By Ronen Bergman and Yoav Zitun
Published by Yedioth Ahronoth’s weekend supplement 7 Days, 12 Jan 2024.
Translation by Dena Shunra for The Electronic Intifada, based on the print edition.
On the morning of 7 Oct some of the most impressive tales of heroism and self-sacrifice in the history of Israel were written, but so too was a long series of failures, mishaps and chaos in the army. This 7 Days investigation sketches the first hours of the Black Sabbath and reveals that: the command bunker underneath the Kirya [in Tel Aviv] were blindsided and had to obtain their updates from the Hamas Telegram channels. The Southern Command published antiquated and irrelevant orders. The IDF decided to apply a directive similar to the Hannibal Directive, in the course of which they also shot at vehicles that may have been carrying captives. Commando fighters went out into the field without sights on their weapons and without bullet-proof vests. And that’s only the beginning. The IDF Spokesman has commented: “The IDF will conduct a detailed in-depth investigation.”
On the night of 7 Oct, while Hamas was already doing last minute preparations for the attack planned for the morning, senior figures in the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) and the IDF were having conference calls. The main reason for these calls was that a short time after midnight the Israeli intelligence community started picking up some significant indications. These indications came after some earlier indications that had started blinking in the days and weeks beforehand.
The problem with these indications was that none of them constituted a clear alert for war: they might mean battle footing, but they also might mean training that simulates battle footing. Some of these signals had already been received in the past, and had indeed led to training manoeuvres.
But the accumulation of all of these evoked a certain degree of concern in the high echelons of the security apparatus, and the heads of the military and the Shin Bet called each other for consultation. The head of the Shin Bet, Ronen Bar, came to its headquarters in person, and the Commander of the Southern Command abandoned a weekend getaway and started driving south. At around three or four in the morning, Bar instructed the Tequila Squad, a special intervention force of the Shin Bet and the Yamam counter terror unit, to head south. This was a highly exceptional step, meant for a scenario of an infiltration by several individual squads of terrorists via one or two breakthrough points for the purpose of murdering or capturing citizens and soldiers.
But despite the concerns, a senior intelligence figure determined at 3:10 am on that Saturday that “we still believe that Sinwar is not pivoting towards an escalation,”: in other words, this is apparently another Hamas training exercise.
These signals also caused concern to the commander of the Gaza Division, the military unit in charge of protecting the frontline at the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, Brigadier General Avi Rosenfeld, who was the division’s commander on duty that weekend. He decided to alert his senior commanders, including the commanders of the two regional brigades – northern and southern – and the division’s intelligence office, its military engineering officer, and others. When they arrived at their command centrer at the Re’im base, they started taking some steps to heighten the level of alertness on the border.
According to some of the senior figures in the Southern Command, the division commander and his officers were planning to take additional steps to increase alertness in the division’s bases and outposts along the border and near the settlements that they were supposed to protect, but because of the information that had initially evoked the concerns, they were asked by figures at IDF command headquarters not to take “noisy” steps. On the other hand, other figures in the security apparatus say the division command could have taken many steps that they did not that would not have been registered on the other side.
Deep underneath the Kirya building in Tel-Aviv, in a place that is officially called Mizpeh (IDF Supreme Command Position) but which everyone just calls “The Pit,” first updates about the indications were received. Consequently, the head of the Southern Arena in the Operations Department was urgently summoned to the Pit, in order for a senior officer to be present with the authority to give significant orders. Around 4:00 am, this officer instructed the Air Force to get one more “Zik” [Elbit Hermes 450] unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) into a state of readiness. But this was an unarmed Zik, solely for reconnaissance purposes, and this step also indicated concern only about localised intrusion.
But the concerning signals kept piling up, and eventually, a few minutes before 6:30 am, a decision was made in a conversation between the Shin Bet and the IDF to call the encrypted phone of the Prime Minister’s military secretary, Major General Avi Gil, to inform him about developments and propose that the Prime Minister be woken up. Gil told the senior intelligence officer who had contacted him that he would call Netanyahu immediately, but while they were still talking, alarm sirens started to be heard around Israel. The clock at the Pit showed 6:26 am. Gil and the senior intelligence officer immediately realised that given the hour and the extent of the attack, this was an event of a different order of magnitude, different and more aggressive, since Hamas knew that shooting thousands of missiles and rockets would lead to an Israeli response. None of them knew just how different and aggressive this would be.
