To the extent possible, let ground forces operate across the border
Conclusions of the investigation into the death of Sgt. Evyatar Yosefi, which occurred during a solitary navigational exercise of the Paratroopers Brigade Reconnaissance Battalion, were recently presented to IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi. The chief of staff wrote in the summary of the investigation, "The central expression of the responsibility of the IDF commanders [is] for the lives of their people [and] the professionalism and accuracy with which they must approach every small or large task, in routine or in war."
The media reported that the chief of staff would feel uncomfortable severely punishing those involved in the mishap, even though it resulted in the death of a soldier in a training accident, because he himself did most of his service in the Paratroopers Brigade. Apparently that was not the case, and he decided to dismiss the battalion commander and the entire chain of command that was subordinate to him. The brigade commander, Col. Yaki (Yaakov) Dolf, was not exempted, and a command reprimand was issued. It seems that the chief of staff decided to use the tragic training accident to send a message to the army.
In general, the working assumption that the dismissal of those responsible for failure will solve the problem, turns out to be a mistake. More than once, the failure is far more systemic than personal, and the army loses good commanders who should have continued to use their skills and lessons learned from a difficult lesson. This time, in light of the facts, it seems that there was no escape from this. But it’s better not to turn it into a routine. The chief of staff himself escaped from the sword of dismissal after a difficult operational incident, the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, and it seems that the IDF only benefited from it.
Col. Dolf, did most of his service in the brigade since enlisting to the 890th Battalion in 1994. He was a company commander in Lebanon, the brigade’s executive officer in the Second Lebanon War, and led the 890th Battalion in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. Dolf is considered a talented commander, and it’s possible that the command reprimand he suffered will not harm his promotion.
But it’s reasonable to assume that the chain of mishaps found by the investigative team – as a model for the manner in which things cannot be done, and especially Yosefi’s unnecessary death – will go with him. In such a case, the army would benefit from a commander who erred, learned from it, and will teach others. Despite the tragedy, training for paratroopers and combat units in general is designed to simulate war, and includes a dimension of risk and danger (which, needless to say, should be controlled as much as possible), because war is dangerous and risky.
In an article published in Maariv, veteran security commentator Alon Ben-David said the IDF’s senior command is hesitant to use ground forces. Although the elite units of the IDF are constantly operating in secret operations, these units are not the main part of the army, far from it. The actions they carry out are essential to Israel’s national security but do not affect the esprit de corps of the entire army.
AND VICE-VERSA. When only the Israel Air Force and Special Forces operate on the other side of the border, the message to ground forces is that their role amounts to ongoing security, policing in the West Bank and possibly, just possibly, to a limited ground maneuver in the next campaign.
"Imagine what a raid of the Commando Brigade on the Iranian airport in T4 in Syria would have done for the self-confidence of the IDF," wrote Ben-David. When he talked about such ideas with field commanders, they looked at him as if he was crazy. "The paratroopers, who knew how to steal an entire radar from Egypt 50 years ago, or to destroy dams and power stations, are now looking at Israel’s borders as if they were impassable."
Alongside realistic training, the raids – which have operational profit inherent in them – also serve force buildup, and instill a sense of capability and daring in commanders and soldiers. That’s not valid only for special operations, such as the raid on the Soviet radar in Egypt in 1969. The spirit built in these operations also affected the willingness to carry out high-risk moves such as crossing the Suez Canal in 1973.
The need to show courage on the ground is therefore very important to the army. But the strategic dimension should also be considered. It’s easier to be nostalgic and say the army used to be better. But the truth is that there was another reason for the raids. The IDF had no other means, such as precise guided munitions fired from the air, to carry out the mission. Today, when it has them, the dilemma is much more difficult. Moreover, the failure of such raids may have the opposite effect on the forces, and mainly on those who are supposed to approve them, at the senior military and political echelon.
In his article, Ben-David ignored the fact that the raids he proposed will almost certainly lead to an escalation. If the goal is to reach a direct confrontation with Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, then this makes sense. But if not, and Israel strives to harm Iranian forces in Syria without a large scale confrontation, then one must ask whether these proposals are a tail that wags the dog, without serving the strategic goal.
