Analysis

What Really Happened in Israel's Botched Commando Op in Gaza

Public remembers failed mission by a special IDF force mostly because Hamas uncovered it ■ Newly published army probe unveils how Israel's cover was blown, the evacuation happened and evidence left behind was destroyed

Remnants of a vehicle that was destroyed in the military operation in Khan Younis a day after the mission.
Ali Jadallah / Anadolu

Almost eight months since that painful night in Khan Yunis, the Israel Defense Forces has released the results of its first investigation into the failure of the secret mission of an elite unit whose members were discovered by Hamas fighters. Even now, many details of the preparations for the operation remain under wraps. But the army’s version now allows for a better understanding of the events of that night, which ended with the death of a decorated officer (Lt. Col. M., whose full name and identity is still classified), the wounding of a soldier and the killing of seven Hamas men.

These investigations also reveal breathtaking drama. If not for the resourcefulness of the soldiers in the field and their commanders, the night could have ended in a colossal catastrophe. The description of the events will rightly generate amazement at the courage of the soldiers operating deep in enemy territory and the ability to extract them once they were discovered.

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But we should make no mistake about the magnitude of the shake-up in Military Intelligence and special operations. This was an unprecedented failure that will bring about changes both structural and conceptual in the way Military Intelligence and its units operate. The failure has already reaped a reshuffle in senior positions in special operations. The commander of the force that carried out the operation, a lieutenant colonel, has recently asked to be relieved of his duties before completing his term. The brigade commander, Brig. Gen. G., is to retire soon, with the extraordinary incident in the background.

>> Read more: Botched special op in Gaza brings Israel and Hamas to brink of war | Analysis ■ Elite Israeli commandos tried to bug Hamas communications during botched Gaza op, Hamas saysA botched Gaza raid may rewrite how Israel runs its special operations

The operation in Khan Yunis took place on the evening of November 11, after months of detailed planning involving the classified unit that carried it out and the entire intelligence community. It was preceded by precise training. The forward command, as is common in such sensitive operations, consisted of then-IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, Military Intelligence chief Tamir Hayman and the head of the Shin Bet security service, Nadav Argaman.

The operation’s goal still cannot be revealed. Arab-language media outlets showed communications equipment that according to the Palestinians had been left behind, and it was speculated that the operation was designed to install listening equipment. The General Staff has only said that the operation involved highly important intelligence actions to provide information about events in Gaza.

The unit, which operated in the densely constructed neighborhoods of the city of Khan Yunis in the central Gaza Strip, was divided between two vehicles. One was a commercial car, which according to Hamas carried several women wearing traditional Palestinian garb.

For some reason, which the army is not explaining in detail, something about their behavior stirred the suspicions of local Palestinians, among them members of Hamas’ military wing. Hamas members surrounded the van and asked the occupants to identify themselves and say what they were doing there. According to the Palestinians, the men and women in the operation carried false documents identifying them as Arabs.

Members of Hamas' military wing attend the funeral of seven Palestinians who were killed during a botched Israeli army raid, Khan Younis, Gaza, November 12, 2018.
AFP

According to the General Staff, the questioning went on for about 45 minutes and became increasingly aggressive, and reached its height when the Hamas men began shaking the soldiers by the collars of their shirts.

The Hamas members were under the command of the Hamas military wing’s local brigade, who lives in the area. When the Hamas members entered the scene, the commander of the force decided to act. The commander, identified here as A., was sitting in the back of the van and faced a complicated situation: One of his men was surrounded by Hamas men some distance from the van. Another soldier, Lt. Col. M., was also outside the van at that point.

M. distracted the Hamas men and in the split second that this gave A., the latter acted. He pulled out his handgun and opened fire. Three Hamas men were killed, but apparently Lt. Col. M. was hit by the same fire. A. stormed out of the vehicle to free one of the soldiers who was surrounded. In the second part of the incident, two or three Hamas men were killed and an Israeli soldier was wounded. Other soldiers began to fire together with A.

The soldier who was wounded was rushed to Soroka Medical Center in Be’er Sheva, where he underwent lifesaving surgery. Information about this soldier is also being kept classified in a decision by the intelligence community.

The exchanges of fire involving the force lasted about a minute and a half, according to investigators. After the shooting, A. and the other soldiers were able to bring the two casualties into a vehicle, informed the fighters in the other vehicle that they intend to link up with them and then drove quickly toward them. Meanwhile, the commander of the force, which was busy with the main part of the mission, ordered the force to quickly abort.

At the same time, it was decided to call in an air force helicopter, in keeping with one of the prepared scenarios, to extract all the soldiers, including the wounded soldier and the dead officer. A different commander had recommended the helicopter option, fearing that extraction by car or on foot would let the Palestinians concentrate more armed men around the Israeli force. At the same time, the air force began to strike at targets in the surrounding neighborhood to draw fire from the force.

Remnants of the car allegedly used by Israeli special forces in botched Gaza raid
SUHAIB SALEM/REUTERS

A Yasur helicopter, in a maneuver that required great courage, landed in the heart of the built-up Palestinian area. The commander of the force on the ground opted for a delay of another three minutes to make sure that no soldier was left behind. These three minutes, people in the front command headquarters say, were the height of the drama. They seemed to last much longer.

