Friday, March 29, 2013

Kfir Brigade - A conversation with the commanders

"At the end of the day, we are judged by results," he said. "The might that we demonstrate in Judea and Samaria is also manifest in other areas. Every commander in the field as well as division commander who has received one of our battalions for a mission wants us again.

Lilach Shoval..
Israel Hayom..
29 March '13..

In November 2012, shortly before the start of Operation Pillar of Defense, the Kfir Brigade pulled away from its familiar, customary position along the Judea and Samaria front and for the first time in its history redeployed to the Golan Heights, where it took part in a massive exercise designed to simulate the conditions of a war in Lebanon.

A few weeks later, Kfir returned to its original positions in the territories. Upon its redeployment, the brigade discovered that the prevailing conditions in Judea and Samaria had altered significantly. The number of incidents in which stones were hurled and Molotov cocktails were flung in their direction had skyrocketed. There was widespread chaos and disorder. Worst of all, there was a sharp jump in the number of incidents in which live ammunition was fired at IDF troops.

To get a clearer sense of the situation, we gathered the commander of the brigade and the seven most senior deputies for a wide-ranging interview. They painted an ominous picture.

"Our mission in Judea and Samaria is challenging," said Col. Yoav Zukron, who commands Kfir's Haruv battalion. "In Gaza, if you wanted to harm civilians, you needed to smuggle a missile through a tunnel. In Judea and Samaria, you just need a glass bottle, a half-liter of gasoline that costs 4 shekels ($1), a fuse, and you could burn an entire family alive, all at the cost of just a few shekels."

This chilling scenario encapsulates the complexity of the challenge the brigade is grappling with.

"[Nachshon Battalion commander] Shay Shemesh doesn't have to just worry about Molotov cocktails and stones," Zukron said. "We've had 10 instances in which our civilians have been fired upon. These are terrorist attacks in the fullest sense of the term. I'm happy to see that civilians in Tel Aviv are drinking coffee on a daily basis without hearing anything about it."

Shemesh was asked his opinion about the extent to which the security situation in Judea and Samaria has deteriorated in recent weeks.

"That depends where and when," he replied. "There are all sorts of waves. There was a period of escalation during Pillar of Defense. A month ago, there was the protest by the prisoners. Then there was tension that was palpable against the backdrop of U.S. President Barack Obama's visit. A glance at the calendar reveals no shortage of significant dates that could cause even more problems — Nakba Day, Nakhsa Day [commemorating the Arab defeat in the Six-Day War], and Prisoners Day. This doesn't surprise us.

"We notice an increase in the number of disturbances. I, personally, however, do not believe that this is part of a trend. There are peaks in the level of violence that have more to do with specific issues and instances. Judging from our experience in recent years, there were times when a large uprising was predicted but never materialized."

Col. Udi Ben Moha, the commander of the brigade, joins the conversation.

"There are all sorts of domestic political processes that have to do with the way Palestinian society is run and there is the influence of events from without like Pillar of Defense that are still relevant," he said. "On the Palestinian side, there is a very sharp dispute over whether it would be best to adopt Hamas methods — like kidnapping Gilad Shalit and using him as a bargaining chip to win the release of prisoners — in Judea and Samaria. A demonstration in Hebron could be ignited because of discontent over the prisoner issue or because salaries weren't paid on time and it could spin out of control, affecting the Jewish residents there."

"Why is this different from before?" Ben Moha asked rhetorically. "Because there's something different going on, and that's due to the street. The street is responding to economic distress, and this could ignite the whole situation."

When I wonder aloud whether a third intifada is in the offing, the voices in the room respond with a resounding no. According to the battalion commanders, the only intifada around is the one bandied about in newspaper headlines, not on the ground.

"There is an increase in the number of clashes," said Col. Aryeh Shkhuri, the commander of the Lavi battalion. "But there is actually a drop in the number of popular, grassroots acts of hostility like, stone-throwing and firebombs, certainly when compared to the period during Pillar of Defense. I don't get the sense that we are at the threshold of another intifada."

"We are not the ones who put the signature to official situational assessments," said Ben Moha. "All in all, we serve in Judea and Samaria, and we love carrying out our mission. The assessments say that there won't be a third intifada anytime soon, and that there are those working to maintain restraint and ensure it doesn't happen. There are also people on the other side. They, too, do not want to regress to the point where we were before Operation Defensive Shield. It's just not worth it for anyone."

