After a disastrous tragedy, soldiers fear a Gaza sellout

The IDF’s buffer zone plan leads to 21 men dying in one explosion

January 25, 2024 00:00

In an emotional interview on Channel 12, Gadi Eisenkot, the former IDF chief of staff, spoke of his son Gal, who was killed in action in Gaza last month and gave the first open account of how Israel’s war cabinet, of which he is now a member, works. Or more accurately how it isn’t working. The cabinet, he said, needs to start discussing Israel’s strategy for after the war in Gaza. “It is a discussion that should have started two and a half months ago,” he said.

Another week has passed without that discussion taking place. And in the absence of any clear strategic directive, the IDF has to come up with its own strategy. For nearly a month now it has had “operational control” of northern Gaza, including all of Gaza City. This means that Hamas no longer governs the area and its 12 battalions which operated there have been to all purposes destroyed. Fierce fighting is still ongoing around Hamas’s remaining strongholds in Khan Younis to the east but that still leaves the question of what to do meanwhile in northern Gaza to prevent Hamas from reestablishing itself there.

The earlier plans to destroy Hamas’s tunnel network under Gaza City have been largely abandoned. There are simply too many of them. Even if it wasn’t taking place in what is still a war zone, blowing up hundreds of miles of tunnel, a maze larger than the London Underground, would be a complex feat of engineering taking many months, if not years. And since this is a war zone, just transporting the massive quantities of explosives needed for the job is a risky undertaking.

Three weeks ago six soldiers were killed as they were laying down the explosives to blow up a large tunnel. A tank which was securing the operation fired at a suspicious movement and detonated the explosives prematurely.

Last Monday the circumstances were similar and the death-toll much higher. Rockets fired on a tank securing soldiers from a reserve brigade who were preparing two buildings for demolition, just 600 metres from the Israeli border, caused the explosives to detonate, killing 19 soldiers inside (two more members of the tank crew were killed by one of the rockets). The IDF force was working on the “buffer zone” — a strip of land 1,000 metres wide which runs the length of the border.

This is currently the IDF’s “day after” plan — an empty strip of land which will prevent another October 7 attack on Israeli communities near the border and hopefully encourage the residents of Sderot and the kibbutzim near the border to return home in a feeling of safety. Not everyone in the IDF is convinced this is a wise approach but the main frustration is directed at the politicians.

“I can see the arguments for and against a buffer zone,” said one veteran reserve officer, old enough to have served in the “security zone” Israel held between 1985 and 2000 on its northern border with Lebanon. “But the real problem is that the IDF is preparing it without any clear idea from the government if it even serves an overall strategy. What will happen if the Americans impose an agreement under which we have to leave the Gaza Strip entirely? We’ve been operating on the ground now for three months and it looks as if they’re about squander all we’ve done and sacrificed there.”

The frustration of the reservists burst out this week in an open letter signed by 130 reserve officers with the rank of lieutenant-colonel and higher, which was sent to the government and the IDF Chief of Staff. The officers, who have all served in Gaza during this war, wrote: “The IDF and the government of Israel are not succeeding in translating the victories which were achieved at great effort on the tactical level into a clear and devastating victory on the strategic level.”

It was an unprecedented letter to be written at time of war, and would have attracted a lot more attention if it hadn’t coincided with the IDF’s bloodiest day of warfare in Gaza since the war began on Monday (a total of 24 soldiers were killed on that day). Everyone in Israel is waiting to see whether the thousands of reservists who have started to return home will join protests against the government, and this is the first signal.

The signatories’ main demand is that until the 136 hostages still being held in Gaza are released, the IDF must not open its cordon between the different parts of the Gaza Strip and allow more than a million Palestinians back to Gaza City.

“All this talk about the number of Hamasniks we killed and tunnel-shafts destroyed is just a lot of hot air,” said a colonel who signed the letter. “But the only thing that really matters is getting the hostages back. Until that happens, the IDF cannot relinquish its one main tactical advantage, and that is having cleared Gaza City. Don’t see this letter as a criticism of the government but as us trying to support them in standing up to international pressure to allow people back into northern Gaza before the hostages are released. At least I hope that’s what the government is working on now.”

The government doesn’t seem to be working on a plan right now. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is mainly focused on evading the contradictory demands of the different wings of his government. On one side are Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, who are urging him to prioritise the hostages and come up with a day-after strategy. On the other side are Netanyahu’s far-right allies, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, who are threatening to bring the government down if the war is paused for any reason. And then there are the demands of the Biden administration.

Meanwhile, those around Netanyahu seem to have other concerns. From the start of this war Israel has had two media “stars” trying to explain its policy (or lack of). On the domestic front it has been the IDF spokesperson, Rear-Admiral Daniel Hagari, an avuncular naval commando whose nightly briefings to the nation on the military situation have transformed him into one of the most popular figures in the country, mobbed for selfies wherever he goes.

On the international media scene the star has been Eylon Levy.

When the war began, the post of international media spokesperson in the prime minister’s office was still vacant, more than nine months after Netanyahu had returned to office. His former press officer, the urbane Mark Regev, was quickly drafted back from retirement in academia, but the veteran Regev was not enough to fulfill the hundreds of daily requests from 24-hour news channels from around the world, and he doesn’t do social media.

The London-born Eylon was tapped to fill in the gaps and in the three and a half months since has established himself, with the help of a small army of volunteers he recruited, as a global media phenomenon.

But their popularity and effectiveness doesn’t seem to have endeared them to everyone in Jerusalem. Last week, the IDF Spokesperson Unit announced that Rear-Admiral Hagari will reduce the frequency of his briefings. Meanwhile, there have been reports that Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister’s wife, is trying to get Levy fired, allegedly due to his participation, before the war, in protests against the judicial reform.

The prime minister’s office denied the reports but sources close to both men have confirmed that they’ve been urged “to lower their profile.”

In both cases it won’t work. The IDF don’t have someone else to break bad news to the nation, as Rear-Admiral Hagari did on Tuesday morning, when he announced the deaths of the 21 soldiers in the explosion in the buffer zone. And even if Levy is forced out of his role (which is temporary anyway), the online operation he has founded isn’t going to go away. But he seems to be ruffling the feathers not just of Israel’s critics.

January 25, 2024 00:00

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