“The Subterranean Medium has become a Part of the Future Battlefield”

“We knew about the effort made by Hamas in the subterranean medium,” says the commander of the 605th battalion of the IDF Combat Engineering Corps. Exclusive interview

In the IDF they are known as “the Grey Corps”, owing to their silver-colored berets and the fact that they are much less publicized than the IAF, and not as sexy, allegedly, as the paratroopers or the Golani infantrymen. But as soon as it was decided that the ground maneuver of the IDF in the context of Operation Protective Edge would focus on destroying the underground tunnel layout of Hamas, the Israeli defense establishment understood that the “Muhandesim” (slang word for engineers) will be at the center of it all.

I saw it with my own eyes during the operation. Admittedly, a major percentage of the fighting had been assigned to infantry and armored units, but eventually, these units spent a major percentage of their stay inside the Gaza Strip doing security duty – securing the engineers who were actually engaged in the hard, Sisyphean and dangerous work of destroying the tunnels.

Lt. Col. Roy Nahari, commander of the 605th battalion of the Combat Engineering Corps, is a ”Muhandes” through and through. He is 35, residing in Modi’in but originally hailing from Jerusalem, married to Sivan and the father of two boys, and he swears he had always wanted to serve in the Combat Engineering Corps. “I actually struggled to get to the Engineering Corps,” he says in an interview withIsrael Defense. “They wanted to draft me to the paratroopers. I sat there at the recruitment office in Jerusalem. Emotionally, all of my life I had wanted to be a ‘MacGyver’ and blow things up. I wanted to join the YAEL unit (the specialist unit of the Engineering Corps – O.H.). I wanted to possess that particular occupational specialty. I had heard a lot about the Engineering Corps. I was interested in everything connected with explosives and mines. I never wanted to serve in the Armored Corps or the infantry – I wanted something more interesting.”

In our conversation, Lt. Col. Nahari omits to mention the commendation he was awarded following the Second Lebanon War. On August 14, 2006, while serving as a company commander in the Lahav (603rd) battalion of the Engineering Corps, an antitank missile hit a first-aid station that cared for wounded Golani infantrymen under his command. “Nahari, who among other things had been trained as a medic in civilian life, cared for the wounded soldiers personally and commanded their evacuation to a nearby helicopter landing pad,” state the explanation for the division commander’s commendation he was awarded. “Another mission he executed was leading the advance action and the clearing of the route into the area around Shakif a-Niml (an area close to Bint-Jbeil - O.H.)… In his actions, Major Roy Nahari demonstrated fighting spirit, initiative, leadership and courage.”

Where did the incident, which in many respects was the opening for the harsh summer of 2014, namely – the kidnapping of the three yeshiva students in Gush-Etzion – catch you, and where did the outbreak of Operation Protective Edge catch you?

“At the outset of Operation Brother’s Keeper we were deployed along the northern border, at the Avivim sector, in an infantry role – routine defensive line security duty along a ‘blue’ border line. At the same time, we were on alert in the event that the situation in the south deteriorated. Of all the regular Engineering Corps battalions, we were activated last as we were on an operational mission in the north and were waiting for the reservists to replace us. On July 8, one day after the operation began, we received the command to move south and within 24 hours were replaced by a reservist engineering battalion.

“We arrived at the assembly areas in the south and were placed on alert for ground missions inside the Gaza Strip. We practiced, but still did not know that we were going for the tunnels. The operative plans had already existed and major moves were being discussed – that is what we had trained for and that is what we had assembled our task forces for.”

Much has been argued after the operation about the ground forces not being ready for the task of destroying the tunnels. As the commander of an Engineering Corps battalion, did you feel prepared for the task assigned to you?

