As the 17th day of Operation Protective Edge against the Hamas held Gaza Strip nears, there are a few crucial lessons already clear for the IDF to adapt going forward, and more importantly for the political echelon to heed.
The ground incursion phase of the operation is far more recent, about 6 days in total, there has been 3 distinct phases that are now apparent. The first two days of the operation were seemingly quite successful for the IDF. By the end of the second night’s operations, the IDF stood within 1 and 2 kilometers from Gaza city, from the north and east respectively. The advance had been fast, visibly knocking the Hamas organization off balance; by the second day, though the southern areas of Israel near the Gaza strip remained under heavy shelling, it seems that the long range bombardment of the country’s center (Tel-Aviv area) and Jerusalem was virtually reduced to zero as the Hamas launching quads ran deeper into Gaza to stay out of the army’s reach. Only days before, Hamas was daily reaching every major city in Israel with longer range missiles, incredibly even reaching the outskirts of Haifa in the country’s north (previously the “exclusive” bombardment area of Hezbollah from Lebanon).
Hamas losses were significant, the open spaces leading up the built up areas were quickly seized, and IDF losses were relatively low. There was a couple of fatal casualties, friendly fire – always a danger in the complex and compact environment of Gaza – and of course the infamous anti-tank missile losses. Most stunning, and nearly immediate achievement was the large number of Hamas tunnels and tunnel shafts that were discovered leading into Israel.
As Hamas knew that their expensive terrorist infrastructure would soon be rendered useless after being discovered by the IDF, Hamas launched a series of terror attacks through the yet undiscovered tunnels. These were incredibly dramatic, and missed the massive world-wide coverage they deserved only because of their failure. It is hard to recall any recent incident where over a dozen heavily armed terrorists infiltrate a small civilian center (like the kibbutzim and villages that line the region); the potential massacre these could have caused is difficult to underestimate. Fortunately, the IDF’s vigilant watch, along with a little luck, rendered these attacks failures, though not without IDF losses. As they first started to occur, we discussed them in this far sighted article, and speculated whether they were not the major factor in spurring the ground incursion.
This led also to the fear, articulated in the article, that the limited goal of only reducing these tunnels back to rubble would be a grave danger. The third and fourth nights of the operation were markedly different. The mood in the nation quickly turned sour, and I credit the people’s and government’s resolve thus far to continue undeterred after the events.
Hours before the first round of heavy casualties (13 Golani soldiers, one whose body is still apparently unaccounted for) were reported by Israel, the Lighthouse broke with the terrible news. Golani’s command structure lay badly mauled after this incident, and the next night proved almost as deadly. Though the toll being taken on Hamas was certainly very heavy, this casualty rate for Israel in vanquishing what is in the scheme of things not a militarily significant foe was completely unacceptable, and cannot go on. What was happening was clear on both the tactical and strategic levels. In that same article only at the outset of the campaign, I warned about the tactical and strategic dangers that are now all too clear.
Tactically, we have seen the all too common mistake in military history of “fighting the last war”. The Second Lebanon War left the IDF with “Armor Trauma” as part of the overall “anti-tank missile” trauma. During this debacle of a war (courtesy of Israel’s “Dream Team” – Olmert, Halutz, Pertez and Katzav for good measure), the overwhelming majority of casualties were caused by the new and improved Russian provided anti-tank missiles in Hezbollah’s arsenal. Mostly, they struck the armored units, whose soldiers had become accustomed to being virtually “invincible” inside an Israeli Merkava tank. As Israel’s tanks had gotten better and better, and her enemies replaced from divisions of Russian made tanks during earlier wars to AK-47 wielding and rock throwing Arab youths in the West Bank, it had become rare indeed that the “tankist” faced anything that could seriously harm him. Even the occasional heavy weapons and RPGs present in Nablus, Jenin and Ramallah were useless against a Merkava III or IV.
