A fierce controversy has raged for some years within the Israel Defense Forces, though mainly around it, over the status of its ground forces. Israel has rarely utilized ground forces for deep maneuver operations in enemy territory for at least two decades. Even when a military operation, or quasi war, is launched over a specific point of tension, a combination of circumstances appears to preclude a decision to send ground forces deep into the other side’s territory.

The last time the army used entire divisions to capture territory was against a weak but determined enemy, who inflicted serious damage and quite a few losses on Israel, largely through suicide attacks. This happened in 2002, in Operation Defensive Shield against the Palestinians in the West Bank. Within a few weeks, the army seized control of the cities there; only in Jenin did Israeli troops encounter genuine resistance, from armed squads that were not especially organized. Since then – in the Second Lebanon War (2006) and in the series of operations in the Gaza Strip (2008, 2012, 2014, 2021) – the use of ground forces has been cautious, limited and sometimes even nonexistent. On each occasion, the ground maneuver question arose, and the decision was always to refrain from that step, or to make do with a limited version that did not put to the test the possibility of vanquishing the adversary.

The debate is relevant once more, in light of a new development and a historic date. This summer, the senior cabinet ministers approved a hefty hike in defense expenditures as part of the impending state budget. This will make it possible to implement, following years of delay, the multiyear plan devised by Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, known as Tnufa (“Momentum”). On Wednesday, the anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, which erupted on October 6, 1973, was marked. The resourcefulness and courage of the commanders and combat troops in the field succeeded in tipping the scales in Israel’s favor in that war, despite the intelligence surprise. Military historians customarily note that the 1973 conflict was the last occasion in which armored divisions (from Israel on one side and Egypt and Syria on the other) clashed frontally.

Kochavi, perhaps even more than his predecessors, frequently talks about modernizing the ground forces and deploying them, if needed. But this notion is met with skepticism in the army. Ground forces training has been neglected for years, particularly among the reservist brigades. Isn’t the choice of the politicial leaders, at the chief of staff’s recommendation, to avoid a ground maneuver time after time, the same as what’s known in economic theory as a “revealed preference”? Doesn’t it reflect apprehension about the true ability of the ground forces, and about the losses that would accrue from an intense engagement with the enemy, in Gaza and certainly in Lebanon? At one time there was even talk in the army about the “operational embarrassment.” What, then, can be done?

This is not just a question of principle. If all the talk about the might of the ground forces is just lip service, the practical implication is that Israel will not have the ability to vanquish Hezbollah or even Hamas.

Maj. Gen. Yoel Strick, who has headed the Ground Forces Command for over two years, ends his tour of duty next week and will go to the United States for a period of research. Even though Strick has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the next chief of staff, he is more likely to retire from active service. He has held a series of senior army posts, including head of Northern Command and Home Front Command, head of operations division in the General Staff, division commander on the Lebanon border and Givati infantry brigade commander. He’s 55, Dimona-born; his older children have already completed their army service, the youngest will soon be drafted into an elite unit.

In an interview to Haaretz on Wednesday, Strick sounded very resolute. Criticism doesn’t faze him, and to his credit, he replied openly to all the questions and contentions. He rejects out of hand the narrative by which the General Staff and political leaders are apprehensive about utilizing the ground forces. “I am not occupied with frames of mind and atmosphere,” he said. “You don’t carry out a campaign in enemy territory to prove your ability or to raise the national morale. You invade when you are obligated to. In the end there is a strategic context for every campaign. The determining factor is the desire to achieve one’s strategic goals. We must avoid a situation in which strategy subordinates tactics. We will engage in a ground campaign when that will serve the war’s goals.

“Let’s say,” he added, “that the state decides to topple Hamas in Gaza by vanquishing its military strength. That will not happen without a ground campaign. But when you enter into a deterrence-oriented campaign, you focus on negating the enemy’s capabilities. That’s what we did last May, in Operation Guardian of the Walls, in Gaza.”

Didn’t the decision not to use ground forces at all in that operation stem from a lack of confidence in their ability?

“No way. I know Gaza well. There’s no need to go over the top. There is not one brigade that, if sent into a specific area, will not cut it to pieces. Certainly not a conscripted brigade. The question is at what cost and how long it will take. Our whole conception says: short time, relatively low cost, greatest possible achievement. The idea of 'momentum' is to build a war machine that will enable that scenario and will produce indisputable results. The ground campaign is created to that end as a major player. It will be a very effective tool.”

Referring respectively to Hezbollah’s commando forces and similar forces of Hamas, Strick posited: “The question is what you will want to achieve. To vanquish Radwan? To vanquish Nukhba? To stop the firing at civilian targets?” He stressed: “It has to be done with a lethality that will negate enemy capabilities. We’ll just see what Hezbollah will look like after they lose thousands of fighters, missile stocks, strategic systems.”

