Where are the Hamas fighters? In Gaza, armed Islamist militants are everywhere yet invisible. Instead they have made radio and social networks their weapon of mass seduction.
Never during the fighting did you see the gunmen of Gaza in this tiny, overpopulated Palestinian enclave.
In the four-week war which began on July 8, they fired 3,300 rockets at Israel, army figures show, some of which were launched from the beachfront neighbourhood where most of the foreign correspondents were staying.
A sudden powerful whooosh and within moments, a huge projectile would soar just meters overhead, startling those on the ground.
Even after an Israeli bombardment of several flashpoint areas, fighters were a ghostly presence, whether ensconced in their network of underground tunnels which turned subterranean Gaza into a Swiss cheese, or blending into the background in civilian clothes.
Israel launched Operation Protective Edge to halt cross-border rocket attacks, but nine days later sent in ground troops to knock out the tunnels.
They accused Hamas of embedding themselves within densely-populated civilian areas – effectively hiding behind residents as human shields.
Of the 1,886 Palestinians killed in the fighting, UN figures indicate at least 73 percent were civilians.
Instead the Hamas presence was felt in other ways.
Following a night strike which wiped out a family in Jabaliya, but also a suspected Hamas militant, several men could be seen loitering outside the morgue.
When the doors opened, they rushed in, seized one of the bodies and wrapped it in the green flag of the Islamists before leading a funeral procession chanting “God is greatest” through the urban sprawl of concrete and dust.
– mobiles off –
But if the fighters could occasionally be detected, their leaders completely disappeared off radar. Some escaped assassination in earlier conflicts, others saw homes destroyed in this war. They went underground and turned their mobile phones off.
Only the movement’s spokesmen risked holding improvised press conferences. Officers used social networks to publish frequent statements glorifying resistance against Israel and the military exploits of its armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades.
Each time Facebook shut down their pages, which happened at least twice during the war, they opened new ones, disseminating operational details, their claims and the latest updates on the bombardment of their leaders’ homes.
In a propaganda war, Hamas’s Al-Aqsa TV station pumped out harrowing, raw images of victims, and repeated footage of its military wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, doing combat training.
Masked fighters clutching assault rifles are seen emerging from tunnels then disappearing back underground or simulating seaborne commando raids.
– ‘psychological war’ –
“That’s part of our media and psychological battle,” said one Hamas leader on condition of anonymity.
Not one picture of fighting was broadcast live.
The Qassam Brigades warned people against taking or broadcasting photographs of multiple rocket launchers, some of which lay abandoned in the field.
Since the coastal strip’s sole power station was put out of action last month by Israeli fire, television viewing has become impossible for many, with the easily-charged mobile phone becoming for many the receiver of choice for radio broadcasts.
“Our television channel is now for viewers outside (the strip); for Palestinians in the West Bank, Egypt, Algeria,” Al-Aqsa director Mohammed Thuraya said.
“In Gaza, people now listen to the radio and I’d say about 50 percent of the population listen to our frequency,” he added.
“The resistance must be in the hearts and minds of the people, hence the importance of the media,” Thuraya added. “People need to know that the Zionists kill children, parents, teachers.”
“Al-Aqsa radio is far and away the fastest,” says Ahmed Nasir, a man in his early twenties in a suburb of Gaza City.
“But it doesn’t tell the whole truth,” said another young man. “Al Aqsa puts out a lot of propaganda.”