Thinking Inside The Box: Tunnels Turned Traps
By Amir Oren
Wars are being fought between nations, or in the case of organisations such as Al-Qeada, Daesh and Hezbollah, between states and sub-national or international entities. Thus, there are several dimensions to each conflict, with the strictly military one only part of the whole picture.
The latest campaign between Gaza and Israel is being dissected on various levels, and rightly so. What has been taking place in the military sphere may this time – probably the sixth (rather than fourth, as is the usual count missing the first two) round since 2006 – be secondary to the impact Moslem vs. Jewish riots are having on Israel’s fragile society. There are political, diplomatic, regional and international repercussions, which are still unfolding and whose assessment deserves another space.
But within this envelope, there is the military core, the stuff of studies certain to be taken by War Colleges around the world once the deadly game is over and more information can be collected and diagnosed. In this regard, what was dubbed in Israel Operation Guardian Of The Walls – the reference is to both the Western Wall of Jerusalem’s ancient Second Temple and to the obstacle built around Gaza – makes for a unique case study of a war of wits between the Israel Defense Forces and the military wing of Hamas, long headed by Mohammed Deif. The elusive Deif, severely injured in assassination attempts, including most recently, was the main proponent of militancy leading Hamas to wage this campaign and notching some initial gains, but seems to have been outfoxed by the combined wisdom of Israel’s Intelligence Community, General Staff and Defense Industry.
The IDF-Hamas exchanges of blows should not be looked at as clashes of titans. They are neither World Wars nor even close to what Israel and its foes have undergone in 1967, 1973 or 1982. The terrain is well known in advance and so are the framework and limits to what can realistically take place. The challenge is to find original and creative solutions to textbook problems, and while Hamas had in this regard earlier surprised Israel through various means (tunnels, abductions, rockets) it seems to have been outsmarted by the current crop of Israeli military minds. This could change once again, of course – perhaps Deif has been too deified in Hamas circles for the organisation’s own good, in need of some fresh thinking.
The Hamas-held Gaza Strip, a 40 kilometer long on an average 9 km. wide piece of real estate bordering Egypt, the Mediterranean and Israel, densely hosts almost 2.1 million Palestinians, of which some two percent are under arms. In American terms, this is the population of Houston, in an area comparable to Philadelphia and with an order of battle similar to the New York Police Departmen’s.
Israel has withdrawn its forces and settlements from the Strip in 2005, calculating that staying there is more costly than leaving. Over the next two years Hamas reframed the equation by two consecutive victories over its intra-Palestinian rival, Fatah, first electorally and then militarily, taking over Gaza while Fatah, in collaboration with Israel, remained in charge of the West Bank.
Over the last 15 years, through several trials and many errors, there emerged a set of assumptions within which the next confrontation would be conducted.
(1) Israel would rather have a friendly regime in Gaza, but would not go out of its way to install it there, fearing a quagmire or an anarchy. It will sigh and co-exist with Hamas.
(2) Israel would not condone an all-out rocket strike on its population centers and infrastructure, but would live with occasional, infrequent cases of harassment near the border, at the expense of nearby residents.
(3) Israel would not be dragged into occupying Gaza, which it could easily accomplish in an initial mechanised manoeuvr by several brigades, both because it would become an open-ended and bloody stay and due to more important fronts – Iran, Hezbollah, even the West Bank should it disintegrate with no barrier between Atab inhabitants and Jewish settlers.
(4) Another round is inevitable, short of a political arrangement, but its circumstances can be manipulated. Time can be either wasted, as it was by the Jerusalem government regarding the improvement in Palestinian welfare promised in vain as part of prior ceasefires, or used to best effect, as is the IDF’s charge.
(5) Israel will not pre-empt Hamas efforts to build up its force by acquiring missiles and rockets and digging tunnels within the Gaza territory, up (actually down) to the proximity of the wall, orherwise it will be involved in a permanent war of attrition unbearable for nearby farmers and town dwellers. It will save its might for short but intensive campaigns.
