Ambushes and Booby Traps: Hamas Tactics Stir Confusion, Fear, Danger

Heidi Levine for The Washington Post.
Family members and friends gather Sunday for the funeral of Alon Shamriz, one of the three hostages mistakenly killed by Israeli forces in Gaza last week.

JERUSALEM – In a rubble-strewn alley near the Jabalya refugee camp in northern Gaza, Israeli soldiers say they found themselves being lured into a deadly and surreal trap.

“The ambush attempted to use dolls and children’s backpacks with speakers playing sounds of crying,” the Israel Defense Forces said in a statement last week. “These were placed intentionally near a tunnel shaft connecting to a large tunnel network.” The IDF posted photos of two makeshift mannequins or dolls swaddled in toddler clothing rigged with explosives.

In recent days, the IDF has reported that its soldiers have been hearing recordings of weeping and people speaking Hebrew – attempts, commanders believe, to trick the Israeli soldiers to search for hostages nearby. The IDF has not released those recordings.

Some analysts suggest that wariness of such traps might have been a factor in the IDF’s mistaken killing of three Israeli hostages in Gaza last week – that the troops were spooked and too fast to fire.

As the conflict rages, Israeli forces and Hamas militants on the ground are waging war on an increasingly complex battlefield – one on which Israel deploys 21st-century drones and robots while Hamas relies on some of the oldest tactics: deception, surprise, ambush.

In intense urban combat, fought above and below ground, Hamas militants dart from building to building in civilian clothes, the IDF says, and attempt to ensnare Israeli soldiers with booby traps and lures.

Israeli analysts say the IDF is struggling to meet opposing objectives: finding and killing Hamas fighters while also trying to rescue Israeli and foreign hostages.

The three Israeli hostages could not have done more to signal that they were not a threat. They were shirtless and carried a makeshift white flag. Nearby was a crude sign that read, “SOS,” the internationally recognized distress signal, and below, scrawled in Hebrew: “Help! 3 hostages.”

A preliminary IDF investigation indicates the message was written by the hostages. Israeli officials have not explained why it was ignored.

Rights activists say the hostages’ deaths show that at least some IDF soldiers are too quick to shoot. Even the father of one of the dead captives asked, plaintively, why the soldiers did not wound his son in the leg.

The IDF said the soldiers broke the rules of engagement. Senior military leaders have apologized to the nation and the families. Evidence emerged this week that an IDF combat dog with a GoPro camera had recorded the voices of the three captives. An investigation continues.

Critics say the incident wouldn’t have been investigated or even publicized if the three had been Palestinians.

Kobi Michael, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, said the deceptions “are designed to entice the army to enter areas that Hamas prepared in advance as kill zones.”

“It’s also meant to create confusion, chaos, anger and frustration.”

Hamas recordings of people speaking Hebrew might grow less effective over time, but they remain a challenge or provocation, he said. “It’s as if they’re saying, ‘See, you are mighty forces, but we continue to taunt you.'”

Israeli soldiers facing high-intensity, close-quarters combat are probably “already fatigued and frightened,” he said, and “the backdrop of all the deception operations by Hamas” makes them “more vulnerable to being caught off guard.”

The IDF said Wednesday that it had uncovered approximately 1,500 tunnel shafts and tunnel routes in Gaza since Israel launched its ground invasion in late October.

Hamas boasts of its use of tunnels and ambushes. The militants stress that they’re the smaller force battling for their homeland against occupation by one of the best-equipped militaries on Earth.

The Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, announces daily, through news briefings on its Telegram channel, the targeting of Israeli forces across the Gaza Strip. Proud of its use of antitank missiles and rocket-propelled grenades – especially those targeting Israeli tanks, but often aimed at infantry, too – it also publishes videos of the attacks.

A typical report, from Wednesday, reads: “Qassam Mujahideen were able to booby-trap the eye of a tunnel east of the city of Khan Younis, and as soon as an occupation army force advanced to the eye of the tunnel, it was blown up with soldiers, and the force members were killed and wounded.”

Al-Qassam statements do not reveal the deceptions employed. They don’t mention exploding dolls or Hebrew recordings. Hamas officials refused to share details with The Washington Post: “This is military information that cannot be disclosed by al-Qassam.”

“Booby traps, dolls, crying, people speaking Hebrew,” said a lieutenant colonel in an IDF reconnaissance unit. “We have been well-briefed.”

The officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the IDF, said his unit was sent recently to investigate a building in central Gaza where he said rocket parts had been manufactured and some of soldiers heard “recordings of crying” but could not find the source.

The IDF destroyed the building. In this environment, the officer said, everything and everyone is suspicious.

He described Hamas fighters coming out of a tunnel into a room where Israeli soldiers slept. He recalled a Palestinian man in his underwear waving a bloody white flag and approaching his troops. The Israelis sent a small drone out to examine him. The man was wounded.

The man told them later that he was forced by Hamas to surrender to the Israelis while from a nearby building the scene was being filmed, the officer said. The officer didn’t know if his troops were being probed or if the militants wanted to photograph the Israelis shooting a civilian. He was not shot, the officer said, but given first aid and taken to an ambulance.

“There’s no safe place,” the lieutenant colonel said. He was echoing, perhaps unintentionally, a plaint spoken by many Gazan civilians under the Israeli onslaught.

Hamas triggered the current hostilities by rampaging through Israeli communities on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 people and taking about 240 hostage. Israel responded with a campaign the government says is aimed at eradicating Hamas.

Nearly 20,000 Gazans have been killed in the war, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. The IDF reports that at least 130 of its soldiers have died since the start of the ground invasion.

Gaza’s close quarters and dense population make “it very, very difficult to conduct any military operation,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters this week in Tel Aviv.

“Above and beyond that, Hamas routinely uses civilians as shields,” he said at a news conference with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. “Beyond that, they place their headquarters and their logistical sites near protected sites, hospitals, mosques, churches, you name it. And so, that adds to the complexity.”

The conditions require “a very professional force,” Austin said, “and that force has to learn each step of the way.”

Ron Ben-Yishai, senior national security commentator for the Yediot Ahronot newspaper, has reported on all of Israel’s wars from 1967 to today.

He believes the shooting of the three hostages was not a result of Hamas lures but rather an ethical failure by the IDF. “The shooting of the three hostages was done hastily,” he said. “It has no connection to Hamas tactics, which I witnessed firsthand.”

“They simply abandoned IDF values,” he said. “In my opinion, not all fighters behave this way. Quite the opposite. Most of them are very careful.”

When Ben-Yishai entered Gaza recently with the IDF, he said, he “saw inside a children’s room, among the blankets, a large explosive device that was very unpleasant to encounter.”

“The bombs were hanging in sandbags on the walls to explode at the head level of the soldiers,” he said. “With the crying of children and all these gimmicks, the goal is to lure the IDF forces into traps. They lay bait to bring the forces to the area where explosives are placed in a circuit and connected to each other. And it did happen. They managed to hit soldiers like that.”

“Hamas’s use of deceit and trickery tactics is not new,” said Netanel Flamer, a senior researcher in Middle Eastern studies at Bar-Ilan University who is soon to publish a book on the group’s combat methods.

Hamas exploits the complexity of urban combat, he said, “aiming to either cause harm to innocent civilians, leading to the erosion of Israel’s international legitimacy and self-recrimination, or to harm the Israeli society by creating internal division and questioning the military operation’s justification.”