Soldiers simulate ground invasion

2,000 reservists train for war in Gaza with surprise drill

Four reserve brigades given 24 hours notice for largest exercise of its kind this year; army says it’s unrelated to tensions on the border

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Some 2,000 reserve soldiers were called up this week to simulate war in the Gaza Strip, as part of the military’s largest planned exercise of 2017, the army said.

The surprise drill began on Sunday. It was conducted by the Sinai Division, the Southern Command’s reserve division. The exercise included four reserve brigades — two infantry and two armored brigades.

The soldiers simulated war in Gaza, including a ground invasion into the Hamas-run coastal enclave.

IDF Chief Gadi Eisenkot visited the exercise in order to “assess the preparedness of the division for emergency,” the army said.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, right, visits a surprise exercise led by Brig. Gen. Sa'ar Tzur, left, on March 21, 2017. (IDF Spokesperson Unit)
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, right, visits a surprise exercise led by Brig. Gen. Sa’ar Tzur, left, on March 21, 2017. (IDF Spokesperson Unit)

“We have put preparedness at the top of the IDF’s list of priorities. This is evident from the increased training program,” Eisenkot told the reservists.

In war, the army chief said, “cunning is what makes the difference — and that’s what we need to get, with the understanding that if there is a need for another [military] campaign, we will know how to surprise in every way, to prevent enemy achievements.”

In that way, Eiesnkot said, the army will be able to make the next operation “as short as possible.”

Israel has fought three major rounds of conflict with Hamas since the Islamist terror group seized control of Gaza from Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah in 2007. The most recent such conflict, Operation Protective Edge, saw 50 days of fighting, including a ground offensive. In all, 74 Israelis were killed, 68 of them soldiers. Thousands of rockets and mortar shells were fired by Hamas and other Islamic terror groups at Israeli towns and cities, where damage was limited by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. Hamas also utilized tunnels dug under the border to carry out attacks. The UN and Palestinians said 2,251 Palestinians, including 551 children, died in Gaza, where Israel’s counterstrikes caused widespread devastation. Israel said that up to half of those killed on the Palestinian side were combatants, and blamed the civilian death toll on Hamas for deliberating placing rocket launchers, tunnels and other military installations among civilians.

Israel says Hamas, which avowedly seeks Israel’s destruction, has since rebuilt larger rocket arsenals capable of hitting the entire country, and is again digging attack tunnels.

Israel is now drawing up contingency plans to evacuate up to a quarter-million civilians from border communities to protect them from attacks from Hamas, Hezbollah or other terror groups, it was reported Tuesday.

The reservists were given 24 hours notice ahead of this week’s exercise. Eight percent of those called up did not attend, the army said.

Brig. Gen. Sa’ar Tzur, the head of the Sinai Division, oversaw the exercise, which also included artillery, combat intelligence and combat engineering elements.

A tank takes part in an IDF drill on March 21, 2017. (IDF Spokesperson Unit)
A tank takes part in an IDF drill on March 21, 2017. (IDF Spokesperson Unit)

The surprise drill was in addition to a smaller exercise conducted by the IDF’s Home Front Command in southern Israel this week.

As part of the the Home Front Command exercise, the incoming missile alert system in southern Israel was tested on Tuesday morning.

The IDF spokesperson said the exercises were planned in advance and not tied to recent tensions with Gaza and jihadists in Sinai.

On Saturday, two rockets were launched from the Gaza Strip toward Israel. One exploded near the city of Ashkelon, north of Gaza, causing no casualties or damage. The second apparently fell inside Palestinian territory.

The Israel Defense Forces responded with tank fire and air strikes at several Hamas targets in the Strip. There were no reports of casualties.

Two days before, a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip struck in an empty field in the Sdot Negev Regional Council near Netivot.

In response, Israeli jets struck two Hamas installations in the north of the Gaza Strip.

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