The southern front, on the other hand, in the Gaza Strip, is a completely different story. Israel is in a tense security situation against Hamas, and the intelligence assessment of 2019 is that the organization aspires to reach a confrontation with Israel. In such a situation, the IDF’s senior command may regard the ground raid of "regular" forces from the combat brigades as an opportunity, and not just as a tool in the toolbox that should be avoided.
The Paratroopers Brigade has been a right-wing marker in the IDF for its performance, boldness and determination since the 1950s. And its commanders, as well as the commanders of the other units in the 98th Paratroopers Division, should be as enthusiastic for action. It’s reasonable to assume that they will not be authorized to act in every front and under any conditions, but this aspiration is the soul of a fighting army.
Chief of Staff Kochavi alongside field-level officers like Dolf, must establish this spirit, and seek contact with the enemy across the border, on the ground, when necessary and possible. This is valuable, both in creating deterrence among the enemy and in instilling a sense of capability and daring for the operational forces and for the entire army.
(The article was published in "The Jerusalem Post", Marchs 14, 2019)
Right-wing Politicians claimed that Benny Gantz, as commander and IDF'S Chief of staff, didn't strive for contact with the enemy and achieving victory. That's absurd, but military experience isn't necessarily the only experience necessary for those who want to serve as prime minister
Education Minister and leader of the New Right Party, Naftali Bennett, found the reason why Israel stopped winning battles against terrorist organizations. In a tweet, Bennett brought a quote from a profile published by Haaretz last week about the head of the Blue and White Party, Benny Gantz. In the article, authors Hilo Glazer and Nir Gontarz noted that when Gantz replaced Israel Ziv as commander of the 35th Paratroopers Brigade in 1995, he changed the brigade’s motto that was set by his predecessor. Ziv, a meticulous officer whose term as brigade commander was characterized by a series of operational successes in Lebanon (most of them under the command of officers like Yossi Bachar and Amir Baram), stated that "The aim of the paratrooper is to strive for contact with the enemy, to kill him and win the battle". Gantz, when he replaced him, deleted the word "kill" from that sentence.
This is the root of the problem, according to the minister, a member of the cabinet and the former company commander in the Maglan unit (where he served under Maj-Gen. Tal Russo, a veteran of the Shaldag unit, the Israeli Air Force Special Forces, and the number two man on the Labor Party’s list). Bennett promised that when he became defense minister, he would fix this, and "Israel will start winning again". It sounds simple and sharp. But the facts are a bit different and should also be taken into consideration.
In an interview with the newspaper Bamahane, Gantz said that in 1978 he "joined the 50th Battalion, which was then called "Parachute Nahal" and was part of the paratroopers brigade and later became the 101st Battalion." Despite his combat background, which included returning from a course in the US Army Special Forces to command a paratrooper company in Beirut in 1982, serving as the second in command of the Shaldag unit and other duties, Gantz was not considered as the kind of officer who could be described as a "killer". That changed when the brigade commander, Shaul Mofaz, unexpectedly appointed him as the commander of the 890th Battalion. Years later, Gantz frequently mentioned that command as the most significant one in his military service. Most of the activity was in Lebanon and in preventing the infiltration of terrorist squads into Israel. In 1988, a terrorist squad penetrated just south of Manara. A force from the battalion and the battalion commander jumped to a spot and encountered terrorists. "We arrive at the area of the encounter, I see a fire exchange in front of me. I unload, I run to them, we shout 'Charge!'. We attack the terrorists, Yoni comes behind me… We kill the terrorists and when I turn around, see that the doctor is treating Yoni in the back. Very fast, was very, very fast. Combat that lasted seconds. Yoni was killed next to me. They shot at me, hit him", Gantz related in a film that noted the commemoration of his radio operator, Yoni Baranes.
