New Israeli Army Operations Chief Learns From Gaza, Lebanon – and the Coronavirus

Brig. Gen. Yaron Finkelman, who takes over this month, tells Haaretz about the challenges Israel will face in another war, and the optimism he found at a COVID hot spot

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Brig. Gen. Yaron Finkelman, center, head of the operations division at the General Staff’s Operations Directorate starting in October 2020.
Brig. Gen. Yaron Finkelman, center, head of the operations division at the General Staff’s Operations Directorate starting in October 2020.Credit: IDF
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Newspaper archives are no longer bastions of hard-copy clippings, but even the virtual file on Brig. Gen. Yaron Finkelman is very sparse.

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Finkelman spent the last few years commanding the Israel Defense Forces’ elite paratroopers division, Utzbat Ha’esh (Division 98), and this month will begin the most important job for a brigadier general in the army, head of the operations division at the General Staff’s Operations Directorate. For such an officer, his media record is unusually thin.

Over the decades, he has hit all the requisite stations for an outstanding combat commander – service in southern Lebanon, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip; commander of both the paratroopers’ elite reconnaissance battalion and the Givati infantry brigade. But he was never interviewed, even during the days when the army had its own weekly magazine, Bamahane.

The reason apparently lies in another station. Fifteen years ago, Finkelman served as bureau chief for then-Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, whose term was cut short due to the 2006 Second Lebanon War. What Finkelman saw during that time, when Halutz took fire from every direction as Israeli faltered during the war, presumably convinced him to handle the media with extra caution.

Even when he finally agreed to sit down for an interview with Haaretz last month, it took two meetings to extract even half a sentence of real content from him. But to be fair, former Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot acted the same way 20 years ago.

Finkelman, 45, grew up in Ra’anana north of Tel Aviv. He began his army service in the air force’s elite airborne rescue unit, 669, but was cut from the squad during training. Later, he held command positions in various elite units of the armored corps and the paratroops before moving to Givati.

Division 98, which he commanded for almost three years, includes the army’s leading reserve paratrooper brigades as well as the regular paratroops brigade and the commando brigade.

Traditionally, this division specializes in offensives deep into enemy territory. But when its units were activated for this purpose (to a limited extent) toward the end of the Second Lebanon War, the operation was halted in its infancy and ended in disappointment.

Finkelman, left, with IDF chief Aviv Kochavi in Bnei Brak, April 2020.Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit

The years of his military maturation were those of the second intifada, which began 20 years ago this week. He recalled “four months when we deployed nonstop, without going home. When we did get out and I arrived for the first time at Jerusalem’s Patt Junction, I discovered that I no longer remembered the code for my ATM card.”

The workload remained heavy for years. “There was a feeling that you were truly protecting civilians’ lives. There were immediate operational tests – you knew that if you didn’t arrest the terrorist at his home that night, Israeli civilians would encounter him in the morning,” Finkelman says.

“We also had incidents where we screwed up. The continuous deployments during the intifada obviously came at the expense of training. In the years before the war in Lebanon, we didn’t train for large-scale maneuvers.”

When Finkelman began his next job, as a battalion commander in the paratroops, he knew about the extreme necessity of sticking to the mission – something the IDF didn’t excel at in Lebanon. “There’s a very strong feeling of responsibility as a combat officer: It’s on me. Success depends on me,” he says.

Shortly before the Gaza war in the winter of 2008-09, he commanded a battalion raid on a compound in which several Hamas fighters were killed.

“They were shooting at us and we returned fire – and suddenly I heard screams from women and children,” Finkelman says. “We didn’t know they were there. We evacuated wounded Palestinian civilians and treated them while the fighting was still going on.”

Would every IDF officer have acted this way? “I think the army’s standards regarding combat morality are clear and strong. In my view, these are Israeli values. You always have to assume there will also be some less stellar incidents, but in my experience, those incidents are the exceptions. We’ve been tested on this, in ongoing real-life tests, throughout the years.”

Finkelman, like his colleagues, viewed their experience during the 2008-09 war as a corrective to what had happened to the army in Lebanon. “We came to Gaza very prepared,” he says. “We had trained for this for two years. The operational plans were very good. We carried out what we had planned.”

Demonstrators in Bethlehem during the second intifada in 2000.Credit: Pavel Wolberg

The enemy has changed

Five and a half years later, during the 2014 Gaza war, Finkelman served as commander of the territorial brigade in northern Gaza.

