While all eyes seem to be fixed on Iran, the IDF’s main focus is on threats emerging a car-drive away from Tel Aviv.
In a special conversation, the operations officers of the IDF’s four commands tell Maariv about their military activities that involve daily attempts to kidnap soldiers, the escalation of “price-tag” activities (a violent retribution campaign by fundamentalist Israeli youths against Palestinians), the heating up of the Egyptian border and the fragile peace in the north.
The Iranian nuclear race has undoubtedly become the most talked-about issue in the last year. To attack now or to wait, with the Americans or without them, what the price of such an assault will be — these are but a few of the many questions on this weighty topic, one that seems to have come to dominate military preoccupation.
But the daily reality in most of the IDF is a far cry from what is transpiring about 1,600 kilometers from Israel. In fact, these threats are much closer: at the border with Gaza and Egypt, in Nablus and its nearby Route 60 and opposite Avivim, not far from the Quneitra border crossing between Israel and Syria, in the Golan Heights.
The operations officers of all four IDF commands delineate the threats and challenges that can emerge at a moment’s notice and the “mind games” they conduct against terrorist organizations in order to avert the next terrorist attack. They also explain how the same Iran that is developing nuclear weapons is also involved in what transpires a half-hour’s distance from Tel Aviv. These officers are in their late thirties — all regiment commanders in the past and carried out other army functions as well before they joined the important force that is involved in all operational activity in their zone and formed the connection between the command and the chief of staff.
Lieutenant Colonel Guy Bitton, operations officer from the Southern Command (GOC) and former commander of the Givati Brigade's Reconnaissance Battalion; Lt. Col. Ilan Dikstein, operations officer from the Northern Command and former Haruv Battalion commander; Lt.-Col. Nir Baron of the Central Command and former Nachshon Battalion commander and Lt.-Col. Itzik Guy, operations officer from the Home Front Command and former commander of the Netzah Yehuda Battalion, more commonly known as the Nachal Chareidi battalion of ultra-Orthodox soldiers. These operations officers are considered the right-hand men of the head generals of the four commands. They are involved not only in what happens on the ground, but also in consolidating military doctrines that are constantly changing in light of changing realities.
A misleading quiet
Ironically, the security situation of Palestinian cities throughout Judea and Samaria has been good; in the recent past these cities have even been islands of sanity. Almost no terrorist attacks have emerged from them and the IDF hasn’t even had to impose almost any closures on the territories. In fact, the number of IDF forces in the zone are the lowest in the last decade.
“We are now in a security reality that is much different in comparison to the situation of the 2000s during the Intifada, and freedom of action has been maintained due to the following activities: IDF activities of recent years against terrorist infrastructure, the security fence and coordination with the Palestinian security apparatuses,” explains Lt. Col. Baron. Nevertheless, he quickly clarifies that we cannot afford to rest on our laurels. “At any given moment there are terrorist agents attempting to restore terrorist infrastructure. Terrorism is not wiped out and if we don’t keep our ears close to the ground, we can find ourselves much worse off.”
Beside the recently emerged pattern of the lone terrorist attack, it seems that even the institutionalized terrorist organizations are devising new plans. “We have spent much time recently on the issue of forestalling the kidnapping of soldiers; that is on the table now and the import of such an act is clear to everyone. At the end of the day, though, the responsibility is in the hands of the individual soldier: the way he behaves, the way he functions during such an event.” In fact, the main threats experienced in the central zone in the current period are kidnapping attempts and drive-by shootings on the roads. But not only these — arrests of terrorists continue night after night, almost without any media coverage. “We cannot allow terror to raise its head. What may seem like monotonous, Sisyphean activity is extremely critical.”
In addition, the IDF in this zone copes with different types of riots: from riots by Palestinians and pro-Palestinian activists in the Jordan Valley to extremist settlers who lead “price-tag” events. While Palestinian demonstrations are actually on a downward trend, the second Jewish price-tag types are gaining ground and have earned the appellation of “blue fist.” A special task force was established to deal with the dangerous phenomenon. Lt. Col. Baron admits that the IDF intends to gear up against this challenge. “We cannot stand by idly and we will act resolutely when events such as these take place, whether they are directed against IDF soldiers, Palestinians or property.” Baron feels that in light of anticipated evictions such as Migron, "price-tag" events may increase in number in the near future.
The spotlight was aimed on this zone during the famous demonstration of the pro-Palestinian activists in the Jordan Valley, during which Lt. Col. Shalom Eisner hit a Danish activist with his personal weapon. According to operations officer of the Central Command, the event did not expose an overall problem with the units in dealing with these types of events, but instead local tactical, command and professional failures.
“The officers know how to act during events like these; there was nothing new about this incident that requires us to find new tools. Instead, we have to sharpen the tools that we already have at our disposal,” says Lt. Col. Baron, who guesses that the length of the eastern Israeli border that is currently dormant is likely to become more problematic in the future — and not only with regard to illegal smuggling activities, which are on the rise. “This is a wide, complex area; we will hear more about it in the future,” he says.
The hot Southern Command
Lt. Col. Baron alludes to changes that are taking place in another zone: the Israel-Egypt border. The fence going up on that border of 230 kilometers (including the Eilat envelope), may deflect terror agents from Nuweiba to Aqaba (from the sea shore of the Sinai to towns located in the south of Jordan — meaning that infiltrators who may not be able to cross the southern border after a barrier is erected may attempt to enter the country through Israel’s eastern border).
