We Surveyed All of Israel's War Fronts - Here's What We Found

Subterranean digging, a new generation of armored personnel carriers, aerial defense by remote control – we got a close look at the IDF's responses to mounting tension on its borders

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The Israeli side of the border with Syria.
The Israeli side of the border with Syria.Credit: Gil Eliahu

The meeting with the commander of the Israel Defense Force’s Gaza Division, Brig. Gen. Yehuda Fuchs, was set to take place next to the Black Arrow monument, which is perched on a hill overlooking the Gaza Strip adjacent to Kibbutz Mefalsim. The site commemorates the reprisal raids in the 1950s, the army of Moshe Dayan and Arik Sharon, which is otherwise now relegated to the history books, holiday supplements in newspapers and courses dealing with the IDF’s legacy in battle. The monument bears the name of the paratroops operation in Gaza in which Aluf Horowitz was killed. One of the authors is named for Horowitz, his uncle; he now has his picture taken by the memorial plaque.

From here we embarked on a tour along the border fence with the divisional commander, a few hours after an explosive device went off alongside it, two weeks before the start of the Palestinians’ “marches of return” on the Gaza side of the fence.

The military mission here is basically quite similar to that of the period of the reprisal operations: preventing the return of refugees from their camps in the Strip to the land from which they were uprooted in the War of Independence, and protecting the communities on the Israeli side, which was once called the “frontier area” but today is categorized by the less heroic name of “Gaza envelope.”

The means of carrying out this mission, however, have changed beyond recognition. The focus of the 2018 IDF is defense and fortification. In interwar periods, its cross-border operations are mostly carried out from the air, with their exact details hidden from the eye. The current era is almost completely without stories of courage under fire or heroic folkloristic characters such as the paratroops commanders of yore.

It’s hard to imagine a greater contrast than that between the reprisal raids that are described on the monument and the vast project of the subterranean anti-tunnel barrier that the IDF is now building along the border here. Fuchs takes us to construction sites where the immense machines recall those being used to build the underground rail line in Tel Aviv. He offers us detailed technical explanations about construction methods, materials and quantities, as if he were an infrastructure engineer and not a combat officer who’s spent most of his years on the front lines.

Construction of the anti-tunnel barrier near Gaza. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Some 3 billion shekels (currently about $852 million) will be invested in a huge concrete wall equipped with sensors to detect tunneling, to be installed below ground and completed by the end of 2019. Five hundred people are engaged in the construction; five cement plants have been built nearby to avoid long trips by trucks on narrow Negev roads. Above it are earth ramparts with built-in tank-firing positions, which on recent weekends have been used by army snipers to fire on Palestinian demonstrators.

Slogans used in the past by the IDF’s founders – “active defense,” “few against many,” “moving the war to enemy territory” – in which generations of officers and soldiers were schooled, now look like fairy tales from another planet in light of the abundance of means the IDF now employs in the Gaza sector.

Two essential things have changed since Aluf Horowitz and his buddies were sent to attack camps of the Egyptian army, which controlled the Gaza Strip at the time. Israel has developed into a thriving country, which can devote far greater resources to security needs. At the same time, it is no longer willing to accept the loss of soldiers on the scale that was understood and accepted in the state’s early years. Eight military funerals, as was the case following Operation Black Arrow, would today be perceived as a national calamity obliging Israel to go to war – exactly as occurred almost 12 years ago, in the Second Lebanon War (when another eight soldiers were killed on the same day that two fallen reservists, Eldad Regev and Udi Goldwasser, were abducted). That constraint dictates the current conception of border defense: Do whatever needs doing, all that matters is for the boys to come home safely. That is the supreme imperative of the government and of Israeli society.

During the past few weeks we journeyed the length and breadth of the land of bitahon shotef – Hebrew for ongoing or routine security. We met the army’s “work contractors”: the territorial division commanders in the north, the West Bank and Gaza, and the commander of the Israel Air Force’s Palmahim base, from which most of the operational sorties depart. They are three kibbutzniks, one moshav member and one product of a Zionist, ultra-Orthodox home in Jerusalem who became a kibbutz member as an adult.

The mission of the four divisional chiefs, two of whom serve in the north, is thankless, snafu-prone, exposed to the media and requires them to be always looking over their shoulder. They need to internalize the security policy that’s dictated from above, from the political leadership and from the bureau of the IDF chief of staff, and to remember that even if the border is breached, their task is to absorb and contain the incident and prevent a general escalation. They also need to keep in mind that, if war breaks out, it will be decided by other forces. Fear of losses isn’t a mere slogan for them: All of them tell about comrades-in-arms and subordinates who were killed by their sides or while under their responsibility. Clearly, these are images that have been burned into their consciousness.