As a brigade commander, Gantz was very different from Ziv, the centralized "Prussian" commander. He gave his subordinates plenty of room for action and backing. Some of them found it difficult to adjust, but the commanders of the battalions operating under him thought that this method worked well. On the operational aspect, although the word "kill" was omitted from the brigade motto, it is difficult to say that it was different from that of his predecessor. In 1996, for example, in a series of ambushes carried out by the 101st Battalion, commanded by Yossi Bachar, his soldiers killed five terrorists and returned without a scratch.
Even as chief of staff it was difficult to define him as a vegetarian. Gantz was the one who insisted on hitting Ahmed Jabari, the senior Hamas military wing leader, as part of the first strike that started Operation Pillar of Defense. In Operation Protective Edge, the IDF under his command exerted a great deal of force in Gaza. Gantz managed to remain aggressive despite his declared desire to seek a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and his reluctance to educate soldiers with the desire to kill. At the tactical level, when fighting on the battlefield killing the enemy is usually part of the mission.
Even though all of this is known, Bennett chose to accuse him of cowardice and lack of motivation. Someone can still turn this into a slogan like "Stop apologizing, start killing". Very similar to the way that was described by the brigade commander Ziv at the time. But the latter was a combat commander, while the minister is required to see things in the broad, strategic sense. It is certainly simpler than taking responsibility for the government’s policy. For example, the IDF’s restraint in the Gaza Strip is a direct result of the decisions of the cabinet in which Bennett is a member. The Israeli government has no intention of embarking on a broad military operation that is aimed at the collapse of Hamas and the long-term takeover of the Gaza Strip. Hamas, as Tal Lev-Ram wrote in Maariv, determines the level of the flames, and when it wishes to escalate the situation. Maj.-Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland once said that the government decides to attack and see what happens. In contrast to what is happening on the northern front, in the south there is no clear policy, strategy or effort to shape the reality. There were those who recently claimed that Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi leads a more aggressive line against those who detonate explosive devices and fire flare-up balloons. This may be so, however, the IDF uses force in a measured manner.
The fact that Bennett, as well as others, raise populist and erroneous claims against Gantz is regrettable. However, its refutation does not answer the important questions. Gantz was a talented commander in the Paratroop Brigade and in other commands, but this does not indicate that he will be a successful prime minister or politician. The IDF chief of staff gains substantial experience in leadership and command by managing a large system and in organizational politics. Taking into account the economic, social, political and security aspects, the transfer from the military to state administration is not that simple. That being said, Gantz still has a long way to go.
(The article was published in "The Jerusalem Post", March 08, 2019)
The indication of the importance of a field is measured by the resources allocated to it, and to the people who lead it
Recently, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi and Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to appoint Maj.-Gen. Yoel Strick as commander of Ground Forces. This right step shows the importance the chief of staff sees in upgrading and strengthening those forces.
During the tenure of Gadi Eisenkot, there was a significant force buildup that improved its operational capability. But the claims raised by former IDF ombudsman Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brick prove that much more work is still needed in order to bridge the many gaps in the readiness of the Ground Forces.
The indication of the importance of a field is measured by the resources allocated to it, and to the people who lead it. The appointment of Strick, who commanded the Givati Brigade, the Galilee Division, the Home Front Command and the Northern Command, brings with it a possibility for change. But he will also have to come with the promises of authority, budgets, backing and support from the chief of staff.
Strick’s replacement in the Northern Command will be Maj.-Gen. Amir Baram (my battalion commander in the paratroopers, whom I highly respect). The Lebanese scene is familiar to him from long years of fighting. About 25 years ago, Baram led the Paratroopers Brigade anti-tank company in a complex operation near the Lebanese village of Kafra, during which the force directed attack helicopters that killed four Hezbollah operatives. A few years later, he was called in to command the brigade’s Reconnaissance Company, after its commander Eitan Balachsan was killed in a skirmish in southern Lebanon.
Baram rehabilitated the company and managed to lead its soldiers in a successful skirmish with terrorists, shortly before the IDF withdrew from Lebanon. During the Second Intifada, he commanded the 890th Battalion, and later commanded the Maglan Reconnaissance Unit, the Samaria Brigade, the 35th Paratroopers Brigade and two divisions. Baram, an old subordinate of the chief of staff since the time Kochavi was his company commander in the Paratroopers Brigade, is expected to be an important member of the General Staff. Unlike some senior members of the defense establishment, Baram is a firm believer in the ground maneuver.
