Hamas has been using Monday’s attack on a guard tower near Gaza to highlight its alleged victory over the Israel Defense Forces in this month’s fighting. The aftermath of the incident also reflects a rare shortcoming by the IDF Spokesman’s Office during the war.
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Hamas’ video of the attack that killed five soldiers shows the militants entering the IDF position and shooting the soldiers at close range — an image repeatedly shown on Arab television networks. This is the type of psychological warfare Hezbollah began waging against the IDF as far back as the 1990s in southern Lebanon.
While the incident at Nahal Oz was indeed a serious tactical error, it doesn’t reflect the way things are going in Operation Protective Edge. Still, the evidence in the video and conversations with senior IDF officers raise questions about the defense on the Gaza border, the performance of the force that was attacked and the way the aftermath was handled.
One problem is the tunnel failure. Three weeks into the fighting, Israel is still vulnerable to an attack on the home front; Hamas has infiltrated into Israel five times via tunnels dug under the perimeter fence.
The tunnel from which these militants emerged had been detected days before based on intelligence, but only one of the tunnel’s branches had been discovered, and the Hamas men used a different branch. In addition to Israel’s knowledge gaps about the tunnels, it’s clear Hamas can still inflict losses, even at this advanced stage of the fighting.
Another problem concerns Israel’s defensive deployment. Critics mention the manning of the pillbox guard tower, which, as a lone structure in an open area, could have been targeted even from within Gaza — by anti-tank missiles, for example.
Even if it was deemed necessary to station people there, this should have been part of an array of lookouts and positions covering one another. The militants’ penetrating of the position shows that such mutual coverage, if at all achieved, wasn't effective.
Another problem is operational discipline. The video reveals disturbing facts about the routine in the pillbox. Such a position has two sections; the battle level on top and the living quarters on the bottom. The soldiers in the living quarters are usually allowed to sleep while the others man the upper part in shifts.
In the video we see that the entrance gate to the compound was either open or was opened very easily by the militants in a manner not shown. The Hamas men entered the compound's courtyard undetected. They surprised the soldiers and shot the five men in both the courtyard and the living quarters.
The IDF reported that one of the militants was either killed or wounded — the details are still unclear — by fire from two soldiers on the upper level, which prevented the Hamas men from snatching any bodies. The video clearly shows that discipline at the position was not properly enforced, and it’s not clear whether the soldiers on guard duty were on full alert.
The IDF’s early reports in the media were incomplete and incorrect. The incident occurred on Monday afternoon and only partial details were cleared for publication that evening. The number of casualties could not be published, for example, even though journalists knew how many men had been killed. This was simply standard operating procedure to let the families be informed.
But some of the broadcasts, relying on early briefings by military sources, portrayed the incident as a foiling of a terror attack on the kibbutz. The next morning the IDF reported that the soldiers had been killed by a rocket-propelled grenade and that one of the militants was killed while trying to snatch a body.
The video tells a different story. The Hamas men did not kill the soldiers from a distance but entered the compound and shot them at close range; no firing of a rocket-propelled grenade can be seen at all. It’s also clear that the militants had planned to storm the position from the start and were not en route to the nearby kibbutz to massacre civilians.
While it’s true that the IDF spokesman’s reports are made during combat and errors can occur, during this operation the spokesman’s office has proved very reliable and hasn’t hesitated to correct mistakes. The video shows that in this incident at least, the details provided by the military were partial at best and misleading at worst.
This has not been typical of the IDF in this war, and it’s vital that it not repeat. A glitch in credibility hurts the army on one of its most important fronts: maintaining the public’s confidence.