IDF Reservists in Operation Pillar of Defense: Highly Motivated, Poorly Protected

Operation Pillar of Defense led to the urgent mobilization of 60,000 IDF reservists. Motivation was sky-high, but the complaints were not late in coming

IDF forces near Gaza during Pillar of Defense (Photo: IDF Spokesperson)

"We do not want a Kafr Kanna, nor do we want a Kfar Giladi.” That was the motto Major General Tal Russo, commander of the IDF Southern Command, hammered into the minds of the IDF troops during Operation Pillar of Defense last November.

Maj. Gen. Russo was thinking about Gaza, but Lebanon was still fresh in his memory. He was referring to the severe casualties inflicted on civilians in the Lebanese village of Kafr Kanna, which led the IDF to suspend Operation Grapes of Wrath in southern Lebanon in April 1996. It also referred to one of the traumatic incidents of the 2006 Second Lebanon War: the direct hit sustained by a group of IDF reservists near the Jewish town of Kfar Giladi, which led to the deaths of 12 IDF troopers in the last week of the war.

Hamas, so it seems, had also learnt the lessons of the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead. A major percentage of its short-range fire during Pillar of Defense was aimed neither at the southern Jewish towns nor at the Tel Aviv metropolitan, but at regular and reservist forces in assembly areas and training bases in the southern region. Only in retrospect do the soldiers’ testimonies reveal the difficult problems with which they had to cope.

During Operation Pillar of Defense, IDF Southern Command, headed by Maj. Gen. Tal Russo, recommended a ground offensive twice. Their recommendation called for a small-scale, limited, clearly-delineated operation. The IDF Supreme Command feared that any ground offensive would eventually draw the entire order of battle assembled at the border into the Gaza Strip.

“An ground maneuver is something you initiate and then it becomes difficult to stop,” said, in retrospect, an officer at IDF Southern Command. “It is a grinder that works, and had it been employed, then eventually, the forces may have remained inside Gaza while delaying negotiations with Hamas through Egypt.”

The regular IDF forces mobilized for the operation included the Golani, Nahal and Givati infantry brigades (the last was already engaged in Gaza Strip operations) and the Paratroopers brigade. Additional forces included the 401st Armored brigade (parts of which were deployed on the Golan Heights when al-Jabri was eliminated), the 7th Armored brigade and the Haruv battalion. The ORBAT also included the Reshef artillery battalion, the 603rd Combat Engineering battalion, the Oketz K-9 unit, Maglan unit, the Navy’s 13th Squadron and the Rimon reconnaissance unit of the IDF Southern Command. The reconnaissance unit had been reestablished in 2011 as one of the lessons of Operation Cast Lead, and was preparing for its first significant ‘baptism by fire’.

“In wartime, the operative orders rely on a complete hierarchy of forces,” a senior IDF officer explained the decision regarding the massive mobilization. “If the IDF had mobilized between 10,000 and 15,000 reservists for Operation Cast Lead, then for Operation Pillar of Defense we mobilized almost 60,000 reservists. Even if we deducted combat support and Home Front Command troops from that figure, we would still have tens of thousands of combat troops. Our analyses so far have shown that, all told, the mobilization process using automatic dialer systems worked just fine, and reporting rates were between 90% and 100%. At the 551st
reservist paratroopers brigade, reporting rates exceeded 100% (namely – reservists who had not been mobilized reported for duty, too). Reporting rates at the 646th southern paratroopers brigade (the Sky Foxes regiment) also exceeded 100%.

“A Turkey Shoot”
During the days of fighting, accurate and lethal rocket salvoes landed on the reservists. Two troopers and a civilian employee of the Ministry of Defense were killed. Twenty others were injured.

Major (Res.) Rani Shahar, a reserve officer in an armored brigade, spoke of what happened at his base: “thousands of reservists stationed there had no sufficient means of protecting themselves against the rocket fire. Only a handful of shelters and a few APCs were allocated to each battalion. One of the salvos hit about 300 meters on both sides of a prefabricated hut with a tin roof, which housed hundreds of troopers at that moment. Miraculously, this did not end in a catastrophe that would have dwarfed the Kfar Giladi disaster. When the subsequent salvos landed, the situation was in no way better. Some of the troopers promptly took cover in water drainage ditches, others crawled under military field cots, the rest remained helplessly where they were and hoped that the missiles would impact somewhere else.

“I was under fire before, but this time the feeling was much worse. When you take incoming artillery fire at a post, there is always a protected bunker somewhere nearby. When you take mortar fire while on ambush, you simply redeploy to a different location. ‘Sitting ducks’ was what someone muttered after one of the salvos landed, expressing everyone’s sentiments.”

Lt. A. H., an officer at the reconnaissance company of an armored brigade, told IsraelDefense: “There were far too many people for the number of shelters – of which there were very few. Whenever the alarm sounded, they told the people to go into the restrooms as a protected space, but that was no protection at all. We told our commanding officers and they understood, but they could do nothing about it.”

Major Assaf, an officer with an elite unit, said that his unit simply decided to leave the base: “We arrived there and realized that a massive grouping of soldiers was unnecessarily close to the border with no protection. There was no operational justification for staying there, of all places, so we simply turned around and redeployed to a more distant base. We informed the commanders that in the event of a ground offensive, we would have to travel for forty minutes instead of thirty minutes, but on the other hand, we would be out of range in the meantime.”

