A year on, army looks to last Gaza war for lessons on fighting the next one

Israel has watched Hamas change tack, so it may have a chance to prepare better for a seemingly inevitable future conflict

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

IDF infantrymen congregating around a tunnel entrance in Gaza, July 24, 2014. (Courtesy IDF Flickr)
IDF infantrymen congregating around a tunnel entrance in Gaza, July 24, 2014. (Courtesy IDF Flickr)

Israel faced a changed enemy in the summer of 2014.

Five years after its last major conflict in Gaza and two years since an aerial campaign that caught Hamas unawares, Israel squared off in July against a Hamas that still used civilians as cover, still sought to fire sporadic rockets, and still believed that as long as it kept up the fight, despite the destruction on its territory, it could declare victory.

But the enemy Israel faced in Operation Protective Edge was different from the one that fled underground during 2008-2009’s Operation Cast Lead.

This enemy launched a daring July 8 naval commando raid into Israel, which ended in a face-to-face firefight. Although the Hamas squads were detected and met with overwhelming firepower, a leaked army video revealed several months after the war that Hamas gunmen charged an Israeli tank on the sands of Zikim and placed an explosive device on the vehicle. This, the commander of the Israeli army noted, was “not something people do if they are not brave.”

This enemy also changed its underground warfare doctrine, shifting from mere protection against Israel’s deadly aerial firepower to offensive channels, and overhauled its communications, which stood the test of the 50-day war as Hamas managed, despite Israel’s formidable cyber capacity, to keep most of its commanders safe and to keep the channels of communication open.

A year after the war, the army is still attempting to figure out what lessons it can glean from the events of last summer, as it prepares for the next war – a horrible but inescapable eventuality.

From learning to rely less on air power and focus more on fighting underground — literally — to having a clear endgame, policy experts and officials hope the experiences of Israel’s last war with Hamas will reverberate into the inevitable next one.

Duration of war

For years, since the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 peaked with the deportation of Yasser Arafat and the PLO to Tunis, Israel’s sub-state enemies have adhered to the doctrine of “victory through non-defeat.” In other words: continue firing rockets and make sure you aren’t cornered and deported and you may declare victory. This was the case in Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza in 2009.

Part of the rationale was the assumption that Israel’s citizens are soft-spined bon vivants who will pressure their leadership to make concessions in order to stop the fire. That backfired this summer. On the contrary, Hamas saw that the longer the duration of the war, the more assets it lost.

Lt. Col. N, an officer in the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate, wrote a deeply insightful article [Hebrew] in “Maarachot,” the Defense Ministry’s quarterly magazine, in 2014, in which he argued that Hezbollah has “shifted the character of the confrontation it seeks” – toward offensive action and initiative rather than responsive attacks.

The same may be true of Hamas. It lacks many of the offensive tools that Hezbollah has acquired, but the large tunnel attack that was thwarted at the start of the war is indicative of a doctrinal shift, said Col. (res) MK Omer Bar-Lev, a former commander of the Sayeret Matkal special forces unit and a member of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

Labor MK Omer Bar-Lev speaks to the press outside of a session of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in the Knesset on May 20, 2014 (Flash90)
Labor MK Omer Bar-Lev speaks to the press outside of a session of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in the Knesset on May 20, 2014 (Flash90)

Noting the way Iron Dome and Israel’s early warning systems defanged much of Hamas’s rocket threat, he said “it certainly could be [that Hamas is] in the midst of a strategic and operational change.”

Former national security adviser and Bar Ilan University BESA Center researcher Maj. Gen. (res) Yaakov Amidror concurred, saying that “without doubt” Israel’s ability to endure under rocket fire and conduct a relatively normal life while Hamas suffered losses may have changed the organization’s war doctrine.

The implications of this shift are considerable. Israel, for instance, will have to take into account a Hamas offensive that aims to push the fighting into Israel before Israel has so much as inserted troops into Gaza.

The tunnel wars

In terms of the tactics of the fighting in Gaza, the most glaring lessons relate to the underground realm. Maj. Gen. (res) Doron Almog, a former OC Southern Command and the founder of the Aleh Negev rehabilitation village for disabled children, said he thinks the combination of rockets fired from underground and militants hiding and operating underground is a formula that will endure for years to come and will likely spread to other conflicts, where forces equipped with mostly primitive weapons face formidable air powers.

Clearly then Israel needs to – and is – bulking up all elements of combating the underground threat. In terms of detection, Maj. Gen. Nimrod Sheffer, the head of the IDF’s strategic planning division, indicated at the Herzliya Conference in June that Israel “will crack” the tunnel threat via technology and, somewhat enigmatically, that the technology is already “in our hands.” Presumably, then, as with the rocket threat, Israel will be pushing a solution to the front as fast and hard as possible.

Once a tunnel is found, it needs to be mapped and probed. The army was “not optimally prepared, to put it mildly,” for this task, Bar-Lev said. Since the war, the IDF has upgraded and expanded the Yahalom unit, the engineering corps’ elite force, including the Samur branch of the unit, the only troops exclusively trained for subterranean conflict. The commander of Yahalom, as of this January, is a colonel, like the commander of Sayeret Matkal and the Naval Commandos, meaning that the unit has grown in terms of troops and funds.

Section of a tunnel discovered running from the Gaza Strip to Israel, October 13, 2013. (photo credit: Times of Israel/Mitch Ginsburg)
Section of a tunnel running from the Gaza Strip to Israel, October 13, 2013. (Times of Israel/Mitch Ginsburg)

Additionally, the army has been making a push to introduce more, and more advanced, robots that can be lowered into tunnels, scouting for enemy troops, mapping and searching for explosives. It has also introduced tunnel-like training grounds – above ground, in order to enable live fire – on each of the infantry brigades’ Basic Training bases.

