Amir Rapaport's Column: In the City of Burnout

The IDF is experiencing a severe shortage of field commanders during the ongoing war in Gaza. And what about the soldiers' mental state?

In the City of Burnout

Photo: IDF website

This is a topic not often discussed but one which greatly troubles the IDF's top brass: the physical and mental exhaustion and burnout of the soldiers, particularly those in regular service, alongside a severe shortage of commanders. 

The reason for exhaustion is, of course, the prolonged war. The IDF has been built over decades based on an operational concept that established the goal of ensuring that every war should be as short as possible and fought on enemy territory. In reality, the Swords of Iron War is also being fought in Israeli territory, and there is no end – even almost eight months after that bitter day in October. 

When Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich visited northern Israel this week and spoke about the need to conquer the area beyond the border "up to the Litani," many who heard his remarks raised questions about the IDF's ability to carry out such a mission. 

This, in light of Hezbollah's vast rocket arsenal (which might challenge the Iron Dome system), delays in arms shipments from the U.S., and the IDF's relatively small order of battle (the current number of deployed tanks is less than half of what it was about a decade ago, far below the "red line" previously defined by the General Staff). The fact that the IDF is too small compared to its many missions in various arenas is already clear to everyone and has been written about in this column. But what about the state of the personnel?

Since October 2023, the IDF has lost hundreds of soldiers and commanders, and the number of new IDF handicapped has already reached an incredible figure—10,000, many of whom suffer from psychological trauma. 

The shortage of soldiers is therefore present throughout the ranks of the military, with the most severe shortage among field-grade commanders—platoon and company commanders, and even beyond that. Training each commander is a process that takes years, and the shortage is felt everywhere. Such a severe shortage of commanders and soldiers has only happened once before, during the Yom Kippur War, after which thousands of discharged soldiers returned to regular military service.

And what about the mental state of the soldiers? Let's take the Givati Brigade's reconnaissance unit as an example. This relatively small unit has been at the heart of the fighting for many months and has suffered losses in a series of incidents.

This week, two more of their members fell in the battles of Rafah—Nachman Meir Chaim Vaknin from Eilat and Noam Batan from Yad Rambam. The grief over the fallen and injured is immense. The soldiers still in the field, unable to attend their friends' funerals, are under constant stress with no respite. There's no time to recover from one incident before the next threat awaits just around the corner.

Givati's reconnaissance soldiers, if we continue with the example, have had only one "regular" leave since the outbreak of the war. Even that was cut short immediately about a month and a half ago when the decision was made to prepare for the conquest of Rafah. The soldiers had to gather themselves from their short leave and report to the unit's base in the south for another extended period of combat.

Such intense and prolonged combat has not been experienced in the IDF since the War of Independence, and it is doubtful whether even then it was as intense (during the War of Independence, there were two long truces in the fighting). The experiences of today's soldiers can mainly be compared to those of U.S. Army soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, in those cases, the fighters were much older career soldiers, unlike the conscript soldiers of the IDF. Many of them suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder for years, a well-known issue in the U.S. military.

The IDF is aware of the severe problem. Recently, Major General Yaron Finkelman, the Southern Command leader, held a seminar for commanders on coping with burnout. The most effective means so far are sessions with psychologists who are stationed at IDF camps around the Gaza Strip and sometimes also on the northern border, conducting talks with soldiers before and after battles.

From Jenin to Jabalia

This week, the IDF and the Border Police conducted a successful operation against terror infrastructure in Jenin, but the main battleground remains the Gaza Strip.

In the Gaza Strip, two regular IDF divisions are operating. The 162nd Division is responsible for managing the ongoing combat in Rafah. Its main objective is to seize control of the Philadelphi Route and destroy the tunnels connecting the Gaza Strip to Egypt. However, the IDF also takes control of neighborhoods in the heart of the city, with neighborhoods like Brazil and Al-Shabora being on the target list this week. 

There is no doubt about the necessity of the operation in Rafah. It should have been launched many months ago. Even the United States and Egypt withdrew their objections after realizing that the IDF managed to relocate no less than 800,000 of the refugees who arrived in Rafah from the northern areas of the Strip.

On the other hand, the purpose of the activities of the 98th Division in the northern part of the Gaza Strip is controversial, because it operates in areas that have seemingly already been conquered by the IDF at least once. Will the reoccupation of the territory finally bring the IDF closer to defeating Hamas? It's not certain.

