Australia/Israel Review

On the Front Line

Mar 26, 2024 | Ron Ben-Yishai

Unprecedented integration between ground forces, intelligence gathering and aerial forces is the key to IDF success in Gaza (Images: IDF)
Unprecedented integration between ground forces, intelligence gathering and aerial forces is the key to IDF success in Gaza (Images: IDF)

With the IDF in Gaza


KHAN YUNIS – The tank turret of the deputy commander of the IDF’s 9th Battalion is an excellent vantage point – not only for surveying the “Hamad Towers” neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Khan Yunis, but also the developments that have taken place in combat thanks to the experience the IDF has gained over the last five months.

I saw this with my own eyes when I joined a raid on that neighbourhood – which was financed by Qatar for middle-class Hamas administrators in the Gaza Strip. It consists of five-storey buildings with spacious apartments, underground parking and air conditioning, but also includes shaft openings leading to tunnels under the neighbourhoods. These were an integral part of the construction specifications.

The commander of the 9th battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel Nati, is an armour man, but the combat team under his command that day was composed mainly of infantry forces from the Givati Brigade.

Moving towards our target, I could hear fighter helicopter pilots asking, almost begging, to be given targets, and a UAV operator asking if we needed his assistance in tracking a terrorist who had encountered the forces and managed to escape. 

There was also a rescue tank, in case one of the tanks got stuck during the battle. The observation planes which flew over the arena transmitted, in real-time, a complete picture of what was happening on the battlefield to the IDF General Staff headquarters and other parties.

The IDF has come a long way, and learned many lessons, since it began manoeuvring inside the Gaza Strip on October 28.

This is expressed in the close integration between the main elements of the force in the air and on land, in the ability to gather intelligence while fighting and translating it into operational action within minutes; and in the skill of managing a battle in a built-up, dense urban area, while directing unimaginable amounts of fire of all kinds.

It can be said that the fighting that the IDF is currently conducting in the Gaza Strip is the first and only example of its kind in the world.

This is not only because of the need to fight on two different levels – above and below ground – but also, and above all, because of the way Hamas fights from, within and below the civilian population, using public and humanitarian facilities.

According to Hamas’ operational methods, those who are called in military parlance “non-involved” are an integral part of the battlefield, whether they stay in their homes or become refugees.

The IDF is forced to act even as international law and the fear of the fate of the abducted Israeli hostages limit its freedom of action and greatly slow down the pace of combat.

Testimonies from Hamas prisoners show that the organisation did not really believe that the IDF would ever invade Gaza with large-scale forces and seek to recapture the territory of the Strip. Hamas had a conceptzia (set of perceptions that together form an overarching strategic framework – Ed.) according to which the Israelis fear losses and kidnappings among the soldiers, and therefore would not dare to carry out a ground operation.

Hamas’ Gaza head Yahya Sinwar and Muhammad Deif, his senior military commander, prepared their forces mainly for defence against a major air attack by the IDF, such as was the case in Operation Guardian of the Wall in May 2021. They therefore invested most of their efforts in digging tunnels and the underground infrastructure for command and control.

Hamas also prepared for guerrilla warfare on the basis of brigades and battalions composed of local residents. For this purpose, combat compounds were established that would allow the IDF forces to be hit with explosives, anti-tank missiles, RPGs, and sniper fire, with Hamas members hiding in the combat tunnels below the surface and coming up through the shafts.

Above ground, Hamas prepared hundreds and maybe even thousands of apartments and houses where it stored weapons, explosives, light mortars, RPGs and anti-tank missiles, as well as personal equipment such as protective vests and uniforms.

Some of these military storage apartments were in two- or three-storey residences, and others were in high-rise buildings.

The organisation’s fighters could reach these buildings or nearby alleys through the tunnels and shafts while posing as unarmed innocent civilians – then, as soon as the IDF approached, enter the refuge apartment, put on a uniform, equip themselves with weapons and start conducting the fighting.

In the buildings erected in Gaza in recent years, these shafts were actually dug as part of the construction plans, probably at the same time as the tunnels underneath. This also includes the new wings in major hospitals such as Shifa and the Indonesian Hospital, and even the UNRWA headquarters in Gaza.


The problem of the disappearing enemy

The fighting that the IDF conducts against this formation is unique because of the vast extent of the underground tunnel system – which is used to conduct the fighting and not just to hide from the Israeli Air Force.

One of the greatest achievements of the IDF has been the ability to gather intelligence quickly while fighting to locate the shafts that lead to the tunnels and concealed rocket launchers. This happened thanks to the integration between the IDF and the Shin Bet domestic security service, especially after October 7.