"On the other hand, you have other forces that are applying pressure," he said. "We see how Egypt has changed, we see what's going on in Syria. The most important thing isn't how we interpret the situational assessment. The important thing is the extent to which a soldier or class commander understands or knows the sensitivity of the situation on the ground. It is the responsibility of the battalion commanders to take all of these insights — which are really those of the prime minister, not ours — and to be able to explain them to the soldiers. The Nachshon battalion commander has shooting incidents every week. The easiest thing for him to do would be to say, 'I sought to engage and I killed the terrorist.' Yet, even if it is completely legal to kill someone who shot you, such a thing could snowball into something serious, and this would play into the hands of the other side."

Operating wisely

While this may seem obvious, the soldiers do not always understand. There are critics who have assailed the commanders for what they view as the excessive restraint that has been imposed on soldiers on the ground. As evidence, they cite video clips that have emerged on the Internet showing troops in humiliating retreat from a mob of rock-hurling Palestinians.

Ben Moha agrees with the criticism, taking special pride in the fact that the troops shown in the film do not serve in his brigade. "A Kfir unit would not have made such a mistake," he said. "All of the units are learning from that. This incident is being investigated."

"We've talked a great deal about restraint," said Col. Shay Ben Yishai, the commander of the Duchifat Battalion. "But that doesn't mean that people should start confusing us with U.N. peacekeepers. I teach my troops to be 'attack dogs' and to be ready for war."

"You need to educate your soldiers so that they realize they are in the midst of a complex reality and as a result should avoid errors," said Shkhuri. "Recently, people have placed themselves in danger, and so they are left with no choice but to respond with aggression. In the Kfir Brigade, there is an understanding of the situation and the soldiers operate wisely instead of placing themselves in life-threatening situations."

Despite the spike in incidents reported in Judea and Samaria, Kfir commanders boast of the fact that Israel's citizens barely hear about any of them.

"A few days ago I was speaking to a resident of Kfar Etzion," Ben Yishai said. "She asked me about what was happening in our area of responsibility, if there were any extraordinary incidents. I told her that there were many incidents, including shooting incidents and incidents involving explosive devices. She was absolutely floored. She didn't believe me. 'We don't even feel it,' she told me. To me, that's providing security for residents."

Col. Dotan Ruvaner, who commands the Shimshon Brigade, is stationed with his troops in the hottest potential flashpoint in all of Judea and Samaria — Hebron.

"A month ago, we had the incident where a Palestinian prisoner died in an Israeli jail," he said. "At the time this happened, we saw disorder erupt in a number of areas, and there was a large number of incidents aimed at the Jewish community in the city. Thousands of Palestinians also began hurling stones at my soldiers, and this was after Purim celebrations, when the soldiers were in clown suits and costumes."

"The Jewish residents of Hebron do not feel this mess," he said. "They are living their lives quietly, enjoying themselves, despite the fact that there's always a new 'reason to party' every week."

Writing history as we go along

The Kfir Brigade is the youngest division in the IDF. Since its founding in 2005, it has undergone a metamorphosis. What was once an outfit devoted solely to serving in Judea and Samaria is now a brigade that takes on the same missions as the other four established brigades. This is reflected in the budgetary allotments it receives, the training regimens it is assigned, and the missions it is given. Despite the change, it is hard to take the brigade out of Judea and Samaria, just as it is hard to take Judea and Samaria out of the brigade.

Throughout the interview, the brigade and battalion commanders took great pains to shake off the Judea and Samaria-centric image that has stuck with Kfir, which they insist is a "combat brigade in the full sense of the term," one which could be deployed seamlessly anywhere. They point to the fact that Kfir has been given a special task in the event of another war in Lebanon, a job for which it is preparing this very day as evidenced by its training and maneuvering on the Golan Heights.

"Whether we want it or not, we are the ones who concentrate all of the army's information as it relates to day-to-day security and combating terrorism, which includes disturbances, taking over a city, and everything in between," Ben Moha said. "Judea and Samaria is our home turf, it's our identity. We feel we belong there. But something's going on here. For almost two years now, maybe a bit more, the brigade has been doing everything. Our battalions will get on nicely wherever they are deployed. Recently, we've been introduced to new places, and these things have an impact on our identity."