"I love the Iron Dome system, but in the end, it will reach its limit. There comes a time at which each dome will need a hammer next to it, and then we will have to recall what we did in Defensive Shield," he once said. In the case of a campaign in Lebanon, Baram will be required to command a large-scale ground maneuver. Strick would be the one who would be required to close the gaps in competence and make sure the Ground Forces are capable and ready to carry it out.
Two other officers promoted in the round were Brig.-Gen. Itai Virob and Brig.-Gen. Yehuda Fuchs, who will be appointed IDF attaché in the United States. Virob, who successfully commanded a reserve Paratroopers Brigade in the last days of the Second Lebanon War, as well as the Gaza Division, will replace Baram as commander of the military colleges.
Fuchs, who commanded the Nahal Brigade and replaced Virob at the Gaza Division, is a talented officer. However, it would have been better if the most senior defense representative to Israel’s strategic alliance would not be a general in his first position, however talented, who lacks experience in the General Staff echelon and in Israel’s strategic floor.
Sixteen years ago, journalist Avihai Becker (himself a former Golani Brigade company commander), published an article in "Haaretz" about Benny Gantz, the general who later became chief of staff, on his appointment as the commander of the Northern Command. "Somehow it happened that all those officers who used to gather around the conference table of Paratroopers Brigade commander Col. Shaul Mofaz, today head all the most sensitive and important sectors in the IDF," Becker wrote.
He did not lack examples: The commander of the Judea and Samaria Division was Yitzhak "Jerry" Gershon, who was the commander of Battalion 202 in the brigade and fought under Mofaz in the raid on the Hezbollah stronghold in Maidun in 1988; the commander of the Galilee Division was Meir Kalifi, the brigade executive officer in the raid; Israel Ziv commanded the 50th Battalion at the same time; and Gantz himself commanded Battalion 890.
"It does not matter how you look at the phenomenon: The question arises as to how all military intelligence and professionalism stem from only one source – Mofaz’s Paratroopers Brigade," Becker wrote.
With the appointment of Kochavi as chief of staff, this question arose again, as three generals who served under him as battalion commanders are sitting around his General Staff table: Amir Baram, the Military Colleges commander; Aharon Haliva, head of the Operations Directorate; and Miki Edelstein, the IDF attaché in the United States. They will soon be joined by Itay Virob, who served as the commander of the brigade training base under Kochavi. (And it is not as if there are no more paratroopers in the General Staff, such as Herzi Halevi and Moti Baruch, who did not serve under him).
Worthy commanders were promoted to positions where they will be able to bring their advantages and experience to an optimal realization. But in order to prevent the danger in which the General Staff table will seat only commanders who think in the same way – because they all served in the same unit and went through a very similar career – preferably the next appointments will have room for those who grew up in the Armored Corps, Artillery and perhaps even Combat Engineering.
(The article was published in "The Jerusalem Post", February 21, 2019)
Series of reports issued by the IDF Ombudsman, Gen. Brick, the IDF Comptroller and the Knesset's Subcommittee on Preparedness, found gaps in the IDF's readiness for war. Under Gen. Eisenkot the military is more prepared, but it’s prudent to listen to Brick too, before the storm comes
In 2002, the US military conducted its "Millennium Challenge" exercise. Considered the greatest exercise in modern military history, its goal was to test the readiness of the American military and develop new tactics and weapons against the outlines of confrontations that American forces would encounter.
The Blue team represented the American forces, while the Red team, the enemy, represented the army of a Middle Eastern state whose identity was not defined. The Red team was commanded by retired Gen. Paul Van Riper, a decorated Marine officer who chose to challenge the planners and exploited the weaknesses of the opposing force one by one. The force under his command launched many surface-to-sea and sea-to-sea missiles against the Blue team’s Navy and sank 13 ships. In an original step, the communications of the Red team relied on emissaries mounted on motorcycles that conveyed messages from the main headquarters to its decentralized forces in a way that prevented the "Blue" force from monitoring it and anticipating its actions. This method proved that the basic assumptions on which the American military built its strength and prepared for present and future conflicts were problematic.
