The headlines may be all about Syria, but the Israeli army is preparing for the next probable war in Gaza. In March, the Israel Defense Forces wrapped up two division-level exercises based on the “southern scenario” – the spectrum of possibilities ranging between another round of clashes with Hamas and overthrowing its government in the Gaza Strip (as previously advocated by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman).
“You know how it is,” says an officer who fought in the summer 2014 Gaza war (Operation Protective Edge). “Every year, in spring you train. In the summer, you find out if it will really happen.”
We recently met with one company already routinely operating by Gaza and another slated to go there and, in the meantime, training for battle in the south. Their commanders were both in the 2014 war, which is, for now, the battle that shaped them – a campaign, not a war, in military terms: the area of fighting was small and the Israeli ground forces’ mission was to destroy the “terror tunnels.”
Neither commander fought in the Second Lebanon War (2006) or Operation Cast Lead (2008). Their underlings don’t even have their experience, though, having been drafted after Operation Protective Edge. At least they can learn from their commanders.
‘War will come’
Company A in the 101st battalion of the Paratroopers Brigade is training in “urban combat,” in a simulated Palestinian town built on the Tze’elim army base, complete with fake public buildings and mosques, apartment buildings, houses, a casbah, alleys – and “terror tunnels.” The exercise does not involve live ammunition, but seems to show the soldiers what fighting in a dense urban setting is like: how quickly the attacking force can be engulfed in the street or neighborhood, and need backup to go onto the next neighborhood; how the enemy vanishes and resurfaces to attack again, even after you thought the road was secured; and how a militarily inferior enemy can prove mortally effective.
One small group practices moving from farmland to the urban setting. Their “mission” is to assist the conquest of a vital intersection. They advance between the yards and fences, watching out for booby traps and enemy fighters. They are tasked to find two rocket launchers that are primed for action.
Following the exercise comes the debriefing. The fighters, in service from November 2014 and due for release in another six months, discuss the soldiers’ tactical mistakes. The force’s commander listens. The discussion flows; the debriefing is so thorough it orders on verbosity.
A soldier asks: During the exercise, another soldier was “wounded.” Should he have first rescued the “wounded” man from the exposed space in the street, or first attacked the enemy force to prevent more casualties? The soldiers and commanders discuss this and list precedents, such as the “Alley of death” in Jerusalem’s Old City during the Six-Day War. “It’s a war machine. You can’t stop it because of one casualty. First, you remove the threat,” says Uri Hershkovitz, a Haaretz photographer who served in the Nahal Brigade in 1968.
Capt. Nevo de Haan, of Dutch origin, 26, married with a baby, lives in the West Bank settlement of Brukhin. He’s been in the IDF for six years and has fought in Gaza. A parallel team lost three soldiers and his, attached to a paratroopers’ patrolling unit, experienced the loss of four fighters. He feels that no training can prepare the soldiers for casualties. “I remember the first time I carried somebody who had really been wounded. It’s different. You can practice awareness of threats, but one real roadside bomb is worth a thousand of my words.”
Even so, when the threat is real, the soldier at the end of the chain behaves appropriately, De Haan adds.
That difference between theory and fact arose anew on the training exercise. “The soldiers think war is like ‘Black Hawk Down’ [the Ridley Scott movie about the entanglement of a U.S. force in Somalia] – constant shooting, running and explosions,” says De Haan. “In fact, there are a lot of dead hours when all you’re doing is defense, or planning the next stage. Sometimes, soldiers ask me, ‘Will we be discharged before a war comes?’ I tell them that in our country war will come, in the career army or reserves. At some point, it will happen.”
Briefing soldiers at the start of the exercise, De Haan tells them to keep a keen eye out for bombs and to be wary. “A welcome mat in front of a house probably conceals a trigger. Think where you would lay booby traps. Keep the team safe, including from kidnapping from a tunnel.” And always be methodical and patient, he adds.
His soldiers fret about other things: “It’s so hot,” gripes one. “And it’s only April,” sighs another in response. The soldiers are grouped too closely, their commander warns: if a bomb or shell detonates, they’re vulnerable.
While we chat, two F-15s fly overhead. De Haan had served briefly in the air force, but decided he preferred being on the ground with the people, he says.
In the post-exercise debriefing, the soldiers analyze a mistake that caused an injury. The sergeant, Yonatan, had “deviated once” from orders and moaned, “It’s like Murphy’s Law.”
“Tell that to the wounded soldier’s mother,” the commander snaps back.
When Yonatan’s class is discharged, he and his entire division – who have been together since boot camp – will join the paratroopers reserves. There is a huge advantage in basing divisions on the same draft group, explains De Haan. “No more veterans and youngsters. Everybody cleans the toilet.”
His division reached Tze’elim after a protracted, successful period in the northern West Bank. “We participated in arresting 20 Hamas activists who were planning major terror attacks. They had already made bomb belts. There, [the soldiers] saw that what they do has results,” he says.