Prime Minister Netanyahu was informed of the events while the sirens were sounding, and it was decided that he would come to the Kirya immediately. At the Pit, the following and most critical hours were very confused, shrouded in fog of war and lack of information. “An overview of the situation is the most important element for a war room like the Pit,” said a senior figure, who has spent years with products coming from the IDF command bunker.
“The Pit itself was functioning and gave an almost immediate order to many forces to head out, but when you don’t know exactly where to send them or with what equipment and who and where and how large the enemy is that they will meet at the other side, you are doomed to pay dearly for your blindness.”
And indeed, no one in the Pit actually knew much at all. So there was an almost total shock in the Pit when a senior officer said a few words, the likes of which had not been heard since the “Yom Kippur” [October] War [of 1973]: “The Gaza Division was overpowered.”
Silence fell in the room that was filled with technology and giant blinking screens. “These words still give me the chills,” said a person who heard them then and there. “It is unimaginable. It’s like the Old City of Jerusalem in the War of Independence or the outposts along the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War. We thought that this could never happen again, and this will remain a scar burnt into our flesh forever.”
In those hours, in the burning security rooms of Nir Oz and Be’eri and in the outdoor shelters at the Re’im party, in the locked homes in Sderot and Ofakim, on blood-stained road 232, and in fact, throughout the country, one questioned echoed everywhere: where is the IDF?
And this is the question at the heart of this investigation: where was the Israel Defence Force in the first hours of the morning of 7 Oct?
Over the past months we have spoken to dozens of officers and commanders, some of whom hold very senior positions in the IDF. We tried to use their stories and internal security documents to sketch out what really happened in the first hours of that morning, to draw a timeline of the hours that changed the country forever.
We will say it straight away: On this Black Sabbath there was a lot of initiative, a lot of courage, a lot of self-sacrifice. Civilians, soldiers and officers, police and Shin Bet personnel leaped into battle arenas at their own initiative; they acquired weapons, received partial information, engaged in complex warfare and sometimes gave their lives. They wrote some of the most beautiful and heroic chapters in the history of Israel. But our investigation exposes the fact that along with these, in those same hours, some of the hardest, most embarrassing and infuriating chapters in the history of the army were also written.
This includes a command chain that failed almost entirely and was entirely blindsided; orders to open fire on terrorist vehicles speeding towards Gaza even as there was a concern that they contained captives – some sort of renewed version of the Hannibal Directive; fighters who – due to lack of communications – had to direct aerial support using their cell phones; war reserve stores that sent fighters into battle with weapons that lacked gunsights and without bullet-proof vests; outdated and inappropriate orders that were copy-pasted and sent out to the battlefield; warplanes roaming the air in the critical moments of the attack without guidance; officers coming to the conclusion that there was no alternative to acquiring helicopters in a roundabout way in order to move their forces from place to place; and even unmanned aircraft operators who had to join the kibbutz WhatsApp groups in order to let besieged civilians help them to build a list of targets. And everything was so crazy, chaotic, improvised, and haphazard that you have to read it to believe that this is what actually happened. And no, we don’t have to wait for an official commission of inquiry that will surely be established and will surely deal with everything that we have laid out here: some things need to be corrected here and now.
This is what it looked like, hour by hour, on that terrible morning, Saturday, 7 Oct, 2023.
Massive shooting of missiles and rockets. The Hamas attack begins.
Other than Iron Dome, which was put into action immediately, the first military response by the IDF was to mobilise a pair of F-16I (Sufa) planes from combat squadron 107 at the Hatzerim air base, which was on interception alert that Saturday. Quite a few complaints were heard about the sparse and confused Air Force response in the morning of Black Sabbath. Some complaints are appropriate: the 7 Days investigation finds that even the force that is considered the most orderly and best organised in the IDF had a very hard time understanding the magnitude of the event, and the response given, at least in the first few hours, was partial and sparse.
On their way, the pilots and navigators of the Sufa planes saw the contrails of the many rockets on their way into Israel, but under the orders, the role of the first interceptors rising into the air is to protect strategic military and civilian assets. In the first few hours there was no one to change that order and direct the planes to the attacked regions where they were truly needed, and from 20,000 feet high it is almost impossible to identify targets without ground assistance. Thus it happened that for about 45 critical minutes, armed fighter planes flew circles in the sky without taking any action. It was only around eight o’clock, when the pilots landed and received reports from the ground, that they learned what had happened just a few kilometres away. Their frustration and rage were immense. “If they knew, they could at least have flown at low elevation in order to scare the Hamas terrorists by flying loudly over their heads,” said a senior flight squadron officer. “But they just did not know what was happening.” One way or another, these pilots took off again, with their peers, primarily in order to attack targets in Gaza.
