Challenges of Command

In a special interview, the departing commander of the IDF Nahal Brigade, Col. Dan Goldfus, talks about the challenges of his position, the threats facing the various theaters, and dealing with the young generation joining the military. "The troopers come from a technological world where everything is instant. Our job is to challenge them"

The departing commander of the IDF Nahal Brigade, Col. Dan Goldfus (Photo: IDF)

The commander of the IDF Nahal Brigade, Col. Dan Goldfus, is regarded as one of the most daring and ethical officers in the IDF. A fighter through and through, he encountered numerous terrorists at point-blank range during his 23 years of service in the IDF, in nearby theaters like the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as well as in remote places which must remain unnamed.

Goldfus is the son of new immigrants from South Africa who settled in Jerusalem. Originally religious, he does not wear a Yarmulke anymore. Goldfus joined the IDF in 1995 and volunteered for the IDF Navy's 13th Flotilla ("Shayetet") – the Naval Commandos. During Operation Shirat HaTzaftzafa, the fiasco in Ansariyeh, Lebanon in 1997, Goldfus, then a young warfighter, was a member of the rescue team that rushed to help the detachment that had sustained heavy casualties. This incident evolved into one of the most tragic disasters in the history of the 13th Flotilla, and remains an open, unresolved case for many within the unit even 21 years later. Back then, Goldfus was a 20-year-old warfighter in an operation still regarded as a severe and traumatic incident, and the actual circumstances and causes remain a mystery, as far as he is concerned. The IDF Chief of Staff has recently appointed Goldfus as Chief IDF Infantry & Paratroopers Officer. He will be promoted to the rank of Brigadier General, and the implication is that he would not fulfill the dream of every naval commando – to become the commander of the 13th Flotilla. If Goldfus is disappointed – he hides it well, and definitely does not allow this fact to affect his demanding job as commander of the IDF Nahal Brigade.

Goldfus' IDF career has always been a zigzag between the Naval Commandos and the Nahal and other brigades of the "larger IDF" – those outside the realm of elite specialist units. During Operation Protective Shield, Goldfus served as the commander of the Nahal Brigade's reconnaissance company – Sayeret Nahal. For his performance while in this position, in a series of successful counter-terrorism operations in the territories, the general officer commanding IDF Central Command, Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinski, awarded Goldfus a Major General's citation. He subsequently served as deputy commander of the 13th Flotilla, and then as commander of the IDF 769th Brigade – the Hiram Formation (the eastern brigade deployed along the Lebanon border). While in this position, the Brigade sustained a severe attack by anti-tank missiles Hezbollah had launched at a convoy of the Givati Brigade on Mount Dov. This incident, IDF designation "Shemesh Horpit," brought the State of Israel very close to the outbreak of the "Third Lebanon War," or the "First War of the North."

We met Col. Goldfus at the training camp of the Nahal Brigade in Tel Arad. The training troopers practice close-range running engagement drills, a 'dry run' followed by a 'wet run' (live fire). "They study the posture and acquire the ability to shoot effectively. I am a great believer in the simulators they had trained on before. We want to develop this activity further," says Goldfus.

An Old-School Commander

Col. Goldfus is the type of commander you can tag as "old school" – one who regards his service as a calling, who regards the IDF as a military whose range of tasks transcends the realm of just fighting or training for war. The IDF Nahal Brigade has recently experienced a major trauma. On November 30, 2017, local Bedouins knifed to death one of the Brigade's troopers, Sgt. Ron Kokia, at a transport station in Arad, and escaped with his firearm. The victim was on his way back to the Nahal Brigade's training camp. "He had arrived at the transport station and waited there on a bench. We never thought it would come from within. We expected it to come from the territories, from the area of Hebron."