(6) The Deter, Delay, Defend, Disrupt, Degrade Doctrine, between camoaigns, with Destroy too ambitious a substitute for Degrade. The basic idea was to set up a “target bank” not necessarily tied to a retaliatory urge following some Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad provocation, but methodically taking out assets so that when a major test comes, the IDF’s task would be easier.
With all of these concepts as givens, transparent to both sides, Israel’s military problem boiled down to anticipating its rival’s next move and prepare a counter-move, or better yet, entice him to make this move and be drawn into a trap – and the most lethal traps, man-made graves, are self-dug tunnels.
Enter Eliezer Toledano, Commanding General of the IDF’s Southern Command, the HQ overseeing Gaza as well as the Egyptian and (partly) Jordanian borders. Major-General Toledano is a rarity in the secular top echelon of the IDF, a religiously observant officer. A fact which is both obvious and irrelevant to his professional conduct. Indeed, given his record and relative youth, the 47-year-old Major-General should be considered a contender for Chief of the General Staff, the first religious one at that, later this decade.
Toledano is a Paratrooper, a breed which now reigns supreme in the IDF. CGS Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, his next deputy and heir apparent Herzi Halevi, the chiefs of Operations and Northern Command, the Commanding General of the Gaza Division are all former commanders of the elite 35th Paratroop Brigade. In Israel’s military lore, the Red Berets are self-centered in their career ambitions, no more brothers-in-arms than Cain and Abel were, but this does not seem the case with Kochavi and his former subordinates as battalion and troop leaders turned Cardinals in his Papacy. They, along with officers from other branches, evidently have good and effective rapport.
In 2014, Colonel Toledano led the 35th into Gaza during Opetation Protective Edge, when Kochavi – himself a former Gaza Divisional Commander – was Director of Military Intelligence. He was then quickly and successively promoted to two important posts as Brigadier-General, grooming him for the highest command and staff positions: Military Secretary to the Prime Minister and then Commander of the Gaza Division.
The Mazkatz, Hebrew for MilSec, coordinates all traffic between the PM and the entire Defense establishment. In addition to the IDF, his portfolio covers MOSSAD, Shabak, the Atomic Energy Commission and other clandestine channels. While not a decision-maker, but rather an observer, facilitator and potential witness – the third man in meetings between his boss and service chiefs, should their versions of events and instructions turn out to be crucially less then identical – he has the best seat in the gallery, watching cabinet sessions and private meetings, experiencing first-hand life im the politico-military domain and getting an invaluable touch for what the market will bear, which is what separates the practitioners from the theoreticians.
One of Toledano’s predecessors as Mazkatz, for Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, was Gadi Eisenkot, from whom Kochavi took over two years ago. Eisenkot used the respite gained by the JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran to transform the IDF and adapt it to innovative priorities. Both Eisenkot and Kochavi used the extra funds in the defense budget freed from the superfluous Iran account to procure more Iron Dome anti-missile batteries and stock up on interceptor missiles, thousands of which, at some $50,000 apiece, are needed to counter the barrages coming out of Gaza and to signal to Hezbollah that its missiles will be defeated, too – provided Israel does not have to fight a multi-front war, saturated by thousands of projectiles and allocating its defenses to air bases and strategic assets ahead of cities.
Following his term as Mazkatz, Toledano took command of the Gaza Division, which is responsible for day-to-day maintenance of security along the border, has the most up-to-date knowledge of the area, is a battle laboratory for the entire Army-Air Force team regarding the Strip and trains to take its part – mostly defensive with some offensive missions – in operations such as the current one, when additional manoeuvr divisions, rather then this territorial one, could reinforce it and join the fight.
Toledano was considered an excellent commander of the Gaza Division. So good, that he was elevated right out of it to head Southern Command and keep his insights fresh and feasible. This may seem trivial or natural to the layman, much like a Lieutenant going from a platoon to a company. In practice, it is almost unheard of. There are only a couple of precedents for a division commander taking over his own theater of war. It happened when that officer was already a Major General – Raful Eitan going from the 36th Division on the Golan Heights to Northern Command, Itzik Eitan from West Bank Division to Central Command. But for a BG to be recognised in such fashion, Toledano’s is only the second case, following Nitzan Alon who went directly from the West Bank division to Central Command. Indeed, Alon is acclaimed to be one of the best Generals of his generation and gave Kochavi a run for his money in the last CGS competition, following a stellar turn as Operations Chief. Toledano could turn out to be either Alon or Kochavi with a kipa.