This week, I took an interest in the battles at the heart of the fighting in the refugee camp of Jabalia when I visited the Paratroopers’ command post. Hats off to the fighters: they are spread out across the expanse of Jabalia, encompassing a city of that name, a village, and the largest refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, home to no fewer than a hundred thousand people.

The reoccupation of Jabalia is also unfolding under heavy fire, almost as intense as the initial entry months ago. It appears that Hamas has restored its command and control capabilities and is prepared to confront the forces with defensive lines, the first of which was alongside the Salah al-Din Road, which is the continuation of Israel’s Highway 4. Hamas has recruited young people to fill the void left by those killed since October. The main threat to Israeli forces remains the "Yassin" type rockets – homemade RPG missiles, and improvised explosive devices scattered everywhere.

The forces have been advancing with caution, and heavy bombing by fighter jets and artillery is still utilized before the infantry soldiers enter each new area. The ongoing activities of the forces are accompanied by armed "Zik" UAVs and combat helicopters. Encounters on the ground occur every few hours.

One of the most severe attacks in Jabalia thus far claimed the lives of six soldiers and commanders from the ultra-Orthodox paratrooper’s battalion. The sequence of events began with an encounter where the battalion commander, Major Gil Shabbat from Katzir, was critically injured, and three soldiers were wounded. 

Approximately three hours later, while the battalion commander was not present, reconnaissance soldiers belonging to the same battalion observed several suspicious figures inside a house and suspected them to be terrorists. They fired two missiles at the house, and tragically killed their comrades: Major Roy Beit-Yakov from Eli, Gilad Aryeh Baum from Karnei Shomron, Daniel Hamou from Tiberias, Ilan Cohen from Carmiel, and Betzalel David Shasua from Tel Aviv. Seven soldiers were also wounded in the incident.

It's impossible not to be impressed by the many lessons learned by the IDF during combat (alongside those learned by Hamas) and the tremendous logistical effort that accompanies the activities of the forces. For example, when the heatwave hit, the IDF equipped Jabalia with "coolers" to alleviate the heat as much as possible and sent the troops countless popsicles. The fighting in the northern part of the Strip will end before the operation in Rafah, but it too is far from over.

Meanwhile, at the Mossad

The two most significant events this week related to the fighting in Gaza are linked to the court of public opinion, with the publication of the impactful video of the kidnapped female soldiers, and the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where the Chief Prosecutor's decision to seek arrest warrants for the Israeli Prime Minister and Minister of Defense is a severe blow to all of us. 

If, in addition, the court issues an order to stop the war, the blow will be doubled. With or without these connections, Israel is grappling with a widespread diplomatic crisis. For example, the Israeli embassy team in Bogota, the capital of Colombia, is currently busy packing, preparing for the evacuation of the mission by the deadline set by the President of Colombia - June 16th.

The normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia may change the face of the Middle East, but it does not seem imminent (thought everything can change within days). 

The deaths of Iran's President, Ebrahim Raisi, and Foreign Minister, Amir Abdollahian, will also have an impact on the developments in the region. The circumstances surrounding their helicopter crash, reminiscent of countless assassinations (such as the notorious assassination method of the Mexican drug cartel, which has claimed dozens of lives over the years), raised the question of whether Mossad, especially since other helicopters from the same flight departed from Azerbaijan to Iran unharmed. Israel denies any involvement.

Meanwhile, in the defense establishment, interesting appointments continue to take place. The commander of the IDF’s elite General Staff Reconnaissance Unit (Sayeret Matkal Unit), the son of a former unit commander and a highly regarded figure, vacated his position to be replaced.

And at the Mossad, the only defense organization whose head is not expected to resign due to the failures of October 7, the deputy changed this week. The outgoing deputy will now enter a cooling period before competing for the position of the next Mossad chief. He is replaced by the former head of the agents' operations division "Tzomet," after being reinstated to citizenship by Dadi Barnea. He too will compete for the position of the next Mossad chief when the time comes. 

By the way, some believe that Major General Aharon Haliva, the commander of the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate, has strategically positioned himself over the years with the intention of competing for the position of Mossad chief as an external candidate.

Whether this was his plan or not – Haliva has already put his days in the IDF behind him, and of course, will no longer compete for position in the Israeli defense establishment. 

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