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Colonel Tomer Ifrach.
The colonel's tunnel war
IDF Col. Tomer Ifrach has a long personal history with Hamas' attack tunnels: During Operation Protective Edge he led a patrol group which was attacked by a Hamas cell hiding in a tunnel; two of his soldiers were killed, and he had to keep fighting with a bullet wound in his back; in an interview, the colonel explains his view of the tunnel threat—now and in the future.
Colonel Tomer Ifrach, 43, was the commander of the IDF's 188th Tank Brigade when he and his soldiers encountered a Hamas ambush in the first few days of Operation Protective Edge in summer 2014.

 

 

A Hamas squad jumped out of a tunnel in a forested area near the Gaza-adjacent kibbutz Be'eri, opened fire, and killed two soldiers from the brigade—Lieutenant Colonel (res.) Amotz Greenberg, 45, and Sergeant Adar Bersano, 20. In addition, multiple members of Ifrach's patrol force were wounded, including himself.

 

Now, after having been appointed the Southern Command's operations officer, Ifrach is in charge of planning the IDF's next possible conflict against Hamas in Gaza.

 

Colonel Ifrach
Colonel Ifrach

  

The State Comptroller's report on the Israeli security establishment's preparedness for the tunnel threat is due to be published soon—and it is believed to be particularly harsh. Furthermore, an IDF review of its own response to the tunnel threat shows several problems.

 

"I can't comment on the report itself," Ifrach says, "but I can say that we're doing all we can to contend with the tunnel threat. We invest great effort, imagine the worst cast scenario, and prepare ourselves for that. There are new training facilities, new drills, advanced techniques, and many hours of training."

 

Fighting and deterrence  

"Two years and two months have passed since the last round of fighting against Hamas, and the current situation in the Gaza Strip is very complex," Ifrach says. "On the one hand, Hamas isn't interested in an escalation at the moment. On the other, it's investing all of its energy and the money of the strip's residents in preparing for the next conflict, while implementing the lessons learned in the last conflict—as the organization understands them."

 

Is the deterrence Israeli achieved in Protective Edge still effective?

 

"Yes, the deterrence is still holding strong. But deterrence is a difficult term, and I don't like using it. It doesn't change the fact that this is an enemy who is determined and committed to destroy us.

 

"There are many people with extremist views in the Gaza Strip, who oppose the very existence of the State of Israel. They wake up with this in the morning and go to bed with this at night, and express it everywhere they can, such as obtaining munitions or other means to harm us—they do it. We are mostly speaking of rockets, but it could also be anti-tank missiles or mortar shells. And there are, of course, the underground threats."

 

How would you explain the rockets that were fired on Israel from Gaza in the past few weeks?

 

"These were fired by rebellious factions, and Hamas has proven it is serious about keeping the peace, and has worked against them. On this front, Hamas is showing weakness in the face of the small organizations, which are in conflict with it and want to spark tensions."

 

Are there any estimates for what Hamas may be preparing for the next round of fighting?

 

"They'll want to surprise us and use the capabilities they are developing to the full extent—like we saw in the last conflict. In the context of terror attacks, they'll try and double or triple them, and try to use all of their abilities."

 

Col. Ifrah's jeep, damaged in the incident.
Col. Ifrah's jeep, damaged in the incident.

 

Are tunnels still the most significant threat?

 

"As far as Hamas is concerned, this is a very significant project. They're investing thousands of man hours into this. It's taking over a large portion of the Gaza Strip's economy, and pulling Gaza downward—literally. They've developed a high level of expertise in the field over the past 20 years. That takes almost every resource that has entered the strip from its residents: Wood, concrete, tools. It leads to high taxes on residents, who are already greatly suffering.

 

"Even so, we need to look at this in proportion: The tunnels are not a Hamas success story. I'm sure they planned for entirely different achievements.

 

"The working assumption and our estimates are that there are more tunnel entries in Israeli territory. We've been investing great resources to locate them, particularly over the past year. We are becoming smarter on the topic of tunnels every day, due to the friction. We manage to understand the idea, and identify the weakpoints and find solutions. That's the most I can say.

