Terror forces, commanding smaller areas, equipped with explosives and anti-tank missiles, setting ambushes with surveillance, shielded by tunnels; 4th Brigade commander shares challenges troops may face against Hamas in Rafah and Deir al-Balah

The ground operation in the Gaza Strip revealed Hamas battalion formations with which the IDF had never previously contended. The forces encountered little difficulty against the terrorists and their prepared terror infrastructures, with the majority of these engagements concluding swiftly in decisive outcomes.

However, the IDF faced two surprises not anticipated by preliminary intelligence: the extensive arsenal of weaponry and Hamas’ defensive tunnels. The process of discovering and destroying these provided an insightful glimpse into how a terror army prepares for land confrontation against a modern Western military and what a Hamas “battalion” actually looks like.

4th Brigade troops in Khan Younis
(Photo: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

Two Hamas brigades in Dir al-Balah and Rafah remain unaddressed – this is what awaits the divisions that will maneuver there, if and when.

Many IDF commanders are uncomfortable with labeling Hamas formations as “companies,” “battalions” and “brigades,” seeing it as an exaggeration.

The 4th Reserve Brigade, which fought for weeks in the center of the Gaza Strip and Khan Younis, quickly grasped what a “Hamas battalion” truly means. Conversations with the brigade’s officers reveal that it primarily refers to a geographical aspect.

A Hamas military unit operates exclusively within a specific area, covering 2 to 3 neighborhoods or a small town, living, training and overseeing it, similar to IDF’s regular security battalions.

Such a battalion typically consists of 3-4 platoon-sized ambush groups spread out within the same area. For example, the Bani Suheila suburb battalion in northeast Khan Younis, close to the Israeli border, is considered a frontline and more challenging target for the IDF, as Hamas has significantly invested in its personnel and resources – in firepower, surveillance and mortar coverage.

The IDF’s tactical planning mirrors traditional warfare doctrine: to defeat an enemy, one must confront them with overwhelming power – an IDF brigade against a Hamas battalion, an IDF battalion against a Hamas company, and so on.

“When we set out against this battalion in Khan Younis, we knew we were facing three ambushes, each with a Hamas company,” 4th Brigade Commander Colonel Mickey told Ynet.

“Such an ambush is extensive and can span several streets, often centered around public institutions like schools or mosques that Hamas probably assumed we wouldn’t attack.

Each platoon-sized ambush has everything against us: surveillance cameras, drone stations, rocket launchers and mortars, sniper positions, lots of IEDs, etc. Against each ambush, we deployed a combined arms team of infantry, engineering and armor, preceded by systematic raids with support from fighter jets, artillery fire from cannons and numerous tank shells.”

However, the 4th Brigade encountered a surprise. “There was an enormous amount of weaponry,” explains Col. Mickey. “Not many terrorists, but loads of explosive devices, anti-tank mines and machine guns. Thousands of these in every Hamas platoon area.

“We succeeded in all the raids, but sometimes at a heavy cost, like an explosive device that claimed the lives of five soldiers and injured a battalion and company commander.”

The operational procedure was systematic: most raids were conducted during daylight hours.

After several days of raids, the 4th Brigade battalions “extinguished” these platoon-sized ambushes, located numerous weapons and terrorist positions, and then declared to the 98th Division that the local Hamas battalion had been defeated.

4th Brigade troops in Khan Younis
(Photo: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

Subsequently, the forces returned to these sites for smaller raids based on intelligence findings from the main raids, mainly hints of the underground tunnel network, a less central target. Thus, the task against each such Hamas battalion is far from over.

“Reservists bring the sound thinking of experienced adults, so after a week or two of neutralizing the main above-ground component of the Hamas battalion we attacked, we returned to suspicious points in every neighborhood with engineering forces to search for significant tunnels,” he continues.

“Where we encountered anti-tank weapons or sniper fire, we understood we reached its core. This way, the reservists developed a new method which is returning to Hamas battalion sites based on assessments and intelligence to find and destroy important tunnels through infiltration and ‘flooding’.”

