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What I Learned from Watching the Israeli Army
The Israel Defense Forces are motivated, sophisticated, and capable.
BY ALL EXPECTATIONS, THE ISRAELI GOVERNMENT is poised to order a ground invasion of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. After the shocking and blood-curdling attack by Hamas on Israeli civilians on October 7, there is ample speculation about what the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) might do to, in, and about Hamas and Gaza. The IDF is one of the world’s most respected militaries. Through my career as a U.S. Army officer, I came to understand that it’s also commonly misunderstood.
My first encounter with the IDF was just on paper. As a recently promoted Army major in 1987, I was selected to attend a year-long course in operational planning at the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. One requirement of the course was to write two monographs for publication. As a career armor officer, I wanted to analyze some historical tank campaign. All the tank battles of World War II, the 1967 Six Day War, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War seemed like promising choices—until my adviser suggested something else. “You want something more relevant, something that points to the future of armored warfare,” he advised. “How about the more recent ’82 campaign, Operation Peace for Galilee?”
Taking his advice, for the next few months I analyzed every detail of that fight between large, conventional military forces—tanks—and Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) terrorists. The Israeli government’s initial goals were relatively straightforward: clear the PLO from southern Lebanon. In 1982, the IDF were initially successful, but changes in government policy and civilian leaders’ strategic objectives caused mission creep, dysfunction, and eventual failure to achieve military goals. Israel withdrew its forces to the border areas by 1985, and withdrew further to the international boundary in 2000.
My advisor had been wise: Unlike the conventional armored campaigns of 1967 and 1973, the 1982 Lebanon War turned into a counter-insurgency campaign with no clear end—a fitting presage for what both Israel and the United States would face in the following decades. I would take many lessons from their campaign as I led the 1st Armored Division in Iraq.
WHEN I WAS ASSIGNED to U.S. Army Europe between 2004 and 2013, between deployments to Iraq, I visited most of the countries in our area of operations to develop partnerships and forge stronger alliances. Before 2021, Israel and Lebanon fell under the European Command area of responsibility, so my travels often took me to Israel.
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My Israeli counterpart was the chief of IDF ground forces, Major General Schlomo “Sami” Turgeman. He also became my partner and friend. We coordinated training and exercises, formally and informally discussed the relationship between our armies and our countries, and had many direct and transparent conversations about our respective nations’ military and operational challenges. These are common responsibilities of senior commanders in various allied and partner armies and Turgeman was a pleasure to work with.
During one air defense exercise, we visited the 1982 battlefields along the border with Lebanon that I had studied decades earlier. On another trip, I was invited to share lessons learned from my recent deployment to Iraq to students at the Israeli National Defense College. I also observed the intelligence-collection facilities used by the southern army forces—the Gaza Division—and the intelligence fusion cells used in the West Bank. I never did get to the Golan Heights; Gen. Turgeman’s staff thought it was more important that I visit the all-female infantry battalions assigned along the southern border in the Sinai.
The Israeli strategic position is almost incomprehensible to an American. When we think of fighting big wars, we think of shipping huge numbers of people and mountains of supplies overseas. We have commands set up for every part of the world—European Command, IndoPacific Command, Southern Command, etc. In Israel, they fight wars on their borders. Imagine if the United States had to fight a war with Canada or Mexico. So they have units named after local geography, like the Gaza Division and the Golani Brigade. With no geographical margin for error, the IDF relies on world-class intelligence capabilities so they know when threats are coming.
The IDF also expects to fight every war outnumbered, so they conscript women as well as men, and they are fiercely defensive of the lives of their personnel. The tanker in me appreciates that the Israeli tank, the Merkava, has an unusual, inefficient layout: In most tanks, the engine is behind the crew compartment, but in the Merkava, the engine is in the front, so that it can help protect the crew from a direct hit. The Merkava may be slower, but it’s safer.
On another occasion, I observed several new Israeli officers taking their oath at the top of Masada, the mountain fortress in the Judean Desert where a group of Jews had endured a siege during the First Judeo-Roman War in the year 73. As the Romans prepared to breach the fortress by means of a massive ramp, the rebels committed mass suicide. That mountaintop, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a deeply moving testimony to the constant testing, sacrifice, and survival of the Jewish nation. Hearing a group of young Israeli lieutenants vow that “Masada shall not fall again” will always be a treasured memory. My observations from every engagement were recorded and passed to senior U.S. military and governmental leaders, but I remember being emotional when I typed up this specific report.
