How does Israel handle multi-front threats in 2023?

BORDER AFFAIRS: Egypt border incident probe results raise issues about Israel’s national security doctrine

 IDF AND rescue forces are seen close to the border with Egypt, on June 3, after three Israeli soldiers were killed there by an Egyptian policeman.  (photo credit: FLASH90)
IDF AND rescue forces are seen close to the border with Egypt, on June 3, after three Israeli soldiers were killed there by an Egyptian policeman.
(photo credit: FLASH90)

In a variety of “successful” major American wars, during the US Civil War, World War I and World War II, part of what won the day was using multifront attacks and attrition to wear down whoever the enemy forces were at the time.

Unfortunately for Israel in 2023, we are the ones who are stuck fighting or defending on many fronts, more frequently simultaneously.

With the IDF’s probe out this past Wednesday on how it must adjust its doctrine to avoid additional fiascoes on the Egyptian border (after three soldiers were killed by one terrorist on June 3), it is worth looking at how those issues will be affected by the broader adjustments the IDF is making to its national security doctrine on multiple fronts.

In analyzing these interdependent issues, one thing to note is that much of the IDF’s doctrine is built on at most a medium-term outlook mixed with short-term tactical considerations. The role of long-term strategy is very limited.

Eyes on the future of security on Israel's borders

The reasons for this are pretty simple: Israel has not decided how to deal with most of its long-term national security challenges.

It has not been decided because of a mix of internal crises related to debates over being for or against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his trial and his judicial overhaul. Also, the country has not resolved long-standing debates about how to handle the conflict with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Regardless of whether the prime minister has been Netanyahu or Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid, there has been no move to change policy with Hamas in Gaza. Rather, the policy has been to try to “manage” the conflict with some limited deterrence, while enduring rounds of fighting periodically, either after several months or a few years.

Similarly, with the West Bank, though the Bennett-Lapid government had better relations with the Palestinian Authority than Netanyahu does, there has been no movement to resolve the conflict in a long-term way. None of the recent governments succeeded at ending the ongoing waves of terrorism which date back to March 2022.

There have been some long-term suggestions of greater diplomatic moves and concessions, on one hand, versus harsher and broader military action for both the West Bank and Gaza, on the other hand. But, to date, no government has acted on these ideas; the approach has been to deal with medium- and short-term issues as they come up.

When Netanyahu returned to the premiership at the end of 2022 and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Herzi Halevi took over command of the IDF a couple weeks later in January, the main security challenges they were focused on were: trying to end the West Bank terrorism waves, Iran’s nuclear program, Hezbollah’s 150,000 rockets threat, Hamas’s multiple threats from Gaza, and the “war between the wars” campaign in Syria. No one even mentioned security on the Egyptian border as a first- or second-tier issue.

Anyway, why would they? There had been only four terrorist incidents on the border since 2011, with the most recent one back in 2016.

Sure, everyone complains that there is too much criminal smuggling on the border. But when the IDF could cite statistics of around 75 arrests and seizures of drugs, along with blocking over 500 smuggling attempts in 2022 and a general reduction of 75% of smuggling operations which succeed, comparing 2023 to 2019, most complimented the IDF on achieving some imperfect progress.

Until the June 3 fiasco.

What became clear from the probe was that the IDF was probably lucky that more soldiers were not killed and that its enemies had not known sooner how weak the border guard is in that area, if it would need to face serious terrorism, as opposed to low-grade criminal smugglers.

IDF troops were ready for criminal smugglers who follow a set pattern, who are unarmed or lightly armed, who have no real strategy and mostly are seeking to run from getting caught.

They were not ready for a well-planned attack by an enemy who analyzed the IDF’s weak points and whose goal was to come right at IDF forces, highly skilled and armed, and to kill as many IDF troops as possible.

The IDF has said it sealed the border gap and will change the soldier border guard positions from two soldiers per position to four, so that each post has a 360-degree surveillance capability.

But what about an enemy who uses camouflage, winds, other elements of nature, and who watches the IDF’s guards for moments of fatigue and boredom in order to attack?

What if, next time, instead of one attacker, there are five or a dozen?

It might seem as though the IDF’s fancy technology and lookout towers would be able to catch such a force and be able to issue warnings for reinforcements before an attack could be mounted. Yet, The Jerusalem Post was shown how difficult the terrain in the area is to be able to see individuals advancing on foot much before they get to the fence.

