Operation Protective Edge has reinstated the ground maneuver to the realm of military operations. Admittedly, when IDF troops began to assemble in the south, having completed Operation Brother's Keeper (in which the bodies of the three youngsters abducted and murdered in the Hebron area were found), the commanders and troopers estimated that this time, just like in Operation Pillar of Defense more than eighteen months previously, they would not be employed and the operation will consist of aerial activities only. This time they were proven wrong, however. In this ground maneuver, IDF employed three divisions: the Gaza Division, to which the Givati and Paratroopers brigades were subordinated, among other elements; as well as the two divisions that had been converted from "single-theate" divisions to "multiple-theater" divisions – divisions that may be employed in the south or north during wartime: the 162nd Division and the 36th Division.
The Gaza Division has been dealing with the issue of the subterranean tunnels for a very long time. “We were aware of more than 90% of the tunnels, and had in-depth knowledge about them. We had prepared for that threat,” says a senior officer in the Gaza Division. “All told, Hamas has not succeeded in implementing any capability using their various tools. Even if they were successful in the subterranean medium, they encountered IDF troops rather than civilians. Eventually, in practice, we were not surprised by anything. In some cases we operated more effectively and in other cases we operated less effectively. As far as the offensive tunnels are concerned – we opted for an attack through direct engagement. In this context, the enemy sustained very serious blows. Their ability and their expectations as to how they would take IDF by surprise throughout the theater in these contexts. We did encounter challenges. The IEODs and the booby traps – we had known and assumed that we would encounter them. Hamas used a large number of booby-trapped houses. We adapted our methods of operation to this challenge. We fought and adapted our tactics to day and night operations. The subterranean challenge was highly significant in the enemy territory, too. We had effective operational control and operational coordination throughout. We created a common language between the divisions and adapted our methods of operation to one another and among the forces on the ground thanks to the combat elements – brigade commanders and battalion commanders.”
“The brigades had been assigned clear and purposeful missions and accomplished them throughout the fighting,” says the senior officer from the Gaza Division. “The combined operations of infantry, armored elements, the IAF, combat engineers and other elements were highly successful, and it was all the result of our preparations.
“In every war there are incidents that should be debriefed, analyzed and studied. We will handle these analyses in our usual incisive manner in order to improve our tactics and learn the lessons for future incidents. There are things that we should study. Personally, I am very pleased with the execution and performance of the brigades and the general staff echelon owing to the clarity, the purposefulness, the stability and more. I felt very comfortable.”
“We Penetrated the Hard Outer Shell”
For many years, the IDF 36th Division was regarded as the Golan Heights Division. Until recently, it had fulfilled two functions in the IDF: as the regional division of the Golan Heights, and as an armored division to be employed as a decisive element on the battlefield.
However, pursuant to a decision of Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, the 36th Division left the Golan Heights and evolved into a multi-theater division, namely – a division capable of executing operative missions in all of the sectors where IDF may be called upon to operate. Consequently, the 36th Division found itself deployed in a sector that was unusual for it: the Gaza Strip.
A senior officer from the 36th Division told us: “As soon as I was appointed to my current position I was assigned a mission here in Gaza. We started working here as part of the divisional operative plan. The 36th Division has been preparing for any scenario in the Gaza Strip for months now. It is important to say that not all of the intelligence had been known, but that’s the best intelligence I ever had while serving in the IDF. It was truly top notch, with a maximum deviation of 20-30 meters.
“The Division consists mainly of regular troops. I went down with all of the elements and OrBat and we entered Saja’iyeh and al-Muazi. We had comprehensive plans – from complete occupation all the way down. We submitted to the general commanding IDF Southern Command various interim proposals for the capturing of specific spaces. The Division was ready with detailed knowledge and following high-standard training. We handled 11 tunnels. We knew the points in advance and some of them were reported to us during the operation. There was a 400 meter long tunnel and 4.5 kilometer long tunnel. We staged an attack against the Saja’iyeh locality and entered a very complex area. We were prepared for dealing with Saja’iyeh. The Golani Brigade and the 828th Brigade (the IDF Squad Leader Course Brigade) were assigned to that area. We encountered a hard outer shell but managed to penetrate it and I am very proud of the commanders and troopers. We encountered some difficult moments during the fighting, but even when commanders had been hit, there were other officers to lead on. We had been defined as an offensive division. The theater of operations was complex. We had dealt with the tunnel threat and practiced our methods for dealing with it at the Lachish Southern Command Training Base and at the Elyakim Northern Command Training Base, but none of that was even close to the scope of tunnels they had inside the Strip. We found numerous combat tunnels during the fighting. It evolved into a small, dense battle so that the bulk of the actual fighting was conducted at company level. Whatever the intelligence had spotted and we saw - we dealt with effectively.”