But the extraction succeeded and the firing by Hamas was ineffective. The concern that Hamas would fire a missile at the helicopter did not come true. According to the army, the soldiers and the airstrikes were able to destroy all the equipment that had to be left behind, as well as the force’s two vehicles.

The army says the equipment that the Palestinians presented as captured is not important and does not reveal information that would let Hamas cause damage in the future.

Too great a burden

From the moment the shooting started, about 20 minutes elapsed before the forces returned to Israel. The investigation into the operation has taken almost eight months. It was led by two main teams and six sub teams, with the participation of all the organizations of the intelligence community, because the damage done and the lessons learned involve other entities to some extent.

The main investigative team is headed by Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, who recently ended his term as head of operations on the General Staff and is on end-of-service leave from the IDF. Alon has great experience in operations of this kind as a member and later commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal commando force.

Gaza is considered a particularly harsh environment because of its density and because any unusual presence of outsiders raises the locals’ suspicions. On the other hand, the army and Israel’s intelligence organizations have carried out operations in Gaza more than once as part of necessary intelligence gathering and in preparation for possible warfare.

A special operation requires a deep dive into the smallest details of every scenario, repeated exercises and long and precise preparations. In the operation itself, fairly wide independence and discretion is given to the soldiers and commanders in the field, with the realization that they will best know how to extract themselves from any complex situation. In the past, clandestine forces have gotten safely out of many incidents. Lt. Col. M. is the first fatality ever in special operations of this type.

The investigations, the General Staff says, noticed many gaps and failures, and gained a better understanding of what the soldiers faced, as well as their resourcefulness and heroism. Two main reasons were identified for the failure: One involves what will be called here, within the limitations of military censorship, difficulties in the action’s operational perimeter.

It turns out that there was a lack of balance between the actions of the force. The force was considered so experienced and well-trained that it was apparently saddled with too great a burden without putting enough thought into the details of what could go wrong. It also emerged that problems described as “micro-tactical” – that is, at specific points – could have contributed to Hamas’ discovery of the force.

From the moment the locals became suspicious, and because Hamas men, led by the local brigade commander, arrived quickly, it was impossible to extract the force without opening fire. And yet, one can only imagine what the past few months would have looked like if the operation had deteriorated further; what would have happened in Israel if a few of the secret intelligence unit’s members had been killed and their comrades captured, interrogated and held by Hamas, which would have tried to obtain classified information. That would have been the Gilad Shalit affair on steroids, involving Israel in another war in Gaza and influencing all the events in Israel in the months that followed.

This was all prevented by the resourcefulness of the soldiers, which began the moment A. decided to storm the Hamas members from the van, and by Lt. Col. M., who helped A. by distracting the Hamas men, costing him his life. “The huge quality of the fighters in the field – that’s what saved us in the end,” the General Staff says.

According to the investigators, the mistakes were also connected to certain structural changes in MI’s special operations unit in recent years; the changes were intended to improve command and control. But it seems that to some extent these changes led to an erosion of some of the specialties in the unit, and they halted fruitful, and sometimes tense, dialogue between various parts of special ops in terms of methods of operation. At the same time, MI and special ops may have shown overconfidence in their people’s ability to act unhindered and undiscovered in Gaza’s dense urban environment, after a series of previous successes.

Another conclusion from the investigation involves the extent of independence given to soldiers and commanders. Maj. Gen. Alon, the leader of the main investigative team, believes that somewhat greater control of events should be returned to the command level, and MI’s forward command should be strengthened by a closer presence of air force and operations-division people. After the Khan Yunis incident, it was decided to change certain aspects of the training of classified units, to prevent similar incidents in the future.

The IDF stresses that special operations brigade forces have returned to action and a number of special intelligence operations have been carried out in various sectors, including inside Gaza. From the description of the partial details in Arab-language media, it seems that there are a few parallels here to the uncovering of the operation attributed to the Mossad in which senior Hamas man Mahmoud Mabhouh was assassinated in Dubai in January 2010. After that operation, as in the case in Khan Yunis, the Dubai police published photographs of people allegedly involved, and fake passports.

In a summary of the investigations, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi said that that the mission in Khan Yunis was not completed. Nevertheless, he praised the courage and cool-headedness exhibited by the fighters, especially by Lt. Col. A. Kochavi said that there was no negligence in the preparations for the operation or in the way the forces performed in the field, which is why no disciplinary action was taken against any of the individuals involved. The General Staff’s citations committee is to meet shortly to determine whether any of the fighters involved in the operation or in the rescue should be decorated.

Stepping down

There was a very deep crisis among the top officers. The special operations commander, Brig. Gen. G, a former commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal, decided to step down after three years and is going to retire from the army. G. was not dismissed, but there was a rift between him and his commanders when he discovered that, in an unusual move, Kochavi and MI chief Hayman wanted to replace him with the same officer that he himself had replaced three years ago.

That officer, Brig.-Gen. (res) A., also a member of clandestine units in the past, had retired to the business world but was asked to return. G. had originally said he would stay in his post until March, but has decided to leave now. Kochavi and Hayman decided that A. would return to command the brigade in August. Because of his civilian activities he will fulfill the role as a civilian IDF employee, after he signs a non-conflict of interest agreement.

Although no personal conclusions were drawn regarding the affair, it left bad blood and an atmosphere of crisis among senior MI officers. It also left a few senior officers hurt by the way new assignments were made in the special operations brigade.