It is the head rather than the headgear that counts, of course, and the last several days have borne out the success of Toledano’s brainstorming with his supervisor-turned-predecessor Halevi and their many talented collaborators from Shabak, Military Intelligence, Air Force and General Staff Operations. Far from being the achievement of a single person, it is the triumph of a system, a mechanism, a “factory”, but without the influence of key people it would not have happened in time.
In essence, the operational idea was to look at the Hamas habitat and turn its perceived advantages against themselves – the body’s military immune system attacking rather than protecting the organism. The Hamas routine had its leaders and elite troops sneak down to the intricate set of underground routes and passages prepared for movement and resistance should the IDF invade. This led to two conclusions for Eisenkot, Kochavi, Halevi, Toledano and Air Force Chief Amikam Norkin. Firstly, Israel should pre-empt if it learns of an imminent attack, before Deif and his subordinates get a chance to launch and disperse. Secondly, if circumstances beyond the IDF’s control bar pre-emption, all is not lost, as Hamas will probably act per protocol and go underground – which is where the Israelis want it to be.
This is thinking inside the box, with a fresh look at old views, much like Kochavi went through walls at the terror redoubt in Nablus in 2002 rather than entering booby-trapped doors. Tunnels are thus not necessarily getaways. They could be turned into traps, provided intelligence (military and Shabak) is timely and accurate, the Air Force is above en masse – with research and development, system analysis and training enabling a pinpoint operation to collapse the tunnels on whoever is inside – and fire units (Artillery and Tanks) ambushing from afar whoever emerges from the wreckage. To make sure the intended victims hurry to the tunnels, both to defend against an invasion and to attempt getting close to the wall and blast through it to raid an Israeli target, Toledano feigned an armored onslaught, with dozens of battle-bound vehicles moving in formation towards the wall. Hamas believed it understood the Israeli doctrine and decision making and could head it off as the pass. It was actually the other way around. A classic bait-and-switch tactic, practiced in other versions by the Kochavi school elsewhere, in the West Bank and the Northern Command under Maj.-Gen. Amir Baram.
By crippling a lot of the Deif assets, including some of his most seasoned weapon designers and producers, the IDF is hoping to undermine his faction and thereby strengthen Yahia Sinwar, the more pragmatic political leader and probable interlocutor through Egyptian mediation. Sinwar has earlier sat out a confrontation between Israel and Islamic Jihad, which obeys Iran.
Israel was right to assess that Deif was spoiling for a fight. It was wrong to predict that Sinwar would be able to block him. And it was shamefully negligent, some would say with malice, in letting its extreme religious and political firebrands enhance tensions in Jerusalem, giving Deif both context and pretext to launch his campaign. It was a mutual misperception costing both sides in ways neither foresaw.
Thus the strictly military gains made by Kochavi, Norkin and Toledano are remarkable as fine as they go, but can not go far enough. When one zooms out, one sees the contours of Israel torn apart, of West Bank Palestinians joining the fight, of Hamas being able to shut down Ben-Gurion airport, rocketing Tel Aviv, threatening to put Jerusalem at bay, gaining the upper hand vis-a-vis the non-violent Palestinian Authority. If a ceasefire is delayed and the battle creeps well into next week, a tipping point is bound to be reached with Israel the strategic loser despite its operational successes.
Yet this is above Toledano’s paygrade and even Kochavi’s, because while the CGS is a forceful advocate for his plan to proceed some more before running out of steam, he is aware of the politicians’ tendency to conveniently blame the military for being either too timid or trigger-happy. With Gaza perhaps Kochavi’s only opportunity to show his mettle during a term which expires no more than 20 months from now, every incident or accident could sink his reputation. For him and the IDF, it is closure time. For the next Israeli government, the imperative is to restart the long-stalled peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority while giving the oppressed and depressed population of Gaza some hope for a better future.