The most vehement voice heard in recent years against the army’s standard way of thinking is that of Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brick. Toward the end of his term as IDF Ombudsman, he drew up a series of documents, most of which were first reported in Haaretz, in which he leveled withering criticism at the military’s organizational culture, the neglect of training and the reserves in particular, and at the condition of the ground forces.

“The narrative that’s heard in the media maintains: You didn’t send in ground forces because Brick is right – you’re not prepared, you’re afraid of losses,” Strick said. “But the [public] conversation about the ground maneuver isn’t professional. A story has been created here on a basis of one-dimensional observation. When I took over, a sign was hanging here, in the command’s headquarters: Only ground campaigns will decide [the outcome]. That’s total nonsense. It’s wrong. I removed the sign. What will decide the outcome is everything together. It’s a multidimensional thing, and that’s no slogan. The military has a toolbox: one time a five-kilo hammer, one time pincers, one time a small screwdriver. A campaign has a strategic purpose. The tools are chosen accordingly.”

The allegations, he believes, “are the foolishness of a person who doesn’t know where he’s at. The one-dimensional days are over. Today, when you launch an operation in Gaza you also have to think about the implications for Judea and Samaria, for Lebanon, for Iran. Our enemy is no longer the Syrian commando forces. Terrorist armies are operating against us. They can seriously disrupt Israel’s functioning by means of a massive blow to civilian areas, but with the exception of the Iranian nuclear project there is no potential existential threat to the country here. In the Yom Kippur War, 48 years ago today, the sword was hanging over us. Our problems today are of a different order. When we embark on a deterrence-oriented campaign, the focus is on negating capabilities. Much of that depends on intelligence – the ability to locate where the enemy is, on the ground and below it, to kill them in short order. But we do not go for a body count. It’s not a matter of counting the enemy’s bodies, like the Americans did in Vietnam.”

In his handover ceremony three months ago, the outgoing deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, expressed concern at the reduction in the number of tanks at the army’s disposal. The exact numbers are barred from publication, but they do send a shiver down the spine of former Armored Corps personnel, especially those who fought in the Yom Kippur War, like Brick. In this matter, too, Strick maintains cosmic optimism. “I heard what Eyal said, but I don’t agree with him in this case. Might is not measured by the number of tanks. The question is what those tanks are capable of. The first of the improved Merkava IV Barak tanks will enter into service next year. What a tank like that can do – connecting to other sensors, to technological capabilities, to real-time information provided by Military Intelligence – is what a whole company of tanks did in the past. It’s a machine to expose and destroy enemy targets. It’s not science fiction, but a matter of essence.”

But technology tends to disappoint in real time, in battle conditions.

“Absolutely. With technology you need to take the good and beware of the bad. The Archimedean point lies in the communication between the forces and the tools. We will need a strong and ramified communications pipeline for everything to work together. We need to remember that the enemy is also getting hold of technologies in the civilian market. They know us and study us, and they don’t volunteer to be exposed and hit. We make changes cautiously, even conservatively. But if we will be unable to expose the enemy, we will need a lot more boots on the ground.”

Last month, a public furor erupted in the wake of an incident in which a Hamas militant shot and killed a Border Police sniper, Barel Hadaria Shmueli, during a demonstration at the Gaza border. His parents and friends voiced justified criticism of operational mistakes that allowed the Palestinian to approach the wall and to shoot Shmueli through a firing port. But something more hovered in the background; the public has pretty much grown used to the confrontation with the Palestinians being managed with zero casualties on the Israeli side. This raises gloomy thoughts about the patience civilians will display for army losses in the event of a full-blown security crisis.

Strick recalled his experiences during the second intifada. “I was commander of the territorial brigade in the northern Gaza Strip between 2002 and 2004. At my handover ceremony, I read out the names of 42 people, soldiers and civilians, who fell during my period as brigade commander. There were incursions into [the Gaza Strip settlement of] Netzarim at the time, there were tanks that blew up. Some of the events were also due to operational mistakes on my part. Today, by comparison, the number of casualties is small. We set a very high bar of security; a high standard. We sometimes have carelessness, mistakes, lousy events. The enemy is trying to screw us. They succeed from time to time. Anyone who can’t handle that… I don’t want to say what my opinion is. But this isn’t a suitable neighborhood for an approach like that. It’s a tough neighborhood.”

You can’t replace the nation.

“No. But we need to coordinate expectations with them. We need to work on that more. What do you see happening when a decision is made to mount a ground campaign in the Gaza Strip? Vanquishing Hamas will not cost zero casualties. If we will not be prepared to pay a price, we won’t get anywhere. The public’s demands of us don’t irk me, but being clearer is needed. That issue also occupied me as head of Home Front Command. It’s difficult to prepare public opinion for an encounter with reality, including the possibility of thousands of rockets being fired at civilian areas.”