The Black Arrow monument. Eight military funerals, like those following the 1955 operation commemorated here, would today be perceived as a national calamity obliging Israel to go to war.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The IAF operates differently, living on its bases and under centralized operational control from the “Pit” at the Kirya – defense establishment headquarters in Tel Aviv – but more involved than in the past in IDF ground activity. Indeed, it even operates in the “below ground” in Gaza, as Palmahim base commander Brig. Gen. Nimrod Shifroni puts it.

Simple military equation

Our first stop was the Judea and Samaria Division, which under the cover of a newspeak mission – “preserving territorial security” – maintains Israeli control in the West Bank, the occupation that is incarnated in the form of the tall pillbox fortifications along the roads, and that safeguards the settlements. The divisional commander, Brig. Gen. Eran Niv, hosts us in Hebron on the morning of Purim, March 1, at the conclusion of the local settlers’ traditional costumed procession, an event that often triggers friction and unrest. This time it ended with the throwing of a plastic bottle at the head of a company commander, before we arrived. We saw only a few drunk young people walking along the path that leads from the Tel Rumeida neighborhood to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, bearing a bottle of wine and babbling loudly.

A large poster at the entrance to the Hebron Brigade commander’s office depicts the history of Jewish settlement in the city, from the patriarch Abraham and King David down to the present day. A quick glance is all that’s needed to understand the mission of the soldiers here: to sustain a settlement in the heart of a large Palestinian city. An IDF battalion is permanently allocated for that mission.

A settler wearing a Trump mask shakes hands with an Israeli soldier as he participates in the annual parade marking the Jewish holiday of Purim, in Hebron, March 1, 2018.Credit: Tsafrir Abayov/AP

Niv shows us the division’s activity graph. The troops’ principal task is to block occasional outbursts of demonstrations and terror attacks, under the constant fear of a new intifada. Niv is occupied with adjusting the deployment of the forces to the constraints and concentrating the effort in problematic places, without requesting reinforcements from the General Staff. At his disposal is a small number of battalions, about half of them reserve battalions, and a Border Police unit.

The military equation is simple: The calmer the West Bank is, the more units that can engage in training. The method, in Niv's words: “Precision action against those involved in violence, in order not to drag the majority of the Palestinian civilian population into a confrontation, and not to automatically impose a closure on 200,000 people in Nablus because of a terrorist attack.” He knows that a local incident is liable to lead to bloodshed. Niv’s silent partners are the members of the Palestinian security “apparatuses.” Coordination with them is working successfully, far from the eyes of the public.

The divisional commander grew up in Kibbutz Erez, north of the Gaza Strip, served in the Nahal Brigade and, like the other divisional chiefs we met, was stationed in southern Lebanon and in the territories. He first gained fame in Hebron as a battalion commander who overcame a terrorist squad that killed 12 personnel belonging to the security forces in an attack along the “worshippers’ road” leading to the Tomb of the Patriarchs during the second intifada. (The commander of the Hebron Brigade at the time, Col. Dror Weinberg, was killed in the incident; the conference room attached to the brigade commander’s office is named for him).

Niv, who is described by one of his subordinates as being “among the few IDF commanders capable of thinking and running with a knife between their teeth at the same time,” takes us on a tour through Hebron’s Palestinian neighborhoods in a jeep covered with heavy metal plating. The stones thrown at us along the way bounce off the vehicle’s sides and barely bother the occupants.

In the course of the tour it emerges that this vehicle isn’t enough for the IDF these days: We’re shown a new one that’s come into use, the Ze’ev (wolf) armored personnel carrier. It is a wheeled and not tracked APC, higher, more heavily protected and more threatening. For someone who remembers doing regular army service in Lebanon, when we drove in open jeeps in places that posed a constant threat of roadside bombs and shooting ambushes – this level of protection looks crazy, yet another massive investment to prevent soldiers from being exposed to danger. The approach according to which no unnecessary risks are taken is brought home vividly when we get out to observe the city from a dominant hill, on which the IDF has established a large, company-size outpost. The commanding officers who host us are armed; one of them is posted to cover us, even though no one is visible anywhere.