Due to the success of the Red team, the commanders of the exercise dictated new rules to Van Ripper that would restrain him and ensure the success of the Blue team. Looking back, it seems that the person who chose him as commander of the Red team simply did not know him. In 1969, as commander of a Marine Rifle Company in Vietnam, Van Ripper led an attack on a fortified objective held by a North Vietnamese battalion. At the end of the battle, the objective was captured, and the Marine Company he led killed 60 enemy soldiers. Van Ripper, who won the Silver Star for his courage, did not give up then, and over the years he seemed to remain as determined. He abandoned the exercise and criticized it in the media.
This story came to mind in the face of the harsh criticism voiced by the IDF Ombudsman, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brick, about the IDF’s readiness for the next confrontation. Brick, who fought bravely as a tank company commander in the Yom Kippur War, seems as determined now in the confrontation he initiated with the IDF as he was on the Sinai battlefields in 1973. In the past six months since he published his last report as a commissioner, Brick has been conducting a publicized confrontation with the IDF’s senior command. He claims that the IDF, with an emphasis on the ground forces, is not prepared for the next war. Among other things, he stated that the IDF failed to persuade good officers to remain in the army for long-term careers. In addition, he said that the organizational culture is wrong and includes increasing use of the WhatsApp app and as a tool for commanders to communicate with their subordinates ("In war, WhatsApp won’t work," he once said). Brick also found that there is a problem in implementing combat systems in reserve units, including the new command and control system, the Digital Land Army).
Since this is the "last ride" of the veteran commander, it is clear that he wants to give it meaning. Another explanation is that Brick was burned by the lessons of the difficult war that he experienced 45 years ago, and he intends to do everything possible to make sure Israel will "not be caught unprepared again."
The IDF, for its part, claims that during Gen. Gadi Eisenkot’s tenure as chief of staff, the IDF has been training much more. Within the framework of the multi-year plan, the Gideon unit underwent a real reform in the ground forces (and in the reserve units) and the readiness of the units was defined as a high priority, even at the expense of strengthening and purchasing. Under Eisenkot (himself a former Golani infantry brigade commander), the infantry brigades switched to a better training model and there is a process to upgrade the capabilities of brigade combat teams to operate in a more coordinated and effective manner. In addition, the Commando Brigade was established, which upgraded the IDF’s ability to operate deep inside the enemy’s territory.
The IDF’s claim that it is prepared is justifiable, although it is always possible to be more prepared. In the last four years, the IDF has built three armies – the Border Defense Forces, the Reserve force and the Attack force – each with its designated components at different levels of competence. The question that should be asked is whether the processes that have taken place over the past four years have brought the army – the regular army and the reserves – to a level of sufficient and even optimal preparedness for the next confrontations.
The answer to this question must take into account many factors, including the fact that time, money and manpower are limited, that there are operational constraints with which the army is constantly dealing, and that the situation obliges the army to prioritize units, projects and even arenas. Given these and other parameters, the IDF is in a better state than it was before the summer of 2014. But with regard to the ground forces, much improvement is needed. Following the ombudsman review, the IDF comptroller and the Knesset’s Subcommittee for Preparedness have produced reports that found gaps in the IDF’s readiness, yet nevertheless stated that the IDF is ready for the next war. However, despite the fact that Brick sounded like a prophet of rage, it’s prudent to listen to him too, before the storm comes.
It can be said that Eisenkot dealt with building strength and readiness, and that his successor, Gen. Aviv Kochavi, will have to instill in the commanders the sense of capability. The belief is that they can act and overcome, even when dealing with ground maneuvers deep into enemy territory, many kilometers from the border. This is not a unique problem for the IDF; the US military is facing it as well. Former secretary of defense James Mattis and chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joseph Danford, both Marine generals, have also done much in the field of force buildup. The next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (if authorized by the Senate), Gen. Mark Milley, a paratrooper and Special Forces officer, will face the same challenge as the Israeli chief of staff.
