On this page last week, a colleague expressed misgivings about the Israeli Defense Forces’ (IDF) resilience and wondered if their edge had dulled. No one has ever doubted the will, fighting prowess, and potential of Israelis, given their history of conflict, survival, and incredible prosperity. Israel has had a nearly similar experience in its conflicted history as our own: a war of creation in 1948, a larger conflict in 1956, and full-fledged regional wars in 1967 and 1973. The IDF, like now, was caught off guard when Egyptians executed a cross-Suez offensive, but it hesitated, allowing the counter-Canal response led by Ariel Sharon’s Centurion Tank division and Squadron and Troop leaders like Chaim Erez and Benny Taran.
In the 1973 war on the Syrian front, the hero was Avigdor Kahalani, who later became the Mayor of Tel Aviv and the Minister of National Security. His book ‘Heights of Courage’ is prescribed reading for the Israeli military. He was worshipped by Armored Corps officers who used to take a second oath near Mount Hermon on the Golan Heights, where a UN Indian Mechanized force is currently located.
And who will forget Moshe Dayan, the hero of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and Commander of the Jerusalem Front? He became a legend, with his eyepatch replaced by the Jaffa orange in an ad proclaiming ‘The Best.’
I had the privilege of knowing Kahalani, Erez, and Taran, all Armored Corps experts, the sword in the desert terrain. With the last two, we spent a year in training and friendship at Fort Leavenworth, US, and Belgravia, UK. I visited Israel before India formally recognized it in January 1992.
That journey is etched as the one that commenced in Cairo, where the Yom Kippur War was conceived. The taxi was driven by a retired Artillery Lieutenant Colonel from the Egyptian Army. We crossed the Suez and drove through Sinai, still littered with debris from the 1967 and 1973 wars.
The drive was punctuated with a vanquished veteran’s narration of victory turned into defeat. In 1991, Israel had a string of pearls of UN/EU Peacekeeping Forces. Most are still there – Lebanon, Syria, and Jerusalem. Before entering Israel on the border with Egypt, we were welcomed by Lt. Gen. Johannes Van Ginkle, the Dutch Force Commander of the EU Peacekeepers.
He, like I, was an admirer of Erez, whom we were going to meet after nearly 20 years since Fort Leavenworth. Since then, I have been to Israel more than a dozen times, including attending the annual International Institute of Counter-Terrorism conference in Herzliya since 2010, until COVID put it on hold.
So, I believe I know the IDF quite well. Doubting its combat strength is a strategic error.Israel has signed peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt, as well as the Oslo Accord of 1993. The most recent is the Abrams Accord, which aims to improve Israel’s relations with Arab states.
Except with Iran, Syria, and Lebanon, there is peace, including efforts to mend ties with Saudi Arabia. Since 1973, no Arab country has challenged de facto nuclear Israel. Tel Aviv is fighting internal wars against non-state actors: Hezbollah in Lebanon, Islamic Jihad, and Hamas, which has been in control of Gaza since 2007, periodically launching rockets against Israel.
The West Bank, which was infiltrated by the Islamic State last year, has opened a third front for the IDF, where more than 300 Palestinians and 50 Israelis have been killed this year. However, Hezbollah appears to be only shadowboxing. Iran is the external enemy number 1. Both Iran and Israel have vowed to destroy each other and do not recognize the other’s right to exist.
Iran supports Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza. Hamas has a stockpile of 130,000 rockets and missiles. It was only in 2012 that their accuracy improved, and Israel devised the Iron Dome, which I witnessed being launched. It is an expensive countermeasure against missiles but can distinguish which missile will hit populated areas, making it highly valuable.The current ground offensive against Hamas will be the fifth large-scale operation, with the first launched in 2008 after Hamas took control of Gaza.
Similarly, Israel has invaded Lebanon thrice – in 1978, 1982, and 2006. The IDF has failed to deter Hamas and diminish Hezbollah. Its punitive strikes only degrade capabilities until their next rocket attack.
This time, the IDF is tasked with permanently destroying Hamas and rescuing the 199 hostages hidden in an underground web of tunnels. This cordon-and-search operation can take months and become an abattoir. Taran says the operation is not a reoccupation of Gaza. Israel is known to have exchanged 1,200 Palestinian prisoners for one. Iran says Hamas will release hostages if air attacks cease.
Ultimately, the safety of hostages will constrain operations, with the IDF fighting on enemy terrain.Hamas’ daring incursion into Israel is a brilliant strategy, but its barbarity and brutality in tactics are shaming, akin to Genghis Khan. Hamas achieved total surprise and horrendous gains.
This time, they did something akin to 9/11 and Pearl Harbor combined, inflicting on Israel their highest losses since the Yom Kippur war. It has already become the world’s largest man-made humanitarian catastrophe that you and I watch on TV. But no one can stop the maimed Israelis from retaliation and the IDF wreaking retribution by reducing Gaza to the Stone Age. Fingers crossed the Gaza Front does not spark conflict in Lebanon and the West Bank. The IDF may destroy Hamas’ capability to fight, but not its will to fight another day.