A few minutes after the F-16 planes took off, a pair of Squadron 140 F-35 (Adir model) stealth planes took off from Nevatim base that had been on call as well. Their pilots did not know what was happening on the ground either, despite the fact that in their case, they managed to fly at a lower altitude and identify fires in the Gaza Envelope region. In response, the pilots acted in accordance with a contingency plan for attacking targets in Gaza. There was no one to tell them that these attacks were ineffective now and that they were needed somewhere completely different at this time.
Two armed Zik UAVs were taken from Squadron 161 at the Palmachim base, which was on alert that Saturday. This was in direct response to the “Code Red” sirens a few minutes after they were sounded. In the subsequent hours, the Zik operators had to improvise and operate independently. Neither they nor the Air Force Central Command were able to understand the full picture. One way or the other, as happened a lot that Saturday, officers on the ground initiated steps on their own, and the squadron did not wait for a proper order and instructed three more armed Ziks to take to the skies and go into battle.
A little before 7:00 am, the first pair of Apache helicopters was also sent to the Gaza Envelope. The two Apache gunboats belong to Flight Squadron 190, whose home base is Ramon, a 20-minute flight from the Gaza Strip. However, because of budget cuts in previous years, the helicopters were at the Ramat David base in the north, near Lebanon, that Saturday, a flight distance that left many minutes without air cover in the Gaza Envelope region.
In recent years, the Air Force has diluted its helicopter gunship inventory under the theory that against Iran, Israel would need more stealth planes and fewer of these “flying tanks.” The 7 Oct experience is supposed to change this understanding, too.
Around 6:45 am, the first conversation was held between the Pit and a Southern Command operations officer, in which the General Staff was first informed that this was not only rocket fire but that there were also breaches of the fence, and that some of the observation infrastructure was damaged. This was one of the reasons that the Pit was left de facto blindsided: the three large observation balloons that were supposed to provide observation points towards the southern, central and northern Gaza Strip, had fallen during the days prior to the attack. Hamas also directly targeted cameras and other observation infrastructure, among other things using “suicide UAVs.”
But it was not only the observation infrastructure that was impacted. A preliminary investigation held in the last few days about the communication capacity of the Gaza Division exposed the fact that some 40 per cent of the communication sites such as towers with relay antennas that the Telecommunications Department had deployed in recent years near the Gaza Strip border were destroyed by Hamas on the morning of the invasion. Thus, the [Hamas] Nukhba Force [Editor’s note: “nukhba” is Arabic for “elite”] did not only directly damage the “see and shoot” Raphael tower systems and the observation infrastructure along the fence, but also attempted to tamper with the basic radio communication capabilities. The attack forces also placed explosive devices near the tower bases at the lower part of the antennas, places that were apparently unprotected against this type of attack. These explosions were partially successful: some of the towers fell, others just tilted.
In the Pit at the Kirya, attempts were made to obtain reports from the Gaza Division war room, but as previously mentioned, that war room was almost entirely blind, and furthermore, just before 7:00 am, a fierce attack was launched in Re’im by Palestinian fighters who had entered the Division’s Command Base. The Division’s war room was staffed and operational, but found it very difficult to fulfill its primary purposes: to receive information about the current situation on the ground, to mobilise forces accordingly, and to inform the Southern Command and the Pit at the Kirya about new developments.
The result was that a short time after the attack began, the Pit at the Kirya put into operation some permanent preliminary orders for the event of a suspected infiltration from Gaza. These procedures still reflected the thought that the attack was occurring at one or at a few spots, and that it was of limited scope. A military officer who was present at the Tel Aviv command bunker during those hours relates that it was understood in the Pit that a much more significant event was occurring than a spot infiltration, but that because of the blindness on the ground, they turned to television and to social media feeds, primarily to Telegram, to Israeli channels, but primarily to Hamas channels, which included texts, pictures and videos of the events. From these they came to the understanding that the incident was expansive, but they still had difficulty forming an overall picture of everything that was happening.
This moment, in which the Pit, the holy of holies of Israeli security, remained clueless and resorted to surfing Hamas Telegram feeds in order to understand what was happening inside the State of Israel, is a moment that will not soon be forgotten.