On the other hand, Israel’s infantryman, who though also suffered from being habituated to “police actions” in the West Bank rather than training for real war, was never out of danger… AK-47, RPG and even a rock to the head, are all plenty for serious injury and death. In any event, during the Second Lebanon War, the IDF faced a new generation of anti-tank missiles that it had never before. The infantry shared in suffering their devastating effect when forces would concentrate in buildings. Again, in West Bank operations these provide safe heaven from light arms fire, but in Lebanon they turned into death traps much like the vehicles.
When on foot and spread out in the terrain, acting as true infantry, there was little Hezbollah was able to do against the IDF forces, despite their Special Forces units (that were gallantly decimated by Paratroopers in Bint Jebel) and new generation Russian equipment. This was the lesson ingrained in the IDF’s collective mind.
However, Gaza in 2014 is not Lebanon in 2006. There has been only one reported use of an advanced anti-tank missile by Hamas forces, a kornet, and vast use of traditional RPGs. Tactically, the IDF has perhaps erred in not bringing more armor to the fore and overly relying on infantry in fear of the anti-tank missile. Not only is Hamas’ arsenal (and ability) not Hezbollah’s, but the IDF’s tank corp is not what it was back then either. The quality and vigor of the tankistim has been rejuvenated, and the high-tech defense systems on the tanks greatly improved; much of that still classified information.
The overwhelming firepower that tanks en masse bring to the battle cannot be overestimated. Their advanced visual systems (night vision, infrared, etc) and automated targeting systems makes them be able to cover the field with the accuracy needed in this largely urban environment, and the ability to simply overwhelm and break the enemy. To date, there has been no reported fatal casualties in the conflict among the tank forces caused by anti-tank missiles (there has been one or two casualties in the armored core, but caused by sniper fire against troops obviously exposed outside their tanks). Of course, they are not to be used alone; combined arms is the name of the game, and the armor must rely on infantry, intelligence, special forces and the air force to cover and protect their movements, especially in a complex and booby-trapped environment like Gaza. But Hamas is not Hezbollah, and ultimately, a brigade charge of Merkava tanks at downtown Gaza city would be its sudden fall.
So while the first phases of the operation may have seen an overly exaggerated fear of using armor, the infantry committed an ironically opposite mistake. The infantry doing its job on the ground, whether it was Nahal, combat engineers, Golani or the Paratroopers among others, has not only done its job but has suffered amazingly low casualties levels. The terrible toll borne by those units has been to troops on vehicles driving around the battlefield. So while heavily armored tanks have been kept at a distance out of respect for the anti-tank missile, ironically the commanding echelon of all the infantry units has been exposing itself to those same missiles in lightly armored APCs or worse, completely unarmored jeeps.
In the IDF, commanders lead from the front, and this holds true for company commanders, battalion commanders, and even brigade commanders. They also tend to move in “mobile command units” in order to be able to quickly respond to events and be where they are need. These are often no more than one or two jeeps, fine for stopping rocks thrown at you by youths near Hebron, but not RPGs; ironically traditional RPGs that would do nothing to a modern battle tank. The vast majority of the army’s casualties thus far, have been suffered by non-tank troops driving around in lightly armored vehicles. For this very same reason, they have been massively disproportionately commanders, officers and their staff.
In short, in fear of exposing tanks, we exposed jeeps. The commanding officers need to take heed of this situation (which I am sure most already have), and not wait to adapt until the next war for the conditions that require adapting to now. If they want to remain highly mobile as they are accustomed to, they must stay well behind their troops, and if they want to go to the front… I suppose they need to dismount and battle on their feet, like their men. Their courage is doubted by no one, but they also help no one but our enemies by charging to their slaughter. Nicholas II of Russia, during WWI and before the communist takeover, begged his officers, who refused to take cover from the new German machine guns (while rank and file soldiers did) as they thought it dishonorable, to do otherwise. He told them that their courage and honor was not in question, but their lives and that of the state was (how right this not usually far-sighted man was no one would have guessed) . Often military tradition forces courageous men to chose what is ultimately unwise… let us be wiser.
