In its 26-day operation in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli army has, up until now, waged war in the service of a ceasefire — a prolonged cessation of violence — and the neutralization of the subterranean threat. Both goals, early Friday morning, seemed within reach. But the truce-shattering killing of Maj. Benaya Sarel and Staff Sgt. Liel Gidoni, and the abduction of 2nd-Lt. Hadar Goldin, all of the Givati Brigade’s reconnaissance unit, have changed the timetable — at the very least.
With forces ringing the city of Rafah, with a population of 200,000, in search of Goldin, and with Hamas, subsequently, signaling that it is ready to come to Cairo for ceasefire talks, how is the army upholding its principles of war in Gaza? [For a full examination of the compatibility of the principles of war with asymmetric conflict see here.]
The principles of war. The army has fulfilled certain of its formal principles admirably and forsaken others completely in its war in Gaza. Of Israel’s 10 principles, the first is, roughly translated, adherence and devotion to the mission. Although Israeli troops are operating in a difficult environment, they have shown an exceptional devotion to the perilous task of tunnel detection and demolition.
The same cannot be said of principle four. It is tachbolot in Hebrew, which King James’ translators rendered as “good council” in Proverbs, but should surely be something more along the lines of cunning or deception. At any rate, it would seem absent entirely from this campaign. Israel’s leaders have prudently weighed the costs and benefits of each and every move during this war but they have, at no point, rocked Hamas back on its heels.
Former prime minister Ariel Sharon was dismissive of the post-1967 stories about Arab armies fleeing in the face of Israel, leaving their boots in the sand. “If you attack them the way they were trained,” he told his son Gilad on countless occasions, “they will fight to the death.” His goal, therefore, for better and for worse, was always to “throw his enemies off balance,” Gilad Sharon wrote in “Sharon: The Life of a Leader.” Hence the success in the Sinai desert in 1967 and hence the call, already on the second night of the Yom Kippur War, to send forces back across the Suez Canal. Hence, too, it should be noted, the siege on Beirut in the summer of 1982.
It’s unclear whether there is a paucity of generals suggesting such action today or a reluctance among the leaders to engage in it, but the cerebral, incremental war, started by Hamas and dictated by Hamas, has starkly lacked a decisive and unexpected Israeli action that could turn the tide of war. The abduction of 2nd-Lt. Goldin and the violation of the truce for the fifth time, by Hamas, could signal the need for a shift. Former Gaza Division commander, Maj. Gen. (res) Israel Ziv, said a possible move on Shifa Hospital, for instance, where Hamas leadership is said to be holed up, was an action he was not taking “out of consideration.”
A short note on tunnels and urban warfare. The tunnel threat rose to the fore not merely because the sands of Gaza cave willingly to the shovel. Hamas adopted it also on account of Hezbollah’s success fighting from underground quarters in 2006.
This is not the only adjustment Hamas made. The organization invested in anti-tank missiles and has used them devastatingly. The same is true of its internal communications, which have been altered in order to evade Israeli surveillance.
Israel, too, has advanced. Targets are shared far more efficiently between all troops; intelligence information is rapidly and widely delivered to the field level, and the air-ground cooperation is tighter than ever. But combat in the urban environment and the subterranean level, still taught predominantly to Special Forces, should be at the heart of the IDF’s infantry training for the foreseeable future. No sense training predominantly for a war amid the thistles and the boulders while all of Israel’s enemies have entrenched themselves inside towns and cities.
Artillery. The artillery corps has made significant advances in recent years. A captain in the unit that operates the precision Tammuz missile told me last year that the artillery corps has become a sort of “air force of the ground forces” – delivering deadly and accurate munitions on command. A senior officer in the Southern Command, peering into the dense urban landscape of Bet Lahiya, said during a 2013 tour of the Gaza border that, “If I don’t have precision artillery, I don’t shoot. Maybe they did so in the past, but there are civilians everywhere. This is no place for a statistical weapon.”
And perhaps this was the outlook with which Israel entered the current war. But it was altered by Shejaiya. On July 20 Israeli forces entered the neighborhood, east of Gaza City. Seven soldiers were killed in an anti-tank ambush. Many more were injured, including the brigade commander and at least one battalion commander. The troops were pinned down under the most intense militant fire of the war, taking incoming anti-tank missiles and sniper fire from locations unknown.
Unable to free themselves of the trap, senior officers directed the Golani Brigade soldiers to get into their heavily fortified Namer armored vehicles, situated roughly 100 yards from the militant fire, and to shut the hatches. The artillery corps, generally instructed to hold fire until friendly troops are 250 yards away, then pounded the neighborhood with 600 rounds of heavy, imprecise fire.
When it was over, half an hour later, the neighborhood smoldered in silence. No friendly troops had been hurt in the bombardment. The army estimated that dozens of militants had been killed. The block had been reduced to rubble. Since then, it would seem, artillery was used more frequently. When the dust of the war settles, the army will likely be asked to examine the role of unguided steel bombs in any future asymmetric conflict.
The staging areas. There have been tactical mistakes over the course of this war. Anyone who had the misfortune of watching the video of the tunnel attack south of Nahal Oz, in which five soldiers were killed earlier this week, realized that there were operational gaffes, both macro and micro. For instance, why is the watch tower, clearly a target, not watched over by more surveillance troops? This was just one of a bewildering series of actions within the position that Brig. Gen. Micky Edelstein called “not okay.”
These are pinpoint problems. But the matter of situating the staging areas in such proximity to Gaza is not.
Even after the August 2006 deaths of a dozen paratroopers near the Lebanon border, clustered there in a staging area, the army, this time, did not amass its troops far enough away from the border, beyond the range of mortars, for which there is often no warning.
Death on the battlefield is a tragic element of war; death while waiting to go to war, it would seem, is avoidable.