One may learn just how complete the mess was, for example, from the experiences of the Duvdevan fighters during those hours. On that weekend, Duvdevan was actually on alert for a hostage-taking situation, but they were doing so far away in the Judea and Samaria Region [the West Bank]. Around 7:00 am, the commander of Duvdevan, Lieutenant Colonel D, received a phone call. The call was not an official call, but rather a call from a friend, an officer at Southern Command, who told him with some alarm about what was going on in his sector. D. did not waste time and called his company from the Judea and Samaria Region and instructed them to arm themselves, get into the unit’s vehicles and hurry toward the Gaza Envelope region. No new information arrived while they were on their way about being ambushed at road intersections, simply because there was no one to provide such information. But by sheer good luck, D. identified a Savannah vehicle of an unarmoured variety belonging to the Tequila unit, which had previously been sprayed with bullets, and he halted the convoy. He instructed his people to leave all regular vehicles, converge into the armoured jeeps, circumvented the intersection and entered the battle at Kfar Azza.
They did not leave until 60 consecutive hours and dozens of killed terrorists later. Incidentally, the commander of another Duvdevan company, who was trying to find a way to get his men to the Gaza Envelope region and did not get any responses from the command, simply called a good friend in the Air Force and finagled a helicopter that would transport his men to combat at Nir Yitzchak.
The Gaza Division managed to convey a request to the Zik squadron: to attack at the Erez Crossing. The UAV operators saw unbelievable images on their screens: the crossing had become a bustling highway for terrorists. Operators told us that at least in the first two hours, their feelings were of loss of control, and in many cases they independently took decisions to attack. By the end of that accursed day, the squadron performed no fewer than 110 attacks on some 1,000 targets, most of which were inside Israel.
Throughout this entire mess, the operators were required to be on increased alert: 7 Days was informed of at least one critical instance when an officer fighting near the Nir Am kibbutz identified five Palestinian fighters on their way from a nearby grove of trees, heading toward Sderot. The officer managed to make contact with the Zik operators and directed them to the squad. The UAV operator had already locked in on the target, but from his portable at Palmachim he identified that these were not Palestinians in disguise but rather five IDF soldiers, surveying the place. They were the press of a button away from a certain death.
The two Apache helicopters that had taken off from Ramat David arrived in the Be’eri region and reported to the squadron about a mess and mushroom clouds of smoke. The commander of Squadron 190, Lieutenant Colonel A, decided to call his second in command and ordered all pilots to arrive quickly from their homes, even before he was ordered to do so by the operations headquarters of the Air Force. The pair of Apache helicopters over Be’eri started to perform fire-for-isolation outside the kibbutzim in order to prevent the arrival of additional terrorists.
Meanwhile, the battle for the Re’im Base, where the headquarters of the Gaza Division is located, continued in full force, and dozens of terrorists were attacking the compound. The Division commander, Brigadier General Avi Rosenfeld, managed to enter the fortified war room with many of his soldiers, from where he attempted to direct both the division’s battle and the battle for the base, concurrently. According to the testimony of a female officer, Rosenfeld himself wished to leave the war room and attack. But outside, the Nukhba’s advance fire teams were everywhere. Only at 1:00 pm would fighters from “Shaldag” Unit 5101 and other units manage to reoccupy the base, with assistance of a helicopter gunship.
All this made what the IDF calls a “command and control” very difficult. If the Division Headquarters is blindsided and under attack, the Southern Command Headquarters does not receive sufficient information either, nor does the command bunker at the Kirya. The result was that commanders who had already learned from the media or from friends that something was going on and had scrambled to get to the Gaza Envelope, received no response from their superiors.
“I came with my private vehicle to the Yad Mordechai junction after I saw on the news at home the video of the Nukhba terrorists on a pick-up truck in Sderot,” relates a brigade commander in regular service. “During the entire drive I tried to get in touch with my friends at the Gaza Division and at the Southern Command in order to understand where it would be best for me to go first, and to hear from them what was happening on the ground and where I should send my soldiers. When they finally picked up, I heard mostly shouting on the other side of the line, and when I asked for something as elementary as a description of the current situation, the Gaza Division told me: ‘we do not have a description of the current situation. Find a focal point of fighting and you tell us what the situation is.’
“And here I am, coming from home, my brigade is dispersed throughout other sectors or is exercising in the north, and like many others, I can already see terrorists at Erez crossing, and I am certain that the incident is right where I am.” By the way, that feeling, that every commander thought that the focal combat was happening right where he was without knowing that a few kilometres away, his colleague was fighting a similar battle, was common to many of the officers we spoke with. None of them knew that in fact, in those hours, there were some 80 different points of combat.