Almost two decades ago, Kochavi, the 35th paratroopers brigade commander, stood out among a small group of determined field commanders who, during the Second Intifada, broadcast to the senior political and military echelon that they are ready for any challenge – including fighting in Palestinian refugee camps and crowded urban areas. Kochavi’s challenge is to raise a generation of field commanders like the one he was part of.
(The article was published in "The Jerusalem Post", January 1, 2019)
Last week Defense Minister Lieberman resigned from his post The only mark he left was the appointment of the next IDF chief of staff, Gen. Kochavi. But if he wants a Defense Minister with civilian background can shape the military
Former defense minister Avigdor Liberman’s decision to resign just a few days after a short round of escalation with Hamas that ended poorly for Israel was defined by "Maariv" reporter Tal Lev-Ram as "At the very least, irresponsibility and political cynicism for its own sake; there is no greater reward than that for Hamas."
Liberman’s entry into the position stemmed from the dispute that arose between minister Moshe Ya’alon and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a seemingly minor issue, the Hebron shooting incident and the military court-martial of Elor Azaria, the soldier who carried out the shooting. Ya’alon chose to back the IDF commanders and later resigned.
The outgoing minister, Ya’alon, was discharged as a sergeant in the Paratroopers brigade and reenlisted in 1973, after the war. In 1988, he led Sayeret Matkal’s assassination raid on Arafat’s deputy, Abu Jihad, in Tunis. Later he served as the IDF chief of staff during the Second Intifada and as defense minister in Operation Protective Edge.
The incoming minister, on the other hand, served in the IDF as an NCO in the territorial defense in Hebron and in reserve in an artillery unit. Although he did not command a division, He came with a very good introduction to the system and the security issues at hand. Among other things, he served as foreign minister and member of the cabinet during the campaign in the summer of 2014, and as chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
The Israeli public prefers defense ministers with an extensive military background, but there were already a few very good defenses ministers (most prominent among them was David Ben-Gurion) who did not stand out as soldiers yet managed to influence the army and the state. Most defense ministers focused on their role as the sovereign of the territories and on appointing the next chief of staff, taking advantage of extending his term for another year as a whip to keep him in line. But some did more. Moshe Arens, for example, an aeronautical engineer, came to the post with a distinctly civilian approach, which dealt well with military thinking. Arens used the chief of staff’s appointment as means to force the IDF to form the Ground Forces Command.
When it came to appoint the next IDF’s chief of staff, Liberman run a thorough process and chose a worthy candidate, Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, who led the 35th Paratroopers Brigade during the Second Intifada and served as the head of Military Intelligence directorate. On the issue of force buildup, Liberman stressed the importance of the ground forces but did not give it practical expression. He did initiate a large-scale acquisition of rockets that would provide the IDF with a rapid, destructive and accurate operational response as an alternative to the Air Force. The IDF, for its part, did not like the idea because it contradicts the General Staff approach, that only way to shorten the duration of the next war, certainly in view of the serious threat to the home front, is by rapid ground maneuvers.
Alongside Prime Minister Netanyahu and IDF’s chief of staff Gadi Eizenkot, Liberman took part in shaping Israel’s offensive policy on the northern front, a long series of covert air strikes and special operations mainly in Syria, against Iranian targets. On the southern front, things were different. Liberman was a partner in the containment policy and attempts to reach a ceasefire with Hamas, when he suddenly turned and demanded a more aggressive policy. The prime minister thought otherwise, and considering that a military campaign could bring Israel to the same point as it now, that would be a fair assessment.
That concept held until the last round of escalation with Hamas. The organization implemented a strategy of walking on the threshold. The operation of the IDF special forces in the heart of Gaza, in which seven Hamas operatives were killed, including a battalion commander, shortly after a ceasefire was reached, forced Hamas to respond, but though his operatives fired around 500 rockets toward Israel, there was no intention to “break the rules.” Liberman, for his part, felt that in order to preserve some degree of credibility among his voters, he must resign. But it would have been better to wait two weeks, if only to negate a Hamas achievement.
