Gaza War Taught IDF: Time to Rethink Strategies

Israel clearly struck a major blow to Hamas; but if the military wants to keep its edge, it will have to answer some tough questions.

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An Israeli army officer gives journalists a tour, Friday, July 25, 2014, of a tunnel allegedly used by Palestinian militants for cross-border attacks, at the Israel-Gaza Border. Credit: AP

The Israel Defense Forces was about to complete its redeployment on Monday in the Gaza Strip, demolishing the last of the Hamas attack tunnels and leaving relatively few forces in a narrow strip west of the border fence. Hamas, which said it would not hold its fire, continued to launch rockets and mortars, mainly at communities in the Negev and near the border with Gaza. Israel seemed to be responding to Hamas fire primarily with aerial attacks at least until the situation regarding talks in Cairo over a full cease-fire became clearer. (A 72-hour cease-fire came into effect at 8 A.M. on Tuesday morning.)

The full answer to the question of what Israel gained and lost in the war in Gaza will come only later. Clearly the Israel Defense Forces struck a major blow at Hamas and severely damaged civilian infrastructure in Gaza, creating a broad humanitarian crisis, marked by about 450,000 Palestinian refugees, 1,850 dead and thousands injured.

Israel incurred limited damage from the thousands of rockets fired at it, thanks to the Iron Dome (three civilians killed) and destroyed all the attack tunnels it knew of, incurring significant losses (64 soldiers and officers killed) in defensive and offensive actions.

But Hamas was not defeated; the organization will remain in power in Gaza and the key partner in any future agreement. If the cease-fire leads to a lifting of the siege on the Gaza Strip, Hamas may consider the heavy price worthwhile.

The outcome of the war will be tested by the quality of the agreement attained and the duration of the period of quiet that ensues. This is almost unpredictable, because it does not depend only on the amount of damage and the extent of deterrence. Rather, it depends on future developments. Thus, the rise of the generals to power in Cairo a year ago changed the basic tripartite balance of power between Israel, Gaza and Egypt, and led indirectly to the outbreak of violence last month.

That Israel emerges with the image of the victor is important to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose political rivals already smell blood. It is important to the beleaguered IDF General Staff, which has been taking hits for its operational functioning. It is important to the brigade commanders, who are not leaving the Strip with a sense of success but must rally the fighting spirit of the troops ahead of things to come.

The atmosphere in the IDF and the public does not resemble the severe sense of failure after the Second Lebanon War. Coordination between senior levels of the government and the military was better. And yet there are already demands for an investigation. The state comptroller’s announcement that an investigation would be launched over the tunnels serves Netanyahu’s interest, considering the moderate nature of the current comptroller. The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee announced it would hold its own investigation. Here, it is harder to imagine whether the committee’s chairman, MK Zeev Elkin (Likud), will leverage the probe for or against Netanyahu.

Here are some of the main security issues that will need to be addressed, if indeed the fighting ends this week.

Intelligence: The war in Gaza is the first major test of the intelligence combat approach led by Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi in recent years. The flow of intelligence to forces at the front, assisted by the Shin Bet security service, brought a lot more concrete information than in the past.

In contrast, the first impression is that MI had more difficulty distinguishing and predicting changes in Hamas’ approach, both on the eve of the war and during the conflict.

Optimistic assessments about Hamas’ willingness to accept a cease-fire turned out to be exaggerated. Intelligence on mid-range rockets was partial and Israel had trouble reaching Hamas leaders because of the combination of gaps in intelligence and the fact that they were hiding in tunnels in the heart of the civilian population.

A senior officer told the media during the fighting that a detailed report on the tunnels – which the public and the security cabinet saw as Hamas’ main surprise – had been given to Netanyahu a year ago. Last week, a senior officer in the Gaza Division told reporters that the division and the Southern Command knew that Hamas was going to carry out a major attack in July using a tunnel.

Operational plans: Ministers in the security cabinet say they did not know how serious the tunnel threat was, despite MI’s frequent reminders. Nine out of 12 exit shafts which had already been dug into Israeli territory (here the MI and the Shin Bet differ in their assessments) were not known ahead of time. Most significantly, the character of the ground operation changed at the last minute.

The war broke out on July 8; on July 15, after eight days of aerial attacks in response to rockets fired into Israeli territory, the government announced it was ready for a cease-fire. Hamas refused and on July 16, after Hamas terrorists penetrated through a tunnel near Kibbutz Sufa, the government approved the ground operation.

Hamas failed at Sufa; the air force struck the squad and the IDF disseminated the video footage. But the impact of the incursion dictated a different operational plan. Instead of striking Hamas assets and launch points deep in the Strip, the focus moved to the tunnels. Senior officers concede that a detailed plan was only pulled together at the last minute, leaving significant gaps.

Thus the extent of the intelligence is not consistent with the quality of the preparations. Moreover, if the IDF knew that a war was expected in the Strip, why did it wear down all of its infantry brigades looking for the three kidnapped teens from Gush Etzion for three weeks? Why did the government arrest 500 Hamas activists, 60 of them prisoners released in the Shalit swap, if they knew this would push Hamas further into a corner?

The war on the tunnels: The defense establishment’s hope of a preliminary technological solution to the tunnels within a year seems doubtful, given the 14 years they have failed to resolve the problem. The IDF dug tunnels in three of its training bases, but the training the units received was far from satisfactory. The war showed the need for more combat-engineering forces and more experts in tunnel combat.

Operational mishaps: in every war there is chaos at the front. No doubt the IDF paid a heavy price in the first days of close-quarters urban warfare that it had fought in five and a half years. And yet, the number of mishaps seems worrisome. Among them, the use of old M113 armored personnel carriers rather than better protected ones, going completely against operational lessons of the past and without supervision by the senior command (seven Golani soldiers killed); two squads of commanders in an unreinforced vehicle killed by an RPG fired by terrorists who emerged from a tunnel (nine Armored Corps soldiers killed in two incidents).

The strikes on staging areas are of particular concern. In previous operations the IDF was careful about keeping down the numbers of troops waiting near the fence and making sure most of them were beyond mortar range. This time, there was extreme chaos around Road 232 near the Gaza fence, with hundreds of civilians from the rest of the country running around among the troops, almost up to the end of the ground operation.

Troops also complained that there was not enough body armor or even radios, and that vehicles without extra armor were being used west of the fence.

The ground forces: Among the forces deployed were personnel from military training schools who had not operated at combat level for decades, while the IDF did not field reserve brigades that had combat experience in the Strip in Operation Cast Lead.

This conduct might reflect a weakening of confidence in the reserves. It is no secret that the regular army does not train enough to face the new challenges: guerilla warfare in densely populated areas with the enemy using an underground network. Senior officers have said over the past two weeks that the forces in the Strip used almost no element of surprise.

These phenomena show that the IDF, especially the ground forces, needs to think hard and plan anew. Israel’s technically advanced forces found an enemy playing in a different field, thus eroding its advantages. The Israel Air Force, with the assistance of MI and the Shin Bet, can strike its targets with great precision. But against Hamas or Hezbollah, this may not be enough to win decisively.

The army did not receive a directive from the government to defeat Hamas, mainly because the politicians were worried about the losses that could be expected from close combat. The IDF certainly did not want to lose, but it went into battle with unclear intelligence about what it was facing.

The General Staff fielded the forces according to a plan whose suitability, given the circumstances, is debatable. Israel could decide that this is good enough in future wars as well. But if the IDF wants to preserve its ability to win using maneuvers, quite extensive changes must be considered.

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