Why did Israel think a border fence would protect it from an army of terrorists?

Once an offensive-minded force, the IDF thought it could hunker down behind walls and the Iron Dome, while the threat grew on the other side

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Palestinian terrorists take control of an Israeli tank after crossing the border fence with Israel from Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on October 7, 2023. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)
Palestinian terrorists take control of an Israeli tank after crossing the border fence with Israel from Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on October 7, 2023. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

On the morning of October 7 — a date that will long be marked as one of the Jewish people’s darkest days — Israel’s security concept crumbled as Hamas terrorists streamed through, over, and around its Gaza border fence.

Israeli leaders believed that the fortification, an NIS 3.5 billion ($1.1 billion) project that took over three years to complete, would provide a defensive shield around its citizens on the border.

“This barrier, a creative, technological project of the first order, denies Hamas one of the capabilities that it tried to develop and puts a wall of iron, sensors and concrete between it and the residents of the south,” said then-defense minister Benny Gantz at a ceremony marking its completion in 2019.

As videos of the calamity on Saturday made painfully clear, the fence did next to nothing to stop the invasion.

Hamas fighters knocked it aside with bulldozers, then drove right through the gaping holes in jeeps and on motorcycles. Others sailed right over in gliders, while members of Hamas’s navy hopped on boats to try to reach Israel by sea.

The results are known to everyone by this point. Nearly a thousand Israelis dead, the largest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust. More than a hundred hostages, including elderly women and infants, in Hamas captivity.

How did the mighty IDF, which once knocked massive Arab armies out of action with bold ground maneuvers, find itself relying on a fence to protect the lives of its citizens living nearby?

Taking offense

Throughout most of its history, the IDF did not want much to do with defensive measures. Its traditional security concept rested on three complementary pillars — deterrence, early warning, and decisive battlefield victory (hachra’a in Hebrew).

File – In this June 7, 1967. file photo, Israeli troops enter Gaza City in the Gaza Strip during the Six-Day War. (AP Photo, File)

Guided by this concept in the era of its famous victories over conventional Arab armies, the IDF built offensive power designed to deter its enemies from attacking, and intelligence arrays to detect when that deterrence had eroded. If it was unable to convince the other side that it was better off avoiding conflict, the IDF would bring the full might of its offensive capabilities to bear in search of a rapid and decisive victory in enemy territory.

This would, according to the concept, strengthen deterrence.

Defense began sneaking into the conversation in the 1960s, as Israel considered purchasing the Hawk surface-to-air missile system from the US. The possibility of spending scarce resources on defense roused stiff opposition at the highest level of the IDF.

Air Force commander Ezer Weizman opposed the idea on the grounds that it would give Israel’s political chiefs an excuse to avoid the bold offensive operations — in this case surprise airstrikes — necessary to win a war. “I feared that when the senior leadership would need to approve an air offensive,” Weizman revealed in his memoir, “the presence in Israel of Hawk missiles would actually block a fast-affirmative decision [to strike first].”

President Ezer Weizman during a 1998 interview in his Jerusalem residence (photo credit: Flash90)
President Ezer Weizman during a 1998 interview in his Jerusalem residence (photo credit: Flash90)

Other senior IAF officers took issue with the Hawk missiles over the fact that they were purely defensive. They argued the money would be better spent on flexible platforms like aircraft that could serve in both defensive and offensive roles.

In the end, five Hawk missile batteries were purchased just before the 1967 Six Day War for $30 million. Notably, they were integrated into the existing offensive concept, by protecting Israel’s air force installations (in addition to the Dimona nuclear reactor) to maintain the IAF’s deterrence and first-strike capabilities.

The subsequent defensive project the IDF embarked upon was a debacle — and one that presaged the disaster three days ago.

Egyptian troops celebrate as they plant their flag atop a bunker on the Bar-Lev line east of the Suez Canal, October 13, 1973. (AP Photo/Pool/Ahmed Tayeb)

The infamous Bar-Lev Line, the string of fortifications built on the banks of the Suez Canal after the Six Day War, was easily overrun by Egyptian forces at the start of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Instead of holding off the enemy advance to give IDF reserves the time to reach the front and go on the offensive, attempts to rescue the besieged troops in the outposts — rather than gathering enough force to cross the Suez and take the fight to the enemy — sucked up much of the Southern Command’s attention and resources in the difficult early days of the war.