The Hebron Brigade commander, Col. Itzik Cohen, takes us to the Jewish settlement in the city, and shows us the new defense structure built around it after the Elor Azaria affair (referring to the soldier who shot a wounded terrorist in Hebron in 2016). About 1,000 Jews live here amid 200 Palestinian families, and even for someone who’s been here before, the sight is oppressive. The Palestinians are now required to pass through fortified gates, with metal detectors, opaque glass and a loudspeaker system, which prevent physical contact with the soldiers. Anyone carrying a knife is locked in an automatic trap activated by a soldier sitting behind a thick glass wall.

Cohen presents the data: During the past year, since the gates were installed, 86 Palestinians carrying knives have been apprehended here. About a third of them told their interrogators that they had planned to stab soldiers. The others wanted to be caught and jailed, in order to extricate themselves from personal and family problems. Thanks to the new technology, none of the knife carriers was shot or harmed. When there are no casualties there is no escalation, and there are no cases like that of Azaria, an episode that continues to rattle the IDF. It’s the same formula again: invest massive resources and technology and spare yourself trouble, investigations and dishonorable discharges.

Still, the numbers provided by the brigade commander illustrate the depth of the Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation. Even after half a century of Jewish settlement in the heart of Hebron, there are dozens of people who are ready to risk lengthy imprisonment, disability or death in order to try to attack a soldier or a settler, in an impossible balance of forces.

These events are barely reported in Israel, and the majority of the population that lives within the Green Line is totally indifferent to them. But here in Hebron a war of attrition is being fought, its intensity constantly fluctuating. Cohen doesn’t wait for the enemy from the safety of fortified positions – his soldiers carry out night missions to make arrests and search for homemade weapons and domestic arms-making sites. He gets two or three hours of sleep a day, plans the night operations in the morning and at night follows them from the war room. He sees his four children during rare breaks and on Shabbat, though he spends some Sabbaths with the brigade, too.

FILE PHOTO: Israeli soldiers detain a Palestinian during clashes at a protest in Hebron in the West Bank, February 23, 2018. Credit: Mussa Issa Qawasma / Reuters

Cohen tells us that he has a lot of latitude in terms of choosing targets, methods and timing. A few days earlier, his troops caught some Jewish lawbreakers from Be’er Sheva, members of a criminal organization who had come to buy arms from a Palestinian dealer equipped with a fake contract to purchase a car, to mask their underhanded business. The police called to praise him for saving the lives of the victims of an intended hit on a rival gang.

For the brigade commander, the night actions are aimed at intercepting terrorist attacks early, before the weapons and the explosives make their way into Israel. He shows us photographs of arms caches in Hebron homes. Once more it looks as though, despite all the operations and the advanced means, the quality intelligence and the continuing settlement project, there are enough Palestinians who haven’t lost the motivation to fight.

Minefield maneuvers

The commanding officers we met take the other side seriously. The phenomenon of scorning the enemy, which was rampant in the IDF following the Six-Day War of 1967, in the style of “let them come – we’ll break their bones,” has long since vanished.

Brig. Gen. Fuchs shows us through binoculars the observation posts of Hamas and Islamic Jihad across the fence, beyond the 300-meter “security zone” that Israel set up after withdrawing from the Gaza Strip. He describes the development of the locally based military force in regard to operational capability, spirit of battle and stratagems developed to cope with the IDF’s range of abilities. And he tells us about a booby-trapped explosive device that was hidden in the pole of a Palestinian flag that was hoisted on the fence and wounded four soldiers a few weeks earlier.

In the weeks after our visit, tension in Gaza surged in the wake of an organized Palestinian effort to initiate demonstrations of thousands of people close to the border fence. The advent of the demonstrations was accompanied by a series of infiltrations from the Strip via the old fence, which the IDF is now in the process of replacing by means of the huge engineering project against the tunnels. Some Israeli media outlets described the infiltrations as a resounding failure for the IDF. The pressure on the army’s top brass, from Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, down through the divisional commander and his brigade chiefs, was apparent in the days before the first weekend of demonstrations.

The rules of engagement issued to the forces reflected that, and in three weekends, 40 Palestinians, most of them unarmed demonstrators, were killed in proximity to the border. This is the almost-permanent minefield in which the sector commander has to maneuver: Any infiltration, certainly of terrorists, will be immediately headlined as a screw-up, and necessitate an investigation and sometimes also demands for heads to roll, regardless of the load under which the unit operates regularly. On the other hand, toughening the policy will often cause additional casualties on the other side and is liable to embroil the IDF and the state in international criticism. Sometimes, as in the recent affair of the snipers, it will also bring about the renewal of the domestic political debate.