The Post has interviewed IDF drone and spy plane commanders who said that they can send a drone or aircraft to any border in a matter of minutes or possibly up to 30-40 minutes. But in the June 3 incident, the terrorist was not detected for around five hours of time he spent in Israeli territory. You cannot call in drones or spy planes when you do not even know you have been invaded.

Also, a top IDF official said that according to current procedures, there is no provision for strategic aircraft or drones to arrive at the Egyptian border in a short amount of time. The quickest the official said any strategic air support could arrive would be around two hours or more.

This means that the estimate of a mere few minutes to a maximum of 40 minutes to send drones or aircraft to any border really means: the Gaza border, the Lebanese border, the Syrian border and, possibly in the current wave of terrorism, the West Bank.

Moreover, all of the IDF’s existing ground-based surveillance was focused on the fence, such that once the terrorist was able to fool the lookout when he crossed through the fence, there was almost no surveillance to follow his progress behind IDF lines.

Hours of time were wasted searching in the completely wrong area, and if not for some luck with one very good lookout, the gap in detecting where he was hiding might have gone on for much longer.

Similar errors occurred in March when an agent of Hezbollah crossed into Israel over all of the IDF’s border fences and protections, including bypassing periodic patrols. He made it all the way down to Megiddo – which is closer to Tel Aviv than to the Lebanese border.

Without the intervention of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), it is not clear when he would have been caught.

At least one of the three soldiers killed on June 3 probably died because they were not wearing a helmet. In fact, multiple other soldiers engaging the terrorist also had no helmets, and it was lucky they were not killed.

Confronted with this issue, a top IDF official essentially shrugged his shoulders and said that discipline with today’s generation of adolescent recruits, and on this front, where there was not much-sustained gun-fighting, was hard to come by.

There is temporary attention right now to the Egyptian border, and there may be a surge for three to 12 months or so of attention. Those soldiers who were close to the incident will also probably take their jobs more seriously. But a patient enemy can simply wait until they see the IDF drawn down reinforcements and until they see soldiers worn down by boredom, especially when a new wave of soldiers comes in who were not around during the incident.

Strategically, the IDF not only wants to draw down on committing forces to the Egyptian border, it has since March 2022 been trying to withdraw its reinforcements from the West Bank.

The West Bank is the primary source of terrorist incidents these days. Even the day that the Egypt probe was announced, it was partially overshadowed by a shooting attack near Mevo Dotan. And yet the IDF hopes it can soon transfer forces from the West Bank back to the borders that matter: Lebanon, Gaza and Syria.

So the Egyptian border is secondary to the West Bank, which itself is secondary to Israel’s true threats.

How will OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Eliezer Toledano get his Egyptian border troops to take terrorist threats seriously when everyone knows how low-priority they are?

In the meantime, there is unlikely to be increased budgets to the Egyptian border. That is because the IDF wants to spend billions per year to be ready to strike Iran’s nuclear program, if necessary, as well as on rocket defense technology.

The rocket defense technology now seems like a never-ending story. Israel already has Iron Dome, David’s Sling, the Arrow (1, 2 and 3) a variety of similar defense systems for Israel’s sea-based assets. It is working on developing the Iron Beam laser system. As of Wednesday, we know it is and will be working with Rafael for years on developing an anti-hypersonic missile system.

At the same time, the IDF is under pressure from the government regarding other areas of its budget. The government has promised huge increased budgets for various pet projects of the coalition parties, including more funds to subsidize the haredi community’s culture of working less and paying little in taxes.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has not said where the IDF’s cuts will come from – every ministry will need to make cuts to make room for the new government expenditures – but it would not be surprising if Egyptian border security gets hit with some of the cuts.

The biggest strategic change would be if Israel and Egypt work together to reduce the motivation for drug smuggling.

It is far from clear that the governments have the budgets, will and judgment to help improve the lives of the (mostly Bedouin) Egyptian communities along the border areas sufficiently to reduce danger to the border in a broader way.

In the long-term, the best way Israel can be more secure on one border or another would be if it can reduce the level of threat it faces on one or more borders.

With Iran working harder than ever to inflame multiple borders against Israel at once, it seems this “best way” is farther away than ever.