“As far as I, specifically, and the commanders of the other regular battalions of the Engineering Corps were concerned, owing to the length of our service and experience and the positions we served in, all of us were familiar with the tunnels. I had served three years with the YAHALOM unit (the specialist engineering unit - O.H.), I had served two years as the commander of the YAEL unit and a year as deputy commander of the YAHALOM unit. I had arrived with knowledge from there, and with the knowledge I had gained as the engineering officer of the IDF 91st Division – the Galilee Formation. All of the engineering officers at the IDF divisions have access to that information and I had learned quite a bit from the engineering officer of the Gaza Division about the tunnels Hamas had built in the Gaza Strip.”

During your career in the Combat Engineering Corps, did you gain any operational experience in destroying tunnels?

“During Operation Cast Lead I was deputy commander of the YAHALOM unit. I was inside a tunnel leading toward the Karni check point, which started at the outskirts of Saja’iya. It was almost one kilometer long. This was almost the only intrusion and attack tunnel discovered during Operation Cast Lead. An opening was discovered inside Israeli territory, and it led to Nahal-Oz.”

During the operation and even now, a public discourse evolved about the IDF allegedly having been taken by surprise by the tunnels, and not having prepared for them. I assume this is a thesis you find hard to accept?

“This thesis is only good for the public discourse. It has no professional basis and that’s a shame. The subterranean medium is a well-known and well-established fact which has existed in military history for years and years. We knew all along that the enemy in the south was using this medium and that it aspires to develop it further. We knew it was a primary effort (for them), like their naval unit, the naval commandos, like their UAVs and their long-range rockets.”

How did you prepare to destroy the layout of 32 Hamas tunnels?

“There is an extensive knowledge infrastructure in the IDF about this threat, but we had not planned for it to be the primary threat we would face. All of our military plans had dealt with the question of how to stop the steep-trajectory fire and as soon as the subterranean medium became one of the primary threats, the order was applied to the subterranean medium, too. If we had entered into the depth of the Gaza Strip, as the initial plans had intended – and everything is said in the context of what we can talk about – we would have bypassed the tunnels.”

Did you think you would go into the Gaza Strip on the ground or did you have the same feelings as in the last operation - Pillar of Defense - that you will just wait along the border and the operation would be concluded with just air strikes, without a ground phase?

“We must conduct ourselves as if we are going in as otherwise we would not be able to prepare ourselves properly and would not be able to prepare the troopers with regard to the aspect of consciousness and mindset. It was very clear to me that we would go in, and that is how I prepared my troopers.

“Most of the times you find yourself heading a force other than the one you had trained with. Our organic brigade is the 188th Armored Brigade and we were teamed up with the 7th Armored Brigade at the Netzarim corridor – the area between Nahal-Oz and Be’eri. So you develop a common language and adapt your plans to those of the force you teamed up with. All year round you work on your kit but now you complement your last gaps nevertheless and enter a state of very tense vigilance.”

How did your battalion cope with the threat of the mortar bombs fired into the assembly areas?

“Every combat operation includes assembly areas. In the assembly areas, you conduct yourself as you would in a combat zone. We deployed the forces so that we would be able to dash into our PUMA vehicles (the combat engineering armored personnel carriers – O.H.) and take cover either inside them or under them, and we had an alert system – a public address system and a communication system inside the vehicles that provided us with an alert of one kind or another. It gives you fifteen seconds to take cover against the incoming mortar fire.”

When did you become aware of the fact that you were to abandon the previous operative plan and begin to prepare to destroy the tunnels?

“We had 24 hours to prepare for the tunnel mission. It happened after two weeks in conduct-of-operations mode, even though we had not crossed the border fence. Some things change from one minute to the next and definitely from day to day. Our most important capability as the engineering forces is to come in and adapt a solution. Every minute of time I was given contributed to the preparations. I could have been inside (the Gaza Strip) theoretically, and then they would have come and told me, during the attack or advance action, to address the tunnels.

“From the moment the decision was made that we were not going to maximum depth but being assigned to deal with the attack or intrusion tunnels instead – we immediately made the adaptations in our task forces as well as with regard to the professional capabilities in the context of the response we provided.”