Col. Shemesh is stationed with his troops in Gush Etzion. "Our feet are in this theater, but our minds are completely elsewhere," he said. "During the battalion exercises and afterward, we are preoccupied with training and simulating operative combat scenarios for war. North, south, center — we have missions everywhere. Even when we undertake missions during routine activity, we do more than what is required of us."

Col. Telem Hazan is the commander of the Netzah Yehuda Battalion, a unit belonging to the ultra-Orthodox Nahal Haredi outfit.

"At the end of the day, we are judged by results," he said. "The might that we demonstrate in Judea and Samaria is also manifest in other areas. Every commander in the field as well as division commander who has received one of our battalions for a mission wants us again. Today, the brigade has expanded its area of expertise to include missions of all kinds – disturbances, arrests, ambushes, and activities on the Syrian front."

The group of officers seated before me acts with determination to protect not only the residents of Judea and Samaria but also the good name and honor of this young brigade, particularly when I dare compare it to the Golani and Paratrooper Brigades.

"Today, our battalions are much more flexible and multi-faceted," said Col. Kfir Cohen, the commander of the brigade's main training base. "You could put them anywhere. They're strong, independent, and goal-oriented."

"Every brigade has its own area of expertise," said Shemesh. "Golani's specialty is armored vehicles. The paratroopers jump out of planes. Our area of expertise is complex territories and built-up areas. We know these areas intimately. It befits all theatres of war, Lebanon, Gaza, anywhere."

"You don't have to get worked up over the fact that we don't have any of the tales of glory that you hear about Golani, which conquered Mount Hermon," said Zukron. "The Kfir Brigade will be judged across a span of years by the quality of its commanders and the operational successes it scores. When we are given the order to set out for war, that is when our worth will be determined. I was at Mount Barekh [just north of Eilat], I was in the Arava, and now I'm in Qalqilyah. We reap the fruits of our work wherever we go."

"What makes us unique is our hunger," said Shkhuri. "Our motivation is tremendous. Hunger and motivation are evident in the work we do. Since our brigade is young, it is as if we are writing history as we go along."

It's all about the people

The struggle for Kfir's good name and reputation continues. Much of it stems from the desire and need for all of the battalions to receive the credit they deserve. From their standpoint, there is no elite battalion or regular battalion.

Some time ago, when the brigade commander received an email asking which of the seven Kfir battalions was most fit to spring into action if war breaks out in Lebanon, he refused to go along.

"I always reply with the same answer," Ben Moha said. "From my standpoint, everyone is the same. Every time I get an email like that, that's my response."

According to Ben Moha, the realization that Kfir is as effective a brigade as any other is manifest in the budget. One of incoming Land Forces Commander Maj. Gen. Guy Zur's first major moves was to provide substantial supplementary budgets to the brigade for training purposes.

"The last IDF unit that has a right to complain about lack of funds is Kfir," said Ben Moha. "If there's one thing that is particularly complimentary to us at a time when there is talk about a budget and a multi-year fiscal plan, it's the fact that the army has put us high on its list of priorities in its force-building plans."

"The army understood that we have significant potential," he said. "The army's seriousness fare has been paid in full. We do joint trainings and maneuvers with tanks and helicopters. Our trainings feature a lot of shooting. We are placed alongside every unit in the IDF, and that is a huge vote of confidence for us. A significant change is taking place here. We are seen everywhere, even in the IDF's continuing education courses."

According to Ben Moha and his battalion commanders, the budgets and equipment allotted to Kfir are not the most important barometer. The single most critical factor remains the quality of personnel. Brigade commanders puffed their chests with pride at the sight of a number of Kfir enlistees who graduated from this past year's class at the army's main college course. They were part of a graduating class that included a number of officers from special units and elite forces as well as patrol outfits belonging to other brigades.

"One of our most central goals is developing commanders," Ben Moha said. "The Kfir Brigade's secret weapon is the people who serve in it, its commanders. Throughout IDF history, no unit has won a war because of the type of tank it sported. The only secret that worked was the people."


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