According to a Southern Command officer, it was only around 7:30 am, more than an hour after the attack began, that the Commander of the Gaza Division, Brigadier General Avi Rosenfeld called the Pit in Tel Aviv and reported that the Division’s base in Re’im and the entire area were under heavy attack. He reported that he could not yet describe the scope and details of the attack, and asked the commander on call to send him all available IDF forces.
At 7:43 the Command in Tel Aviv issued the Pleshet Order: The first order to deploy forces, according to which all emergency forces and all units near the Gaza border region must head south immediately. [Translator’s note: Pleshet – פלשת – is a play on words. It is the Biblical name of Palestine, and uses the verb root for invasion: פ.ל.ש.] However, the order did not mention what was not clear at all, neither at the Southern Command nor in the Pit in Tel Aviv, that this was a broad invasion whose goal was to occupy parts of the south of the country and included taking over junctions for ambushes and to neutralise reinforcements. The result was that a significant part of the forces that headed out did not know that there was a risk of running into enemy forces while they were still on their way to the settlement or base that they were sent to.
There was another problem with the Pleshet Order: it was actually intended to protect Israel from a completely different type of incursion. Until the establishment of “the barrier,” the main threat had been the intrusion of terrorists into Israel via a network of penetrative tunnels, from which they would attempt to reach the settlements. The Pleshet Order was phrased to protect against this type of threat, and it focused on regions inside Israel, such that terrorists who would emerge from tunnels inside Israel would be neutralized. In other words, the order did not focus on protecting the border fence against infiltration by Hamas fighters who would have to operate above ground, nor on the threat of thousands of attackers flowing into Israel almost freely, through more than 30 breakthrough points. The IDF had not imagined such a scenario, and did not prepare orders for it. This failure is even stranger, as the IDF had obtained Hamas’s “Jericho Wall” battle plan that described exactly this kind of attack, and yet did not cancel the Pleshet order or update its defence plans.
The General Staff gathered around 8:00 am in the new operations pit at the Kirya in Tel Aviv, and Chief of Staff Herzl “Herzi” Halevi arrived. No one understood that for an hour and a half already, Israel had been under a full-blown attack by Hamas.
The officers of the UAV squadron understand that there is no point for them waiting for orders from the Air Force Command or from the Gaza Division. They manage to get in touch with the Division and essentially ask that all procedures, orders and regulations be tossed in the rubbish. “You have authority to fire at will,” the Zik operators were told by the Division. In other words: shoot at anything that looks threatening or like an enemy.
But whom to attack? Without an orderly command, the UAV operators tried to build a “target bank” on their own. Improvisation swiftly took over here, too: most operators are young officers who have friends and relatives fighting on the ground at that very moment. It was decided to scrap another iron rule: never let a cell phone into the operations portable. The operators made regular phone calls with their peers on the ground: “You see that building with the dark roof? So, the tower next to it” to guide them. And at the most extreme, other operators joined the Whatsapp groups of Kibbutz Kfar Azza and other settlements and were told what to target by besieged civilians.
The two lone Apache helicopters in the air, which were operating on their own initiative until now, managed to make initial radio contact with the commander of one of the companies on the ground. This contact, which is so necessary for the air forces to receive a situation update from the ground forces and be directed to the target, only formed about an hour and a half from the beginning of the attack. The company commander asked for fire for his benefit, and received it. After the shooting, the Apache pilots pointed the helicopters to the west, and an alarming sight becomes visible: a tremendous river of human beings, flowing through the gaps toward the settlements of the south. It would later become clear that this was the second wave of invaders: the first wave had consisted mostly of Nukhba and Palestinian Jihad fighters; this second wave also included armed civilians and tens of thousands of looters.
The pilot decided to shoot two missiles at the armed persons, as well as dozens of shells from the helicopter’s cannon, indiscriminately, in order to chase them back to Gaza. Later the helicopters noticed a large gap in the border fence near Nahal Oz and attacked the multitudes who were crossing through it. In both cases the success was limited, simply because there were too many targets and two few shells: each helicopter carries six missiles and 500 cannon shells. The two helicopters were forced to leave in order to rearm themselves, and returned to the base around 10:20 am.
Additional Apache helicopters took flight, this time from Ramon base, and operated mostly in the regions where there were breaches of the fence. This would be their primary activity until noon. The Air Force was still confused and affected by the fog of war. “Shoot anyone who intrudes in our space, without [waiting for] authorisation,” squadron commander Lieutenant Colonel A told his subordinates in the air, while he himself took off for the Gaza Envelope. One of the helicopters was damaged by small arms fire, but continued fighting.
