In light of findings, head of IDF Special Ops being replaced

IDF: Officer killed in failed Gaza raid was felled by friendly fire

Army chief expresses sorrow over death of Lt. Col. Mem, as military presents its probe into special forces operation that went awry and sparked massive exchange of fire with Hamas

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

Palestinians stand next to the remains of a car allegedly used by Israeli special forces during an operation in Gaza, which was was later destroyed in an Israeli airstrike, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on November 12, 2018. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)
Palestinians stand next to the remains of a car allegedly used by Israeli special forces during an operation in Gaza, which was was later destroyed in an Israeli airstrike, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on November 12, 2018. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

The Israel Defense Forces on Sunday revealed that the special forces officer who was killed in an operation in the Gaza Strip that went awry in November was hit by friendly fire from another member of his team.

The information was released following the presentation of the military’s investigation into the affair, which sparked a heavy but short-lived round of fighting, to IDF chief Aviv Kohavi last week, the army said.

The probe’s findings were a mixed bag, identifying a number of tactical errors and improper planning that led to the operation’s failure, alongside courageous actions by members of the special forces unit who took part in the raid that prevented a greater disaster, including by the officer who accidentally killed his comrade — who for security reasons can only be referred to by his rank and first Hebrew letter of his name, Lt. Col. “Mem” — with a stray shot.

Overall, Kohavi determined the operation to have failed in its stated mission. The highly public, embarrassing debacle led to a series of shakeups within Military Intelligence.

Notably, the head of Military Intelligence’s Special Operations Division — who can also only be identified by his rank and initial, Brig. Gen. “Gimel” — resigned his position last week, having decided to do so in August.

IDF chief Aviv Kohavi visits a large-scale exercise simulating warfare against the Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon, in June 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

IDF chief Kohavi decided to bring back a former commander of the division — Brig. Gen. (res.) “Aleph,” who served in the role from 2015 to 2016 — to replace him as a civilian employee of the military, an army spokesperson said.

He will enter the position shortly, the IDF said.

Several lower ranking officers from within the Special Operations Division have also stepped down from their positions in recent months in the wake of the failed mission.

The raid

On the night of November 11, Israeli special forces soldiers entered the Gazan city of Khan Younis on an intelligence-gathering raid, the details of which remain classified.

According to the Hamas terror group, the troops were attempting to install a listening device in Khan Younis in order to intercept the organization’s communications. The Israeli military refuses to comment on Hamas’s claim.

The operation was monitored by then-IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot, the head of Military Intelligence Tamir Hayman and the head of the Shin Bet security service Nadav Argaman.

During the mission, the soldiers were stopped and questioned by Hamas operatives, reportedly because they had acted suspiciously. According to Arab media, the troops were equipped with false documentation identifying them as Palestinians.

The interrogation lasted approximately 45 minutes.

“The force was able to remain in the field after they’d been exposed because of the praiseworthy actions of Lt. Col. ‘Mem,’ who led the troops for several long minutes, after his people were deemed suspicious,” IDF Spokesperson Ronen Manelis said Sunday.

“Once there were certain conditions that threatened the lives of the troops, the commander of one of the forces, Lt. Col ‘Aleph,’ opened fire at a group of Hamas terrorists,” he said.

The investigation, which was launched shortly after the operation, found that Mem was killed by this attack by Aleph and that another officer, who had been surrounded by Hamas operatives, was moderately wounded by it.

“Lt. Col. ‘Aleph’ opened fire, killing a number of Hamas terrorists, and unfortunately also hit Lt. Col. ‘Mem’ with a stray shot,” another army spokesperson said.

In a statement, the military lauded Aleph for his actions, despite the friendly fire accident, saying that he “acted calmly, courageously and heroically, and allowed the troops to be rescued.” He was reportedly being considered for a medal of honor.

The special forces unit beat a rapid retreat from the coastal enclave, with a complicated helicopter evacuation from within an urban area by the elite search-and-rescue Unit 669.

The two vehicles that they had reportedly been traveling in, along with the

“Operations like the operation from November 11 surpass all imagination,” Manelis said.

According to the spokesman, 20 minutes passed between Aleph opening fire at the Hamas operatives and the special forces unit landing in Israel. During that time, the Israeli Air Force struck 70 targets inside Gaza in order to give the Unit 669 Sikorsky CH-53 helicopter the necessary cover to safely land and extract the troops, he said.

The spokesperson said three of those 20 minutes were spent ensuring that no soldier was left behind.

Officials assess the damage to a house after it was hit by a rocket fired by Palestinian terrorists from the Gaza Strip, in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, Israel, November 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

“The soldiers got on the helicopter. The unit leader counted the soldiers a number of times over the course of three minutes. [The soldiers] said those were the longest three minutes of their lives,” Manelis said.

In response to the raid and the deaths of its men, Hamas and other terror groups launched a massive three-day attack on Israel, firing some 500 rockets and mortar shells at Israeli cities and towns near the Gaza border and leading the sides to the brink of war.

‘The mission was not carried out’

The probe into the raid found the operation to be a failure.

“The chief of staff determined that the operation’s mission was not carried out. He expressed deep sorrow at the death of Lt. Col. Mem and noted the courage displayed by the soldiers,” the army said in a statement.

“The chief of staff noted that a breakdown of how the events transpired raised a number of errors and mishaps that led to the troops being exposed, which signify shortcomings in the way it was carried out and in the planning process.”

In a statement, Kohavi also noted that in general the Special Operations Division performs well and has contributed to the security of the state, including in the eight months since the failed raid.

In addition, several soldiers and air force officers were deemed to have acted commendably after the operation went awry, the army said.

An IDF spokesperson said a committee would convene shortly in order to consider awarding medals of honor to some of the soldiers and airmen involved in the operation and the rescue effort.

“The lessons will be applied and the recommendations will be put into place. I applaud the courage of the fighters and pilots who operated under extremely difficult circumstances and the heroic rescue effort,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

“I stand by the family of Lt. Col. Mem in the name of the citizens of Israel for his bravery and his actions,” he added.”

A commercial vehicle in Gaza Hamas says was used in a special operation on November 11, 2018 that went awry. Screenshot

According to Hamas officials, the Israeli soldiers were from the Sayeret Matkal elite reconnaissance unit and entered the coastal enclave through a proper border crossing, either Israel’s Erez Crossing or Egypt’s Rafah. They were said to have been driving through Gaza in civilian vans, approximately three kilometers (two miles) from the border.

The terror group said the special forces unit was made up of both men and women, who were dressed in traditional Palestinian Muslim attire.

Israel has not confirmed any of the claims.

Following the failed raid, the military launched two separate investigations into the event, including the one just completed by Alon, a former head of IDF Operations. A separate probe by IDF intelligence looked at what went wrong in the raid with a more narrow scope.

Alon was instructed to lead a team to “examine and study the challenges and [make] recommendations at the level of the General Staff, of multiple army branches and of the inter-organizational cooperation between different special forces,” the army said in November.

The IDF said that in addition to the chief of staff, Alon’s findings were also presented to Deputy Chief of Staff Eyal Zamir, the head of IDF Operations Aharon Haliva, the head of Military Intelligence Tamir Hayman and Air Force chief Amikam Norkin.

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