Do you remember any particular sentiments that you had about reentering the Gaza Strip?

“I personally, along with the NCOs of the battalion and the deputy battalion commander, with the combat experience we gained over the last 15 or 17 years, had spoken a lot to the troopers, with the emphasis placed on the platoon commanders, to the effect that we were going into something where apprehension was legitimate – something uncertain. We had practiced for it and had spoken about it. It was a very important turning point. Once the platoon commanders had understood that apprehension was legitimate but managed to cope with it, and things continued normally, confidence would be gained and there was a sense of success and a sense of being in control over the situation.”

In retrospect, did you know what you were going into during Operation Protective Edge?

“We were required to locate two offensive tunnels. We had very good information about outlets and various spotting indications that were associated with the tunnels. From that moment on, you need to get to that location, to that spot and rule out the presence of booby traps and explosive charges, which we knew existed. All of my companies encountered booby traps and explosives charges. You protect yourself within your working environment. You erect a protective setup that would enable the engineering forces to work freely in the ground. The shaft is 80 centimeters or one meter wide, maximum, and you need to locate it within a territory of, say, one donum. Our people have excellent capabilities of looking at the terrain.”

During your stay inside the Gaza Strip, did you actually encounter enemy elements, or had the Hamas terrorists escaped from all of the places you reached and the worst nuisances you had to cope with were stand-off sniper fire and antitank fire?

“We do not refer to what they did as escaping. They had vanished. We knew about that and expected that. There were ‘peeks’ at our forces, as we called it. Suddenly, within a space that you had under your control, a terrorist armed with an RPG launcher would emerge out of nowhere, and one of my companies actually came under RPG fire.”

What was the casualty count of your battalion at the end of the operation?

“The 605th battalion had no casualties. Two of our troopers were very slightly injured – one as a result of a simple safety incident and the other from friendly fragmentation fire. The battalion lost an officer cadet, Second Lieutenant Bar Rahav, RIP, from Ramat-Yishai, who had been a trooper of the battalion reconnaissance platoon. Bar insisted on going out to a command course a year ago. He went to the squad commander course, where he was an outstanding trainee. Bar Rahav was killed by an antitank missile that hit a PUMA APC while operating in the southern sector, on the outskirts of Khan Yunis.”

As someone who had fought in the Gaza Strip in the context of the previous ground incursion, Operation Cast Lead, do you have any specific perspective regarding the possible accomplishments of Operation Protective Edge?

“I hope that we delivered the accomplishments that would lead to tranquility as well as facilitating the desired political achievements. We know how to deal with the tunnels on the battlefield. It has become a part of the future battlefield at any place we can think of. We must separate between the subterranean medium and whatever crosses the border. It is a misconception in the context of the public discourse. When you cross to the other side it is one way and when you operate from within your own territory it is another way. In our own territory, you do not go around digging up every possible point.”

What can you say about your combat doctrine for destroying the tunnels?

“We are doing everything we can to avoid entering the tunnels. The risk outweighs the benefit. They do not exactly dig tunnels with the seal of the Standards Institution of Israel. The concrete revetment they use does not get near one third of the strength demanded by Israeli standards. The Combat Engineering Corps had lost officers and troopers in tunnels that caved in during previous periods in the Gaza Strip. As long as there is no major operational benefit in it, we do not go in.”

What can you say to the inhabitants of the northern region, who say that just like the inhabitants of the settlements around the Gaza Strip had claimed, they keep hearing digging noises in the nights over the last few years?

“I think that the discourse about intrusion tunnels with the emphasis on the northern region, to some extent, borders on the irresponsible. The threats imposed on the State of Israel have always existed along all of the borders. We, as professionals, do everything we can and if a threat had actually existed – we would have done something about it. Today’s discourse evokes anxiety and hysteria along a border that has been quiet since 2006 and should remain that way, as life in the north is very precious.”

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