Friday, May 29, 2015

If a commander is hurt, another commander takes his place and says, 'Here I am.'

...Just before leaving, he bids farewell to the soldiers of the Nahal brigade, whom he has gotten to know well over this last year. "People ask me sometimes, 'How were the boys?' They are not boys. They are fighters who know exactly where they are going and they go there with an enormous sense of duty. The word 'boys' is an affront to them. They usually don't see home for three weeks at a time, so they can't hide under their mothers' apron strings. They are not spoiled. This is a group of serious men."

Lilach Shoval..
Israel Hayom..
29 May '15..

Now completing his term as the commander of the Nahal infantry brigade, Col. Uri Gordin has a lot of criticism to share. Gordin, 45, is one of the most respected commanders in the Israel Defense Forces today. He will soon be promoted to the rank of brigadier general and take command over the 98th Paratroopers Division, also known as the Fire Formation, part of the Central Regional Command.

Gordin spent most of his military career in the elite Sayeret Matkal reconnaissance unit, first as a fighter, then as a platoon commander, then as a company commander, and then commander of the entire unit between 2007 and 2010. The unit flourished under his command, and that period is considered especially favorable in the unit's history. As a sign of appreciation, the chief of staff decided to promote him to the rank of colonel while he was still the unit's commander. At the end of his term, the unit received a group citation, which Gordin attributes to his team rather than his leadership.

Upon leaving Sayeret Matkal, Gordin was appointed commander of the 55th Paratroopers Reserves Brigade. Three years later, he was appointed the commander of the Nahal brigade. Next week, he will hand the Nahal brigade over to Col. Amos Hacohen.

Q: A one-year term as the commander of the Nahal brigade is considered short even in IDF terms.

"Appointments in the IDF are usually short-term. Two years is also short. In the business world, a two-year position is considered short-term, but in the military, every position is a sprint. Overall I spent four years as a brigade commander and that's perfectly fine. It would have been preferable to serve two years in the Nahal brigade, but things don't always work out. One of the most important things is to choose a course that suits the person. I think that a 45-year-old brigade commander has certain advantages, but it also has its drawbacks. When I was younger, I ran faster and I was stronger. On the other hand, today I have more experience and I'm a little calmer. You have to strike a balance between maturity and aging. I don't feel old, but it is definitely something that requires attention."

Gordin may be wrapping up only one year as the commander of the Nahal brigade, but it seems that in that one year he managed to get more done than most of his predecessors. Only three weeks after taking the position, while vacationing in Ashkelon with the other Nahal commanders, his unit was dispatched to Judea and Samaria to help search for the three teenagers who had been kidnapped while hitchhiking home from school.

"The only positive thing about being called back urgently was the fact that the entire command was called up, so I got to meet all the reserves soldiers that you don't usually get to meet in the brigades," he says.

Q: Did you think that you would soon be commanding an operation in Gaza?

"It was clear that things were heating up on that front. I think that you should always live as though it could happen. In retrospect, when I look at my notes, I can see that in my earliest briefings I told the commanders that we were to operate under the assumption that there would be war tomorrow."

Bombs in the children's nursery

Only 10 days before entering Gaza, the Nahal brigade was ordered to root out the terror tunnels dug by Hamas from Gaza into Israel.

"We realized that we had several possible courses of action, but that there was no existing, complete protocol on how to do it. So we conferred with Military Intelligence and tried to solve the problem.

"On June 30 we got the order, and on July 8 we were already operational. None of the methods that we used in Operation Protective Edge had been developed at that time. We harnessed technology and tools of detection and demolition from other realms. The thing that you learn in the brigade is that there are very few problems that don't have solutions. You simply have to find the right one. And then you realize that there isn't just one right one. The Nahal brigade destroyed four tunnels, and we didn't destroy all the tunnels in the same way."

Q: Everyone knew that there were tunnels around Gaza. Do you think the fact that they weren't destroyed sooner is evidence of a blunder?

"When something great is invented, or when you have a good idea, the question is always how you didn't think of it sooner. When I have a good idea I always think I failed because I didn't think of it sooner. However, this was still a great success. Seventeen days before we went in [to Gaza] we came to the understanding that the operational plan needs to be changed to confront this threat, which was not just a concrete threat but also a systemic one. The commander of the Gaza Division and the GOC Southern Command made the right call. Could we have thought of it sooner? Maybe."

Q: Is the age of short wars over?

"I didn't fight the full 50 days in Gaza. We were inside for about 18 days. We worked under the assumption that if everything goes right, it would take us at least three days to deal with each tunnel, and we didn't find all the tunnels right off the bat. We managed to destroy the first tunnel we found, which led into [the Israeli community of] Netiv Haasara, in less than three days, so that was a great success. Another tunnel that we found relatively quickly, we were only able to destroy after two and a half weeks. We got all the time that we asked for, more or less.

Q: Were you surprised by Hamas' military capabilities?

"We weren't surprised by anything. We knew that there would be underground warfare and we knew there would be explosive devices. On the other hand, it is always surprising to see booby-trapped homes with your own eyes. It wasn't just a bomb in the yard, there were bombs in a child's nursery. They worked in a fashion that suits their methods -- from the midst of the civilian population. They used the population as much as possible: They fired from people's homes, used homes as lookout points, and hid among civilians after carrying out an operation.

