A year after Operation Protective Edge, the Nahal infantry brigade's 931 battalion, which fought intensive, complex battles, in Gaza, is preparing itself for new challenges, and using some of its lessons combat with Hamas as a basis for new urban warfare training.
Lt.-Col Sharon Asman, Battalion Commander has headed the unit for two years, and is completing his term next month.
Following the Gaza conflict, the battalion moved to the Tzelim Ground Forces training base in the Negev, thereby keeping its training area close to the border regions Gaza, an area that was still on high alert in the months following Operation Protective Edge.
The battalion spent six months on border patrol missions in the southern Gaza sector, protecting Israeli communities in the region. In April, it moved to the Nevi Musa training base, south of Jericho, for further training.
"The more you train, the better instinct becomes," said Asman. "One of the things that disturbed me a lot before Operation Protective Edge is that we came from a lengthy operational period [and trained less]. Now we have the ability to train a lot, and this improves our readiness for war." Currently, a third of the battalion is made up of members who joined it after the Gaza conflict, and did not experience the intense Gazan battles. "Hence, training is so important," Asman said.
"The level of training is higher. Confidence is higher. Our training is combined. If in the past, an infantry brigade conquered a target separately from tanks, now, we do this together, in close proximity.
It amplifies all of our power," he added.
The fact that the battalion spent two years prior to the Gaza war training for combat in confined spaces enabled it to successfully meet its missions last summer, Asman said, paying tribute to the Nahal brigade's outgoing commander, Col. Uri Gurdin, and his predecessor, Brig.-Gen. Yehuda Fuchs, for enabling this training.
Still, "there are many things we did less well, and that we improved upon while in motion in combat. Like fighting in built up areas. When you're in the West Bank, you can go from house to house as fast as possible... in Gaza, Hamas studied us fairly well, and prepared many booby trapped homes. We can't run from house to house," Asman stated.
"We have adapted accordingly," he added, without going into details.
During the 2014 war, the battalion engaged Hamas cells in northern Gaza. Its missions were to locate and destroy tunnels, decrease rocket fire, and take on a local Hamas battalion.
The battalion lost four members who fell in battle: Oded Ben Sira, Eitan Barak, Avi Grintzvaig, who received a posthumous citation, and elite Yahalom unit member Gal Bason, who fought with the battalion.
"Avi Grintzvaig evacuated the wounded during one of the battles, under heavy fire. He went in to evacuate another wounded soldier and was killed. There is no better example of comradeship," said Asman. "Oded Ben Sira was supposed to complete his military service before the operation. He could have been a civilian, but we said we expected him to come and fight. He and his platoon came and fought," the battalion commander said.
Fourty five members of the battalion were injured in the fighting, including a large number of commanders. "We fought with armored, engineering, Yahalom, and K9 units. This was one of our sources of power. It allowed us almost full flexibility," Asman recalled.
The battalion is now holding platoon and company-wide drills at Nebi Musa base, before getting ready for battalion-wide and brigade-wide war drills. It will then head up north.
Asman acknowledged the unpredictable nature of events, saying, "We are also preparing for being suddenly activated. Last year, we were supposed to spend three months training in the Golan Heights, but found ourselves fighting in Gaza." Last week, the battalion split up into companies and walked along the Israel National Trail, from central Israel to Eilat.
"It strengthens the bond between the soldiers and among us, the commanders. It also strengthens our love of the land," Amsan said.
"Only if I march on foot do I learn about the land and its history. It amazes me every time that there are soldiers doing this for the first time in their lives," he said.