our lives. Who else should we support but Hamas?”

And yet if Israel refuses to ease the siege and men like Kaferna are unable to rebuild their shattered lives, this popular support for Hamas could rapidly descend into public anger at the futility of the war.

Earlier last week, as Israel withdrew its troops from Gaza, fighters from the secretive al-Qassam brigades emerged sheepishly from their subterranean lairs to dig out the bodies of their fallen comrades. Several agreed to speak to The Sunday Times on condition their identities were hidden to protect them from Israel’s powerful intelligence services.

They have no doubt that they are the victors, boasting of how their network of tunnels, longer-range sniper rifles, well co-ordinated reconnaissance units and more sophisticated anti-tank weapons prevented Israeli troops from pushing as deep as they did in 2008.

New units have been called up for the first time, widening Hamas’s capabilities. A fighter from the naval commando unit described how his men had repelled a beach landing by Israeli special forces in the early days of the war, popping up from tunnels along the coast to attack the Israelis as they rushed ashore.

“We even hit their beaches for the first time,” said Abu Walid, 19, his voice muffled by the green-and-white checked scarf wrapped around his face. “We wanted to kidnap a soldier. We had a two-man submarine waiting in the water.”

The assault on Israel’s southern coast failed — missiles slammed into the Hamas frogmen minutes after they emerged from the sea.

More successful were Hamas’s tunnel units, known among fighters as “counterterror squads”. The units were able to penetrate Israeli territory, launching lightning raids.

“They were our most important tactical advantage,” boasted Abu Mujahid, a lean 27-year-old commander.

Having narrowly escaped an Israeli attempt to assassinate him with a drone missile in 2005, Mujahid now commands 35 fighters from Hamas’s counterterror unit.

As Israeli troops massed at the border last month, Mujahid led his men through the warren of attack tunnels. His team crept undetected into buildings, planting home-made explosives and booby- trapping tunnel entrances.

“All you need is patience, faith, water and dates to do well in the tunnels,” said Mujahid, whose men are trained to deal with dogs, robots and gas attacks.

Without such training, Mahmoud, 23, believes he would be dead. On day 12 of the conflict, Mahmoud and five fighters received orders to raid an Israeli position across the border. Scrambling up the side of a sandy tunnel entrance, the fighters sprinted 200 yards across open ground before firing on two jeeps with assault rifles and an anti-tank missile. Within minutes, they were back inside their tunnel. Four Israeli soldiers lay dead.

Moments later a drone missile struck the entrance to their tunnel. Two bombs followed, trapping the six fighters inside. “We had no choice but to dig our way out,” said Mahmoud.

As the tunnel filled with water, they scratched away at the loamy soil with their bare hands. Five days later, having survived on sips of water and a handful of dates, they poked their heads above the surface.

“It felt like we had come back from the dead,” said Mahmoud, his eyes wide at his good fortune.

Ironically, the war has also brought Hamas itself back from the dead. Increasingly isolated both at home and abroad, Hamas’s political power had struck a nadir in the months leading up to the conflict.

Having already fallen out with its sponsors Iran and Syria, it then lost one of its most vital lifelines when Egypt’s military strongman, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a foe of Hamas, destroyed the smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. Yesterday Sisi banned the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, a Hamas ally. The tunnels had kept Hamas alive — enabling the supply of weapons and the money to pay Gaza’s 40,000 civil servants.

Gaza, already crippled by an economic blockade imposed by Israel, began to suffocate. Sewage flowed through the streets, contaminating more than 90% of Gaza’s aquifer.

Left with few options, in April Hamas handed over control of the strip to the Palestinian Authority. Yet the conditions of the deal — the opening of the crossing with Egypt and the payment of Gaza’s civil servants — were never honoured.

As Hamas’s woes deepened, events took an unexpected turn. Three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank were kidnapped and killed.

Although it is unclear who ordered the killings, Israel’s security forces in the West Bank launched the largest crackdown on Hamas since the second intifada, arresting 800 people, killing nine and raiding nearly 1,300 buildings. Airstrikes against Hamas targets in Gaza followed. Hamas retaliated by launching a barrage of rockets against Israel.

There is little doubt the war that ensued weakened Hamas militarily. Israel destroyed thousands of rocket launchers and dismantled 32 attack tunnels. In bombing 4,760 targets, including food factories and the only power plant, Israel has brought Gaza to its knees. It will take years and an estimated $6bn to rebuild.

The dust is yet to settle. If Israel and Egypt refuse to lift the blockade, Hamas says it will dig in for another round of fighting.

On a tour of his bombed-out neighbourhood, Abu Mujahid passed the gutted remains of a paper factory and several dairies. He spat from the car window in disgust.

“They want to turn the people against us, against the resistance,” said Mujahid, whose home was hit by an Israeli missile. “What they don’t realise is that we never had anything here anyway. We have nothing to lose.

“We are already dying a slow death inside this prison camp. It does not matter if more of us die trying to break out. What other choice do we have but to fight?”

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