In the end, the political leadership will decide, and it’s far from clear whether they are confident about the ground forces’ ability.

“The army is a serious organization. When the chief of staff presents the political leaders with an operational alternative, it is examined thoroughly. He will also voice a different opinion if there is one. At the end of 2018, when I was head of Northern Command, we launched Operation Northern Shield, in which we located and destroyed six tunnels that Hezbollah had dug under the border with Lebanon. Gadi Eisenkot, the chief of staff at the time, brought the head of Military Intelligence’s research division to the cabinet to voice the opposite opinion to his about the need for an operation at that time. I remember surprised looks in the meeting. I see it as a badge of honor.

“In case of war, we will have to place all the options on the table, on the assumption that the ministers understand the strategic context. After the disengagement from Gaza [in 2005], I was commander of the Givati Brigade. We had a planned operation in northern Gaza, and the defense minister, Amir Peretz, measured me 500 meters on a map with a ruler, as far as the entrance to the industrial zone of Beit Hanun. The second time we were already given a kilometer. The third time they didn’t ask about the distance anymore.

“We didn’t recommend a ground campaign in Operation Guardian of the Walls, because it would have been folly. What is the logic in entering Gaza in a campaign that is planned to last for a few days? It was a campaign in luxury conditions. They weren’t able to harm us. Regrettably, a fighter was killed by a Kornet [antitank] missile. There were also civilians who were killed by rockets. But there was also a 92 percent intercept rate by Iron Dome. What folly it would be to send in a force in a case like that, which might even undo our gains by getting entangled during a close encounter with the enemy on the ground. It would be dumb. It’s true that these complex considerations also have to be explained to the commanders and the combat troops – which is no small challenge.”

The military required the reserves in the recent campaigns even less than it made use of regular ground forces. The skepticism among the reservists is even greater, especially in the brigades and divisions that are considered low priority and therefore receive fewer resources for training. Strick responds: “This year we invested 200 million shekels ($61 million) in building and operating new training facilities for reserve units. The intention is to have combat reservists get to them four times a year, and spend less time in routine operational employment. If we didn’t believe in that, we wouldn’t have spent so much money. The 2022 budget for training ground forces will be 1.2 billion shekels. But I think that in the end we will have to move to a different model: more intensive training for the combat reserves every year, and afterward an earlier exemption from service. That’s a model more like the U.S. National Guard, and will make possible higher combat readiness.”

In the conversation with Strick, as in Kochavi’s speeches, there is constant reference to the “multidimensional unit.” That’s at the vanguard of the chief of staff’s plans: a new technology- and intelligence-rich unit, whose model is set to be implemented in some of the army’s brigades and divisions. Strick is convinced the capabilities being developed there are more meaningful to the results of a war than the size of the order of battle the army will field. “There is no ‘operational embarrassment,’ and I would not want to be the enemy opposite,” he asserts.

At the same time, the head of the Ground Forces Command admits that the army is not meeting the expectations with regard to the combat soldiers’ service conditions. “That’s something I didn’t succeed in. We get a low grade. I invested more resources in training infrastructure and not in the bases. Our bases, especially in the Negev and the Arava, are not in good shape. The situation there is difficult, and we will need to invest more in order to improve it.”

Frontline women

Strick’s tour of duty was accompanied by disputes over the service of female combat soldiers. The IDF is gradually making more operational positions available to women, but things are moving slowly and are encountering counter-pressures, mainly from rabbis, but sometimes also from retired senior officers. The most prominent case is that of women in tank crews. A pilot program for women combat soldiers in the Armored Corps was launched during the Eisenkot area. The women were supposed to be integrated into the border defense units (not in the armored brigade themselves). The trial run was termed a success, but Kochavi decided that the conclusions weren’t clear-cut enough and ordered a second pilot program.

The present trial run is both broader and more precise, Strick says, and its results are emerging as positive. Of 21 women who started the program, which is now in its second year, 15 remain. Some of them left for command and officer duties. What emerges from Strick’s remarks is that the military will continue with this track, but it will be intended for specific tasks on the border and will not be integrated into armored brigades.

Concurrently, a few young women have petitioned the High Court of Justice to be given an equal opportunity to take part in the tryouts for elite units, such as Sayeret Matkal and the navy’s Shayetet. Those units remain closed to women, as opposed to the opening to them in the 1990s of pilot and naval officer courses.

A committee that was established to examine the issue, headed by Strick, will soon present its conclusions to the chief of staff and to the High Court. As things look now, women will have to meet the same threshold conditions as men, and an examination will be made as to which required missions in the elite units women can carry out without sustaining medical damage (particularly the lifting of heavy items). The committee’s work suggests that the IDF will propose minor changes and not the sweeping opening up of assault infantry and elite units to women.

So what has been is what will continue to be?

“Don’t try to coax it out of me.”