Ronen Bar, the director of Shin Bet, instructed his people: anyone who can carry a weapon must go south. During the previous night, as mentioned, Bar had received several signals of an event happening in the Gaza Strip region, but he thought that even if Hamas was planning something it would be a limited and localised action, so he only sent the Tequila Force. The Tequila Force fighters were some of the first to encounter the infiltrating terrorists, fought them bravely and managed to report to Shin Bet headquarters. But even at that time, neither the Shin Bet nor [the generals] in the Pit under the Kirya understood that the attack was, in fact, extensive. It was only around 9:00 am, when reports from his subordinates were confirmed by other reports and by media coverage, that Bar instructed all employees with combat training who had weapons to go south and help in the fighting.
According to a person familiar with the events of that morning, people who went down to the ground included coordinators, combat school trainers, security detail bodyguards, people who secure facilities and people who secure on-the-ground actions. In total, dozens of Shin Bet employees were involved, who killed dozens of Palestinian attackers and rescued hundreds of residents of the Gaza Envelope region. Shin Bet combatants who live in the settlements in the south went out to fight even before the instruction was given, and thereafter joined the other forces who arrived in the area. In the course of the fighting, 10 of the organisation’s people were killed.
While many reinforcements were flowing south, it was not yet understood at the Gaza Division, at the Southern Command and at the Pit in Tel Aviv that the Nukhba Hamas had foreseen these reinforcements and took over the strategic junctions such as Gama, Magen, Ein Habesor and Shaar Hanegev, where they awaited the forces. The expected order to secure the intersections before the arrival of reinforcements had not yet come down, and a lot of blood was shed at those junctions, both of soldiers and of civilians.
But there were some who had understood. Battalion 450 of the platoon commander training school was on call for the Gaza Division that Saturday, and battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Ran Canaan mobilised his fighters from the base near Yerucham relatively early in the morning. The battalion was told that it was going to the Gaza Envelope region, but it was not alerted about intersections on the way having become places for deadly ambushes. Some 50 fighters got onto a regular bus with full equipment and headed out.
Suddenly, between Tze’elim and Kerem Shalom, the driver slammed his brakes for an emergency stop. Some policemen approached the bus, waving their hands. Some were injured. They told the company commander with great alarm that at the next junction, about three kilometres away from them, Palestinian gunmen were waiting for them, with a heavy machine gun and anti-tank weapons. The force commander understood that a machine gun volley against the sides of the unarmoured bus would make it a death trap for his soldiers. “The Nukhba deployed squads at the junctions on the way to the Gaza Envelope, with RPG teams, snipers, machine guns and immense amounts of ammunition, for long hours of combat,” said Lieutenant Colonel Canaan, who was wounded in the fighting and returned to combat after some days had passed. “The company commander took a decision: continue toward the Gaza Envelope region on foot and leave the bus behind. Everyone went off and proceeded on foot, so the bus was not hit by an anti-tank missile or by machine gun fire. The fighters went around the intersections and secured them, cleared the bridge over the Besor creek that the terrorists had taken over, and they did all this on foot, for kilometres on end.”
Around 9:30, the besieged Gaza Division eventually managed to man and operate the Hupat Esh [Fire Canopy] attack cell. [Editor’s note: This is a secretive mobile command room according to Israeli press reports.] This is a system established by Chief of Staff Kohavi and which operates in the division. The idea is that one place will hold intelligence about targets, control and planning about attacking them and the corresponding operation of aerial forces. Thus, a single Hupat Esh attack cell could, for example, shoot down an incendiary balloon or execute an aerial attack on a mortar shell launching unit. But the Hupat Esh system was never designed to cope with such an insane amount of targets simultaneously.
The officers faced dilemmas of life and death: where should they direct the helicopter gunships and the Zik first? To the dozens of breaches in the fence, through which the attackers continued to arrive? To the posts currently occupied by the Nukhba teams, where they were killing hundreds of soldiers and taking others as captives back into Gaza? Or should it be in the direction of Sderot, or the Kibbutzim where the civilians were being brutalised? Eventually, the Hupat Esh attack cell commanders, some of whom were 22 years old, sent the Apache pilots a command that has never appeared in any standing order: “You have permission until further notice – and throughout the entire area.”
