On Wednesday morning three paratroopers were killed, bringing the death toll since the beginning of the ground operation in Gaza to 32. It’s highly possible that those sitting around the General Staff table knew that this would be the price Israel would have to pay if it sought to neutralize the tunnel threat from Hamas. The public, still very much supportive of the operation, has been surprised. After all, during Operation Cast Lead in 2009, over 23 days of fighting, the army lost only 10 soldiers, four of them from friendly fire.
What follows is a look at some of the operational hazards, some unavoidable, that have led to the loss of life.
Take the case of the Paratroop Brigade. A platoon from its demolitions company set out early in the morning on Wednesday. Like the rest of the field units, they receive a daily list of objectives. The list can include securing a certain intersection; advancing toward a rocket cache; taking a building known to house a tunnel entrance; establishing perimeter security for demolition forces working on a tunnel, in a hostile environment, with a scary amount of explosives; laying an ambush for rocket squads; and a host of other tasks. The IDF has yet to convey explicitly what the paratroopers were up to but almost all of the above tasks would require, when operating in urban areas, entering a house.
Earlier in the week the Shin Bet provided real-time intelligence about a booby-trapped house in Khan Younis, saving many lives. On Wednesday, there was no warning. A squad of Hamas operatives, lying in ambush, waited until the paratroopers had entered the house and then hit the detonator. A section of the home crumbled and the operatives opened fire, pinning the force down.
The army has not released information about what ensued, merely hinting that, with an additional 18 soldiers wounded in the ambush, citations for bravery may well be in order. The central fact, though, in terms of casualties, is that Israel has an overtly stated goal in this mission – to destroy the attack tunnels, of which 31 have already been found – and that means that the people who built those tunnels know exactly where to lay ambushes; the houses all around the entry shafts are liable to be booby-trapped, as are the entry shafts themselves.
The tunnels: This time, as opposed to Operation Cast Lead, there is actually a stated mission. A soldier who served with the Paratroop Brigade recon unit during Operation Cast Lead said that the main goal at the time, as stated to the troops, was simply to cull Hamas ranks from the air – he put it more crudely – and avoid friction on the ground. “We were in maybe two firefights the entire time,” said the forward air operator, who was in Gaza for the duration of that 23-day mission. “We knew where the weapons were,” he said, “but they told us it’s too dangerous, too complicated.”
Instead, he said, the paratroopers often occupied empty patches of suburb. They were tasked primarily, he submitted, with staying alive and erasing the impression of impotence left by the Second Lebanon War. At one point, the brigade intelligence officer told them to plant an Israeli flag high up on a building in the northern Gaza Strip, he said of a mission that was eventually canceled. “This time there are real targets,” he said, “and for that you pay a real price.”
The antitank missiles: A senior intelligence officer said recently during a conference call to journalists that while Hamas tactics haven’t changed much in the recent rounds of fighting, its weaponry has. He spoke of advanced, Russian-made antitank missiles, some specifically made for urban fighting such as the RPG-29. Lt. Col. Peter Lerner added that there has been “an antitank missile component” in every Hamas attack on Israeli troops thus far in Gaza.
Those missiles, unlike Hamas’s homemade rockets, kill effectively. And they are one of the reasons that the standing orders for the troops in the field are to move hard, mark their targets, call in the demolitions experts, and go. Lerner described a “sweep and move, sweep and move” mindset. The troops are told not to build defensive positions but rather to move in hard and leave quickly, he said, because the longer a squad remains motionless, even when holed up in an apartment, the greater the risk of being seen and hit with an antitank missile. This was one of the central tactical lessons of the Second Lebanon War. In Shejaiya, perhaps the most urban environment the army has operated in, the forces may have little choice but to go indoors.
The Iron Dome of the armored corps
During the Second Lebanon War, one of the most troubling sights was the hesitation and fear on the faces of the tank soldiers. Even standing up in the turrets of 65-ton beasts, they managed to look timid. Many were picked off, killed. Today, according to army reports, not a single tank has been debilitated by missile fire. This is an enormous advantage and it is largely thanks to a protective system called Me’il Ruah in Hebrew, or windbreaker, which, for some reason, is called Trophy in its official name in English.
The system detects, tracks, and neutralizes incoming missiles, causing them to explode before contact. This not only saves lives inside the metal box of the tank; it also allows the tanks to be more openly positioned at the heart of central intersections, dominating them, both in terms of fire and night vision. Additionally, according to Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, the company that created Iron Dome, the Trophy system tracks the origin of the incoming missile with radar, meaning that the tank crew is not only often kept safe but also alerted to the source of fire, enabling a rapid response.
Last July, The Times of Israel ran a piece about the relevance of the tank. I spoke with an old general of the sort who still wears kibbutz-issue blue work shirts and leather sandals. The Medal-of-Courage winner met me in shorts. He described the money spent on fancy planes and cyber software and satellites and said it was all well and good, but that, just as in the Yom Kippur War, the fancy tools take a disproportionate chunk of the budget in comparison to their contribution to the overall war effort.
It doesn’t matter if the battle is fought in Tora Bora or Vietnam, the Casbah of Nablus or along the dense brush on the slopes of southern Lebanon, he said. The portrait of a battle that has been decided is always the same — “the panting infantryman alongside the cannon of the tank.”
The problem, Sakal said, is that this truth is slippery. “It’s forgotten between wars and remembered only during wars.”