Since Hamas controlled the nature, time and place for the confrontation, the IDF found it difficult to hit quality targets and senior leaders and commanders, who preceded and went underground. In an article he published about the Second Lebanon War, Maj.-Gen. (Res.) Giora Eiland claimed that alongside the possibility of limited air or ground retaliation, the government could have chosen a third option, to go to war. His example was the decision to launch the first Lebanon war.
Eiland, a paratrooper officer who served as the head of Operations Directorate, wrote, "The government made a strategic decision removed from the tactical level. At the tactical level, the government decided not to put its decision into practice right away but to wait for the right opportunity. In the meantime, for an entire year, from the summer of 1981 until the summer of 1982, the army prepared and trained rigorously for battle." This is a model that is best to adopt. The IDF has already embarked, at least twice, on large-scale operations in the Gaza Strip while relying on the element of surprise in order to ensure a successful strike against high-value targets. Israel must not make do with a bad result, like the one in which the last round ended. In order to preserve deterrence on the southern front as well as in other arenas, Israel must initiate, at its right time, a ground and air operation in the Gaza Strip, which will eventually lead to an arrangement with Hamas.
Liberman’s tenure in the ministry can be summed up as someone who has just passed through. The only influential move he made was the choice of the next chief of staff, Kochavi, which is important. At the end of the day, the system is the people in it, and the identity of the army commander has a significant impact on it. Unlike a defense minister who has a long military career and is always portrayed as the "responsible adult", a defense minister who comes from a civilian background must build his image during his term in office. He can influence the IDF, as Arens and Ben-Gurion did, or he can make do with appointing the chief of staff.
It’s the man (or woman) who makes the job.
(The article was published in "The Jerusalem Post", November 19, 2018)
When it comes to the use of force in the Gaza Strip there are no good alternatives. Almost all of them range from bad to worse
In light of the difficulties in reaching an agreement and a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, Hamas – which is in dire straits as Gaza approaches the status of humanitarian disaster – is signaling that it intends to reheat the sector in order to remind everyone that in the absence of a solution, the only option is war. Hamas chooses the place and the time it operates and escalates. The IDF’s Gaza Division is now required to deal with the continuing use of incendiary balloons from the Gaza Strip into Israel, and with the fact that the Friday demonstrations have moved mainly to the evening and night hours.
Hamas identified the IDF’s relative weakness in using effective means to disperse demonstrations during these hours, including the use of precision fire and snipers at night. At the same time, the terrorist organization operates raiding units that harass IDF soldiers securing the fence, by attempting to infiltrate into Israel, throwing explosive devices, shooting and sabotaging the fence itself. That leads to an increase in the number of casualties on the Palestinian side and to a feeling that the escalation is near.
Last Friday on KAN 11 TV, commentator Amir Bar-Shalom reported that the IDF is considering a limited and minor ground operation in the Gaza Strip in order to signal to Hamas that Israel is ready for a confrontation. The task, if decided, will naturally be imposed on the Gaza Division led by Brig.-Gen. Yehuda Fuchs, a paratrooper who did most of his service in the Nahal Brigade.
This is not a new idea. The IDF carried out dozens of limited ground operations over the years on all the fronts on which he operated. This method of raids was also practiced in the period before and after the disengagement. The commanders of the Gaza Division, Aviv Kochavi, followed by Moshe "Chico" Tamir, led a series of raids and operations against Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip.
In January 2005, Kochavi, who acquired considerable experience when he led the 35th Paratroopers Brigade during the Second Intifada, commanded the "Oriental Step" operation, which was carried out by the Shimshon Battalion in response to the attack at the Karni Terminal. The force penetrated the heart of the Zeitun neighborhood, about which battalion commander Udi Ben Moha said, "It was a terrible blow to the terrorist organizations." During the operation, the battalion killed about 20 terrorists and destroyed weapons and infrastructure used by them.
Brig.-Gen. Moshe Tamir, who replaced the stars in August 2006, went even further, tasked some of those raids to reserve forces. In a way that is happening less and less often today. The raids of that time had clear operational logic. "Our activity prevents the terrorists from dealing with terror attacks on the other side of the fence and they are forced to concentrate on defense," said Tamir, who was an expert on such operations in his service in the Golani infantry brigade and in Lebanon.
