IDF’s speedy hospital rocket response shows it has recovered its nerve

After the failures on October 7, the defence forces acted speedily and decisively in asserting that a misfiring rocket fired by Palestinian Islamic Jihad caused the carnage at the Al Ahli Hospital in Gaza City

October 19, 2023 10:13

The IDF’s central command centre, or war-room, known as ha’bor (the pit), five floors beneath the Kirya IDF headquarters, is only in full use at time of war or when major planned operations are in progress.

On October 7 it was activated when the full scale of the Hamas terror attack was realised, but in the days since, most of the generals have been touring IDF units down south, or up north, preparing for war in Gaza or with Hezbollah.

On a night very soon, the core command group of the General Staff will be there when the armoured brigades go into Gaza, but on Tuesday night they had something of an unscheduled dress rehearsal when they rushed there to direct a crucial operation.

“Everyone was there, the chief of staff, his deputy, commanders of the intelligence and operation branches,” said one officer who was present. “All were clamouring and focused on the mission.”

Their objective: To work out what had fallen from the sky and killed reportedly as many as 500 Palestinians at Al Ahli Hospital.

Minutes after the news began filtering in at 7pm and the television networks all carried the feed from Gaza, the generals knew it was their most urgent task.

They didn’t have to be told by their political masters that in 15 hours US President Joe Biden would be landing at Ben-Gurion Airport and they had better have a very good explanation for what had happened.

The first thing they did was to check whether the IDF had been carrying out any airstrikes nearby.

There was one airstrike around that time but it was in a different part of Gaza City and the type of munition used there wouldn’t have created the carnage being reported from the hospital. But that wasn’t enough of an explanation. Simply saying “We didn’t do it” wasn’t going to fully convince even the closest of allies.

The first useful bit of information came from the social media account of a young Israeli-Russian military blogger, who normally focuses on analysing footage from the war in Ukraine but had already posted his analysis of media footage of the bomb-site at Al Ahli.

He made the observation that the burnt area in the hospital’s car park looked nothing like a place where an air-launched bomb or missile had impacted.

One of the IDF’s hypotheses was already that this had been caused by an errant or malfunctioning Palestinian rocket. They had detected out of the more than 7,000 rockets launched at Israel since the morning of October 7 around 450 such misfires: rockets that were launched but didn’t make it over the border.

Such a rocket, especially if it was one which had been targeting Tel Aviv, would have still had in the first seconds after launch a large amount of highly-flammable propellant that could have created the fire that had been seen in the media broadcasts and from the surveillance drone that the IDF immediately directed towards the site.

From here, it took them a few more hours to collect the evidence that it had indeed been a rocket fired by Iranian-funded and directed Palestinian Islamic Jihad that had caused the bloodshed that was now being pinned on Israel.

It had taken nearly six hours before the IDF was confident enough in its conclusion to put out an official statement blaming the PIJ and there were those who criticised that as being too slow.

But any real military expert will recognise that it is nearly a record time for delivering this type of information in wartime when the bombsite is not under your control.

If anything, the swift and comprehensive way in which the IDF demolished the claims that it had bombed a hospital were a sign that after the terrible failure of October 7 Israel’s army has regained its confidence and professionalism.

Last week I mentioned how Benjamin Netanyahu only remembered to appoint a new national coordinator for prisoner and hostage affairs after the October 7 attack, when Israel suddenly had to deal with 199 hostages abducted to Gaza.

For those who have found in recent days that the Israeli government’s (as opposed to the IDF spokesperson unit’s) media response to the hectic pace of events has been somewhat slow, it’s worth pointing out that the position of prime minister’s press adviser for international media had been vacant for more than nine months as well. Until the war began.

There had been some desultory searches for a new press adviser and a few candidates were interviewed. One of them, the combative and media-savvy Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahum, was expected to be appointed but for some unknown reason, which one source said “had nothing to do with Fleur’s perfect qualifications for the job”, it fell through.

And so, on the evening of October 7, when the realisation finally dawned on the prime minister that he needed someone who doesn’t wear a uniform to be Israel’s face on the international television networks, there was no alternative but to call once again for Mark Regev. There simply is no one else he knows and trusts to do the job.

Ever the perfect civil servant, even now when he’s retired to academia and writing, Regev, who in between his two previous stints as the prime minister’s foreign media spokesman, served as Israel’s ambassador to the UK, immediately turned up for duty. And he even received two young assistants, former journalists, who appear on the lesser news shows under his tutelage.

But while no one can fault Regev’s performance on screen, his mastery of the material and his polite but firm style of jousting — he is, after all, the consummate pro -— there have been complaints that the prime minister’s office should not be relying on a miluimnik (reservist) for such a crucial role. Regev is not planning to stay on after the war and once again the post may become vacant (unless one of his new juniors proves a star, which has yet to be seen).

And it’s not as if the prime minister’s office isn’t focused on media matters. It is, but just the Israeli domestic media. While Netanyahu has been hunkered down for most of the past two weeks in the prime minister’s Tel Aviv office, which is usefully adjacent to the Defence Ministry and IDF General Staff office towers, there has been a constant stream of official and unofficial political and media advisers in and out of the office.

Though they have no role in the war, they are working day and night, directing the army of online warriors whose enemy is not Hamas but the ever-growing number of Israelis, including many on the right, who are calling for the prime minister to do the honourable thing and resign once the war is over.

Netanyahu is under some pressure from some of his ministers and generals who have been quietly urging for Israel to take the initiative and launch a preemptive strike on Hezbollah, before it carries out a surprise terror attack of its own and Israel is dragged into a war in Lebanon as well.

In his visit to Israel on Wednesday President Biden urged the war cabinet to do everything to prevent a “second front”.

Netanyahu, at least, needed no convincing. He is already fighting on two fronts, the war against Hamas and the war for his own political survival after the war. He certainly doesn’t need a third front.

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October 19, 2023 10:13

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