IDF learns from bitter experience on how to defeat Jenin ‘TikTok warriors’

Military strategists behind this week's operation were determined mistakes made in Operation Defensive Shield 21 years ago would not be repeated


Israeli soldiers clash with Palestinian youth following Military operation in Jenin, in the West Bank city of Hebron, July 4, 2023. Photo by Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** חברון חיילים פלסטינים עימותים הפגנות אבנים חייל חיילים גנין

July 06, 2023 10:44

One of the first things I noticed as the small armoured convoy sped from the Salem Crossing into Jenin was the Palestinian cars and lorries on the road.

It was hard to miss them, even from the small bullet-proof window of the “Tigris” tactical truck.

The officer sitting next to me confirmed it: the IDF had just launched its largest ground operation in the West Bank since 2002 and there was no curfew on the city. Not even roadblocks. At least not Israeli ones.

This was not like any urban-warfare battle I had ever reported on.

Sitting up front was Brigadier-General Avi Bluth, commanding officer of the Judea and Samaria Division and overall commander of the Jenin operation, monitoring on the screen of his Tsayad tactical system the location of his sub-units.

Like other IDF generals, he fought, 21 years ago, in Operation Defensive Shield, in Jenin and the other West Bank cities.

When they began planning this operation, more than a year ago, they were determined that this time around things would be different.

They didn’t want a repeat of the previous Battle of Jenin, in which 53 Palestinians and 23 IDF soldiers, most of them caught in booby-trapped buildings, were killed.

It took nearly three weeks for them to end the occupation of Jenin, and when they left, more than 10 per cent of the buildings in the old refugee camp quarter had been destroyed.

As reliable information came out only in a slow trickle, the media was filled first with speculation and then wild headlines of a “massacre” in Jenin.

This time it was to be completely different. The battle was fought in the same alleyways and against a similar-sized force of about 300 Palestinian militants, but it was over in 48 hours. It would have ended even earlier, if it was up to the generals, but the order from Benjamin Netanyahu’s government was to stay until the second night.

Unlike the first Battle of Jenin, where most of the Israeli forces were infantry reservists, this time around a special-forces brigade was deployed, equipped with accurate intelligence of the Palestinian hideaways and weapons stores, and with constant cover from armed drones above.

Instead of lumbering tanks and armoured personnel carriers, they entered in smaller, more manoeuvrable, bullet- and blast-proof tactical vehicles, and spent only brief moments inside buildings.

In an attempt to dissuade the rest of the city, and the rest of the West Bank, from joining in the fighting, no curfew was imposed and while the operation concentrated on the refugee camp, the city itself remained open, while more than 2,000 workers went to work as usual at their day jobs in Israel.

And in an effort to fight also on the media front, embedded journalists, both from the Israeli and foreign media, were allowed in on the second day.

Brig-Gen Bluth’s team joked as we were going in that they had a “new car”.

The “Tigris”, a new armoured truck, with a bullet-proof cabin manufactured in Kibbutz Sasa on a Ford F-550 chassis, was going into battle for the first time. The Brigadier’s driver did a small wheelie to demonstrate its manoeuvrability.

We would need it in a few minutes when the lead vehicle, a smaller armoured Land Rover, ran over an explosive device that blew out its tyres.

The “Tigris” positioned itself to give cover from a few scattered gunshots, as the officers quickly got out to make sure it could continue.

The area was under constant drone surveillance to prevent an ambush, but they wanted to be sure.

The Land Rover began moving again, wobbling on its rims, as the convoy continued towards the town centre, under a shower of rocks, bottles containing paint and motor-oil, and one Molotov cocktail, thrown from the Muqata, the building normally used by the Palestinian security forces, now absent.

Inside, the officers were impervious and barely paused as they relayed orders to one of the units to launch a patrol on the route. The Land Rover was set alight for a few seconds but the fire died down just as we reached the main square, by the hospital.

One side of the square was occupied by teenagers throwing rocks. In the middle were Palestinian ambulances ferrying the wounded to the hospital and on the other side were IDF vehicles, making the short way uphill through the alleyways to the refugee camp.

By the time we reached one of the brigade command-posts on the edge of the camp, the “Tigris”, covered in dripping paint and oil stains, had lost its “new-car” sheen.

In keeping with the light-footprint tactic of the operation, the brigade command post consisted only of a handful of armoured vehicles, parked closely together, hidden by two low buildings.

At this point, the commanders’ main concern was for their planned exit later that night and avoiding “friendly-fire” incidents, of the kind in which one Israeli soldier had been wounded the previous night and another was killed in the last few hours of the operation.

Two streets further up, in a building blown up by IDF sappers, a round hole leading down to what had been a weapons arsenal was still clearly visible.

They had tried to use explosives as little as possible, and bring out the weapons and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) intact, but the hole in this case was suspected of being booby-trapped. There were more than 30 similar sites across the camp and once they had been located, and either dismantled or destroyed, it was Mission Accomplished.

Bluth took the reporters in to show the site, but asked to leave after a couple of minutes, more worried about the remaining walls collapsing than about any snipers still lurking on the rooftops, though the occasional errant gunfire could still be heard close by.

The number of casualties on the Palestinian side, 12 militants killed over two days, surprised the IDF. They had been expecting them to put up more of a fight. One of the officers mocked them, saying, “They’re TikTok warriors.

Good at posting videos of themselves with M-16s, but when they actually had to fight, they fled, leaving their rifles behind so they won’t be identified. We found rifles in every other car we searched here.”

Another more senior officer counselled respect for the enemy: “They were taken by surprise, first by the drone strikes and then when they discovered that under the cover of the strikes we had already entered the camp from four directions.

"Guerrilla warfare tactics are not to put up a fight when faced with an enemy with a clear tactical advantage, but to melt away instead.”

In addition to the 12 killed, the IDF captured around 30 men they believe may be members of the “Jenin Brigades”, but the main commanders succeeded in escaping; some are believed to have used ambulances to get out of the camp.

IDF spokesperson Rear-Admiral Daniel Hagari didn’t seem perturbed. He had been a young officer in the previous Battle of Jenin, leading a team of naval commandoes, and had seen up close how badly such an urban warfare battle could go. He was convinced this operation was a success.

“We made it clear that Jenin isn’t a safe haven for terror and established our freedom to operate here.

“And we did it while differentiating between the innocent population and the terrorists.”
But he didn’t lose his sense of proportion either.

“One operation doesn’t end terror here. The answer can’t be only military.”

July 06, 2023 10:44

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