The chief of staff at the time, Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, who served in the same units and places as Tamir, thought in the same way. In the last article he wrote in 2007 in "Haaretz" just before he died, veteran military commentator Ze’ev Schiff wrote that in response to Palestinian terrorists firing Kassam rockets from the Strip into Israel, "Ashkenazi has instructed Southern Command to prepare to mount incursions all across the Strip. These are not aimed at laying ambushes, but constitute broader penetrations." Although the forces who took part in these operations claimed that the level of soldiering demonstrated by Hamas operatives was higher than they expected, the risk was relatively low. Low but not nil. It is better to remember that such steps don’t come cheap. In one of these night raids in November 2007, during a skirmish with a Hamas squad that fired mortar shells at Kibbutz Kerem Shalom, a soldier in the reserve paratroopers battalion, Sgt. Ehud Efrati, was killed.
The force recovered, killing one of the terrorists and wounding the other, who escaped. "We left 41 people and returned 40," said an officer in Efrati’s company, and briefly described the entire cost.
But Hamas of that time, as Tamir described it in a lecture in 2011, was an "immature, unprepared, disorganized" enemy. Today Hamas is well-prepared in Gaza, and it is hard to believe that there is there is a sector, certainly in the built-up areas, in which a raiding force will not encounter heavy resistance from a fortified and entrenched enemy. The organization operates above and below ground, using tunnel warfare in large scales.
Moreover, in those years, Hamas did not have rockets with a broader range than the surrounding settlements. Already by the time of Operation "Protective Edge" in 2014, rockets were fired at Ben-Gurion Airport and at Tel Aviv. So the consequences of such overt incursions may be a major escalation of the situation, which will affect the entire country and require the use of significant force.
When it comes to the use of force in the Gaza Strip there are no good alternatives. Almost all of them range from bad to worse. The choice of the method of targeted killings, for example, allows the IDF to operate mainly from the air, from afar, without endangering its personnel, and the achievement of killing a high-level terrorist may be positive. However, over time, new leaders have emerged, and more often than not they are more sophisticated and determined than their predecessors, as Israel learned after IAF attack helicopters killed Hezbollah leader Abbas al-Musawi in 1992.
The use of standoff firepower, including deterrent fire by aircraft, snipers and artillery, or firing at buildings and launching rockets squads, has clear advantages and disadvantages. There is no risk to the IDF, but the enemy adapts, is less deterred, and there is a considerable risk of harming civilians. The use of standoff firepower, Tamir said at his lecture, is sometimes convenient for decision-makers because it allows the confrontation to remain "on a low flame."
But one has to know, he said, "when to change the rules of the game." On the other hand, there is a price to pay when one is changing the rules, and, above all, responsibility.
Anyone who thinks that an incursion into Gaza territory will deter Hamas and restrain it must take into account that though the IDF will harm many Hamas operatives and some civilians (since Hamas exploits the civilian population for its defense), a large number of casualties on the Palestinian side is a catalyst for continued escalation – not to mention the risk to Israeli soldiers during the fighting.
It is the responsibility of the government to ensure the security of its citizens who reside within the Gaza envelope. In view of the impasse that political negotiations have recently encountered – not because of Israel’s fault – it is good that there is real thinking about the use of force. At the IDF General Staff, where Maj.-Gen. Kochavi is today deputy to Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot (another ex-Golani Brigade officer, like Tamir and Ashkenazi), the implications of the use of force are clear, and therefore the recommendation to avoid them as long as possible.
It would be better for the government to understand the full implications of a decision on a limited and short-term ground raid, as well as other alternatives. There were already governments in Israel that approved an operation and found themselves at war. Such a raid, though it represents a resolute and determined policy, just as ministers Bennett and Liberman want to be seen, could lead to things which Israel has no interest in achieving, including another war in Gaza.
The writer is founder and operator of the blog "In the Crosshairs" on military, security, strategy vision and practice.
(The article was published in "The Jerusalem Post", October 13, 2018)