Israeli troops looking toward the Gaza Strip, April 2018.Credit: \ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Effective enemy

Recognition that the enemy is sophisticated and dangerous is even more deeply engraved in the consciousness of the two divisional commanders in the north. We drive to Galilee during Passover week, spending hours in traffic jams, and recall that the lively movement of holiday-makers is the best gauge of quiet on the border. The commander of the Galilee Division, Brig. Gen. Rafi Milo, meets us in a grove adjacent to the Nabi Yusha police fort, scene of one of the best-known battles of 1948. Around us, Christian Arab families are celebrating Easter with barbecues.

Milo, analytic and precise, has prepared a detailed survey on a yellow writing pad. He served in the naval commandos and returned to service after the ambush suffered by the unit in 1997 in Lebanon. (His Gaza counterpart, Fuchs, was the commander of the Nahal Brigade’s antitank unit that year, and 10 of his soldiers were killed in the helicopter disaster in February 1997. Those were two of the incidents in whose wake the IDF would withdraw from southern Lebanon three years later.) Milo has commanded a Golani Brigade battalion, the naval commandos and afterward the Edom Division, which is responsible for the border with Egypt and the southern part of the border with Jordan. He took command of the Lebanon sector last summer.

In contrast to his colleagues in the West Bank and Gaza, whose operational networks are constantly engaged in activities, Milo lives in a dual reality. Most of the time there is absolute quiet – but opposite him is Hezbollah, the most effective military force among Israel’s enemies. A flare-up here will be more violent and dangerous than in any other sector. Hezbollah is deployed in three “arms”: territorial defense units that protect the border; rocket and missile units deep within Lebanon; and the offensive Radwan Force, which according to declarations by Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, is designated to occupy Galilee in a future war. The organization’s offensive force is occupied in Syria, and Milo’s assessment is that Hezbollah has no interest in a war with Israel at this time – but the danger of a deterioration exists. It’s liable to happen in response to an Israeli attack in Syria, or to the wall that Israel is building along sections of the border, west of Metula and east of Rosh Hanikra.

On a routine basis, the supreme task of the divisional commander is to prevent escalation in the wake of border incidents. On the offensive side, the IDF is now occupied with the “campaign between the wars” – consisting largely of aerial attacks intended to thwart the military aggrandizement of Hezbollah and other terrorist and guerrilla forces, and more recently also of Iran in Syria. He knows that the campaign is more important than a tactical victory over a small Hezbollah force, if it’s an avoidable incident. Putting this understanding into practice obligates close supervision of the junior commanders and imparting the principles of Israel’s strategy in the north to the intermediate levels as well.

In anticipation of warfare, Milo is readying for a Hezbollah invasion of Galilee and an attempt to capture an Israeli community, amid possible disruption of the organization of reservist forces and interference in the evacuation of civilians southward. Here, in this sector, too, the IDF is investing vast resources in planning; many aspects of its efforts are defensive, such as building walls and embankments at points of possible breakthrough by Hezbollah.

Milo talks about a rapid counterattack to the Lebanon side, should a war break out. That’s his mission. Other systems and units in the IDF are charged with dealing with rockets and with the civilian home front. In the meantime, these are all contingency plans; day-to-day life is passed here in keeping an eye on Hezbollah personnel who patrol the border in civilian attire and in meaningless conversations with members of UNIFIL, the United Nations force deployed in this sector.

We cross the verdant Hula Valley and navigate the ascent to the Golan Heights, to observe the Kuneitra region. The divisional intelligence officer shows us the rebel-controlled villages and the line of progress of President Bashar Assad’s forces. His assessment is that the regime’s next target in the area will be the city of Daraa, the cradle of the rebellion, southeast of here. Israel is providing the villages of the Syrian Golan with aid that is “mainly humanitarian,” in the words of our hosts. Their existence creates a kind of security zone for Israel across the border. But the IDF, having learned the lesson of its lengthy cooperation with the South Lebanon Army, with its gloomy aftermath, is playing down its ties with the other side.

Israeli troops on the Syrian border.Credit: Gil Eliahu

‘Syrians on the fences’

The commander of the Bashan Division, Brig. Gen. Amit Fisher, grew up on Kibbutz Merom Hagolan, in the Golan Heights, not far from our observation point, and spent most of his military service in the Golani infantry brigade. Ehud Barak, during his term as defense minister, often spoke with high regard about “Fisher and Zini,” two battalion commanders in the Golani Brigade, who in the meantime have risen to the rank of divisional commanders (Brig. Gen. David Zini now heads a reservist division in Central Command). Fisher is a few years younger than his colleagues and he’s the only one of them who’s now serving in his first posting as a brigadier. He took over the division about two months ago.