Out of the shock and rage, Goldfus announced a new project titled "Ohel Avraham" (Abraham's Tent) – a series of encounters aimed at getting to know the Bedouin community of the Negev, living close to the Nahal training camp. The formal objective was reconciliation and mutual acquaintance. The informal objective was to increase the percentages of Bedouins recruited into the IDF, opposite the trends of Islamization and radicalization, with Hamas, the Islamist Movement, and ISIS competing against the IDF over the hearts and minds of the young Bedouin generation.

"The project consists of four meetings, beginning with a meeting of the commanders," Goldfus explains. "We aim for a partnership, for 'togetherness.' The idea is for the (Bedouin) youngsters to see the troopers, and for the troopers to see the (Bedouin) youngsters, and drop off the stigmatic labels."

Is being a brigade commander in the IDF more complicated today than it was when you joined the Flotilla back in 1995?

"We had a training activity where we took the guys out and spent three days without access to mobile phones. Suddenly there was interaction among the troopers. Suddenly they started speaking to one another. When those three days were over, each one took back his mobile phone and went away, engrossed in the screen. It was an interesting challenge. The hierarchy has become flat since I had joined (the IDF). The story you are telling will be challenged. You must be prepared to answer the questions of even the last trooper. Maj. Gen. (res.) Yom-Tov Samia, who had served as the commander of the 931st Battalion of the Nahal Brigade, came to speak to the Battalion's troopers. Suddenly, a trooper stood up and asked 'Why would you go into politics?' Back in the day, who had the nerve to stand up and ask? It is amazing. It is great. You must understand the life of these guys. Especially the younger commanders – the challenge they face is even more substantial. Their friction is with the information. Today it is 'sit down, platoon commander, and I will tell you what it was like.' We must empower the platoon commander. We take what we do for granted. An 18-year-old youth hears a radio commercial for a college. Here with us, you will find command and a mission. We assign crazy adult responsibilities to 18 and 20-year-old youngsters. Today they are regarded more as children and the parents are more intensively involved and you attempt to establish a triple commitment: command-trooper-parent."

Col. Goldfus walks over to the new recruits near the encampments. "What's up, guys?" he asks them while shaking hands with each one in turn.

You are a little old fashioned with regard to military-society relations, are you not? Is it actually the military's job to educate about and become acquainted with the Bedouins? People will say 'what is to you? Go out and fight or prepare for war.'

"Yes, I believe in it. If that means being old fashioned, so I am, and I do believe in it. This is the real strength. I do not believe in a professional military. I will be delighted to take off my uniform, but I am here because I believe in what I do. It is amazing, nothing is more virtuous than this. Nothing equals the opportunity to raise and lead people."

In the week when we met at the Nahal training camp, elements of the Nahal Brigade were operating in all of the different sectors: Col. Goldfus' brigade had one battalion deployed in Hebron, another battalion on the Golan Heights along the Syrian border and two more battalions deployed along the Lebanon border. As the brigade commander, he is running around from one battalion to the next.

"We are just like any other infantry brigade," says Goldfus. "We set ourselves a goal to be excellent and relevant. The infantryman asks himself 'how can I be relevant?' We should have the best equipment, use simulators and be able to identify the reference threat. Hezbollah and the built-up area are relevant to both the north and the south and we are preparing our men accordingly."

You have recently concluded a division-level training exercise with the IDF Southern Command's 162nd Division to which the Nahal Brigade had been attached. How close did it feel to a situation where, at a moment's notice, you would be inside the Gaza Strip in the context of a new major operation, owing to the deterioration in the Gaza Strip?

"I believe that with the 162nd Division we came and managed to reach a common language at a very, very high level with regard to plans, concepts and how we expect ourselves to accomplish the mission when the time comes. All the way, that is the plan. Go all the way – wherever we may have to go. Based on that, you may say that you want to stop somewhere or initiate a certain act to influence the operation. The prevailing feeling is that it is a matter of decision-making – to embark or not to embark (on a new operation in the Gaza Strip – O.H.) – and we are ready. That is what we say to the Chief of Staff: we are ready, we are determined, and we will accomplish the mission. We have no doubts about it. One of the most significant problems is the fact that we sometimes doubt our own capabilities.