Not only has the Shin Bet become the main intelligence arm of the fighting forces, but members of its operational units fight underground alongside specialised units of the IDF, and of course in operations to try to free the Israeli hostages – most of which did not come to fruition out of fear for the lives of the abductees.

The Shin Bet did not take the place of IDF intelligence, but became the main source of “Humint” (human intelligence), while the IDF intel branches mainly provide technological intelligence and visual reconnaissance. 

This close combination of the Shin Bet and the IDF provides the forces in the field with locations and targets for attack and thereby allows the forces to avoid staying in one place, which exposes them to attack from terrorists. Thanks to this intelligence, the IDF constantly locates shafts and tunnels that it didn’t know existed, in areas that were supposedly already conquered.

But it’s not just about intelligence: the development of combat methods also allows the IDF’s special units, with or without Shin Bet operational units, to fight inside the tunnels themselves.

It can be assumed that this is done using technological means such as robots, drones of various types, and of course with the assistance of dogs.

Another important element of Hamas’ fighting methods is the ability to appear from unexpected directions, hit forces with deadly RPG fire and IEDs, and then disappear. This phenomenon, which is also characteristic of Hezbollah’s fighting method in the north, is called in the IDF: “the problem of the disappearing enemy.” The army deals with it through its intelligence/technological surveillance capabilities and the integration of the Air Force into ground combat.

A terrorist coming out of a shaft today, or two terrorists moving with an RPG launcher between houses, are often discovered by the ground forces from observation positions deployed as they move toward their target, or by the “Zik” [Hermes 450 drone] operator, whose UAV accompanies the fighters like a guardian angel from above. You will then hear in the control cabin for the Zik, located at an air force base inside Israel, the command “two-three, launch!” And the terrorists are struck by a missile from above.

This happens both day and night. Sometimes, a combat helicopter hovering in circles in the immediate vicinity, usually over Israeli territory, launches a “Hellfire” air-to-surface missile at a Kornet anti-tank missile position located on a high floor of one of Gaza’s buildings.

The aid officer of the battalion combat team who operates in the same sector also knows how to give an accurate reference point from an encrypted cell phone-like device to a fighter plane flying in waiting circles over the sea, and equipped in advance with various types of precision weaponry to hit any terrorists spotted.

Never before in the IDF, nor any other army, has the air force been so closely integrated into the ground battle. And like the armaments of the aircraft, the composition of the ground combat team is also adapted to the specific mission it performs.

As mentioned, Lt. Col. Nati used to operate a tank battalion, but in this mission his combat team had only one tank company, while the other two companies were infantry companies of the Givati Brigade.

This interagency integration, which the IDF has perfected, is what allows the IDF today to locate terrorists even when they only appear on the surface for a few minutes.

But the enemy also studies the IDF and its behaviour patterns. It can be assumed, for example, that Hamas assumes that the IDF will reach certain buildings or sites based on information obtained from the interrogation of prisoners. It takes advantage of the hours of darkness to place charges at the entrance of those buildings, in the tunnel shafts and near the rocket launchers that are buried underground – connected by an electric wire to an operator who is far away, on the rooftop of a building overlooking the site.

There are also charges that are activated by means of a trap as soon as the force approaches the target; “proximity charges” that the terrorists attach to the tanks by hand, and magnetic charges that are attached to a tank and activated seven seconds later to allow the terrorist to escape.

The use of these charges, especially the large charges buried under the roads and in the walls of the houses on both sides of the main streets, is one of the main reasons for the terrible destruction in the Gaza Strip, which is often blamed on the activities of the Israeli Air Force (which admittedly did hit quite a few high-rise buildings that were used as observation posts or as bases for anti-tank fire). 

One of the most important means of maintaining the security of IDF troops in Gaza is the giant D9 bulldozers or as they are called in the military: Dubi (“Teddy Bear”). These expose explosive charges and also create holes in the walls of buildings (known as “mouseholes” – Ed.) so that the soldiers do not have to enter through the main entryways – which may well be booby-trapped.

When the IDF prepared for its ground operations in Gaza, it first largely emptied the northern Gaza Strip of uninvolved civilians by means of telephone warnings, announcements and other means. It then destroyed the tall buildings where Hamas had placed its key military positions.

The same has been happening in the southern city of Khan Yunis over recent weeks. The IDF begins by opening fire at the edges of an area it plans to enter to signal the population to evacuate. Today, the army also knows how to set up a “drain” – that is, a checkpoint at the exit from the area through which the civilians are routed and where it is possible to distinguish between them and terrorists trying to escape.