He hosts us at the Nafah base in the center of the Heights, which Syrian tanks reached in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. It’s here that the phrase “the Syrians are at the fences” was coined, and here that divisional commander Rafael Eitan won glory. But those threats belong to the distant past. The present-day threat that concerns Fisher is not an assault by Syrian divisions but a terrorist infiltration. And here, too, as with Gaza and Lebanon, Israel’s initial response was to build a new barrier, high and sophisticated. These fences, whose construction in all the sectors is being coordinated by Brig. Gen. Eran Ophir, head of the IDF-Defense Ministry security-fence project, are the most salient manifestation of Israel’s current security policy. When historians come to survey the past decade, they are likely to discover that a person little known to the Israeli public left a significant physical impact on the face of the land.

Fisher is worried about a possible trickle of Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards personnel into the sector – in order to conduct surveillance on the Israeli side, to recruit local collaborators and to prepare future operations. This would constitute the embodiment of the “Iranian deployment across the border” that the country’s civilian and military leaders have been warning about. Since our visit with Fisher and his neighbor Milo, the ante in the north has been raised. Seven Iranian advisers were killed on April 10 in an aerial attack attributed to Israel on a Syrian airbase next to Homs, and Tehran has threatened direct revenge. Along the borders, in Gaza but even more so in the north, the week of Memorial and Independence Days passed in tense anticipation of a possible violent payback by the enemy.

Fisher, charismatic and articulate, talks without fear of taking an offensive stance. The tanks that Assad deployed in the buffer zone a few months ago, in violation of the separation of forces agreement with Israel, are to him legitimate targets for attack, after the diplomatic efforts to enforce the agreement have been played out. But anyone fantasizing about a new Ariel Sharon who will expand the limits of his sector so as to strike at the enemy, gets a lecture from Fisher about the importance of discipline and obeying orders. In the course of rising through the ranks he has seen outstanding commanders who excelled in battle but cut corners in periods of quiet, having to leave the army under unpleasant circumstances.

Defense by remote control

Our journey ends in the base at Palmahim, which competes with Tel Nof for the title of largest IAF base. The primary force here consists of a few squadrons of drones, in addition to which the air defense system has also been developing in recent years – from Iron Dome to the Arrow missiles. From here, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, the defense of the country’s borders is implemented by remote control. “If you look at an aerial photograph of Israel on Yom Kippur,” base commander Shifroni says, “you see only our remotely controlled drones along all the borders.”

The Israel-Lebanon border.Credit: Gil Eliahu

These drones are the IDF’s rapid response force. Constantly airborne, they are operated by shift-rotation personnel. And they too offer broad margins of defense from possible entanglement.

It sometimes happens that one of the drones falls, as occurred in late March in Lebanon. According to Shifroni, such events are not pleasant and demand an inquiry, but usually no one is hurt and the public reaction in the wake of the loss of a Hermes 450 – which most people have not even heard of – is negligible compared to that following the downing of the F-16 and the ejection of its two pilots over northern Israel two months ago.

In terms of flight hours, the remotely controlled drones are responsible for most of the IAF’s operational activity. More and more missions are being shifted to them instead of using manned aircraft, Shifroni notes. These include long-distance photographic sorties, which used to pose great risks to pilots. Still, this is a gradual process, and he believes that pilots will continue to occupy the cockpits for many years to come, just as automatic cars aren’t yet driving on the streets.

Shifroni grew up in Kibbutz Yiftah, on the Lebanon border, and did his IAF service as a pilot and a commander in the helicopter unit, in a track that included staff posts, too, as is customary in the force. The motto of his base refers to “victorious cooperation” with the ground forces. We’re joined by Lt. Col. Gilad (his surname is classified), who commands one of the two Blackhawk helicopter squadrons on the base. Both he and Shifroni describe the ever-tightening relations between the ground and air branches. Shifroni relates that the air force is a background partner in every ground mission, even when it comes arrests in the West Bank, in case of complications that require backup.

We heard similar descriptions from the divisional commanders. They told us that one way to reduce the forces in operational activity, in order to increase time spent in training, is to entrust part of the routine security missions to the air force. Today warplanes are on constant alert for rapid intervention in border incidents, fueled and armed and ready to take off. In practice, they serve as the reserve force of the divisional commanders in the north.

Just a few kilometers from the base is Palmahim beach. Only a few sun-seekers are there on this ordinary weekday, just before the official start of the swimming season. Above the dunes we see a drone, followed by a warplane, heading out for missions – secret or not, routine or unusual – toward the northern front and the territories. Another day of routine security and deployment for trouble, in the hope that it won’t come.

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