 

"A tunnel is not a doomsday weapon. This isn't a weapon without weaknesses. Anyone who has walked in a tunnel and attempted to be there, whether they suffer from claustrophobia or not, will find that it's difficult. There's a large space of vulnerable points on which we are working. With every day that passes, we will put forth more tools to handle the tunnels, until we make them into death traps. Even so, I don't think Hamas will despair of digging. As far as we are concerned, the purpose is to prevent them from succeeding."

 

The State of Israel is investing NIS 2.5 billion in what's called the "Barrier project," meant to block Hamas tunnels. It includes an underground wall that goes dozens of meters deep into the earth, a smart fence along the border, and advanced means of detection. When will this project be complete, and will it provide full protection against the tunnel threat?

 

"The Barrier will, first and foremost, protect essential assets along the border and later will be built around the entire strip. The project is meant to be a pretty decisive answer, and will change the situation when it comes to all types of threats, especially the tunnel threat. It will ensure security at a very high level. This is a complex system, which handles threats above and below ground, watches the enemy's possible actions, and responds as needed. However, I cannot say that the barrier we're building will provide 100 percent protection, because there is no 100 percent."

 

Work done on the IDF's tunnel obstacle.
Work done on the IDF's tunnel obstacle.

 

What is the state of the civilian population in Gaza these days?

 

"The situation there is very rough. Not all of the countries that committed themselves to donating have actually donated the promised funds. Egypt is protecting the Philadelphi Route tightly. The main change is actually on the Israeli side. The amount of aid we allow is ten times greater, but we don't see it expressed in the Gaza economy, because Hamas and its military wing are taking their tithewhich is much larger than a tithe—in favor of armament. The humanitarian situation can be a catalyst for escalation as well. The shootings we've noticed lately are a result of power and control struggles and a desire to improve positions. And it all comes from the inside."

 

Is the Hamas regime in Gaza still stable?

 

"It's not as homogeneous as people tend to think; they have internal power struggles. Some handle their internal conflicts by firing rockets at Israel. One of our signs that Hamas is not currently interested in an escalation is its restraint actions, such as its arrests for instance. It won't have people acting in opposition to its policy. It took a blow in Protective Edge, and the scars are still fresh. There are still a great many destroyed structures, and we assume Hamas is telling itself, 'We're still not ready, we haven't gathered our conclusions yet. We don’t want to be dragged in.' Even so, when we suspect a deviation from our viewpoint or identify a deviation—such as the rocket that exploded in Sderot after Rosh Hashanah—it's something that should be seen as a violation of the rules of the game. This can't be inside our frame of permissible actions. That's why we respond."

 

What's the chance we get surprised again?

 

"As a battalion commander, I went on a series of operations in the early 2000s in Rafah, whose purpose was to find tunnels on the Philadelphi Route. You could say: From 2000 to 2014, did we not know? Were we surprised? We knew, but it's different when you're walking inside the tunnel itself and see how they use it as a platform for raiding, and how fighters are supposed to come out of it.

 

"The greatest question asked each time a campaign is embarked upon is: Were you surprised? As if surprise means failure. Surprises are a part of war. The question is who recovers first. That's something we teach soldiers who serve along the Gaza border, and in the IDF in general. We can prepare them from morning to night for the possibility of a tunnel, but a vehicle could suddenly emerge above ground—as has happened before—and that would be a surprise. We are prepared for any eventuality, and at the same time are thinking of how to turn the tables. Of course there are surprises, and always will be. The question is how you respond."

 

Heavy fire from the west

Unlike some of the officers handling the Gaza threat in the Southern Command, Col. Ifrach has actually experienced that threat personally. It happened on July 19, 2014, at the beginning of the ground phase of Protective Edge. He was the commander of the 188th Tank Brigade, which experienced its first encounter with Hamas militants emerging from an attack tunnel.

