January 13, 2024 | The Jerusalem Post

Meet the IDF unit ensuring Israeli tanks are battle ready for Gaza

The IDF’s 7th Brigade is operating in Khan Yunis defeating terrorists, while on border, tanks are repaired and quickly returned to action
January 13, 2024 | The Jerusalem Post

Meet the IDF unit ensuring Israeli tanks are battle ready for Gaza

The IDF’s 7th Brigade is operating in Khan Yunis defeating terrorists, while on border, tanks are repaired and quickly returned to action

The tread of a tank lies on the ground like a large uncoiled snake that has been squashed flat. One end is in the dirt, the others, a few meters along, behind the chassis of the Merkava 4 tank that it is attached to. This isn’t a position anyone driving the tank into battle would want to find himself in. Missing a tread on a tank would be a serious problem. Luckily for this tank – which has just come out of the fighting in Gaza – it is in the safety of an IDF position near the border.

Overhead is the sound of drones and helicopters, as well as the percussion of outgoing artillery. A siren sounds in Kissufim, the nearby kibbutz. We are in a war zone, but just far back enough that it seems safe. The IDF began operations in Khan Yunis in December when the first hostage deal ended and with it, a pause in fighting. Khan Yunis is a large city in southern Gaza, and it is the hometown of Hamas terror leader Yahya Sinwar.

Initially, the IDF struck Khan Yunis with its 98th Division of paratroops and commandos. The 7th Armored Brigade, a powerful tank unit, subsequently entered the city. The IDF has now expanded operations in Khan Yunis to include fighting near the border in the area of Khirbet Ikhza’a and Khuza’a. It was from these villages near the border that the Hamas terrorists set off on the morning of October 7 to wreak havoc and murder. Now these areas are being retaken.

I drove down south to spend time with the 7th Armored and met the IDF soldiers who repair the tanks. Like any large machine, tanks need time off for repairs before being sent back. On the road, a tank passes through Urim and near to the IDF’s Southern Command. Then one drives past Re’im, the kibbutz near the site of the Nova festival massacre. This area is now being revived from the terror of Oct. 7. A person on a bicycle is even out for a recreational ride. New armored shelters are being put up at bus stops. The old shelters became scenes of massacre as Hamas terrorists lobbed grenades at people hiding in them.

Closer to the border there are no civilians, as much of this area has been evacuated. Near the border area is what was once a road; now that things have changed, it is a war zone. Nearby, there are some trees and fields with IDF soldiers, tanks, bulldozers, Namer armored personnel carriers, and other vehicles. The soldiers are busy fixing their vehicles.

One vehicle has been damaged in the front, and a large gear that turns the tread has to be replaced. The tank’s armor is modular, so it can be removed with a crane and a winch and then put back together, like a giant LEGO vehicle. The men are repairing the machine guns on their tanks as well, stripping them down and making sure that they are clean and ready for action. Each tank here is equipped with the latest technology and systems.

Heading up the tank repair operation

Maj. Barak Tal, a 28-year-old officer from Kiryat Shmona, is in charge of the tank repair operation here; his wife is also an IDF officer. He is a maintenance officer, which he says in Hebrew is now a position called katzin himush. Now they call it “tech and logistics,” he says, noting the changes in lingo in the army and also the kind of work they do.

“We are in a base where we prepare all the tools that we use for the 7th Brigade,” he says. They also have units here from the 12th, 82nd, and 77th battalions of Golani 12, and combat engineers of the 603rd Battalion. That means they repair the Namer APCs for the Golani guys as well. The Merkava 4 is the main tank for the 7th. This is an advanced tank, one of the latest that Israel has produced. “It’s the most advanced tank in the world,” Tal says.

The 7th has been fighting since the war began. It fought against Hamas on Oct. 7 and then, after the ground maneuver began in Gaza on October 27, it fought in other areas. It penetrated deep into Gaza and fought near Shifa Hospital as part of the 36th Division’s operations to cut Gaza in half and isolate terrorists in northern Gaza.

“Our work here is to make sure the tanks continue to win,” he says.

Tal has served with other units, such as the 188th Armored. He attended a course to become an officer and then went to school to learn engineering. He was a commander with the Gaza Division in the past.

“Now I am in charge of 250 people. And I am in charge of the service for things such as optics and generators and everything you see that moves,” he says.

In this war, the IDF and the world are once again learning how important tanks are. Over the past decade, there have been some voices covering military affairs who believed tanks would play less of a role in the future battlefield.

This is because drones, special forces, and other units might play a larger role. However, in the Ukraine war and in Gaza, it has become clear how important tanks are.

The long operation in Gaza, which was at about 80 days of fighting when I met Tal, is unique for the IDF. Many of the men in the tanks have never seen such a long campaign.

Nevertheless, motivation is high.

Like many people in Israel, Tal was awakened on the morning on Oct. 7 by news of the surprise attack. He was in Kiryat Shmona in northern Israel when he received a call from one of the men in the 77th Battalion of the 7th Armored Brigade. The soldier said that Hamas was attacking and shooting. From that moment, it was clear that the attack was a major incident. It took time for the 7th Armored to fully prepare, while some of its tanks were fighting in Zikim and other areas on the border. From the first week, men like Tal were involved in repairing tanks and sending them back to the fight. Israel called up hundreds of thousands of reservists, and soon all the operations needed to keep units like this in the field were ready.

The tanks are equipped with the latest active protection system, the Trophy system (“windbreaker” in Hebrew), made by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems; it is used to defend against missiles and RPGs. This system has been around for more than a decade, is also used by US tanks, and has been acquired for tanks in Germany and other countries. This war is a test for the system because the war is long and hard, and the enemy is well armed. The system is functioning as expected, Tal says.  

“The tanks have a lot of sensors and cameras,” he says, “with new types of protection [like Trophy]. It’s like Iron Dome – you don’t have 100% success. Some tanks get hit by RPGs. Some can hit the tank, but we have technology to protect the soldiers. The Trophy is effective, and we see it,” he says.

After Hamas used drones against tanks on Oct. 7, the IDF now has improvised fences that serve as important protective canopies to stop drones. The IDF calls them “pergolas.” I asked Tal about them. “We did a number of things to protect. We added the pergola against drones and other protective things, which I can’t mention, so the soldiers feel secure and believe in the tool.”

Damaged tanks or those in need of repairs to things like treads are being turned around quickly to go back into battle. Tal says that usually they can get a tank back into action within 24 hours. Ninety percent of the tanks are still in the field even after 80 days of war.

The treads of the tank are one of the main issues they face in repairs. Tracked vehicles like tanks are not made to drive on roads, but in Gaza they have many different environments to navigate. Vehicles like this do better in sand-type terrain. Engines also need replacing sometimes.

“We have all the spare parts that we need,” Major Tal affirms. 

Seth Frantzman is the author of Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machine, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future (Bombardier 2021) and an adjunct fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


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