As darkness fell over the Gaza Strip on December 27, 2008, a group of about five men in faded IDF uniforms, wearing armored vests and helmets, walked up to its northern border fence and began sticking pegs and rods into the ground.
Hours earlier, several dozen air force fighter jets and helicopters had swooped down on the Strip and bombed more than 100 preplanned targets in a matter of minutes, marking the beginning of what was to be called Operation Cast Lead. Hamas responded immediately with increased rocket attacks on the Negev.
Despite the clear danger, the team deployed along the border and got to work. One of the men bent over and scooped up a handful of wet sand, the dirt crumbling it in his hand. Another took a sample and stored it in a special plastic container. The others took measurements with their instruments.
After about half an hour of probing the ground, the small squad of soldiers turned their backs on Gaza, entered their cars and headed straight to their office inside military headquarters in Tel Aviv. A major military operation had commenced, and they had important work to do.
This team of soldiers is one of a kind in the IDF and consists of a handful of geologists. While Military Intelligence is mostly known for its elite special forces, like the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, and superior intelligence-gathering capabilities, this secretive MI unit has the job of testing soil and terrain and ensuring that military vehicles can plow their way into enemy territory without a hitch.
Headed by the burly and bearded Maj. Yair, the unit is responsible for geological surveys ahead of basically all IDF ground operations involving vehicles, ranging from standard arrest operations in the West Bank to operations like Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip to a possible war with Syria on the Golan Heights.
After the air strike, Maj. Yair and his team of geologists were informed that a ground incursion into Gaza was a possibility. They wasted no time and were some of the first soldiers along the Gaza border. Without their expert input on trafficability – or in layman’s terms the ability of a vehicle to traverse the terrain – the ground operation may never have taken place.
“Trafficability has been an issue since World War II, when geologists were sent to the beaches of Normandy to test out the terrain before D-Day,” Maj. Yair, who has been serving in the unit since 1992, told The Jerusalem Post in a recent interview. “Our job is to test terrain where the IDF is not located and to ensure that one day – if we need to operate there – we will know how.”
THE PROBLEM with the Gaza Strip in December 2008 was that it was the middle of the winter, and the weather, which had already delayed the operation, was unpredictable. The sand in Gaza was already wet and there was a fear among tank commanders that their Merkavas would sink in place and serve as sitting ducks for Hamas anti-tank missiles.
After taking the samples and visiting the border several more times, and after a close analysis of satellite footage, Maj. Yair and his team were able to provide Southern Command’s Gaza Division with a number of routes the tanks could use to enter the Strip. Commanders who followed their recommendation rolled right over the sand. Others sank in place.
During the first week of the operation, which was just from the air, Maj. Yair was called in to a briefing with the General Staff and its chief, Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, in which he gave a short presentation on trafficability and recommended when would be the ideal time to begin the ground invasion.
“The problem with Gaza is the wetness,” he says. “I had to recommend where the places were [which were least vulnerable to water], and that could hold the weight of a tank.”
The importance of trafficability cannot be underestimated. Maj.-Gen. (res.) Rehavam Ze’evi, who was assassinated in 2001 by Palestinian terrorists, wrote about the problems armor encountered during the Sinai Campaign of 1956.
“The Ninth Brigade advancing from Eilat to Sharm e-Sheikh along paths never traversed by motorized vehicles almost literally carried the vehicles on its back,” he wrote in The Suez-Sinai Crisis – 1956. “The men pushed and pulled the vehicles stuck in the sand of the wadis more than they rode in them.”
For that reason, Maj. Yair and his team are out in the field weekly testing terrain in the Galilee and Negev with their equipment, which includes special drills and a pentrometer, used to measure the pressure in the soil.
The unit is part of Military Intelligence and not the Ground Forces Command, since its job is to essentially collect intelligence on the enemy – in this case not its fighters or weapons platforms, but its terrain.
During the year, the team takes different IDF vehicles, such as the
Merkava tank and the Namer armored personnel carrier, on test drives in
the different terrains throughout the country, each meant to imitate a
potential battlefield – the Golan for Syria, the Galilee for Lebanon
and the Negev for Gaza.
“The IDF prepares for war, and trafficability is an integral part of those preparations,” he says.
In a period when another operation against Hamas or another war with
Hizbullah is no longer being spoken about in just hypothetical terms,
the work done by Maj. Yair and his team is increasingly important.
Napoleon famously said that an army marches on its stomach. The IDF, however, moves according to its geologists.