 

In the six months before the operation, the brigade was training feverishly, preparing for scenarios on all fronts. Its battalions were spread out on routine missions in the West Bank and northern Israel. When the IDF realized that it was facing a campaign in Gaza, the old tank brigade sent its troops to the south.

 

"The war found me just slightly over a year after I became commander of the 188th Brigade. Six months before the operation we reached full readiness. On the eve of Protective Edge, we received revised orders and revised troop movements,"Col. Ifrach remembers.

 

"In the early morning hours of Saturday I received a telephone order from the division, saying my mission has changed. I was instructed to go on a mission on the outskirts of the refugee camps in the Dir al-Balah area to locate two attack tunnels and neutralize them. It was all based on intelligence. It was a new area so the first thing that was needed was to go out to patrol in the field with the brigade's senior commanders and find entry points and place backup and recon forces to create good offensive conditions. We went out in a patrol group. The brigade command center was at a gathering area. We had already been spread out and recruited for over two weeks.

 

"We decided to go out, the brigade's command group—myself, the deputy brigade commander, the substitute deputy brigade commander, and the brigade chief of staff. We went out at about 7:30am. We reached a nearby base to coordinate our entry into the area. On the way, we were joined by another military jeep. We went up to a vantage point in a forested area. Afterwards we changed the vantage point and decided to improve positions a bit, south of the kibbutz of Be'eri.

 

"We drove in the back line of the forested area, in order to not be exposed to anti-tank rocket fire. We aligned ourselves along the path, facing the fence—200 meters away from the fence. Suddenly I hear an explosion inside the first vehicle on the convoy, which I was driving. With me were the deputy brigade commander, the operations officer and another officer. It was a very strong explosion. It later turned out that an RPG was shot at us.

 

"In the first split second, I though it was a mortar that fell near us. That was the first instinct. We were pretty protected. But suddenly came a very heavy burst of automatic gunfire from 50 meters away. I immediately realized we were really in an ambush. I pushed the gas pedal right away, left the area of engagement, and drove to a distance of about 100 or 200 meters. But there was fire from all directions there as well. I stopped the car. I saw that all those in the car with me were wounded, but I didn't feel that I was as well because of the adrenaline. Later, it turned out I had taken a bullet in the back, which went in and out from the other side. I saw everyone was bleeding. I left the vehicle and ran to the engagement point, with one scenario going through my head: Kidnapping. That's what worried me.

 

A hamas attack tunnel. The IDF is working to "make them into death traps." (Photo: IDF Spokesperson) (Photo: IDF Spokesperson)
A hamas attack tunnel. The IDF is working to "make them into death traps." (Photo: IDF Spokesperson)

 

"The officers with me in the jeep were hit in the knees and in the head by shrapnel. They couldn't go out with me. I told them to secure themselves, because I was running to the rest of the guys. In those moments, you don't know how the skirmish will end. At that point I realized there was something else here. I left them there in the grove and ran to the battle point. Within two minutes we arrived, me and two other officers from the second jeep.

 

"Meanwhile, behind me, the deputy brigade commander, Adar, and Amotz were coming. Adar was driving and Amotz was behind him. They all thought we had all been killed by the first RPG hit. Suddenly, two more RPGs were fired toward us. Adar and Amotz were killed from these rockets and from the fire impact. It happened while I was planning my return there. And then a third RPG is fired.

 

"We gathered, me and three other officers, and started to return fire. We couldn't see the attackers, except for one. They were hiding in the grove. We fired and neutralized an attacker who tried to go near one jeep, apparently to kidnap a soldier or a body. I made sure the attacker who went near was neutralized.

 

"At this stage, I received information on the radio that said the two wounded who were with me in the vehicle can't be found. I didn't know exactly where the enemy was. I thought the worst had happened and they were kidnapped. I scanned the area for 15 minutes, which stretched on and felt like a long time. At this point the terrorists had disengaged and began retreating toward the tunnel. A few seconds later we found the officers. Then the medical forces arrived.