American officers take an oath to the Constitution. British officers take an oath to the king. Israeli officers take an oath to the government, but in promising that “Masada shall not fall again,” they also take a pledge to a people. It’s not hard to see why a military formed for the Jewish state in the aftermath of the Holocaust sees itself as a bulwark against genocide.
In all my visits to Israel before I retired in 2013, I was impressed by the dedication and operational savvy of the Israeli generals and senior leaders. They were all extremely blunt but unfailingly polite. They always got their message across, and I wished those from other armies I engaged with would follow their lead in candid communication. It’s no wonder an organization that so values speaking the plain truth has an impressive record of self-criticism and fast adaptation.
The less senior Israeli soldiers I met were professional and patriotic. I found that (almost) universal military service leaves the citizenry more informed of the security affairs of their nation than that in many other countries, including ours. Because most Israelis are reservists for life, it becomes readily apparent to most visitors to Israel that they don’t suffer from our civilian-military gap. (Instead, the portions of Israeli society that don’t serve, especially the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, are increasingly divided from the rest of the country—a dynamic that played out in the massive protests and counterprotests over the recent judicial reforms.)
DURING MY LAST VISIT TO ISRAEL, in late 2012, I remember one of Gen. Turgeman’s subordinates telling me they were increasingly seeing turmoil in Gaza. He predicted it would soon come to a head. Two years later, it did. Hamas terrorists kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teenagers, and Israel arrested over 350 Hamas terrorists. Then Hamas retaliated with rocket strikes against southern cities that looked massive then, but pale in comparison to what Hamas did on 10/7.
From retirement in Florida, I watched Operation Brother’s Keeper and then Operation Protective Edge in 2014. To prepare for the eventual fifty-day incursion into Gaza during Operation Protective Edge, the IDF mobilized 75,000 reservists and hammered Hamas targets with air strikes throughout Gaza. By the time the IDF withdrew, 72 Israelis (66 soldiers and 6 civilians) and, according to UN estimates, 2,100 Palestinians had lost their lives. The world was watching, and there was international condemnation of the IDF for excessive use of force and disregard for civilian casualties. The IDF claimed they were properly following the rules of proportionality and necessity and the laws of land warfare in their attacks; Hamas terrorists were adept at using the Palestinians in Gaza as human shields and as pawns in an information campaign to draw others to their cause.
It’s been almost ten years since that operation and things are very different. The world was shocked by Hamas’s capacity to execute a joint air-ground-sea incursion, and the brutality and horror of the related attacks, murders, and kidnappings. There’s also disbelief over what seems to be a massive intelligence failure, as well as an apparent rift between the Israeli military and the civilian government, which, according to press reports, moved part of the Gaza Division to the West Bank and ignored tips from Egyptian intelligence about an impending attack. All of this runs counter to what we in the West believed about Hamas’s capabilities, as well as Israel’s capacity to prepare for and address attacks.
There will be differences on the upcoming Gaza battlefield, too. The level of planning and preparation that went into the 10/7 attacks suggests that Hamas has a long-range plan. In videos of the terrorist attacks against kibbutzim in the south, the fighters were more adept at aimed fire (not the kind of “pray-and-spray” of automatic weapons we’ve seen in other terror groups) and small unit maneuver. They established rapid ambush positions, pop-up check points, and viable actions on contact with Israelis. The taking of hostages also likely indicates prior planning, and Hamas has likely prepared strong-point defenses inside Gaza where they will use civilians and hostages as human shields.
The urban battlefield has changed significantly in the last ten years, too. The relatively young reservists who are now a part of the IDF call-up were teenagers during the 2014 campaign, and most haven’t seen the kind of combat they will face in an urban environment. It will be a hellscape. The Hamas terrorists in Gaza have had years and a relatively undisturbed environment in which to prepare. Their armaments have improved in the last decade, as well: longer-range rockets, more accurate anti-tank guided missiles, cheaper drones for intelligence and strikes. Hamas has likely built ever-expanding, reinforced, and confusing tunnel complexes under the cities of Gaza that will have strong-point defenses and sniper positions assigned, and open-source intelligence indicates that Hamas has obtained shoulder-fired air defense weapons. Combined with the rubble that the Israeli Air Force has contributed to the last few days, which will hinder IDF maneuver and resupply on what will likely be a longer campaign longer than the fifty-day 2014 operation, this will likely be a very tough fight. And it will unfortunately result in significant casualties—not only Hamas fighters and Israeli soldiers, but Palestinian and Israeli civilians and some of the estimated 150 Israeli and international hostages Hamas is currently holding.
The Israeli military is focused, committed, and furious—but largely inexperienced. Their government has yet to state their goals (at least publicly). They are headed for a terrible fight.
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