A similar mechanism of deploying firepower was also started in the course of the morning at the Southern Command headquarters in Beer Sheva. An experienced officer, in the sixth decade of his life, arrived at the command from his home in the north around sunset and stood shocked before the screens, flickering with targets. “We prepared and exercised for many scenarios of infiltration from Gaza,” he told 7 Days. But if the officer from the training administration at headquarters would have written a scenario like the one that happened on 7 Oct for an upcoming exercise, we would have hospitalised them at a psychiatric institute immediately.”
The fighting on the ground intensified and drew casualties. In many cases the fighters had to collect intelligence on their own in order to get their bearings. The commander of Division 36, Brigadier General Dado Bar Khalifa, for instance, did not wait for orders and rushed directly from his home to the site and arrived at Netiv Haasara around 10:00 am. He took a gun, a bullet-proof vest and a helmet from one of the injured policemen. Then he photographed some of the Nukhba fighters that he had neutralised in order to send these photographs to the intelligence entities and refrained from killing some of them intentionally. Bar Khalifa caught two of them veritably by physically beating them in the fields between Yad Mordechai and the occupied Erez Post, undressed them to ascertain that they were not carrying explosive charges and started interrogating them on the spot. From this interrogation, which was done under fire, Bar Khalifa learned about the directions of the Nukhba invasion, where some of their people were hiding in ambush and in general, about the scope of the event, at least in the northern part of the sector, near Sderot. Apparently, at this point he knew a lot more than they knew in the Pit.
Like other combat brigades, Brigade 890 also mobilised from its Nabi Mussa base near Jerusalem at 7:00 am and headed in the direction of the Gaza Envelope. Some of the brigade fighters arrived for the fighting at Kibbutz Be’eri. Meanwhile brigade commander Lieutenant Colonel Yoni Hacohen managed to finagle a Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallion “Yasur” helicopter to bring a few dozen of his fighters to the area. At 11:30, a moment before landing near Kibbutz Alumim, the helicopter was directly hit by an RPG from the ground – quite a rare occurrence – but before it went up in flames the pilot managed to land it safely, and the warriors disembarked and directly entered the battle in the kibbutz.
The battles they took part in, some of which were in the constructed area, made the 890 unit fighters very much regret that they had arrived without fragmentation grenades. Other brigades also did not receive this important weapon. The reason: the IDF has a policy of storing grenades in bunkers for sound reasons of safety. When do they distribute them? Only during relevant exercises or for operations in enemy territory. When forces are mobilised on short notice, their chance of receiving grenades is not high.
Lack of combat equipment or inappropriate equipment was a complaint made by many of the officers and ground personnel that we talked to. It may be understandable why the emergency reserve storehouses were not ready to equip fighters in the south who had arrived from the north, but here is a story of a reservist battalion from Division 98, a select commando unit.
One might have assumed that for this sort of battalion, which would clearly spearhead any fighting, everything would be prepared in advance. But no. Fighters who managed to reach the emergency reserve storehouses late in the morning commented about missing equipment. “Of course, the weapons had not been calibrated, and for a few hours we were shooting in the Gaza Envelope region without hitting any terrorists,” one of the soldiers related. “Our marksmen went without the sights assembled onto the weapons, and then there were the bullet-proof vests. At least one of the guys was killed that Saturday when a bullet hit his stomach because he didn’t have such a vest.”
And, by the way, the infantry fighters were not the only ones suffering a lack of equipment. The armoured corps also discovered this very quickly. For example, the reservists from Division 252 were mobilised relatively early on Saturday morning, but when they reached their supply centre in Tze’elim, they found that the first tanks available to them were Merkava III tanks – and even these were not well-maintained, some of them being more than 20 years old. But they did not have much choice, so they got into the Merkava tanks, prayed that the engines would start and raced along the roads towards the Gaza Envelope. These tanks were some of the first to report what no one in the command centres had managed to understand yet: that the Nukhba teams had built ambushes at key points in order to attack reinforcement units.
The chaos and confusion continued for many long hours. In the status evaluation coming up to noon, the Southern Command already understood that their assessment up until that morning, according to which Hamas did not have the capacity to penetrate “the barrier” except maybe at one or two points, had entirely collapsed, and that Hamas had managed to penetrate at more than 30 points.
Even almost six hours after the fact, the fog covering that status evaluation was immense. Headquarters did not understand what Hamas’s goals were, where their forces were deployed and how they operated, the control of intersections, the concurrent attacks on posts and on civilian settlements. At that time, Headquarters believed that they could regain control over the entire south of the country by dark. In practice this would take another three days, and even then, the area would not be fully cleared of Hamas people.
