Al Jazeera television has released several new details on the botched operation, by Israeli Special Operations troops, that took place in Gaza in November 2018. When the dust from the blown operation had settled, one Israeli operative and seven Hamas soldiers lay dead and the Israelis were peppering the area with airstrikes to cover their withdrawal. Hamas responded with firing hundreds of rockets at Israel.
The operation began on November 11 as 17 Israelis, including two women, riding on a van and holding fake IDs and Palestinian passports, passed into Gaza posing as an extended family from the West Bank. The Israelis were members of the secret intelligence unit Sayeret Matkal. Their mission was to plant listening devices in different areas to eavesdrop on Hamas communications. Another Israeli operative entered Gaza through the Erez crossing using the cover of humanitarian aid. He posed as a member of a Portugese-based organization, called Humedic, and used the name of Joao Santos. He brought in specialized drilling and spyware equipment.
However, the Israelis’ van was pulled over by a Hamas patrol unit in Khan Younis. There the operatives’ elaborate cover story began to fall apart. The Hamas men began to get suspicious since the Israelis looked so different from one another. Then when questioned for more than 40 minutes, they claimed to be visiting a sick relative in the European hospital.
Initially, the Palestinians didn’t suspect the members of the van to be Israelis. They thought the operatives were a criminal gang of smugglers from the West Bank.
Al Jazeera interviewed members of Hamas’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, and they described what happened next: “But more than one of them that aroused our suspicions… when I asked them what they were doing in the area, they said they were going to visit a relative at the European Hospital,” a Qassem fighter identified as Issa said. “But the route they were taking didn’t make sense because Salah ad-Din Road was closer to us and easier to use.”
Once the Israelis realized that their mission was about to be blown, they acted quickly and without hesitation. “I saw a hand pull out a gun with a silencer on it, and shot the officer standing closest to the bus between his shoulders. They started shooting at us and at Baraka, who was of course killed. I was armed, so I took my gun out and I fired directly at the head of their commander, but then I ran out of bullets,” one masked Hamas soldier said.
The entire firefight lasted less than two minutes. Six Hamas fighters including Hamas commander Nour Baraka and one of his aides, Mohammed al-Qarra were killed. The head of the Israeli operation, a lieutenant colonel known only as “M” was killed and another wounded. It later turned out that both Israelis were hit by friendly fire.
The Israelis immediately called for extraction. The elite Israeli helicopter search and rescue group, known as Unit 669, was sent for the exfiltration of the team. To cover their extraction, and to confuse the Hamas fighters chasing them, they conducted airstrikes all across the area.
The van that the Israelis were riding in had audio recording devices in it. After the extraction, the Israelis hit it with an airstrike demolishing the vehicle; still, Hamas was able to recover a recording from the devices. On it, the Israelis were heard shouting in Arabic, “Get out!, Get out!, Get out!”
Hamas was able to identify 16 of the Israeli operatives. It then published their pictures and identities on both television and in newspapers. It also claimed to have identified team members, their training places and specific roles. (In Israel, the broadcast of the operatives’ identities was blocked by military censors.)
Hamas was then able to recover one of the listening devices that the Israelis had planted. But several of their communications personnel were killed because the device had been booby-trapped.
The resulting violence that occurred in the next three days brought the two sides to the brink of war. Hamas launched over 500 missiles and mortars at Israeli cities and towns on the other side of the Gaza border. The Israelis responded with massive airstrikes at Hamas targets. Seven more Palestinians were killed on November 13, 2018, as Israel hit a number of residential and government-owned buildings. A ceasefire was brokered by Egypt later that same day.
After a lengthy investigation was completed by the IDF in July, its report stated that although they found several areas of fault with the operational planning and preparation of the mission, there was no negligence on the part of the commanders. Therefore, no disciplinary action was taken on any commander of the operation.
Hamas considered it a political victory for Gaza because the operation was blown and because Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s defense minister at the time, resigned in protest over the operation.