With the Troops in the Strip

In Gaza, Israel's Facebook Generation Fights Well

Units are raiding orchards and houses and finding launchers, mortars and rockets, all the while looking for tunnels.

AP

BEIT HANUN, Gaza Strip — From the front line manned by the Armored Corps and the Nahal Brigade, at Beit Hanun and the nearby Jabalya refugee camp in northern Gaza, we could clearly see the rockets launched from the heart of the camp. To an Israeli, the view from the Strip was a bit confusing; the smokestacks of the Ashkelon power station were north of us instead of south. In any case, those rockets left a long, white trail as they soared toward central Israel.

Twice in the short time this reporter was with the troops in the Strip on Friday, rockets were fired into Israel. The second time, when no Iron Dome missiles were fired over Ashkelon to attempt an intercept, the officers at the observation post said the rockets were apparently headed toward the Tel Aviv area. Later we found out they were right.

Most of the rocket launchers are hidden deep in Jabalya’s built-up area. Finding and destroying them is the job of Military Intelligence and the air force; their success has been partial. The ground troops have other tasks, though they too hit launchers they come across.

On Friday morning, we were on a patrol led by the commander of Armored Corps Brigade 401, Col. Sa’ar Tzur, and one of his battalion commanders, Lt. Col. Ofir. Two Katyusha rocket launchers were spotted in a small field, placed intentionally between two schools and a mosque. The launchers were destroyed and the officers noted that this was a target that couldn’t have been spotted from the air.

But the Palestinian factions in the Strip still have thousands of rockets. That’s less than half of what they started out with at the beginning of the operation about two and a half weeks ago, but it will take a long time to dry out that reservoir if Israel decides to do so.

The army has marked out a kind of narrow security zone a few kilometers wide west of the border fence around Gaza. When the units assaulted Hamas’ front defense line, most of the militants fled. Most of the civilians had already left, heading south and flooding neighborhoods along the way.

The area we patrolled mainly consists of sand dunes and behind them agricultural areas, which before this had been sparsely inhabited. No residents were left, only farm animals that the soldiers sometimes tried to give water. Destruction was clearly visible, but nothing like the hard scenes broadcast from the ruins of Shujaiyeh, the smoke from which could easily be seen looking south toward Beit Hanun.

The main task of Col. Tzur’s force is to locate tunnels. In the brigade’s sector, two attack tunnels dug toward Israel have been discovered. One was found, based on precise intelligence, near a cow shed.

When I was there, Armored Corps and Nahal units secured the area while Engineering Corps troops demolished them. During this work they sometimes encountered squads of armed Palestinians. The brigade commander made sure his troops didn’t stay too long in one place so as not to expose them to attack.

Of course, any reporter sets out for the Strip with assumptions and opinions, and many of us looked to the soldiers to confirm them. And yet, in the Merkava Mark IV tank of the 401st brigade’s deputy commander, Lt. Col. Itai, I heard no dramatic speeches of the type coming out of the TV studios. Rather, it was a practical, serious approach by soldiers completely behind their task. They were trying to carry it out with as few wounded as possible, including Palestinian civilians.

Learning on the fly

Col. Tzur’s forces have not encountered major opposition so far, and although troops of battalions in the 401st and the Nahal have been killed, here soldiers have only been wounded. The commanders said lessons were learned quickly to let them better handle Hamas squads.

The units raided orchards and houses and found launchers, mortars and rockets, all the while looking for tunnels. They usually spotted the enemy from a distance and were fired on by sharpshooters and anti-tank missiles.

The deputy brigade commander’s tank bore the marks of a sharpshooter’s bullets just centimeters under the turret. In one incident two armed men emerged from a tunnel and fired on the Nahal troops. Dozens of soldiers stormed them and killed them.

“My main worry was friendly fire,” said a Nahal battalion commander, Lt. Col. Betzalel. “The Facebook generation fights well. All the assessments about a breakdown in motivation have been smashed here. We’re ready for the missions set for us. The decision-makers up there have nothing to worry about.”

The Nahal soldiers came here from Hebron, where they had taken part in the search for the three kidnapped teens and the arrest of Hamas operatives. The armored battalion was brought in from operational duties in Eilat. Some of the soldiers have not been home for 50 days.

The Merkava Mark IV tanks are outfitted with a “windbreaker,” a system developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems to protect against anti-tank missiles. A few of the tanks have been saved by the system, while others have spotted and struck anti-tank squads in time.

If the tunnels and the Gaza-made rockets show Hamas’ advantage in guerrilla warfare, the Israel Defense Forces’ advanced technology gives it advantages of its own. Any target identified in the sector is immediately fed to every tank and aircraft. The air force strikes as little as a few hundred meters from ground forces if they are under enemy fire.

The deputy brigade commander’s tank crew is made up entirely of young reservists — soldiers picked for their excellence during their regular army service to operate senior commanders’ tanks. They were called up on emergency orders.

There’s Ro’i, a 24-year-old student from Elkana, Amitai, a 23-year-old student from Hashmonaim, and Raphael, a 23-year-old hotel worker from Efrat. They are joined by Eliezer, a 28-year-old officer from Jerusalem, a former company commander now pursuing academic studies. All of them except the deputy brigade commander are from religious Zionist families.

Lt. Col. Itai, the deputy brigade commander of the 401st, took part in the 2006 Second Lebanon War as an intelligence officer, but this time it’s different “because I have a wife and three children at home, the youngest 6 weeks old.”

As his tank made its way out of the Gaza Strip toward the fence, he said over the radio that he didn't have problems explaining the mission to his men this time.

“My daughter in Ra’anana goes down to the shelter during a siren and doesn’t get it," he said. "But the children on the Gaza border haven’t had quiet for 14 years. It’s very easy to explain.”