The above has been a discussion of tactics, but there was a larger strategic difference in the second phase of the incursion (after the first 2 days or so) that also led to the mounting casualties. Already it was clear to me in my earlier article but it is painfully apparent now. The pace of operations was easy to distinguish, suddenly the Hamas rocket fire over the whole country intensified again, IDF casualties mounted, and clearly we were no longer advancing. There was reported battles in Shuja’iyya, the eastern district of Gaza city for days, without advance. Meanwhile, as the IDF seemed to stall, and casualties on both sides continue to mount, pressure increased dramatically for a ceasefire.
Israel of course, continued to accept all ceasefires, while Hamas rejected them. Though many think that this is good PR, it leaves Hamas in charge of events, setting the pace and the tone. The war continues until they no longer wish it to do so. They can reject proposal after proposal, and the moment they accept one (when they are losing badly), then it’s all over. Israel has thus far been very fortunate in that the repeated cease fires offers were rejected by Hamas, and so it gained a measure of goodwill, whether this was by shrewd design or not, but now the government must use this political capital to its advantage. It must now announce that it will not accept any further cease-fire demands… having accepted about 5 of them previously, each rejected by Hamas, while the country continues to be subjected to terror attacks and heavy rocket and missile bombardment. The gestures of goodwill being rejected, Israel must seek a victory. The only thing it should accept from Hamas, is its surrender. If it declares this now before Hamas accepts a ceasefire of its choosing, it will be able to follow through.
The ambushes on the army’s command mobile units, and the increasing number of rockets had the same source. The IDF let up its pressure on the enemy, who had a chance to regroup, withdraw to the safety of the urban areas, and reorganize. This does not even likely diminish collateral damage since shelling and air force bombardment continues of the urban areas, which would stop once they are conquered.
Nothing can be more detrimental to the morale of troops and at the same time invigorating to their enemies, than the knowledge that there are “safe” areas for him (the enemy) to hide in. When the enemy feels safe in a certain area, he can calmly think, regroup and launch attacks at your forces after which he can once again retreat to safety. Meanwhile, ones own troops feel helpless and betrayed by the restrictions, their freedom of movement curtailed, and embittered by the command that they must now stand at that arbitrary line and take whatever is thrown at them. More than all that perhaps, is the feeling that the people at the top, who they are trusting with their lives, may not know what they are doing.
These were all the hard re-learned (as they are not new but ancient) lessons of the Second Lebanon War. The national conscript and reserve army is not a toy, and the lives of its soldiers who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the nation, must be respected above all. As if the sometimes absurd restrictions placed on them in terms of rules of engagement and firing restrictions (to ensure the safety of civilians or quasi-civilians which Hamas often puts intentionally in harm’s way) were not enough, they do not need political restrictions ensuring that they are sent into an un-winnable war. If the army is ordered to defeat Hamas, a political decision, then it must be given the flexibility to achieve that goal, and protect the lives of its soldiers.
It is fast offensives and highly mobile warfare that are the trademarks of the IDF. In 1967, during less than 6 days of fighting, Israel had more than tripled in size, conquered all of Gaza and the much larger Sinai Peninsula reaching the Suez canal on one front out of three alone! Capturing Gaza in 1956 had not been any slower. This current snail pace bogs down our troops and gives every edge to the defending enemy. Of course, the battles of Gaza are not the blitzkrieg armor battles of open desert warfare, and the complex nature of the task requires a calculated advance… but we must advance! Leaving the troops at an arbitrary politically defined line leaves them open for slaughter.
The Nasrallah Factor
There is another ominous threat in either stalling further in Gaza or trying a strategy of attrition against Hamas. Nasrallah, the shrewdest of our enemies, perched on the hills of southern Lebanon watches with interest. If the IDF operation is quick, decisive and victorious, he will not move. However, if he sees the IDF bog down, casualties mount, and most importantly the political will diminish, he may very give the word to join his jihadist (though sunni as opposed to shia) comrades in support and bombard Israel’s north. This time around, with an intensity and missile arsenal that eclipses what he was able to muster in 2006. Nasrallah cannot take this decision lightly, for he knows he was fortunate to survive the last round he had with Israel (thanks to its incompetent leaders at the time) and cannot chance such destruction on Hezbollah and Lebanon again. But if he sees our inability or unwillingness to even enter the entire Gaza strip to stop the country’s shelling, he will conclude that we could not possibly enter Lebanon either and possibly join the assault. In such a case, Israel will be facing two open and complex fronts simultaneously, while ironically facing and uniting the proxies of both the Middle East’s warring power brokers. Israel would be simultaneously battling the money and support of both Qatar and Iran.