 

"At the same time, the trackers arrives and we started to follow the terrorists' movements. One of the soldiers suddenly told me, 'Your back is full of blood.' The doctor came to me and said, 'I'm evacuating you for treatment.' I told him there was no way I was evacuating. I thought to myself that if I went, the whole brigade would suffer. I wanted to return to action to show the soldiers that the brigade commander was functioning. Less than 24 hours later I led the brigade inward to continue the mission."

 

Back to the tunnel entries

Col. Ifrach would later find out that the terrorists exited the tunnel at about 5am, set up an ambush and waited. It was a well-planned ambush, for which they prepared with plenty of weapons. But the attempt to kidnap a soldier, alive or dead, failed. Except for one terrorist who was killed, the rest managed to escape through that same tunnel into Gaza territory and disappeared.

 

"That morning, right after the incident, my wife called me to wish me a happy anniversary. I was still in the engagement area. I wished her a happy anniversary. I didn't tell her what had happened. I told myself, 'What good would come of me telling her I was just saved?' She also knew the late Adar, who was my driver, well. Only a day and a half later did I tell her."

 

Despite the incident, Col. Ifrach led the brigade back into Gaza the next day to locate the two tunnels.

 

"The entrance to the strip went through the engagement area. It had a different meaning for me to come there with a tank brigade, with firepower. Some anti-tank missiles flew by. In a short time, we arrived where we needed to be inside the strip. I tried to think and get into the heads of those who dug the tunnels, put together the puzzle of intelligence information and in-field learning. It was a challenge. We had no previous point of reference that could help us learn where the tunnel entrances were.

 

"Eventually, with the help of intelligence data, we managed to fit the puzzle pieces together. We went in on Sunday, and within 48 hours we had an idea of where the entrance was. A week later we had an idea about the other tunnel's location too. During the patrols we found an entrance under an olive tree. There we found a kit that included sedatives, clothes, and other means of kidnapping a soldier. When we found the entrance, there was a feeling of closure. Yes, it was minor, but certainly a feeling of closure. At the end of the day, we found the two tunnel entrances. We went back into Israeli territory after more than ten days. Only when I came home did I tell my wife all I went through and of the difficult incident."

 

What lessons would you say can be learned from the incident?

 

"There was in fact a skirmish that came as a total surprise here. A very big force surprised us completely. On the other hand, it didn't manage to do what it planned. This was the first time terrorists came out of a tunnel in our territory without any warning."

 

Why didn't the soldiers drive armored vehicles?

 

"The jeeps were indeed unarmored. It's not certain that the results would have been different had we been using armored jeeps. We were moving around in our territory, in a forested and non-exposed area, inside Israel. This was a surprise. We had to respond, and we did it well."

  

Col. Ifrach back home, with his children.
Col. Ifrach back home, with his children.

 

Do you feel like you failed, in hindsight?

 

"Two of the soldiers who left on this mission with me did not come back. One of them was very close to me. It's difficult, the fact I couldn't bring them back home. It's a heavy price."

 

How do you explain this incident to the families of the fallen?

 

"The families asked hard and legitimate questions. We spoke more than once about these matters, in the most open manner. They asked and were answered. There's no talk of negligence. That wasn't on the table."

 

Following the incident, as procedure dictates, the IDF conducted an incident investigation. It determined that the forces acted properly.

 

Sagit Greenberg, widow of Amotz Greenberg, told Ynet's print publication Yedioth Ahronoth that "The incident report we received does not point to anything out of the ordinary as far as the brigade's command is concerned. We have no complaints in regards to the conduct of the military and the decision markers. In general, we as a family have decided to not deal with the question of whether the incident could have been prevented. That won't bring Amotz back to us. We have a good, friendly relationship with Col. Tomer Ifrach—and that will continue."

 

The 188th Brigade lost a total of seven soldiers during Protective Edge. Col. Ifrach says he keeps in touch with the soldiers' families.

 

"The families and I have an excellent connection, and that's for life. Commanders need to understand that when you receive the terrible privilege of leading people on a mission—it can come at a cost. The least us commanders can do is be with the bereaved families in their difficult moments."

 

 

 

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