The biggest change compared with his draft is that today’s soldiers all have smartphones, “which changed a lot of things,” he notes. He admits concerns about what sort of soldier will want to stay on in a combat role: the army has to work at that all the time, not rest on its laurels, he believes.
'You suddenly have superpowers'
I knew Capt. Nissim Bublil in advance. As a young officer six years ago, he commanded the Nahal unit I accompanied for a year, observing its training and subsequent activity in Hebron. Today, Bublil, 27, married with a kid, commands a division auxiliary to Nahal Battalion 931. He lives in Harish, northern Israel. Unlike De Haan, he had a rough childhood that involved crime: the mere fact of being drafted couldn’t be taken for granted, in his case, let alone an army career. But the IDF changed his life and now he’s signed on for eight more years of service. In a year, he can start academic education.
He’s been commanding that battalion since 2012. At the time, it was characterized by disciplinary problems, to the point of mutiny. “The division commander, Yehuda Fuchs [today commander of the Gaza battalion], probably went looking for the lowest, most street-savvy type and found me,” Bublil says. “They decided to dismantle the division and rebuild it from scratch. We built a great division.”
Later, under the army’s watch, he completed his high school studies and matriculated, and resumed service as an officer with the auxiliary division during Operation Protective Edge, after the commanders of the regiment and three of the companies were injured. His unit fought in Beit Hanun and lost two soldiers. Bublil often complained that the training was too soft and didn’t prepare the soldiers adequately for war, although after the event two of his former soldiers received citations for bravery.
Some soldiers can’t handle fighting, psychologically speaking, he says. “Personally, I can better handle a soldier who’s wounded than one in shock. It’s hard to prepare soldiers to fight, and I was commanding people who weren’t mine; I hadn’t been the one to prepare them. I didn’t have any more combat experience than they did, but when you’re the commander in charge it’s completely different. You have responsibility, but you don’t have time to think. You suddenly have superpowers.”
After the war and finishing his high-school exams, Bublil was put in command of new recruits on the Lebanese border. “I had a great time,” he says. “You harvest the fruit of what you teach them.”
Now he’s back with the auxiliary division. Meeting him again four years on, he has matured and developed. He remains tough with the soldiers. His commanders sing his praises, but he admits some of the enlistees are afraid of him. “I told my deputy, ‘I’m a good guy now. I changed, became more moderate.’ He says, ‘I’ve been with you two years and you haven’t changed at all.’”
His ascribes his (debated) moderation not only to age and marriage, but to the soldiers. “I can’t explain it, but this generation of fighters is different,” Bublil says. “It’s easier to work with them. They’re still spoiled rotten, but they’re also disciplined and serious, intelligent. The division today is very serious.”
His job also requires him to deal with his soldiers’ personal circumstances. Most come from difficult backgrounds. Bublil presents eye-popping figures: 65 percent of the soldiers are receiving financial aid from the army; almost 20 percent are of Ethiopian origin. During a five-month period, a third of the soldiers were allowed out on compassionate leave – from two to six weeks – to make money to support their family. Bublil adds that he doesn’t let the soldier leave until he has a job lined up.
The soldiers have all sorts of troubles: they come from broken homes, or violent ones, or poor ones, or have no parents, or won’t speak with the ones they have. Bublil can relate to them – he admits that his circumstances were even worse – and the army gives him the tools to help them, he says. “We even help the families with buying furniture or electric appliances. It’s insane. Now there’s a new initiative by the chief of staff to give combat soldiers scholarships [for university].”
When his soldiers are discharged, he devotes precious time to writing letters of recommendation. “I’ll do anything to help them integrate into the workplace. Anybody who’s spent three years here deserves my help. It isn’t always simple. It’s especially difficult for the Ethiopians. We are a pretty racist society: the moment you take off your uniform and dress like a rapper, people judge you differently.”
Three officers serving with Bublil are religiously observant: he feels they are clearer about what they’re doing there. “Most arrive more mature, and have more values than the other soldiers,” he feels. As for his soldiers, “This is the ‘screens generation,’” he observes. “Go into the recce room. They’re all glued to their phones or PlayStation. A soldier is more likely to lose his gun than his phone.”
Regarding Sgt. Elor Azaria, the Israeli soldier convicted of manslaughter for fatally shooting a subdued Palestinian assailant, Bublil feels that veteran soldiers “know it was an unusual incident,” and don’t ask what they would do. “I told them, ‘His reaction was unprofessional, not serious. ... I will back you up over any event if it went down professionally, even if you erred, but not for something like this, when you arrive at a scene after the event and shoot a neutralized terrorist.’”
The visit to the paratroopers and Nahal brigades reinforces the impression I gained from dozens of similar visits to combat units over the last 20 years. Despite the soldiers’ exhausting daily missions, despite the ugliness surfacing in Israeli society – the DNA of the combat army still remains the same as the one the IDF has been teaching its soldiers for decades. The infantry isn’t Intel, it isn’t Mobileye, and it never will be. But it has unique levels of contribution, investment and reciprocation that can’t be found so easily in many parts of civil society.