The surprise attack on Israel in which hundreds of people have been murdered, thousands wounded, and dozens of soldiers and civilians have been captured and taken into the Gaza Strip, began with a breach of the border fence.
The fence, which was billed as a solution that would protect residents of border communities and give them quiet, and security against terrorist infiltrations, turns out to have been a concept on which Israel became over-reliant. Whereas the fence was designed to deal mainly with the threat of tunnels, Hamas burst in through the front door, above ground, and in a swift attack upended Israel’s entire defense paradigm in the region. How did it come about that a fence that, together with all the ancillary systems, cost NIS 4 billion, failed to fulfil the most basic purpose for which it was built?
"There’s a barrier that will prevent infiltration"
To deal with the threat of tunnels dug by Hamas, which were intended to facilitate infiltration into border settlements to carry out killings and kidnappings, the heads of Israel’s defense establishment decided in 2016 to build a technologically sophisticated concrete barrier that would stand both above and below ground along the 60 kilometer border with the Gaza Strip.
This was the third fence erected on the border. After the signing of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians, a fence known as Hoovers A was built, and was completed in 1996. Following Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, a second barrier, known as Hoovers B was built. Neither was capable of countering what was considered the main threat, which was the tunnels.
When the new border fence was completed in 2021, Brigadier General Eran Ofir, head of the border barrier project in the Ministry of Defense, said, "During Operation Protective Edge, we were assigned the challenge of building an underground barrier against tunnels from Gaza, and of finding an effective, hermetic solution to the terrorist tunnels that cross from the Gaza Strip towards the settlements along the border."
Ofir said that the barrier that was built would succeed in providing security for residents of the border settlements. "Today, I can inform the residents of the Gaza border area that there is a barrier, both underground and above-ground, with advanced systems, that in the best possible way will prevent infiltration into Israel."
"The above-ground fence was a sort of bonus"
According to a source familiar with the matter, however, the main focus was always underground. "Almost all the activity concerning the fence was to do with the underground part. The above-ground fence was a sort of bonus. Bonus is not a nice word, but the emphasis was on the underground part, because above ground there already existed plenty of systems. In practice, however, it appears from reports from the field that Hamas broke through the front door, above ground, using simple means such as cutting the fence and bulldozers. What was supposed to be the easier aspect of protecting the border turned out to be the weak link.
"As someone who for many years has dealt with trying to see what can’t be seen tens of meters underground, where you are uncertain because it’s hard to know what you see and what you don’t," the source said, "I say that that doesn’t mean that you can neglect a situation in which you supposedly see everything, but you’re powerless against it."
He says that the perception was that above ground had become visible, while underground was invisible, "So you say to yourself, if there’s going to be a surprise, it will come from the ‘surprising’ place, which is what we don’t see."
Perhaps precisely because the underground arena was secured so well, Hamas chose to attack above ground, using paragliders, drones, and even pick-up trucks. The immense preparations for the more problematic threat made the simple threat a surprise.
Besides the underground threat, the barrier was intended to meet a psychological need. "After Operation Protective Edge we realized that we had a strategic problem, because people were in constant fear that someone would suddenly pop up from the lavatory. It damaged national morale. The idea was mainly to deal with the strategic, psychological problem, for people to stop being afraid."
The great disadvantage of the psychological solution is that the false sense of security extended to commanders in the field. In 2021, then minister of defense Benny Gantz praised the barrier. "It denies Hamas one of the capabilities it has tried to develop, and places an iron wall, sensors and concrete, between it and the residents of the south. This wall provides a sense of personal security and will enable this area to continue to grow. The routine day-to-day life here is our victory, and the greatest enemy of the terror organizations."
"Too many systems is not always an advantage," the source we spoke to said. "It’s a social psychology issue, when you know that there’s someone else there to help." He stressed that any defensive line can ultimately be breached, and so it must not be completely relied upon. "Let’s say that there’s a plastic wall underground. It would be easy to overcome it, right? And if it was a one centimeter-thick concrete wall? Or a meter? That would be harder, but in the end the terrorist will succeed. What I want to say is that whatever barrier exactly you have underground, it’s clear that it’s penetrable."
