December 31, 2023 | The Jerusalem Post

IDF combat engineers, bulldozers: A key weapon in the Gaza war

Today, some of the engineering forces and their vehicles have been brought back from the tough battles in Gaza. I drove down to the Erez Crossing to meet with members of the unit.
December 31, 2023 | The Jerusalem Post

IDF combat engineers, bulldozers: A key weapon in the Gaza war

Today, some of the engineering forces and their vehicles have been brought back from the tough battles in Gaza. I drove down to the Erez Crossing to meet with members of the unit.

On October 7, Hamas terrorists attacked dozens of points along the border with Gaza. They broke through the security fence and massacred people in Israeli communities. It took days of fighting to secure the border area again on Israel’s side of the fence. When the fighting was mostly done and Israeli communities retaken, the damage had to be repaired, and Israel had to consider its next steps in the Hamas-run enclave [in Gaza].

Into the breach came key units from the Combat Engineering Corps. In the first month of the war, the engineers helped repair and reinforce the breaches in the security fence. When the ground operation in Gaza began, they were pressed into action to help neutralize explosive devices and create access routes for forces to enter the Gaza Strip.

One IDF statement in early November noted that “during ground operations in the Gaza Strip, combat engineering troops created access routes, cleared the area of explosive devices, and neutralized terror infrastructure and terrorist cells found in the area. Furthermore, combat engineering and infantry soldiers located and struck military compounds used for planning and executing terror activities.”

Today, some of the engineering forces and their vehicles have been brought back from the tough battles in Gaza. I drove down to the Erez Crossing to meet with members of the unit.

The engineering forces and vehicles taking part in Israel’s war in Gaza

The Erez Crossing used to be the main crossing for civilians from Gaza to enter Israel. There was a large hall there, and buildings devoted to processing civilians and enabling them to cross. It looks like a kind of border crossing. However, Hamas attacked this crossing point and killed IDF soldiers there on October 7.

Driving to Erez, one passes next to Ashkelon and then heads toward Gaza and Route 4. This coastal city just northeast of the Strip, as well as other nearby areas, have been targeted by thousands of rockets since the war began.

When I drove down, Ashkelon was just beginning to return to its routine, such as normal educational frameworks, almost 80 days into the war. This illustrates how much the conflict has left a wave of destruction near the border.

As one drive south of Ashkelon, there are fewer cars and more signs of the military. But it’s not like the first month of the war, with checkpoints and nearly deserted roads: Things are slowly returning to normal. Fields where IDF tanks and vehicles were situated before the ground operation are now returning to agricultural use. In areas near the border communities of Netiv Ha’asara and Yad Mordechai, there are giant rolls of cotton and other items fresh from the fields, waiting to be carted off.

THE EREZ Crossing itself is now awash with IDF vehicles and soldiers under arms. This is close to a war zone. The concrete fence of the border has an opening to Gaza, and Beit Lahiya is in the distance. Much of that Gazan town now looks like rubble – consequences of the war. It was from those areas that the terrorists attacked. In some cases, they used tunnels. One tunnel found near Erez – stretching several kilometers underground – was so large that cars could drive through it.

I parked my car behind a row of giant D9 armored bulldozers. The Caterpillar D9 is an impressive beast. It weighs around 54 US tons, but the IDF adds a lot of armor and other elements to it, increasing its weight by almost another 20 tons. That adds up to the weight of about 45 mid-size cars – and to an IDF Merkava tank.

At Erez, there were a dozen of these D9 behemoths. They sat in two lines facing each other, like elephants bowing to await their masters who will ride them into battle. In front of the lines of bulldozers stood Maj. Tzahi Harari, an officer in this unit. He pointed to one of the armored and protected bulldozers and explained the importance of this tool for the IDF.

“We arrived on the 9th of October,” he recalled, describing the aftermath of the October 7 attack. They used the heavy engineering bulldozers to prepare protected areas for IDF forces, re-establishing security along the border. “We prepared to renew the front line defenses for 60 km. to close the breaches… [and] there were many. We began with dirt berms so [Hamas] couldn’t come with cars and would have to climb or walk [over the berms],” he said.

The engineers there were working under IDF Southern Command and the Gaza Division, both of which had suffered casualties on that dark day of October 7 and the days after that as forces fought to regain control.

In their armored bulldozers, the military engineers had to strengthen the border area and return it to some sense of security similar to what would have existed before October 7. The enemy had RPGs and other weapons, so the bulldozers had to be able to operate in areas with these types of threats.

Maj. Harari knows this area. He served there in 2020 and said the areas around Gaza were like a home away from home. “We used to go have lunch with the local ravshatzim [civilian security heads of communities]. We did a lot of work here.”

DESPITE ALL that work before October 7, much was destroyed that day. Harari discussed the thoughts about what could have been done to prevent the massacre, and that overcame him in the first week of the war.

As the bulldozers and engineers were clearing areas of the border during that week after, they came upon an abandoned car. The vehicle had hit an electrical conduit, and the men were going to use a D9 to move it. “We began to do that and the trunk opened – and we found a dead body,” he recounted. “And the body was not of a terrorist but someone they had taken hostage. We took the body out.”