Iron Walls

“In the end, in the State of Israel, as I see it, there will be a fence surrounding it,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared, during a February 2016 tour of the Israel-Jordan border. “They’ll say to me, ‘That’s what you want to do, to defend the villa?’ The answer is yes. ‘Will we surround all of Israel with fences and obstacles?’ The answer is yes.”

The reliance on a defensive barrier didn’t begin with Netanyahu. Israel embarked on its current reliance on border barriers during the Second Intifada more than a decade earlier.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends on Wednesday the ceremony marking the completion of the main section of the Israeli-Egyptian border fence (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a ceremony marking the completion of the main section of the upgraded Israeli-Egyptian border fence, January 2, 2013 (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/FLASH90)

After the March 2002 Park Hotel Seder night suicide bombing and the ensuing Operation Defensive Shield, Israel began building the controversial security barrier to separate West Bank Palestinians from Israelis. It built a new and improved fence on the Israel-Gaza border. It spent more than NIS 1.6 billion on a 245-mile fence on its border with Egypt, initially to keep African migrants out and then as a bulwark against Sinai-based terrorist groups. After deadly protests by Palestinians in Syria in May and June 2011, during which dozen of protesters breached the existing fence, Israel built an eight-meter-high barrier running south from Majd al-Shams.

In 2016, Israel began building the fence from Eilat to Timna, on the border with Jordan.

If it was building walls, Israel also had to get its citizens behind them. In 2005, Ariel Sharon pushed through the Disengagement from Gaza and the northern West Bank, evacuating thousands of Israeli civilians, some by force.

A section of Israel’s security barrier between the Jewish settlement of Modiin Illit, right, and the outskirts of the West Bank village of Bilin, near Ramallah, June 23, 2011. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The walls began affecting the mindset of the soldiers and leaders bunkered down behind them. The state had built up mental barriers in the minds of its defenders no less formidable than those on its borders.

The Gilad Shalit kidnapping in 2006 — after the Gaza disengagement — remains a stunning illustration of the adverse psychological affects of being walled in. Hamas terrorists tunneled under the border fence, and attacked outposts and a tank where soldiers failed to react effectively. They were either entirely unfocused on a potential threat, or were simply asleep, assuming that the mere presence of the barrier would keep them safe.

According to a report by Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland, who investigated the incident, Israeli forces were slow to cross the fence into Gaza in pursuit of the kidnappers, thinking they needed special permissions and preparations to enter the Strip.

Walls in the sky

As Israel threw up walls and fences, its enemies pursued a logical response — they intensified the development of their rocket and missile arsenals to fly over the barriers. This threat truly opened the way for defense to take its place among the three traditional elements of the Israeli security concept.

After Hezbollah succeeded in maintaining sustained Katyusha rocket fire throughout the 2006 Second Lebanon War, the 2007 Meridor Committee on Israel’s National Security Doctrine presented defense as the fourth pillar in the national security concept. The same year, then-prime minister Ehud Olmert accepted the recommendation of defense minister Amir Peretz and approved Iron Dome as Israel’s solution against short-range rockets.

Then-Labor party head Ehud Barak with Amir Peretz, November 16, 2008. (Roni Schutzer/Flash90)

Iron Dome was envisioned as the short-range component in Israel’s emerging missile defense system. David’s Sling would protect against medium-range rockets, while the Arrow 2 and Arrow 3 systems were intended to engage long-range ballistic missiles.

It didn’t take long for the Iron Dome to affect how Israel fought. The Gaza operation that took place before Iron Dome’s operational deployment, the 2008-9 Operation Cast Lead, saw a significant ground maneuver by IDF infantry and armored forces.

After the Iron Dome was deployed in 2011, Israel fought two more major conflicts against Hamas. In the 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense, the IDF relied entirely on stand-off firepower and did not maneuver at all, while the limited ground advance in the 2014 Operation Protective Edge was part of a defensive effort against tunnels, and was not meant to defeat Hamas in the field.

