‘Gaza buffer zone is no substitute for preventing buildup of terror armies’

Israel’s primary post-war goal in Gaza should focus on avoiding the type of thinking that allowed Hamas’s Oct. 7 assault to occur, says senior IDF strategist.

By Yaakov Lappin | | Topics: Gaza, Hamas
Israeli troops operating in the Gaza Strip, March 23, 2024. Credit: IDF.
Israeli troops operating in the Gaza Strip, March 23, 2024. Credit: IDF.

As reports continue to emerge about efforts by the Israel Defense Forces to set up a kilometer-wide buffer zone in Gaza to protect southern communities, a leading Israeli military strategist has told JNS that the broader goal of preventing the re-emergence of a terror army in the Strip should be a far more important, long-term Israeli objective.

Brig. Gen. (res.) Eran Ortal, former commander of the Dado Center for Multidisciplinary Military Thinking, an IDF military studies department, who is today a senior research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, noted the dominant thinking within military circles today about the need to establish such a zone, complete with multiple barriers.

He added, however, that this is merely the latest in a series of Israeli ventures to set up defensive structures, most of which were not successful.

“Why do we think that this time the obstacle will work? Each one of these past obstacles was state of the art in its time,” said Ortal.

“I am not against barriers, but the real question in my eyes is not whether a kilometer of a buffer zone will provide sufficient space to generate a warning before attacks occur,” he added.

Ortal said that for example, over time it will become increasingly difficult for Israel to enforce a “kill zone” within the buffer area, as terrorists will continuously test Israel’s responses by approaching the border, mingled among civilians or under the guise of civilian activities.

Instead, he argued, Israeli long-term strategic efforts in Gaza should be focused on the primary goal of preventing the re-emergence of a terror army anywhere in the Strip, which would mean that a buffer zone would not even be necessarily required to protect the south.

In a paper to be published soon by BESA, Ortal writes that developing a sustainable defense strategy should be based on competitive thinking, meaning not only providing solutions to enemy threats, but enabling Israel to proceed with military efforts over a long term, and to “deal with the fact that the enemy responds.”

Automatic responses to failures, which occurred both after the 1973 Yom Kippur War (such as enlarging the military to an unsustainable size), and currently, by creating new and improved border obstacles and by (once again) enlarging the IDF, could turn out to be little more than “technical lessons,” Ortal cautioned.

A deeper strategic mistake, he argues, has been the repeated pattern of allowing terror armies in Lebanon and Gaza to gradually build up large arsenals of ballistic projectiles and anti-tank missiles, and accepting a reality in which Israeli decision makers became deterred by the paralysis these arsenals could cause to the Israeli home front. Ultimately, this pattern that generated a vicious cycle of further enemy force build-up and Israeli passivity, Ortal argued.

As such, Ortal said, continuous offensive raids into Gaza by the IDF, combined with forward offensive systems that automatically strike anti-tank missile cells and rocket launchers immediately after these attack Israel, would go a long way towards a sustainable approach.

To enable this, he said, Israel should consider setting up on the border with Gaza a forward detection and strike system that automatically locates the source of anti-tank and other rocket fire, and returns fire within seconds.

This, he said, would pose an intolerable risk to enemy missile cells, a fact that could be highly relevant in the coming months due to the possibility that many anti-tank missiles and launchers might still be accessible to terrorists in Gaza.

Setting up such a forward automatic-strike layer would be far more effective than a buffer zone, Ortal argued, since even basic anti-tank missiles with a five-kilometer range could threaten southern communities from deeper in Gaza, behind the buffer zone.

“On the defense perspective we failed twice,” Ortal wrote in a previous paper that examined fundamental errors leading up to Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion.

“First, we allowed the  Hamas and Hezbollah terror entities to build full-size military systems on our doorstep, in populated terrain that deprives us of even minimal early warning. Secondly, facing that situation, we did not fully deploy for defense. Rather, we kept our deployment on a ‘routine security’ protocol, the IDF’s version of a system of border security.”

During periods of calm, he said, Israel refrained from any significant preventive activity and allowed the enemy to entrench itself right next to Israel’s borders.

The result: “We lost the early warning buffer and did not reevaluate our  defensive deployment.”

In addition to ongoing cross-border raids by the IDF in Gaza to prevent terrorists from regrouping, ensuring proper operational readiness on the part of IDF border units and the setting up of a militia-based, well-armed civilian response teams in southern communities, Ortal outlined a solution he has been advocating for several years.

This approach involves the building of mobile intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems (unlike the fixed IDF border sensors taken out by Hamas on Oct. 7) and an automatic return-fire system, operating constantly on the border, together with units that can independently activate aircraft, unmanned aerial systems and other capabilities.

Rapidly locating and automatically striking sources of enemy fire  should be a key aspect of this future array, he said. “The IDF once had excellent counter-battery fire [the ability to hit the enemy’s firepower sources] capabilities, but they are now outdated. A much faster and more precise capability must be developed that can destroy launchers before they are withdrawn behind cover,” he said.