Intelligence - a Success Story
The other multiple-theater division of the IDF, the 162nd Armored Division, was also sent to the Gaza Strip, to the northern sector - the Beit-Hanoun sector.
“We are a multiple-theater division, a division connected to missions in the south, in the Gaza Strip, most of the time,” said a senior officer from the 162nd Division. “The Gaza Division adopted us. All of the battalions were thoroughly familiar with their sectors and areas. The intelligence we had was very high standard and was delivered the relevant places, both analyzed intelligence and raw intelligence that had accumulated during the operation. The intelligence is one of the success stories of this campaign. Wherever an objective had been set – we accomplished it. Each and every battalion and company to which an objective had been assigned accomplished it in an excellent manner. We need to apologize to this generation for doubting it. This battle was notable for the combined operation of and effective connections between infantry, engineers and tank elements.
“Regarding the battle of the capturing of Beit-Hanoun, our mission was to subdue the Beit-Hanoun battalions: one Islamic Jihad battalion, which was destroyed and retreated, and the whereabouts of its survivors are not known to this day, and one Hamas battalion where the battalion commander and three company commanders were killed. The Hamas battalion in Beit–Hanoun had been measured as number 2 in steep-trajectory fire output. After we had fought against it, it did not fire for nine days. We had the population evacuate the residential areas through text messages, leaflets, smoke shells and non-explosive canisters. When we entered the town, it was empty. Only one school served as a refugee concentration and we allowed them to get out and distance themselves. This enabled us to operate freely. We encountered a massive amount of IEODs and booby traps. Just the junction of the entrance to Beit-Hanoun contained eight elaborate IEOD complexes. Secondly, we encountered a massive amount of booby-trapped houses. The other thing we encountered throughout the campaign was the cynical way in which Hamas exploited the civilian population: kindergartens, schools, greenhouses containing shafts leading all the way to Moshav Netiv-HaAssara in Israel. There were surreal images of rifles on schoolchildren’s desks. We found three rocket launchers in the courtyard of a school in Beit-Hanoun. The interface and mixing of the civilian population with the terrorist organization was ethically problematic. All of our battalion commanders and brigade commanders exercised restraint so as not to harm the civilian population.
“I was assigned the task of subduing the Beit-Hanoun battalions and destroying the offensive tunnels. We destroyed a lot of defensive tunnels as well. There is an extensive system of subterranean tunnels over there. In places where we maneuvered, the rates of steep trajectory fire output decreased significantly. We have a good feeling about the intelligence and the competence of our forces. We conducted the campaign effectively and now have a sense of pride and competence. There are some things that you will not know how to cope with until you have actually brushed with them. This was a learning period. We paid for this learning but the process of learning during the fighting was beneficial.”
When was your original operative plan changed into a plan against the subterranean tunnels?
“The accomplishment and the objective were the offensive tunnels,” says a senior officer from the Gaza Division. “That decision was the result of calculated deliberation. The physical achievement and the achievement vis-à-vis Hamas are highly important. There was a process of evolution from the stages that preceded the actual initiation of the operation. What we had during Operation Pillar of Defense is not what we encountered in this case. You cannot go out and execute the previous plan. We had to make the necessary adjustments. We had a solid intelligence infrastructure and had time to plan it. In every campaign there are on-going developments.”
What are the recommendations of the IDF for the day after the operation and the security arrangements in the Gaza Strip?
“We are currently building an operational space. We added measures when we realized that the tunnels are not located close to the fence, but further back, pursuant to a decision by the Chief of Staff. It is difficult to build any space that would instill a sense of confidence short of erecting a fort. We need to find the technology that will make it possible. We revised our entire concept a few months ago. We had our infantry OrBat doubled, we had two additional armored brigades subordinated to us, along with other elements.”
In the discourse prior to the ground incursion, what were the considerations?
“The tunnels are not a new thing. The first time I encountered this threat was on my third day in my position,” says a senior officer from the Gaza Division. “The State of Israel has conducted a substantial campaign around this issue. We have been dealing with it at the divisional level, at the regional command level and at higher levels for years. We realized it was not stopping pursuant to an intelligence analysis of the tunnel issue. The subterranean tunnels are not the only challenge facing the State of Israel or the Division. We understand what the intended implementation was, and that is the difference. That is why the decision was made to initiate a ground operation.”
How well did the enemy fight in the context of the ground maneuver?
“There were various achievements. The Hamas battalions fled. They used stand-off fire, they planted IEODs but in the close combat encounters, they fled. Our forces are much better trained. In the tactical encounters, our troopers always had the upper hand. We are better equipped and better trained,” said a senior officer from the IDF 162nd Division.