On the other hand, here lies the opportunity to prevent such a scenario from happening in the future, currently only a single front is open, Hamas itself outraged at the lack of support from other Arab states who are leaving it to its fate; the opportunity to neutralize the southern front would be unforgivable to ignore.
Pressure to accept Defeat, and the necessity for Victory
As the pressure mounts for a ceasefire, Israel must reach out for this victory. Ironically, what stops deaths, even on the enemy side is this very victory. The third phase of the ground incursion stared after this lull, which shows signs of being positive. The government may have realized some of these above discussed things (or read my previous articles!) and given the army more room to maneuver. I hope so. Hamas is starting to show signs of collapse, including larger numbers of arrests (ie surrenders), and lesser resistance. The leadership however, remains defiant and Israel must use this opportunity for complete victory.
John Kerry and Obama seemed especially desperate in their bid to backdoor embargo or sanction Israel by closing the international airport traffic through the FAA. An action, that ironically Obama would never take on Iran, Pakistan or even war zone Ukraine where either Russian separatists or Ukraine (if I was a betting man, I’d say Ukraine) just downed a commercial liner killing around 300 innocent people.
This indicates a stubbornness from the Israeli government to not be bullied by John Kerry, in defiance of the American people he represents (who do not wish to bully Israel) which is very reassuring. Sanctions and embargoes on enemy states should be carried out by congress, representing the American people. Since they would never allow an embargo of an ally in order to save terrorist Hamas from destruction, Obama as he often does, attempted to use Executive Power to circumvent congress and achieve the same end.
As a note on the logic of the matter. Thousands of rockets have been launched at Israel from Gaza in this latest round of conflict. They have only killed 1 or two people so far (mostly due to Israel’s iron dome system). More thousands have been launched from Gaza during the last two decades (since Israel withdrew from Gaza in the early 90s). None have landed in the airport (1 landed miles away in the town of Yehud). Even in the nearly impossible chance that one landed on a parked and loaded plane, this would not cause the death of all 300 people in the commercial liner (as is liable to happen recently when flying over Ukraine or on a Malaysian airliner) but a handful at most. Weather and birds are a far bigger threat statistically. It is easy to see the threat has been largely exaggerated in order to stop air traffic.
However, if the US administration truly believed this threat to warrant the closing of Israel’s only international airport, then why do they insist on the preservation of this threat? Instead of supporting Israel in its quest to remove it, they are doing everything they can to make sure the threat remains, and in that case should not the closing of the airport be permanent?
Israel has only one major international airport, and it cannot tolerate the closed airspace for various reasons, foremost economic reasons as well as having thousands of people, Israeli and otherwise, stranded within or outside the country unable to leave or return. Kerry hoped that this would force Bibi’s hand into an immediate ceasefire.
But Israel must remember only one thing in this regard. Obama’s sneaky embargo attempt is based on the excuse of the rocket threat. Like was stated, while a ceasefire is the solution that appeases Kerry and Obama, it hardly removes the threat. Another (and actually better) solution is the defeat of Hamas in the strip and complete removal of the rocket threat. It is why Obama’s weak attempt at forcing Israel’s hand will fail (as there are signs already of the move backfiring badly on the anti-american US administration).
This nearly completes my series of articles on Operation Protective Edge; with a final upcoming one highlighting what a proper broader Israeli strategy must be; which I very much hope to complete either before Israel agrees to a premature ceasefire, or your humble writer himself is called up and hopefully only temporarily removed from his pen and paper.