So, during the fighting you simply turned around and went to Shomria?
“We never made a big drama out of it, and there was no aspect of disobeying an order. What we did was simply move to a different base – and we were not the only unit to did so. All of the special units moved to other bases, out of rocket range. Listen, we are reservists. We warned that this was going to happen. It happened during Cast Lead, too, but on a different scale.

“We did not reach the stage of becoming sitting ducks at a range, as we hurried out of there before we became ducks and it was obvious that whoever remained there would become a sitting duck at a range.”

Lessons Learned
Questionnaires distributed by the IDF among the reservists regarding the logistic effort indicated that the complaints of the men of the mobilized units did not address equipment. The program known as “Eshed Hanehalim”, launched in the wake of the second Lebanon war by the IDF Technology & Logistics Division, led to a situation where the equipment at the emergency storage facilities was in excellent condition: new weapon systems, all new night vision and day vision systems. In some places, the troopers complained of a shortage of batteries. In other places, there were complaints of a shortage of bunks and mattresses. A enior IDF officer responded: “The army outfits the troopers for 72 hours. A reservist is issued a set of winter or summer clothing, a combat vest and weaponry, and there is a supporting envelope on top of the gear. The commander of the IDF Technology & Logistics Division’s materiel base is charged with that task.

“The standing orders call for the troopers to sleep in their sleeping bags on the ground. If the state decides to mobilize 60,000 troopers at the same time – it will not be a simple undertaking. It will not happen at the blink of an eye. It is an unfathomable logistic production. This operation involves concurrent issues: supplies, fuel, support measures, fuel for vehicles. How the reservist battalion will take possession of its vehicles on the ground, and how to link with it. The IDF logistics doctrine says that at GHQ level, you deliver the equipment to the entrances on the ground and then clear the logistic routes. From there, supplies are drawn by the forces. Some reservists claimed that food was in short supply. We checked this: there was food, but at some places we were unable to provide hot meals. The standing orders do not say that hot meals are required up to 72 hours. We supplied dry-cured sausages and chicken rolls to replace the mythological IDF loaf. Officers who looked for old cans of loaf to take home could not find any.”

Another IDF effort that concerned the reservists was transferring the thousands of APCs and tanks to the south. The senior IDF officer says that “the heavy vehicle transport system worked very hard, and anyone who happened to be driving along Highway 6 could see tank transporters carrying APCs and tanks. We encountered isolated malfunctions of transporters that became stuck along major roads. Serviceable vehicle percentages were high, owing to year-round maintenance. The head of the IDF Technology & Logistics Division, Maj. Gen. Kobi Barak, set a goal of at least one hot meal per day.”

And yet, the most critical complaints concern protection?
“It was clear that we would not be able to provide protection to all of our assembly areas. During the operation, we delivered protective measures.
“The IDF Home Front Command and the IDF Technology & Logistics Division have ‘stockpiling areas’ of what they call ‘elements’: concrete pillar wheels, shelters like the ones they have at the entrance to the town of Sderot, ‘elements’ like they had at the IDF posts in Lebanon. These elements only provide protection against shrapnel. They cannot protect against a direct hit.

“The directives issued by IDF Home Front Command applied to the reservists, too. We distributed a lot of reporting pagers (through which the users could receive the alerts and messages issued by IDF Home Front Command) among the reservists. There was no assembly area without minimum alert measures. They, too, had to lie down and put their hands over their heads when the alarm sounded. Obviously, the assembly areas were the target of enemy fire.”

IDF sources revealed that complaints were received from reservists, who claimed that Bedouins dwelling in the south helped Hamas direct their fire against the IDF assembly areas and bases. “We saw Bedouins standing at the area, and suddenly dash to dominating areas – and a minute later, the rockets would fall,” reservists told us. The IDF and other security agencies are investigating those allegations.

“We may have gone too far with our mobilization, but we had to prepare for every option and convey an image of strength to the entire region. Mobilization provides operational flexibility. You replace reservist units with regular ones. Major general Sammy Turjeman, head of the IDF Ground Forces, said during the operation, in closed sessions, that it maintained the level of competence he required,” the senior IDF officer told IsraelDefense.

Why didn’t you discharge at least a part of the force when you realized that Operation Pillar of Defense would not include a ground maneuver?
“The mobilization of reserves was an operational necessity, and was carried out according to our prearranged plans. It provided operational flexibility, it demonstrated to Hamas that we were ready for any scenario and it affected the way Operation Pillar of Defense ended. In addition, we gained some training. The fact that we accomplished our objectives without a ground maneuver is a testimony to our deterrence. We accomplished the objectives of the operation without maneuvering.”
Incidentally, Operation Pillar of Defense was also a high point in the mobilization of female reservists. The IDF Chief Reserves Officer, Brig. Gen. Hoshea Friedman Ben-Shalom, said that, among others, IDF mobilized female UAV operators, Home Front Command specialists, operations officers, surveillance operators, tank and Humvee instructors and female infantry mortar and firearm instructors. Six percent of all reservists were women, and a third of them were officers.

During the first few months of 2013, the IDF will complete comprehensive analyses of Operation Pillar of Defense, including an analysis of the massive mobilization of reservists.