Finally, the destruction of a tunnel is laborious. Drilling equipment must be brought in and many hundreds of pounds of explosives have to be inserted into the channel all along its length. A Southern Command armored corps reserves officer said that the tools with which Israel destroys tunnels were, up until the war, a “boutique” capacity – meaning that there were too few of them. Facing 32 offensive tunnels along, and sometimes through, Israel’s border, the troops often reached the area, looked for tunnel openings, and then waited, in precarious positions, for the heavy machinery to arrive. “There was definitely greater demand than supply,” he said.

Creative ways of destroying tunnels, in a manner that does not expose troops to Hamas scouts, will certainly be needed in a future conflict.

Special forces needed

During the war, the IDF took some flak for a lack of creativity: it opened with an air offensive and followed with ground troops, who marched in to Gaza along a predictable route. The army has said in its defense that the goals of the mission – destroying the cross border tunnels and restoring the status quo — determined its nature.

Amidror agreed, saying there were always only two options in Gaza: a limited operation, as conducted, or a war like Lebanon circa 1982, where Israel would have to fight house-to-house and, later, hold the territory for years.

Bar-Lev and Maj. Gen. (ret) Uzi Dayan, a former national security adviser, suggested a middle ground.

Dayan said Hamas can be beaten “if it faces an existential threat.” That pressure can be brought to bear in one of two ways: either by killing much of the leadership or by stripping it of its territory. The deportation of the PLO from Lebanon, he said, is what led to Oslo. “You need to go for the head of the octopus and not the tentacles,” he said.

The view from the barrel of an IDF Special Forces soldier's weapon during a raid deep in Lebanon during the Second Lebanon War (Photo credit: IDF/ Flash 90)
The view from the barrel of an IDF Special Forces soldier’s weapon during a raid deep in Lebanon during the Second Lebanon War (Photo credit: IDF/ Flash 90)

One way this might happen, he added, was by inserting ground troops more quickly. Bar-Lev, too, said Israel should strive to throw Hamas off balance next time and that the only way to do that was to reach the organization’s “nerve centers,” primarily “on foot” – sending large forward operating teams, armed with reliable intelligence, deep into Gaza at an opportune time.

This operational notion received implicit support this week, when the IDF announced Monday that it had assembled a new Special Forces brigade, comprising the Maglan, Egoz, Duvdevan, and Rimon units. The four units, coalesced under the command of Col. David Zini and within the framework of the paratrooper-based Division 98, are evidence of an operational shift, whereby Special Forces can act in tandem, in a larger offensive, and not merely in pursuit of pinpoint targets.

The silver warriors

The Israeli Air Force is far and away the most impressive branch of the armed forces. It has a huge budget. It gets first pick of every draft. It has the highest percentage of career soldiers. And it has a history of excellence. And yet, some say, it is not a decisive offensive factor in today’s asymmetric wars.

The first such war, fought between a modern power, Italy, and a guerrilla force, the Ottoman-ruled Bedouin of modern-day Libya, began in 1911 and went on for 17 years, military historian Professor Martin van Creveld said during a recent security conference. In the end, it was decided by the presence of 250,000 Italian infantrymen on the ground, he said, “and nothing has changed since.”

In Vietnam, the US lost 11,000 aircraft and lost the war. The same was true of the French effort in Algeria, he said.

Amir Eshel, the commander of the Israel Air Force. (Photo credit: Yossi Zeliger / Flash 90)
Amir Eshel, the commander of the Israel Air Force. (Photo credit: Yossi Zeliger / Flash 90)

To be sure, Van Crevald takes his point to the extreme. The IAF is a pivotal tool, but with the enemy underground and embedded among civilians, the military, as it has done under Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, must emphasize the integrated ground war, with infantry, air, sea, and armor operating in tandem, and it must rid Israel’s leaders of the notion that prevailed post-Kosovo, in which NATO, in 1999, waged a 78-day air war that seemed to prove, for a brief moment in time, that wars could be won without boots on the ground.

Israel, in its 10-day wait from the start of the war last summer until the insertion of ground troops, seemed to be hoping that the matter would be resolved neatly from above.

The security cabinet should instead approach a future conflict with the understanding that, as Maj. Gen. (ret) Emmanuel Sakal, a former head of the armored corps, told me a few years ago, victory comes in only one form – a panting infantryman alongside the hot cannon of a tank.


Finally, aside from the need to preemptively move civilians off the front line, so as to avoid needless loss of life and an ostensible capitulation to terrorist fire mid-war, there is the matter of the endgame.

Bar-Lev, who heads a subcommittee on IDF preparedness for war, was withering in his criticism of the 2014 campaign’s goals.

The notion of fighting for 50 days and then returning to precisely the status quo that reigned for the past decade, he said, was “disappointing,” and may be a historic blunder in which the Israeli leadership failed to capitalize on a scenario in which Hamas was isolated and Israel was on the same page as the moderate Sunni states vis-à-vis Iran and in lockstep with Egypt regarding President Abdel Fatah el-Sissi’s battle with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for Sunni supremacy.

Just as war is the continuation of politics by other means, he said, quoting the Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, “so too is diplomacy the continuation of war.”

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon believes in joint interests with Sunni world but feels that the struggle against Islamist terrorists is generations-long; diplomatic gymnastics, performed in order to solve the problem in the present, merely perpetuate it.

In other words, for him, the endgame is to show, by your equanimity, that you are perfectly willing to do it all over again.

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