"Their special forces -- the Nukhba unit -- has some good fighters. We had terrible battles with them. But at the same time, there wasn't a single line that I drew on a map that I wasn't able to complete in practice. If they had a defense plan, they didn't bring it to fruition. There were casualties, but they weren't able to stop us. We are a far stronger army.

"In the Nahal brigade, if a commander is hurt, another commander takes his place and says, 'Here I am.' Every wounded commander who was able to return to the battleground returned. The Hamas brigades we faced, which weren't really brigades, did not behave that way. Two-thirds of the commanders of the Beit Hanoun brigade fled, some were wounded or killed, and they left their forces behind to fight with any command. It is not just that we have more fighter jets, more tanks and more missiles. We also have better people."

'Israel will never get legitimacy'

The outgoing Nahal brigade commander stresses that despite the situation, his soldiers maintained their values and made every effort not to harm any uninvolved bystanders during the fighting. Other commanders share Gordin's feelings about the matter, and feel insulted that Military Advocate General Maj. Gen. Danny Efroni has decided to launch an internal investigation into Isralei soldiers' actions during Operation Protective Edge.

It seems that the longer the list of soldiers and officers summoned to the military police offices for testimony or interrogation, the more heated the debate on the issue becomes, and with it comes harsh criticism.

"I feel that our fighting style was based on values and we were far more careful with the Palestinian population than the Palestinians themselves. They pulled us into residential areas, it was an enormous challenge for us. You can't judge incidents that occur during fighting by the same standards you apply to routine operations. When fighting occurs in a residential area because that is where rockets are being launched into Netiv Haasara, Nir Am and Sderot, then yes, the civilian population is in grave danger and it is imperative to respond. I feel that I received the full support of my superiors, and I try to give full support to my soldiers."

Q: Do you think that there is no room for an internal military police investigation after a war?

"A large part of the incidents should be investigated. For example, the mortar fire in the 931 battalion and the strike on a school. The Palestinians claim that civilians were hit. An investigation was launched. I think that you can't judge an event where a battalion is being fired upon and they return fire with the same tools you would use to judge a training exercise. One of my reservists was interrogated under warning and he felt very insulted.

"Think of a soldier who spent 18 days in Beit Hanoun, was subjected to a lot of fire, and fired back. Suddenly he gets called in for questioning by military police for firing back. It is very unpleasant. I don't always know how to explain it to them. Anyone who thinks it is possible to fight while walking on eggshells is simply wrong.

"I'll say it bluntly: Not everything is justiciable. Things should be handled with investigations, not trials. They didn't have these things in the 1967, 1973 or 1982 wars, and I don't miss those times. The 55th Paratroopers Reserves Brigade, which I commanded, once fought in the Suez Canal and caused no less damage than we did in Gaza, but there was no International Criminal Court then. We operate on commands and on our common sense, and we will continue to place the mission at the top of our priority list and protect the citizens of the State of Israel."

Q: Is there a chance that a commander would decide not to complete a mission because he could face trial afterward?

"The only thing guiding me is the consideration at hand. I have no interest in blowing up civilian populations. The fact that the other side tries to drag us there doesn't mean that we have to cooperate. When you command over thousands of soldiers, you put them first. You deal with the other stuff later. People who are in favor of investigations think that they are our way of maintaining legitimacy, and perhaps keeping the investigation inside the military rather than allowing it to spill over into international institutions. I get what they are saying, but I don't think Israel will ever get legitimacy."

'Not a battle, a war'

Even though the IDF spent 50 days fighting in Gaza just last summer, the defense establishment is convinced that it will not be long before the IDF finds itself back in Gaza. IDF officials stress that Hamas has no interest in escalating into a war with Israel at this time, but it is important to keep in mind that one of the reasons for the most recent campaign was the suffering of the Gazan population.

Since the conclusion of the operation, not only has their suffering not improved, it has gotten worse. Therefore, the IDF is not ruling out the possibility that their feeling of desperation will lead Hamas into another confrontation with Israel.

"Since 1948, and some will say since 1929 or even since 3,000 years ago, we have been living this conflict and trying to create a normal state. We are in constant existential struggle to exercise our right to live in the State of Israel. It is a right that is constantly being questioned. I hope that the end of these days will come and my children will not have to enlist in the military, but I understand that this is the reality right now. Does it make me bitter? Yes. I have expressed my criticism toward my commanders already and I don't intend to repeat it. When people want to evoke a glorious victory they talk about the 1967 Six-Day War, but you can't talk about the Six-Day War without mentioning the War of Attrition that broke out not too long afterward."

Incidentally, Gordin says that Operation Protective Edge was an all-out war.

"I don't downgrade. They fired at our fighters in Gaza and the fighters fired back. They were in the battlefield for two weeks straight. That is not an operation. That is pressure. I think it is undoubtedly a war, no question about it. You could say it was a limited war, but certainly a war."

Just before leaving, he bids farewell to the soldiers of the Nahal brigade, whom he has gotten to know well over this last year.

"People ask me sometimes, 'How were the boys?' They are not boys. They are fighters who know exactly where they are going and they go there with an enormous sense of duty. The word 'boys' is an affront to them. They usually don't see home for three weeks at a time, so they can't hide under their mothers' apron strings. They are not spoiled. This is a group of serious men."


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