Lieutenant Colonel (res.) Tsach Moshe, who was commander of the land forces research and defense doctrine and concepts department, and who is the founding partner of defense consultancy Practical Theory, says, "The feeling that I am safe sometimes creates an exaggerated sense of security with no real basis. When there’s a barrier, you’re sure that no-one can get through it, and then you discover that they can.
"A defense line gives a sense of security. I feel protected. It’s a bit like a ceramic bulletproof vest: it makes you feel confident that you won’t be hurt, but that’s not true. Sometimes, the fact that you’re wearing a bulletproof vest stops you from crouching and avoiding a bullet. The thought that if I’m behind cover or a barrier I can’t be touched is not a good one. When I have set up the barrier, I also have to set up the elements of observation and fire, otherwise it simply won’t work.
"Carl von Clausewitz (one of the fathers of modern military doctrine, I.E.) argued that defense was the form of battle that conferred the greatest advantage. I’m the defender, and so I’m familiar with the territory and I channel the enemy to where I want him to be, and prepare ambushes there."
An effective barrier, however, has three elements, all of which are required for the system to work: "First, something physical on the ground, natural or artificial. Second, my ability to observe this place. Third, the ability to bring force to bear when the enemy reaches the place. That is what is called ‘observation and fire control’. Now only an irresponsible fool will not prepare a defensive line, even if it’s something put up in haste. From Ukraine to Hadrian’s Wall and the Great Wall of China against the Mongols, and of course the Maginot Line and the trenches of the First World War.
"You take advantage of the terrain, and when that’s not enough, you bring in other elements to create an advantage, to put the enemy in an inferior position when he arrives, to delay him, and to channel him to a place where it’s possible to control him with observation and fire and attack him in force. When a hunter lays a trap for an animal, he makes a line that channels it to some particular place.
"When defense lines collapse, it means that something didn’t happen," Moshe adds. "There was the underground barrier, but they didn’t come underground. People tend to blame the line, but the line isn’t the problem. When you have the concept of a barrier, you need these three things. When one of them is lacking, its not an effective barrier. What actually failed? We’ll know when we finish the enquiries. Now is not the time."
In an article on the IDF website marking a year since the barrier was completed, the commander of Battalion 74 in the Gaza Division, Lieutenant Colonel Ofer Tchoresh, was quoted as saying: "It doesn’t matter how sophisticated and massive it is, we start from the assumption that it will never be 100% hermetic. Alongside the huge advantage that the barrier confers in intelligence gathering and engineering, the forces train and carry out routine engineering and observation work and frequently practice coordination between forces. Our division does not allow itself to fall into complacency, not even for a moment."
The source we spoke to tried nevertheless to guess the reasons for the failure. "Hamas knew that the divisional command post was at Re’im, and stormed it directly. At the command post are the people who are meant to pass information to the battalion war rooms. In addition, just as on the night of the hang-gliders, routine dulls awareness. There are demonstrations at the fence, they play backwards and forwards, provoke us and withdraw. There was a bit of ‘Wolf, wolf.’"
Unexpectedly, the traditional Israeli concept, which calls for settlements next to borders for strategic and security reasons, damaged security. "The defense line is always going to be broken in the end, and so you need defense in depth, with a second defense line. When you have so many settlements right on the fence, it’s hard to create a second line," the source adds.
Prof. Danny Orbach, a military historian in the Department of Asian Studies at Hebrew University, says, "We had no depth. If the enemy breaks through, there should be a second and third line from which forces can be advanced. The problem with defense flat against the borders is that if it is broken through, the territory is open. That’s what happened to Poland in 1939 and France in 1940."
The source we consulted says, however, that in the border area around the Gaza Strip there was no possibility of genuine defense in depth that might perhaps have prevented the disaster. "In the north, there are obstacles scattered around Israeli settlements, and in the south too there are all kinds of surprises underground. But above ground? The second line of defense is only the emergency squads in the settlements themselves."
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on October 9, 2023.
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