On November 20, 2005, the IDF’s Military Intelligence directorate spread word to the army’s forward bases on the Lebanon border that a complex Hezbollah mission was afoot. It’s not clear how detailed the warning was; the volume of threats is always significant and the foot soldiers doing the grunt work on the borders are often inured to alarm. More often than not, the threats are duly noted and the routine prevails.
A company commander in the Paratroopers Brigade, though, sat down that afternoon and re-addressed the threat he faced. Hezbollah, were it to attack, would come for a static position near the border fence. He assessed the possible approach routes, the possible targets, and set out a string of counter-ambushes along the flanks of the stationary positions, equipping the squads with precision weapons and other essentials.
Toward evening, a four-man Hezbollah squad, moving in formation and armed to the teeth, approached, under a veil of mortar fire, from precisely the direction that Lt. Elad Yaakobson had presumed. The Hezbollah men, dressed in black and carrying an armed rocket-propelled grenade, were backed up by high-powered, off-road motorcycles and jeeps. The mission, it was clear, was to abduct a soldier.
A marksman, at the time a corporal only eight months into his service, kept his cool and picked off each of the four attackers, foiling the raid.
The company commander, by changing the alignment, “solved the problem for the entire state of Israel,” said Lt. Col. Dotan Razili, the deputy commander of the army’s Company and Battalion Commander Course, which came to a close this week in the Negev Desert with a live-fire drill. “That’s what we expect from them.”
He spoke shortly after Israel allegedly assassinated an Iranian Revolutionary Guards general and an iconic Hezbollah commander along with several other combatants traveling in a convoy in the Syrian Golan Heights, prompting vows of revenge, or “destructive thunderbolts,” in the words of Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
Trailing a group of Golani Brigade soldiers, advancing alongside the settling skip of machine-gun fire and the mechanical screech of tank treads, Razili detailed the lessons of the last war, in Gaza, and the ways they are applicable to future conflicts, perhaps with Hezbollah.
Nasrallah, he said of the organization’s leader, “wants to conquer a city,” perhaps in the Galilee. The border town at the tip of the Galilee’s panhandle, Metulla, he suggested, “is definitely a possibility.”
The army constantly practices perimeter defense and the invasion of enemy strongholds or towns in which the enemy is embedded. It does not, however, drill its infantry soldiers in the practice of taking back an Israeli town seized, in its entirety, by enemy forces.
“The main element is to lessen the shock and make sure they’ll act,” Razili said, noting that no Israeli village or town has fallen since Kibbutz Nitzana, in 1948, “and the trauma of that endures till today.”
What, precisely, is the extent of Hezbollah’s capabilities, he allowed, remains unclear to the IDF. “There’s no doubt that it acquired certain skills in Syria” — namely, the assault of towns and cities, operating in larger groups — “and we really don’t like it. We understand that the challenge is growing and increasing.”
The solution, for the asymmetric threats lurking amid the cities of Gaza and Lebanon, are most readily addressed, he said, by bolstering two principles of warfare: adaptation, which led to the success in Rajar; and deception, which was lacking during the 50-day operation in Gaza.
Deception, Razili said, “was slightly forgotten by us.” It’s in the army’s central principles of war, ranked fourth, as opposed to eighth position in the US Army, but, with time, he added, “the matter was less and less emphasized; it was diluted a bit.”
He said he didn’t want to talk about the IDF as Goliath but that, at times, in an effort to cut losses and to get an operation done, the army has acted like the biblical giant of the Philistines. “But we tell the company and battalion commanders: You are David.”
This means living in the field, knowing the field, and connecting the dots of evidence until, “as in a children’s workbook,” the enemy’s force structure emerges. “Look at the field,” he said. “Even if you do not always understand everything. Look at the system. Find the mines, locate the anti-tank squads, figure out the mandatory channels. See the system. Now attack the weak spots.”
Armies, though, as opposed to small organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah — whose learning curve has been improved by a series of massive Israeli blows, Razili said — learn slowly. In order to bridge the gap, the Company and Battalion Commander Course staff went down to the Gaza border staging area during the war and conducted Q&A sessions with recent graduates who had fought in the war, asking what, in the trial by fire, was found to be lacking.
The results were both surprising and intuitive. The staff found that the armor-infantry union worked well, even in the urban environment; that dogs, so long as they are not too hot and tired, are invaluable in detecting explosives; that army radio frequency and not encoded telephones were crucial to successfully managing a field force; that the army still has no real notion of how to silently or noiselessly cross its own border fence en masse; and that mines often chart a path to gunmen and gunmen to mines.
On tunnels, Razili and other officers were understandably tight-lipped, saying only that the lessons learned surrounded locating the tunnels, flushing the militants out, and fighting around them but not within the underground space, which is generally the domain of Special Forces.
Surprisingly, diarrhea represented a significant problem. The people of Israel brought food down to the staging area en masse. The soldiers ate and took more for the road. “The mom made the schnitzel in Tel Aviv,” Razili said, “so by the time it reaches the guys, it can be a problem.” Additionally, living in the field often means living without bathrooms. Alcohol gel, the officers told the staff, was shipped in mid-operation, and only then was the problem contained.
Lt. Ilay Galon, the deputy commander of the Paratroopers Brigade’s recon unit during the operation, completed the course this week and will command a paratrooper Basic Training company in March. He fought in Gaza for five days. On July 21, in southern Gaza, after moving from house to house to locate tunnels and Hamas squads, his team came under a highly organized attack: One soldier was killed, 14 more were wounded. The battle was face-to-face, at close range. Galon took a bullet in the thigh.
One lesson, Galon said, is that every soldier needs to know the basics of first aid. “It’s talked about a lot, but it’s not always really practiced,” he said.
Additionally, in the battles awaiting Israel, he said, the concept of gathering force in a line for a charge against the enemy is not relevant. “It’s one on one,” he said, explaining that a soldier’s individual skills, in what he termed guerrilla warfare, would decide many battles.
And finally, the new graduate said that although many of the battles would seem to be based in urban environments, the army is right to keep the initial emphasis on the field and then, in more advanced training, to teach the elements of urban and subterranean warfare. “It’s the base,” he said, “and the base comes first.”
As for the old adage that armies tend to prepare for the previous war, Razili acknowledged the difficulty. “It’s always true,” he said. “We could be wrong. A new war is always a challenge. But if you give the basics — how to take apart the enemy’s system, how to pick the right tool from the toolbox — then it should work.”
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