By finding the body, they were able to help the family know what happened to the victim, and not be lost for months not knowing their captive loved one’s fate. “Many families don’t know who is alive, dead, or [still] a hostage, but at least we let them know the person is dead” so they are no longer “looking for months for the person and not knowing,” he said.

The Combat Engineering Corps. officer said that the way to see this tragedy is from a “glass half full” perspective, doing the best that can be done in these difficult circumstances.

The engineers continued their work in the lead-up to the ground offensive on October 27. Then they helped the IDF armored and infantry units maneuver along the coast. The D9 helps clear the way and neutralize threats. Terrorists were eliminated in villas and hotels along the coast.

Later, the unit moved into western Jabalya, a densely built-up area near Gaza. The IDF’s 162nd Division has done the heavy lifting there, penetrating into Jabalya and defeating the terrorists there. The goal of the engineers is to help prepare areas for maneuvers and bulldoze areas that might be threatening to troops.

For instance, troops might need to go through an orchard or an area of trees bifurcated by small wadis (streams). The bulldozer can go in and flatten a path. It will churn up the dirt as well, removing booby traps or other dangers. This will help prevent anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) or RPG attacks.

Many IDF armored vehicles these days have active protection systems, such as the Trophy system that is on Merkava tanks and Namer armored personnel carriers. Israel’s D9s and Eitan APCs are supposed to be kitted out with the Iron Fist protection system. Despite these protective systems, vehicles can be damaged and soldiers killed by the ATGM and RPG threat. Harari described how there were ATGM threats in Jabalya. The unit brought in tanks and eliminated two terrorists in one instance.

Engineering units come in various types and sizes. There are the elite units such as the Yahalom that perform special missions. There are other units that are experts in explosives and demolition; they can act with great precision. Then there are the heavy machinery engineers, like those in Harari’s unit.

Today, many engineering units are in Gaza, including Yahalom, the 614th Combat Engineers, the 603rd, and the 8170 and 7017 Battalions. In many cases, these units work closely with other ones in the IDF, such as infantry and tanks, as part of larger organic units, such as the 162nd or 36th Divisions.

Harari described how Gaza is filled with Hamas tunnels. “It’s another city underneath the ground,” he said. Using intel and the engineers, the IDF is defeating the tunnel system, bit by bit. Some 1,500 tunnel shafts have been found. These discoveries are an extension of what Israel tried to do in 2014 when the tunnel threat first emerged. In that war, it removed tunnels near the border and those that crossed under the border. Now the goal is to uproot the entire terrorist infrastructure throughout Gaza.

MAJ. HARARI climbed up into one of the bulldozers. I climbed after him, pulling myself up and swinging around onto the tread and then up into the cockpit, around 10 feet off the ground. There are two seats in the bulldozer. One is for a commander, and the other is for the driver. Harari described this as a job for people without fear and a lot of motivation.

Up there, looking down on the world, one feels above things. The bulldozer doesn’t have any large weapons like a tank, however, so its personnel are exposed. While the D9 helps create avenues and protection for its forces, like the tanks, the bulldozer can’t do much to defend itself.

The driver and the officer in the cockpit might stay inside for more than a day straight during operations. They can eat and sleep up there. That’s the difficult but necessary life of a combat engineer in the heavy machinery.

A week after visiting Erez, I spoke to another soldier who was a sniper and had spent time with the engineers. After Operation Pillar of Cloud in 2012, the IDF had used bulldozers to do security sweeps along the border just inside Gaza. Snipers had been added to some of these teams to help secure the D9s, just in case.

After Harari explained how the machine operates, he walked around to the other D9s. One of them was being repaired after being struck with an RPG. These days, the bulldozers also have metal grates on their roof to defend against drones. These improvisations come from learned experience about new threats.

The D9 is essentially an older style, heavy-machine technology being used in this war. The IDF had trained for wars of the future that would be more digital and use more AI. But this Gaza war is a slog. While the military has a lot of new technology, machines like the D9 are doing the heavy lifting and haven’t changed much recently.

Close-quarter fighting in Gaza is the norm. “Our soldiers and forces are strong, and the enemy can’t defeat us… Hamas can’t win,” the major said. “It’s just a question of choices. The IDF chooses how much it wants to be here to destroy Hamas.” Whatever the IDF chooses, “we can do it quickly.”

It will take time to destroy all the terrorist infrastructure; it has to be uprooted and dismantled. “Hamas wants to come back, [but] it will be hard; we killed a lot [of them among their] command and control – and also underground. And we did a lot of damage. If we choose to move on,” it means that “we got to a point where they don’t threaten us,” the officer said.

From Shati to Jabalya and other areas, the IDF is defeating Hamas battalions, ripping up the terrorist infrastructure, planting flags of victory, and moving on. After their role in Jabalya, the engineering corps officer said they are waiting for what comes next.

The combat engineers have played a key role in Gaza. They have also helped neutralize threats near the border so that decimated and exiled communities can return one day.

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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