Only after most of the non-involved civilians have left is a rolling curtain of fire activated, which includes not only aerial fire but also tank fire, aimed at every structure that the IDF and the Shin Bet identify as being used by Hamas fighters. Only then will the infantry and engineering forces enter.

The identification of Hamas sites is incredibly accurate. In almost every such location that IDF fighters enter, they find a large amount of AK-47 Kalashnikov rifles, RPGs, explosives of all kinds, vests and uniforms, and in many cases, the terrorists themselves.

Another factor in the widespread destruction in the Gaza Strip has been the larger strategic tunnels and the longer but smaller combat tunnels that pass under the residential areas and offices in its crowded cities and towns.

In Khan Yunis alone, it is estimated, there are about 160 km of tunnels. The IDF hardly touches combat tunnels at this stage, but it had destroyed about 20 km of strategic tunnels in Khan Yunis by the end of February.

The destruction is usually carried out by means of explosions, which can cause the collapse of the buildings above these tunnels.

The explosives planted by Hamas, the tunnels that are being destroyed and the aerial and ground fire of the IDF have meant that approximately 70% of the buildings in the northern Gaza Strip are no longer habitable. But this is also one of the reasons for the relatively small number of casualties among IDF fighters.


Two Remaining Goals

Gloomy predictions of thousands of IDF combat deaths made by Israeli cabinet members before the ground manoeuvre into Gaza have proven false because, among other things, IDF forces today do not grope in the dark looking for shafts, as they did at the beginning, but know where to go and are able to identify a shaft even before they see it visually. 

The problem of the “disappearing enemy” has been overcome through a combination of Shin Bet intelligence and close air cover.

IDF forces overcame their security problems through the extensive use of advanced technologies, the use of dogs and breaking into buildings through “mouseholes” rather than coming through the main entrance. 

In the first phase of the ground operations, the IDF entered the northern Gaza Strip alone with a force of three divisions. This was intended to overcome the initial organised resistance of the brigades and battalions that Hamas had prepared to fight in what the IDF called at the time its “centres of gravity” – those compounds above and below the surface of the ground where Hamas members organised and from which they went forth to fight.

Enormous firepower and a large quantitative advantage of armoured vehicles and infantry forces on the ground succeeded in quickly dismantling the organised resistance of Hamas, which at that stage would often come out with ten or more fighters and try to take on IDF formations face to face.

The organised resistance of Hamas was broken, and the brigades, battalions and company became small teams, which acted on local initiative and without organised control, in trying to harm IDF forces.

This is also what happened in Khan Yunis and what will probably also be the case in Rafah.

This is what the IDF defines as “dismantling” the organised resistance of the Hamas fighting frameworks.

The IDF is trying to dismantle Hamas not only by physically killing terrorists but also by destroying the infrastructure, including the means of weapons production and the tunnels that may allow them to continue fighting in the future.

However, so far, the IDF has not been able to achieve two important goals: the release of all the abductees and the elimination of senior members of the civilian and military leadership of Hamas in the Gaza Strip [with the exception of Hamas’ number three commander in Gaza, Marwan Issa, killed by Israel in mid-March – Ed.].

“We need to show momentum,” said a very senior member of the Israeli intelligence community in a closed discussion. “We must carry out a series of moves that will convince the residents of the Gaza Strip that the Hamas dream is over. People in Gaza still do not believe that Hamas will fall and we, through fighting on the ground, need to convince them.”

It is likely that the IDF will succeed in this mission sooner or later. But the release of the abductees is not certain, and every day that passes makes this cloud more and more gloomy. This is not a military problem at the moment: the chance of releasing all the abductees, or even most of them, in a military operation is very small.

The key is vigorous international diplomatic action, especially American and Arab. We have to remember that we are dealing with fanatical jihadists like Yahya Sinwar and his brother Muhammad, Muhammad Deif and others, who do not care about the plight of the population in Gaza. In such a situation, the levers of pressure that Israel can use are not many and do not have the impact we would like. Starving the population in Gaza, the Shin Bet says, will not help. The leadership needs to be eliminated or expelled and then the rest will fall like dominoes and the abductees may be liberated.

Ron Ben-Yishai is a veteran Israeli military reporter and National Security correspondent for the Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot and Israeli TV’s Channel 1. © Yediot Ahronot, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved. Translated from the Hebrew by AIJAC staff.

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