During the fighting, a Hamas cell infiltrated into Israel in the brigade’s sector, through a tunnel. The fighters emerged from underground less than a kilometer from the westernmost homes in Sderot. Finkelman’s colleague, Lt. Col. Dolev Keidar, was killed, along with another officer and two soldiers, when they attacked the Hamas men.

“You start commanding the battle, and the battalion commander isn’t answering the radio,” Finkelman says. “I reached the scene of the incident, got out of the jeep and saw them lying there.”

During this incident, in an unusual move, an air force plane dropped a bomb inside Israel. Toward the end of the incident, a 4-year-old boy, Daniel Tragerman, was killed in his own yard on Kibbutz Nahal Oz in a direct hit by a mortar shell.

“I got there, and then they told me over the radio that they’d spotted the barrel of the mortar from which the shell had been launched, but it was near a hospital with 3,000 sick and wounded patients. We didn’t shoot at the mortar,” Finkelman says.

The division he commanded is at the top of the army’s priorities for allocating resources for training. In recent years, units under his command have also trained in Germany and Cyprus with the host armies, in hilly terrain that resembles the landscape the IDF would encounter in another war the north. Much of this training involves working intensively with the air force.

“We don’t necessarily advance in a linear fashion,” he says. “The idea is to develop options for creating contact with the enemy from other directions as well. A commander of one of the division’s units is supposed to know how to operate more independently. This is an important point.”

Israeli soldiers on the Gaza border during Operation Cast Lead, January 2009.Credit: Reuters

The average age of the division’s combat reservists currently stands at 30, after a vigorous effort by the army to demobilize older combat soldiers. Finkelman says that at this age, the troops are still fit for demanding operational missions even though they’ve spent little time training compared to regular army units.

“You get incessant demands to give more – more days of reserve duty, more exercises, more resources,” he says. “This comes from the battalion commanders, but also from the fighters.”

As Finkelman puts it, the next war would require “significant ground maneuvers inside dense urban areas, from which fire will rain down on the Israeli home front. Our job is to make sure that such a move is effective and relevant, to instill confidence in the commanders above us that we have a real capability.”

In 2002, dense urban areas were the setting of Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank during the second intifada. “The commanders on the ground knew that the capability existed and conveyed it upward. In the end we received orders to act,” Finkelman says.

“When I was a young team commander in the [special forces] in the ‘90s, it was written in the military doctrine books that ‘as a rule, you should avoid war in built-up areas.’ Today, we’re in a completely different situation. The enemy has changed significantly, and this forces us to change too. Other armies have also reached this conclusion. The fighting will be inside these areas.”

Operation Bnei Brak

Finkelman says he had a privilege in his old division. “Everyone here is a volunteer, both in compulsory service and in the reserves,” he says.

“But it’s clear to me that preserving the ethic of combat service requires much more work from us than in the past. I’m not an educator of Israeli society, but here I found the good, pleasant and courageous Land of Israel.”

Until recently, Division 98 still carried out training exercises for its reservist units almost normally, despite the coronavirus crisis.

At the beginning of the outbreak, Finkelman received an unusual mission: to deploy division headquarters in the largely ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak to aid the municipality. The city was suffering a large outbreak of COVID-19, which actually now looks modest compared to today’s infection levels.

Generals Yaron Finkelman, right, and Ofer Winter, in 2015. Credit: IDF

“I’ve never had the chance to do anything like it in all my life in the military. We arrived just before Passover, with a 36-hour warning and at a very complicated time for the residents. There was a great deal of apprehension at city hall,” Finkelman says.

“In the end we built a command and control system that helped the city. We distributed food packages and helped evacuate the sick. The commanders and soldiers took it very seriously. We were there for 17 days. They received us with a lot of gratitude. I think something was built here for the future.”

At the end of August, Finkelman handed over command of Division 98 to Brig. Gen. Ofer Winter, whom he had replaced as commander of the Givati Brigade. (“He’s an excellent commander. The division is in good hands.”)

Now Finkelman will find himself for the first time in a staff position at  at the Kirya defense headquarters in Tel Aviv – except for his short experience as the bureau chief for the chief of staff.

If nothing goes wrong along the way – this is my assessment, not his – he can be expected to have a seat around the General Staff table in just a few years. As with every post he has filled, we can assume that in his new office deep underground at the Kirya, the lights will be burning nonstop.

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