“We began preparations for an attack on the tunnels before the operation in Gaza. Some of the combat drills were developed beforehand. In mid-July, a program was prepared for the Gaza Division, to be led by the Givati Brigade, designed to train for underground combat. But the war broke out a week before the program was to take place. In the end, we had the real thing — against Hamas.”
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These are the words of Brig. Gen. Nadav Padan, commander of the 162nd Division. He headed one of the three divisions that fought in Gaza during the summer war.
Padan portrays the experience as a significant achievement: a blow to Hamas, destruction of the tunnels, and the feeling that if the Israel Defense Forces had been ordered to retake Gaza, it would have handled the challenge.
Six weeks have passed since Operation Protective Edge. The debate has shifted quickly; one new focus is the occasional shooting on the Syrian and Lebanese borders. But Padan is still living the Gaza war. The debriefing process, both at his division and above, continues in full force.
“We got into the war with only a moderate ability to deal with the tunnels. That improved during the fighting, and we learned a great deal. You learn how Hamas booby-traps tunnel shafts, how they defend the area. This wasn’t new to us. The intelligence on the tunnel-shaft locations was very accurate,” says Padan.
“We went to the locations we were given and found shafts. But we didn’t know everything. Sometimes you find a whole system based on the starting point. We didn’t know the complete route of some tunnels. From what I understand, finding the routes was the bottleneck.”
That’s one reason destroying the tunnels took two and a half weeks, much longer than originally expected.
Padan’s division lost seven soldiers during the fighting in northern Gaza, the area including Beit Hanoun and the Jabalya refugee camp.
The division, which deployed forces from the Nahal Brigade, the 401st Armored Brigade and the IDF Officers’ Training School, destroyed tunnels and killed dozens of Hamas combatants. These troops had relatively little contact with Palestinian civilians; the IDF-led evacuation of civilians was effective in northern Gaza. Most civilians there left before the ground operation began.
“Beit Hanoun was empty of civilians when we went in,” says Padan, who adds he saw only one dead civilian during the fighting — an elderly Palestinian woman who apparently had been hit by shrapnel after shelling. In one case, the Palestinians said 15 civilians had died during the IDF’s shelling of a school. Padan says the building in fact was not hit, and that Hamas staged the incident with casualties from another area.
“Hamas regularly used schools and UNWRA storage facilities. Squads of combatants emerged from these buildings, shot at our forces and went back inside,” Padan says.
“It wasn’t an isolated incident, it was policy. Compared to what happened in Iraq, we are acting with many more reservations. There are furious arguments here among us about it. But it’s clear to us that we have to apply these values – we can’t lose our way.”
Hamas refrained from direct confrontation with IDF forces. There was a great deal of long-range sniper fire. But destroying the tunnels required a long stay in the Strip.
“Units were inside for 10, 12 days on the outskirts of Jabalya and Beit Hanoun. That invited attempts to hit us. There were some fierce clashes,” Padan says. “In one case, a company from Nahal battalion 931 killed combatants that came out of a Hamas tunnel.”
Previously, the 47-year-old Padan served as a commando and commander in Sayeret Matkal, the General Staff’s special-operations force. He went on to command the Duvdevan undercover unit at the height of the second intifada.
He served as a regional brigade commander in the West Bank, and also commanded the Officers’ Training School. He began his current assignment in early May.
Two months later, he found himself commander of a division during wartime. In September last year, Padan was interviewed by Haaretz while serving as division commander on the Egyptian border.
During the last interview, Padan praised security cooperation with Egypt, which was bolstered after Egyptian generals seized power in July 2013. No one predicted the long-term ramifications of the regime change in Egypt.
The generals detest Hamas; they see it as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. The generals closed tunnels into Gaza, and the financial strain on Hamas was apparently the main motivation for the conflict with Israel. The tightening of strategic ties between Jerusalem and Cairo, however, had side effects.
In early July this year, Padan received orders to prepare for a scenario in which his division would fight in Gaza. At the time, the Southern Command and the Shin Bet security service were busy trying to thwart a Hamas-planned tunnel attack near the Kerem Shalom crossing. Two and a half weeks later, the plan was upgraded to deal with all the attack tunnels.
“The Southern Command has been dealing with tunnels for years. I didn’t know about all 32 tunnels. I only knew about what was in my sector,” Padan says.
Operation Protective Edge began on July 8, and the ground operation began on July 17. Padan says that around July 10, “we were getting into the world of the tunnels. Before then, I had seen a tunnel that was uncovered before the operation.”
According to Padan, “I traveled to the Northern Command, to learn about Hezbollah’s defensive tunnels from the war in 2006. The tunnels didn’t surprise us, but they included an element that’s unknown until you see it for yourself. It’s like the difference between learning driving theory and getting behind the wheel yourself.”
Padan confirms that destroying tunnels “was not a primary objective at first. The 401st Brigade, for example, was set to go in deeper, to conquer territory and destroy launching pads. This included destroying some tunnels. The main objective changed shortly before the ground operation began.”
As with earlier wars in Lebanon and Gaza, there was much deliberation before the ground operation.
“A ground operation is a means to achieve an objective, not an objective in and of itself. If you can achieve an objective in a way that’s less dangerous to the soldiers, that’s for the best,” says Padan. “The decision to hit the tunnels from the ground stemmed from the understanding that they could not be destroyed from the air.”
As the tunnels were destroyed, fierce debates raged among the cabinet and in the media about expanding the operation. As usual, reports stated that IDF brigade commanders were clamoring to escalate.
Padan says the prime minister, defense minister and IDF chief of staff visited him and the brigade commanders regularly. “The decisions were made at levels above us. When they deliberated about going deeper into Gaza, we prepared for that scenario. We had no time for frustration,” he says.
Relative to other divisions, the 162nd faced fewer direct confrontations and casualties. Perhaps that’s another reason Padan and his staff felt the operation was a success.
“Our feeling of security got stronger. We felt we handled what they threw at us, and that we could advance on any objective,” says Padan. This included retaking the Gaza Strip. “The question was if that served the interests of the government. As division and brigade commanders, we aren’t analysts. We execute. We were ready to act in the time frames set for us.”
According to Padan, “When you take into account the total number of kilometers traversed by our forces in Gaza, we could have taken it over twice. We left with a good feeling about how we fought on a tactical level, but we look at our movements in a very realistic way. We’re aware of the enemy against us, and we didn’t attribute the same things to Hezbollah. It’s clear to us what should and shouldn’t be learned from this. A conflict in Lebanon would be much more complex.”