It was the hour of the veteran mechanized infantry brigades and the reconnaissance and patrol units, which peeled back the layers of the terrain to the earth’s belly. “For instance, we discovered that terrorists had entered tunnels as early as October 6, and we managed to track the progression of tunnel digging since Operation Protective Edge,” explains Col. Mickey.

“We uncovered about 200 tunnels and destroyed approximately 40 of them. The rest of the tunnels were dealt with in other ways. In one case, we used an engineering technological device against a tunnel, and then the Paratrooper Brigade operating west of us reported that five terrorists emerged from a pit and were eliminated. It was a chain reaction to the pressure we applied. We also captured many prisoners who were interrogated.”

The cage at the end of the tunnel

The IDF learned that in the weeks following the main raids, it’s crucial to utilize the time well and revisit sites where other forces have already operated. This way, 4th Brigade soldiers discovered many significant findings in areas previously combed by the Givati Brigade.

4th Brigade Commander Colonel Mickey
(Photo: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

It was a race of mutual learning. The brigade’s tanks are Mark 4 models, manned by reservists with experience and knowledge in evading RPG missiles.

Only eight tanks out of many were damaged by anti-tank missiles, and just three were disabled. In a notable instance, a terrorist emerged from hiding and hit a tank driver, who continued driving according to the drill, while the other tanks coordinated their fire from point-blank range to eliminate the terrorist.

“This is called ‘bazooka drill,’ and we learn it already in basic training,” says Col. Mickey. “We completely dismantled the northern Hamas battalion in Khan Younis after about a month of fighting. This is based on clear and empirical parameters such as the number of terrorists killed, terror infrastructures, tunnels and weapons captured, including local commanders and their command centers. Concurrently, we found items belonging to Israeli hostages and even a Toyota vehicle used by Hamas’ elite Nukhba force in the October 7 raid.”

How did the reservists cope during the maneuver? “We were in enemy territory for 60 days, which is a lot for any reservist scenario. Our people didn’t hesitate to show up that Saturday and stayed as long as needed. We could have continued digging through the territory for months, but we have people who have given a lot of their time in the midst of their lives. Some might say too much. It wasn’t black or white. Everyone was motivated, but some wanted to continue while others felt we had reached our limit.”

What other conclusions did you draw from this? “As a veteran Armored Corps officer, this war reminded me how mistaken it was to downsize armored and engineering units in the past decade. We need to grow, but do it smartly and qualitatively, not necessarily quantitatively. We need more engineering, more combat engineering equipment and mobility capabilities.”

‘I do not underestimate Hamas’

Reflecting on one of the complex moments he experienced during the war, Col. Mickey says he walked with his soldiers through a 300-meter luxurious Hamas tunnel, tiled with ceramics, leading to a cage at the end.

4th Brigade troops in Khan Younis
(Photo: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

“It was hard to walk in a place where I felt my people were dragged through,” he says. “After a few days, we found elderly Palestinian women whom Hamas had kidnapped and left starving behind. We cared for and evacuated them. There was also a case of an elderly woman who required a crane and truck for evacuation due to her weight.”

How do you view Hamas now? “I do not underestimate them for a moment. They never stopped looking for our weaknesses. Yet, they are only brave enough to emerge for 15 seconds and fire.”

Now, the 4th Brigade troops are home, waiting for their next reserve duty in a few months. “We finished with mixed feelings,” he summarizes.

“Alongside great pride, we had eight fallen soldiers from the brigade’s combat team without the war ending or bringing back all the hostages.

“The evening we buried Uriel Silverman from the brigade, we also celebrated a brigade officer’s wedding not far away. This is the Zionist story in my eyes, with joy and sorrow mixed. We came out united and cohesive, perhaps contrary to what happens in the rear. That’s why I told all the soldiers: Be the ambassadors. Share with the public and your families the story of togetherness you experienced, and thus we’ll influence society. From this war, we must build a shared future.”

As reported by Ynetnews