"We listen too much to the other side. To Nasrallah, to Sinwar, to anyone who wants to tell us stories. We need to ask ourselves what about us. We will always have gaps. Am I fully satisfied with what I have, with the training time allotted to me? No. Definitely not, but we must be ready to accomplish the mission with what we have, without excuses. To come in and initiate all the time. We remain on a very high state of alert for whatever we may be required to do. My mission, as a field commander, is to prepare my men to be resolute, to be the kind of men who can, at the end of the day, remain ethical and accomplish the mission."

How do you view the criticism the IDF is sustaining over its activities in the Gaza Strip following every major operation and even over the operations along the border fence?

"I have no problem with all kinds of organizations that state 'we were not like this and we were not like that.' On the contrary, I draw strength from the fact that I have to explain things better, to ourselves and to our soldiers. With regard to all kinds of incidents. An incident has occurred. Why did we act this way and not that way? Let us ask ourselves why we did what we did. We live in a democratic country. We must be strong enough to allow it."

Challenging the Troopers

Do you ask yourself what it would be like next time, in the next major operation in the Gaza Strip?

"Certainly. All the time. I am obliged to ask myself what it would be like all the time. I took my platoon commanders and asked them 'Tell me what the next war will be like. Envision the next war and describe it to me'. At the time of Operation Protective Edge, the troopers you see here were in the ninth grade, but where were the commanders? It is very difficult for them to envision the war, but it is very easy for them to envision their vacation in Thailand. You must help them envision the challenges of the next war, the encounter with combat. I think we are very powerful. We do not have to be arrogant. We must allow the problems to float up without fear of criticism. Anyone who fails to do it will be lost.

"I keep asking myself and the commanders above and below me: what can I do and what would be more complex for me to do. Scaring myself to death with casualty figures is ineffective. I always strive to get everyone I can back safely. It was during Operation Protective Edge that I witnessed realization that these things involve casualties. I believe the civilians were very strong. Some mistakes were made during Operation Protective Edge that we must learn from in order to be better next time."

Do such guys as the recruits of the Nahal Brigade train, for example, to fight in the underground tunnels – what the IDF calls subterranean warfare?

"We strive to avoid the subterranean medium. What we have to do is turn the subterranean medium into a death trap for the other side. Look at history, at the battle of Okinawa. What did the Japanese say? 'We cannot cope with the Americans, so let's build tunnels.' They built three lines of defense made up of tunnels. They had intended to force the Americans to fight for every inch.

"Hamas says: I cannot resist the IDF. If the IDF wants to – it will conquer the entire Strip in a second. Consequently, I have to think of a way to turn their space into a death trap, to drive them out of their safe space. That is the name of the game. That is the battle. I want to deliver my advantages and my subterfuge to the battlefield. We have the method to do it and the cooperation to do it. Nothing is perfect. We must practice our advantages and work on our disadvantages. They look for ways to kidnap an IDF trooper. They look for ways to turn a small incident into a major strategic event, and I look for ways to deny it to them, to kill them under the ground and not to play into their hands.

"These troopers are currently going through their basic training. For the first time since the year 2000 and the second Intifada, we are once again training according to the 17-17 pattern: seventeen weeks of training followed by seventeen weeks on frontline duty, so the troopers are training much more. The troopers get to know their weapons and the commanders can evaluate the quality of the training activity. We want to see how a trooper, who goes into the training activity at a performance level of X, emerges from that activity: X plus how much? We need to understand what the training had given him. This applies to the simulators that simulate the battlefield, including the casualties.

"We have to challenge them. The troopers come from a technological world where everything is instant. Our job is to challenge them in the context of what we are about to encounter during the war. We developed a training seminar on being the 'coiled spring.' Only for the Gaza Strip, only scenarios."