The recent rounds against Hamas also did not feature any ground maneuver.

Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system intercepts rockets launched from Gaza City on May 10, 2023. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

It should be noted that the IDF had been moving away from ground maneuver since the 1990s, relying on precision strikes that would not put IDF soldiers directly in harm’s way. But there was a recognition that the IDF needed to urgently fix its ground maneuver capabilities after the 2006 debacle, and the success of the Iron Dome robbed maneuver advocates of much of their momentum.

Investment in defense aroused opposition this time around as well. Many IDF officers saw the system as a threat to the IDF offensive war-fighting concept. What’s worse, they argued, missile defense could even damage Israel’s deterrence, as it would take money from the offensive capabilities on which that deterrence rests.

German troops pass the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on June 14, 1940. (AP Photo)

Students of military history will make the association with other failed massive defensive systems, ones that had the very effect of which Weizman was afraid. In a 2015 Ma’arachot article, IDF Brigadier General (res.) Dr. Meir Finkel details the effect of the defensive fortification line France built in the 1930s to hold off a German offensive. The state-of-the-art Maginot Line consumed 6 percent of France’s defense budget from 1930 to 1937, taking desperately needed funds from offensive capabilities like tanks and planes.

The impact of the Maginot Line was felt beyond budgets. In his work on the fall of France in World War II, British historian Alistair Horne describes how the line became not only a core component of French strategy, but also created an illusory atmosphere of safety and security.

It provided neither, and when the German armor finally came in 1940, it simply attacked through the Ardennes Forest where the fortifications were sparse. France surrendered within 46 days.

A threat allowed to grow

With the illusion that the technological wizardry of the Iron Dome and the high-tech fence grants it a hermetically sealed bunker to shelter in for as long as it needs to, Israel chose to let the Gaza problem fester.

The range and precision of the Gaza terror groups’ rockets steadily expanded. In 2012, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv came under fire, and in 2014, it was Haifa’s turn. In the same conflict, Hamas even succeeded in temporarily shutting down Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, for several hours cutting off from the world the country with the mightiest military in the Middle East. This had been unthinkable only a few years before.

Palestinians from the Gaza Strip enter Kibbutz Kfar Aza on Oct. 7, 2023 amid a massive assault by the Hamas terror group. (AP Photo/Hassan Eslaiah)

“What was once a tactical defense mechanism to temporarily protect the civilian population has become a strategy unto itself,” wrote Tel Aviv University political theorist Yoav Fromer.

Senior IDF officers warned that the enemy would aim to carry out the type of attacks it did on October 7, and that the area just beyond the fence had become the target of enemy plans.

Col. Yehuda Vach, commander of the Officer Training School, spoke to battalion and brigade commanders operating along Israel’s border fences, and published his insights in a 2019 article in the IDF’s Dado Center Journal.

The officers told him that “Hezbollah and Hamas are ‘knocking on the fence,’ and understand that they don’t need to penetrate deep into Israeli territory to make strategic gains, but simply need to cross the fence and carry out attacks and kidnapping near the border. The commanders were well aware of the threat of kidnapping attacks, but were not confident they could stop all attempts.

“Because we don’t cross the fence, the other side has become strategically stronger,” wrote Vach. “The enemy conducts a strategy around the fence, while we guard the fence with small and weak forces.”

Palestinians visit an exhibition of the Izz a Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Palestinian Hamas movement, during the Eid al-Adha festival in Gaza City, on June 30, 2023. (Atia Mohammed/ Flash90)

“The enemy will seek in the next campaign to carry out an operation to kidnap soldiers and harm civilians in the towns near the fence, thus enjoying the first achievement of the campaign,” he predicted. “The fence creates an illusion and gives a false sense of security to both the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces and the residents near the fence.”

The illusion has now dissipated, the false sense of security shattered. The question now is what it will be replaced with.

Will Israel return to its offensive mindset, and maneuver deep into Gaza to achieve a decisive victory over the organization that snatched its children and shot its senior citizens in the head? Or will it look for other ways to tell its citizens it has given them security, while dangerous enemies continue to plot just over its borders?

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