Meanwhile, Lt. Col. Bitton, operations officer of the Southern Command, says that we are likely to see the sensitive border with Egypt resemble the protective fence in the Gaza Strip. “Similarities may be in the form of planting explosive devices [near the border], shooting from the other side or even infiltration attempts to harm IDF soldiers. Therefore, our mission is to adapt ourselves to these kinds of realities.”
According to Lt. Col. Bitton, the change in the western border with Egypt did not begin on August 18, the day of the deadly terrorist attack near Netafim, but at least two years earlier. The major cause of the change during those two years was the fall of the Egyptian regime. “Today, every self-respecting terrorist organization wants to open up a branch in Sinai … and our assessment is that in the future, that border will resemble the Gaza Strip border. “ Yet Bitton emphasizes the great sensitivity of this zone, mainly with regard to the peace agreement with Egypt. “We conduct a dialogue with them and it seems that they are making some efforts to take action [against terror], even if not as effectively as we would like.” Road 12 (on which the terrorist attack near Netafim took place) has been opened only recently for traffic after security safeguards were added. “Although people still don’t travel there as much as they used to, I feel that as the sense of security will rise, we will again see vehicles traveling from Mizpe Ramon to Eilat via Road 12.”
It is significant that the Southern Command operations officer focuses on Sinai and not on the Gaza Strip, as the latter is viewed as an older threat. The scope of terror agents in the zone, the shooting incidents that accompany the smuggler cells, the frequency of warning alarms and the shooting of rockets on Eilat — all these have changed the southern zone. “We thwarted several terrorist attempts — attempts that could have played out in the country’s home front,” Bitton reveals.
Bitton explains that the Islamic Jihad continues to gather strength in the Gaza Strip, and that this terrorist organization fired most of the rockets in the last round. “They have overtaken Hamas in their extremist ideolog — ideology from Iran — and in some of their weapons, also coming from Iran. Some feel that they are stronger than Hamas, in quality as well as quantity. In an overall view of the Gaza Strip, we can cautiously say that we can deal with what happens above ground. But we can’t say that about what may take us by surprise, from underground. The underground activity that we saw during Cast Lead Operation is only a taste of what awaits us in the next confrontation.” And this confrontation is only a matter of time. “Clearly, we cannot allow this situation to continue — to exist from one round [of rockets] to the next. At a certain stage, it will end. That’s what we are gearing up for.”
On Standby: Assad
At the other end of the country is the northern border, perhaps the IDF’s most challenging arena in the event of a military conflict. Over the last year, the Northern Command’s concern has extended beyond Lebanon, to the Syrian border as well — which is a potential battleground, though not out of fear that Bashar Assad’s divisions will take over the Golan Heights. "It is a quiet border, but internal changes are taking place [in Syria] with the strengthening of the radical axis with Iran and Hezbollah. We may find ourselves watching the loss of control by the regime — it’s already happening gradually and this situation can work against us,” explains Lt. Col. Dikstein, operations officer of the Northern Command.
According to Dikstein, it is possible that we may be witness to incidents that could completely change what had been a quiet border for dozens of years. “We aren’t waiting around for something to happen, but we are planning for every such contingency, including new orders that were drafted.” Dikstein explains that on the Lebanese front, Hezbollah continues to violate United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, which was passed after the Second Lebanon War calling for a buffer zone free of “any armed personnel” between the United Nations-drawn Blue Line in southern Lebanon and the Litani River, 12 miles from the Israeli border. "Hezbollah is an integral part of the government in Lebanon, and they understand that any action against Israel will cause retaliation that will put them in a very difficult position in the country. Yet it is clear to us that everything can change here all at once.” According to Dikstein, the Northern Command remains on a high readiness level, due to ongoing security activities on the northern border, including in the enclaves (the fence along the northern border is in many spots hundreds of meters south of the actual border; these are called “enclaves”), and various military maneuvers that simulate scenarios ranging from the kidnapping of a soldier to the infiltration of a terrorist. “We have no intentions of promoting war. Our communities are thriving and large crowds hiked and toured here in Passover. Nevertheless, we are obligated to maintain a state of readiness.”
When the home front becomes the front lines
Lt. Col. Guy, operations officer of the Home Front Command, does not face an enemy across the fence; his challenge is of another type. “We are always thinking of ways to prepare the population for a conflict situation, to find the best tools and transmit them to the civilians via teaching sessions in schools, [civil] exercises and instructions.”
According to Guy, the most efficient method to test functioning under emergency conditions is by conducting drills involving scenarios that are adapted to each local authority. “The way that each local authority functions under emergency conditions is of decisive importance. I definitely see that many heads of authorities understand this and are making preparations, and not only regarding day-to-day issues. For example, some authorities initiated local rescue units. All such initiatives prepared in advance will be very helpful in real time.”
According to Guy, the Home Front Command has deployed itself in recent years to adapt itself to reality. Thus, for example, the reserve units of the Command were re-organized, and two regular army battalions were created out of four battalions that were established. “Ultimately, when our instructions are carried out under emergency conditions, lives are saved; this has been proven many times,” Guy emphasizes. “There is no doubt that the next conflict is likely to be very complicated from the perspective of the home front. The preparations that we make will assist in increasing resilience [of the population]. Therefore, we have to work at it constantly.”