But in the meantime, the first videos about captives started coming in, and Headquarters also understood that, at least in this respect, this was now a completely different event. This was the moment at which the IDF decided to return to a version of the Hannibal Directive.
In 1986, after the capture and murder of two IDF soldiers by Hezbollah, the IDF introduced a new, secret and controversial directive. Under the “Task” section, it included the statement that “Immediate location of a ‘Hannibal’ incident, delay/halt the capturing force at any price and release the captives.” The original command stated that “In the course of a capture, the main task becomes rescuing our soldiers from the captors, even at the price of hitting or injuring our soldiers.” According to publications, the order was changed in 2016, softened and had its name changed. Its current language has not been published, but a clarification was introduced that actions must be avoided that would be highly likely to endanger the captive’s life.
The 7 Days investigation shows that at midday 7 Oct, the IDF instructed all its fighting units to perform the Hannibal Directive in practice, although it did so without stating that name explicitly. The instruction was to stop “at any cost” any attempt by Hamas fighters to return to Gaza, using language very similar to that of the original Hannibal Directive, despite repeated promises by the defence apparatus that the directive had been cancelled.
In practice, the meaning of the order is that the primary goal was to stop the retreat of the Nukhba operatives. And if they took captives with them as hostages, then to do so even if this means the endangerment or harming of the lives of civilians in the region, including the captives themselves.
According to several testimonies, the Air Force operated during those hours under an instruction to prevent movement from Gaza into Israel and return from Israel into Gaza.
Estimates say that in the area between the Gaza Envelope settlements and the Gaza Strip, some one thousand Palestinian fighters and infiltrators were killed. It is not clear at this stage how many of the captives were killed due to the operation of this order on 7 Oct. During the week after Black Sabbath, and at the initiative of Southern Command, soldiers from elite units examined some 70 vehicles that had remained in the area between the Gaza Envelope settlements and the Gaza Strip. These were vehicles that did not reach Gaza because on their way they had been hit by fire from a helicopter gunship, a UAV or a tank, and at least in some of the cases, everyone in the vehicle was killed.
Around noon that Saturday, about six hours after the Hamas attack began, due to the partial information, the IDF still estimated that only about 200 Nukhba fdighters had infiltrated into Israel, while the actual number was nearly ten times larger. 7 Days has discovered that at this stage the IDF was still using the status evaluations in the battle plan prepared at Southern Command, although it was clear that it was no longer relevant. Embarrassingly, they continued to recycle and copy the content of the plan, including the categorical statement that Hamas had a “very low” capacity to pass the fence.
Israel had access to the Hamas “Walls of Jericho” invasion plan, which turned out to be almost entirely realistic on 7 Oct. But no one thought that maybe orders should be prepared in advance for this scenario. The result: six hours into the attack, as the south was awash with over 2,000 terrorists, the only available order is the one based on the assumption that the capacity of Hamas to even cross the fence was “very low.”
The Air Force focused since the morning on the primary task: to stop the incursions across the fence. At noon they also expanded the aerial attacks on the settlements and camps that had been occupied, at the request of elite units such as Flotilla 13 and the Nahal commando. Since no continuous contact had been made with the Air Force command, the pilots conducted themselves via direct telephone conversation with officers and fighters on the ground, and were directed to attack the gym and fitness room of the Gaza Division at the Re’im camp, after seven of the Nukhba forces had entrenched themselves there. Later, they also attacked the dining hall in the besieged Sufa outpost.
At the time there were 10 helicopter gunships in the air (out of 28 that participated in the battles that morning, by rotation), but even at that stage the communication with the aerial forces was mostly improvisational, as mentioned. Thus, for example, the second in command of Division 80, Colonel A, who had wished to storm the citrus groves near Kerem Shalom, personally called the commander of the helicopter gunship squadron, Lieutenant Colonel A, and requested massive fire towards the citrus grove. Generally, the safety range in such incidents between the ground forces and the aerial bombardment is approximately 300 metres. This time the range was just a few dozen metres. A few days later, an intelligence officer would tell squadron commander A that the Nukhba fighters were instructed not to run that morning, knowing that the pilots would think that these were Israelis walking, not escaping, and then would hesitate to shoot at them. That’s what it is like when the enemy knows much more about you than you know about them.
Response by the IDF Spokesperson: “The IDF is currently fighting the murderous Hamas terror organization in the Gaza Strip. The IDF will hold a thorough, detailed, and in-depth investigation into the matter to fully clarify the details when the operational situation permits this, and will publish its findings to the public.”
Emphases have been added by the website editor to highlight important points.