Andrew Fox

As a former British soldier, only visiting Israel made me understand the Gaza war

Infantry officer Andrew Fox’s analysis of the Jewish state’s military response to the Hamas terror raid was viewed over four million times on social media


Placards of Israeli hostages held by Hamas hang in a destroyed house in Kibbutz Beeri (Photo: Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

April 22, 2024 15:05

As a former soldier, it was only after I visited Israel myself on a veterans delegation that I was able to truly understand what happened on October 7.

To begin with, Hamas crossed the Gaza border in more than brigade strength: this was no rag-tag rabble. The numbers of trained and organised Hamas fighters were double the number of infantry the British sent to retake the Falklands in 1982.

The attackers had detailed plans. Hamas had conducted reconnaissance of the kibbutzim near the border, possibly through some of the 18,000 Gazans with day work permits to enter Israel. Plans found on dead fighters showed an incredible level of detail. For the Tasha family in Nativ HaAsara, Hamas recorded: “Man, woman, two children. Man has a gun. Dog does not bite.” Hamas first attacked the houses of those Israelis known to be armed.

Munitions found afterwards included home-made thermobaric weapons for RPG-7s that were used to burn Israeli civilians’ homes, drones, and suicide vests. Hamas brought comprehensive med packs with them, and very quickly cab ranks of empty vehicles lined up outside homesteads ready to receive hostages.

Moreover, the attack had been preceded by years of deception to persuade Israel that Islamic Jihad, not Hamas, were the threat. As a result Israel had encouraged Qatari money to flow into Gaza in the hope Hamas would focus on development.

The most powerful moment of my trip was a visit to Kibbutz Be’eri, site of some of the worst atrocities. On October 6, it was a village of some 1,200 inhabitants. It is now a ruined shell. Over 130 Israelis were murdered there, with many more taken hostage.

The first thing Hamas fighters did after breaching Be’eri’s gates was to scale buildings and get high off the ground. They placed belt-fed weapons on rooftops and set up anti-armour ambushes ready for a security force response. They next took hostages and moved them to the cab rank and back to Gaza. Hamas and their civilian followers-on then raped, burned, tortured and murdered their way through the kibbutz.

The guide who led me through Be’eri had a matter-of-fact stoicism that was humbling. His brother, part of the local security force, had died guarding a key road junction next to the medical centre and the kindergarten. In a left-wing, peace-supporting settlement, he claimed, “people don’t believe in peace anymore.”

The massacre took place on a national holiday. The IDF was stood down and dispersed, and so the initial response fell upon the community security teams. But their weapons were kept in central armouries and Hamas reconnaissance knew this. Too often, these groups were ambushed and murdered before they could reach their guns.

Initial IDF response units were formed of whatever could be cobbled together, often light role or special forces teams that had to wait for armoured support to breach the Hamas defences and ambushes. The terrain in the kibbutzim is a luxurious, dense jungle of bushes, trees, foliage. Perfect for Hamas, hellish for liberators to fight through.

The IDF incurred significant casualties. As a former infantry officer, I cringed seeing the complex terrain in which they had to manoeuvre. No small wonder it took days to eliminate every attacker.

When they attacked, though, Hamas’s intelligence was not perfect. They did not expect the Nova music festival. Its site, and Hostage Square in Tel Aviv, are the most tangible public reminders of Israeli pain. The national trauma of October 7 is a bleeding wound in a deeply interconnected and familial society.

Almost everyone in Israel is no more than two degrees of separation from a victim in the massacre. Visits to these sites are marked by Israelis with red-rimmed, tear-filled eyes. Their faces are crushed by grief, imploding inwards on themselves as they weep.

Those I spoke to expressed a mix of views about Israel’s response, but amongst ordinary Israelis what struck me was sadness, rather than a blood-thirsty desire for vengeance.

I met a lady who had her mother taken hostage and later released, while one of her brothers remains a hostage and another was killed. She showed incredible compassion and dignity. “Every civilian life is precious,” she said. “We just want our people home. It’s not a war we started but it is a war we cannot lose.”

As I stood in Be’eri, nearby Israeli artillery fired into Gaza in the background as my guide spoke as a jolting punctuation to his words. The kibbutz is close enough to Gaza to hear the echo of 30mm cannon from operations near the Netzarim Corridor. As sunbirds hovered, a Hermes 450 flew overhead.

The soot still hangs in the air. The scent feels dirty. Visiting feels like an intrusion. But even while frozen in the moment of atrocity, there is a beauty to Be’eri. You can see it peering out from behind the ruin and the bullet holes and the ash of corpses.

This was a place tended with love and care. It will be again. Soon it will be razed, and the community will rebuild. “Come back in two years,” one local told me. “It will be beautiful again.”

October 7 was the worst slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust and the worst ever terror attack on Israeli soil. Hamas trained, reconnoitred, planned, and deployed a heavily armed irregular division: they sent more troops into Israel than the British Army initially sent to pacify the whole of Helmand Province in 2006.

It is through the lens of this national trauma that any conversation about the ongoing conflict in and around Israel must be framed.
Major Andrew Fox is a war studies lecturer at the Royal Military Academy

April 22, 2024 15:05

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