A group of gazelles runs alongside the jeep as it hops over another mound of dirt
in the northern Golan Heights. Suddenly, the Toyota Land Cruiser comes to a halt
as a massive Merkava Mk 2 battle tank takes the place of the gazelles, raises
its cannon and lets loose a thunder of shells at a target somewhere off in the
A few seconds later, two Cobra attack helicopters emerge from a
cloud and begin spraying the ground with gunfire to provide cover for the
maneuvering tanks, as well as a battalion of paratroopers stationed a few
kilometers to the north. Artillery shells pound the earth just a few hundred
meters away as the tanks line up along a small ravine ready to plow forward into
the mock battlefield.
“You have the order to fire,” the brigade commander
says into the radio. A minute later, an old Syrian Soviet-made tank – left over
from the Yom Kippur War – is attacked from multiple tanks and
Like most months on the Golan Heights, September has also
been marked by increased training. Last week, the 7th Armored Brigade carried
out an exercise during which it trained for future conflicts – from all-out
conventional war with Syria to small counter-terror operations in the Gaza
There to watch the exercise was OC Ground Forces Command
Maj.-Gen. Sami Turjeman, who between the tank fire and artillery shelling
gave an exclusive interview to The Jerusalem Post, his first to the Israeli
press since taking up his post last September.
A veteran tank commander,
Turjeman watches with pride as the Merkavas ride past us, swirling up a cloud of
thick dust. “This is power,” he says.
A quiet and serious officer,
Turjeman is a strange bird in today’s highly politicized IDF, marred by the
recent scandal surrounding the appointment of the next chief of General Staff.
He remains mostly out of the spotlight and prefers to spend his time out in the
field with the troops. When scheduling this interview, the IDF Spokesman’s
Office said that Turjeman specifically asked to hold the meeting on the
sidelines of a military exercise on the Golan. Only this way, it explained, will
you be able to understand what the general will speak about.
Turjeman is the youngest member of the General Staff. He is also the only
general born outside the country, in Marrakech, Morocco, which he left at the
age of six months. He enlisted into the Armored Corps in 1982 and slowly climbed
the ranks, serving as a battalion commander, a brigade commander and finally in
2004 as commander of the Armored Corps.
In 2007, Turjeman was appointed
commander of Division 36, responsible for the Golan Heights, a job he served in
until last September when he was promoted to major-general and put in charge of
the IDF’s largest resource – its ground forces.
IT IS TURJEMAN’S JOB to
ensure that the military is prepared for future conflicts and that the mistakes
of the Second Lebanon War are not repeated.
The exercise we are at is
proof of the change. Before the war four years ago, a brigade-level exercise was
Today, each brigade holds one at least once a
“This is the same army with the same people,” Turjeman says when
asked about the change. “The difference is that we are more focused today and
understand what our mission is and what is expected from us.”
down to talk in the shade under an old olive tree, Turjeman lowers his Tavor
rifle and explains the primary challenges the IDF is facing.
tactical level we will see an attempt to wear us down with urban warfare, which
is a characteristic of all the fronts we face today, with missile attacks of
various ranges and sizes on the home front as well as a close battle between
ground forces,” he says.
On a more strategic level, he is preparing the
IDF for war on multiple fronts and for the possibility that a future conflict
with Hizbullah in Lebanon will also lead to a war with Syria.
of evil and the connection between the players is tight and demonstrated by
their practical daily cooperation and the strategic understandings they have
reached between one another,” he explains.
Turjeman took over the Ground
Forces Command about six months after Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip,
following which the IDF came under unprecedented criticism for the way it
operated, culminating in the Goldstone report in which it was accused of war
crimes and crimes against humanity.
One of his first decisions was to
write for the first time an operational doctrine which sets the rules of
engagement for forces operating inside a civilian- populated area. One order in
the doctrine is for IDF commanders to make every effort to evacuate civilians
from an area where combat is expected.
In addition, commanders are told
to select empty structures when entering an urban or heavily populated area and
fire a number of shells to scare away the civilians who remain in the area. The
new order also sets guidelines regarding which type of weaponry to use during
operations inside urban centers.
Turjeman recently held a seminar to
teach officers about the new doctrine but ultimately, he says, the Goldstone
Report is not just about Israel but a threat to every democratic nation which
seeks to defend itself.
“America and European nations have the same
problems when fighting against terrorists in a population center,” he says. “It
is true that we need to match the force we will use to the challenge we will
face, but the IDF has always operated in a moral way – before Cast Lead, during
Cast Lead and after Cast Lead.”
Looking around at the impressive military
platforms participating in the exercise, it is clear that the IDF has come a
long way since the Second Lebanon War and Cast Lead.
Today, tanks are
fitted with the new digital army program called Tzayad – Hebrew for “hunter” –
which enables all platforms on a battlefield to see one another on a digital map
as well as targets that each one has punched in to the system.
also recently received new shells – called Kalanit – which enable precision
strikes against anti-tank cells that could not be targeted by normal tank
shells. The Artillery Corps is looking into the possibility of purchasing new
advanced accurate rockets, and the infantry battalions have started using
unmanned aerial vehicles, with plans to equip each brigade with a larger UAV as
Tanks are also in the process of being equipped with active
protection systems against anti-tank missiles and the IDF is scheduled to
shortly choose an American company to manufacture the Namer, said to be the most
protected armored personnel carrier in the world with the highest level of
“Nothing is the same, from the boots the soldiers walk in
to the helmets they wear on their heads and the weapons and missiles they
carry,” he says.
“Ground forces are more lethal and independent today.
When you can maneuver with better protection and have better intelligence, you
can direct your forces in the right direction to the right mission.”
addition to upgrading the equipment and developing new technology, the Ground
Forces Command under Turjeman has also put an emphasis on educating commanders
to be what he calls “military professionals.” To maintain this standard,
Turjeman has instituted quarterly tests for officers from brigadier-generals who
serve as division commanders to lieutenants who serve as squad commanders. He
then receives a list with the names, ranks, positions and grades of the officers
who take the tests.
“Serving in the military is a profession, and
officers need to be educated,” Turjeman says. “These tests provide us with an
indication of where the gaps are in a commander’s knowledge. If, for example, a
bunch of junior officers fail a test in urban warfare, then their commander will
know that he needs to hold a seminar for them in urban
TURJEMAN’S OVERALL prognosis foresees the possibility of war on
a number of fronts. He says that a conflict in Lebanon could easily develop into
a simultaneous conflict with Syria as well as in the Gaza Strip. For this
reason, when the 7th Brigade holds its exercises, it does so on the Golan on
terrain that matches what it could face in Syria or Lebanon.
The war will
have conventional and non-conventional characteristics, he says.
with Syria could involve tanks and artillery, but would also involve commandos
riding motorcycles and firing anti-tank missiles. As shown by the recent
explosion of an arms cache in a home in southern Lebanon, Hizbullah has deployed
its rockets inside civilian structures, meaning that soldiers will have to go
door-to-door to stop the expected attack on the home front.
“We need to
have the basic skills from which we can derive the capabilities we will require
in a war against Hizbullah, Syria or whoever it might be,” he explains. “There
are techniques that a soldier needs to know no matter whom he is fighting