IDF commander on Gaza riots: They're teens, no interest in harming them

13th Battalion Commander Lieutenant-Colonel Avi Marciano just concluded four months securing the Gaza border fence, and speaks of his insights and unusual experiences.

IDF troops in action near the Gaza Strip (photo credit: IDF)
IDF troops in action near the Gaza Strip
(photo credit: IDF)
After four months of securing the tense border of the Gaza Strip, the Golani Brigade was replaced by the Kfir Brigade. One of the experiences that Lt.-Col. Avi Marciano, commander of the 13th Battalion of the "Brown Brigade" will carry with him, is the additional challenge his battalion faced alongside its familiar operational activity: violations of the border fence on Friday afternoons, week after week.
Marciano and his fighters seized the northernmost border in the Gaza Strip, up to the border's meeting with the Mediterranean, in the area of Kibbutz Zikim. For Marciano - a 33-years-old father of three who lives in the village of Haro'e - it is closure to a personal story: 15 years ago, he enlisted in the 13th Battalion as a fighter, and about four months ago assumed the position of Battalion Commander. His first task was operational deployment in Gaza. In the early days of the operation, his battalion's fighters killed a Hamas operative, who was stationed on the border fence area. The IDF was quick to make it clear that this was a mistake and misunderstanding, and in fact it was an operational error of the force.
Commander Marciano says that for him, it was an event from which the battalion learned many lessons. "We sharpened our senses for understanding – who is who and what is what, when and how, while every area had its characteristics. This is the expertise and intimacy that a battalion creates in its operational sector, and we didn't do it well enough in the first week. But we learned from that."
I ask Marciano if it is not too complex for the fighters in the area to differentiate between a Hamas activist who is very close to the fence and a terrorist who comes to carry out an attack. "The point of decision is that of the commander in the field," he hastens to clarify. "If he feels under threat, then he knows the procedures for opening fire very well – and they are loud and clear. Even in the incident we had, we backed up whoever made the decision to shoot. However, it was a professional error, and we learned from it."
Further on with the operation, the battalion recorded at least two incidents in which they successfully prevented unauthorized entry into Israel and eliminated terrorists, so they ended this operation with a sense of success. I ask Marciano what he thought when he heard in the media allegations that soldiers were hesitant to shoot, for fear they would be exposed to legal proceedings.
The battalion commander completely dismisses this claim: "If I felt that my soldiers did not understand the  procedures for opening fire, I would contact my superiors, the brigade commander and the division commander. Thankfully, we are in an army where one can approach his commanders. We do not put our soldiers in a situation where the instructions are unclear to them. To the soldiers, we turn the business from a lot of 'gray' to 'black and white.' The gray can be my decision, and that's why there are commanders I talk to."
With a hand on his heart he adds that the soldiers do not feel shackled. "There is no such problem. In Golani, we act according to the situation. Sometimes a commander makes a mistake; it happens and we backed him up."
Marciano knows that operational activity at the Gaza Strip border, in terms of fighters, is the preferred choice. It's the kind of military activity that makes them face threats and challenges. The battalion likes to secure the Gaza border. But there is also the challenge of dealing with the turbulent riots on Fridays. "This is an issue of determination and values, which you have to come to prepared and matured," he explains. "This is mainly an issue of commanders who are on the field. You have to manage it and not let it manage you."
The soldier on the field, Marciano adds, receives clear instructions for action. "Here, too, we reduce the gray areas to 'black and white.' When there is a life-threatening event, of course, the threat is removed. The differences between different situations are very clear to the soldiers. We did not have any incidents where soldiers came to or near criminal prosecution, nor were they unnecessarily investigated. When we act properly, according to the guidelines and chains of approval required, there is no reason for such cases to occur."
And your snipers?
"We talk to them directly at the beginning of operational deployment, explaining the reality of the Gaza Strip. That is, in what situation they shoot and when they don't; what are the conditions for the shooting; and who is the commander who approves the shooting and the target. In that way, I estimate that we greatly reduce the margin of error. We also know the times, hours, numbers of protesters – we even know the number of buses that will arrive and when. Over time, you know how to characterize the people who are on the other side."
What do you consider an achievement?
"The achievements required from us are very clear: to prevent penetration into Israeli territory, to prevent damage to the fence, but also to minimize damages to the other side. At the end of the day, it is mainly teenagers and children, and we have no intention or interest to unnecessarily hurt them. We're not like that; We use all available means to reach the required achievements, of course [considering] the security of our forces."
Regarding the issue of exerting power on the border fence, Marciano has an analogy of his own: “Sometimes it’s like cooking – you don’t cook rice on high heat all the time. Sometimes you also have to lower the heat. We must be accurate, but we should not treat a breach of order like a terror attack – it's not the same. After all, those who are in front of you on the other side throwing stones are teenagers the age of my older daughter, and you have to act accordingly. They cannot receive the same treatment as six terrorists who come to commit an attack or place a bomb," he explained.
"Overall, in the four months we spent here in the sector, the events in Gaza did not reach our side. In the border fence area, since August, there have been no attempts to carry out attacks, and the IDF is completing the construction of a ground barrier."
Battalion Commander Marciano and his fighters are already at the beginning of the Golan Heights Drill they were waiting for. But at the end of our conversation, we both understand well that there is a good chance we will meet again in Gaza in the near future, after he has to move his battalion from the drill due to operational developments in the South.