Sajaiya: On July 19, 2014, at the height of “Operation Protective Edge,” the Golani Brigade – Israel’s most heralded infantry brigade – entered the Gazan city of Sajaiya, an eastern suburb of Gaza City. Their mission was to uncover and to destroy the local Hamas infrastructure, specifically, the network of underground tunnels and rocket launchers that had been enabling the Hamas to sustain heavy rocket fire on Israeli towns.
After an artillery barrage had softened the defenses, a convoy of Golani soldiers entered the town. The convoy consisted of an array of armored vehicles – tanks, bulldozers, and M-113 Armored Personnel Carriers (APC). The M-113 was designed more than fifty years earlier, and the IDF had a fleet of more than six thousand of them. The problem with the M-113 was that its armor was rather light, making it susceptible to attack from anti-tank missiles and Improvised Explosive Devices (IED). One M-113 in the convoy took a direct hit from an anti-tank missile. It burnt for hours. Seven soldiers died, and the body of one of them, Oren Shaul, was kidnapped into one of the tunnels. Today, nine years later, his body remains with the Hamas for use as a bargaining chip. Golani called this horrific event the “Sajaiya Tragedy (Asson Sajeya).”
Last Sunday, Golani returned to Sajaiya. On Monday night, I watched a clip from the news interviewing LT COL Tomer Grinberg, a Battalion Commander in Golani. He was speaking about how emotional it was to return to a place that had been seared into the collective memory of the Golani Brigade. Grinberg made it glaringly obvious that Golani had some unfinished business here. This time things were going to be different, but he was very wrong.
That evening, as I was watching the clip, soldiers from the Golani Brigade were carrying out search operations in the kasbah – the souk – in the heart of Sajaiya. A force of four soldiers entered a cluster of buildings that was believed to be abandoned to search for tunnels. Unfortunately, the buildings were not abandoned. Hamas terrorists were hiding inside and ambushed them. When the Golani soldiers entered the building, they threw grenades and opened fire with automatic weapons, after which they detonated an explosive charge. A second group of soldiers, concerned that the first group had been kidnapped into a tunnel, tried to contact them but were unsuccessful.
Understanding the gravity of the event, an APB went out to all of the senior officers in the brigade, and a rescue team was put together. The rescue team entered the building only to discover that the first force had all been killed. At this stage, the rescue team came under fire. To help extricate the team, IDF soldiers fired a shoulder-launched missile into the building where it apparently detonated a number of IEDs inside, blowing up the entire building. Ten soldiers were killed, including Grinberg, as well as COL Izhak Ben Bassat, the most senior officer to be killed in the current ground assault (A number of other Colonels were killed in the October 7 Massacre). Thus was born the second “Sajaiya Tragedy (Asson Sajeya).”
“The Tragedy,” as it was called, felt like a punch in the gut. At a meeting later that morning, my boss blew up at one of his program managers and then adjourned the meeting. As he stormed out of the room, visibly shaken, he asked, “How can you expect me to be calm when ten soldiers were just killed?” The question everyone was asking was not, “How did it happen?” In war, these things happen. Soldiers get killed. Sometimes the enemy gets lucky. The question people were asking was, “Why did we endanger our soldiers by sending them into buildings that were suspicious?” Why didn’t we simply drop a couple of 2000-pound JDAMs from 40,000 feet or lob some artillery shells at it from 10 miles away and be done with it? Why did we sacrifice their lives? Were we trying to be holier-than-thou by reducing the number of enemy casualties at the risk to our own soldiers? And who was behind this decision? The army? The government? The Americans?
Things bubbled over the next day. Tzvi Yehezkeli, a local television journalist, the head of the Arab desk at Israeli News 13, was being interviewed on the radio. Yehezkeli is an outspoken critic of the strategy of restraint that Israel had been implementing with Hamas since it took over Gaza in 2007. Yehezkeli does not mince his words. Here is part of the transcript of his interview: “I think if we had allowed this generation [of soldiers] to really reach the leadership of the army, you wouldn't have seen this fighting, you would have seen it as a more serious assault. Why leave these buildings untouched? After all, they were captured during the ceasefire and the hostage deals… We know that Hamas doesn't care about anything, they are not in uniform, they are as civilians. What does Biden want? For more of us to be killed? I just don't understand it… Do you want [Hamas] to determine how we act? It's seeping in, there's nothing to be done, and the tactic you say ‘Let the soldiers enter the building, we won't bring down the house'... these are houses that only have terrorists in them, most of the citizens have left, so what's the problem? … I see us slowly falling into the Hamas trap. This is Sinwar's plan. We are an army of heroes, but we don't use our true power… Look at the IDF of the first two weeks [of the war] - bombing, communicating with the home front, suddenly we stop, what happened to us?... It's not just the US, it's also Europe. Hamas was waiting for this all along…”
A retort was soon to follow. Ben Caspit, a pundit on the opposite side of the political spectrum, spewed vitriol of his own with Yehezkeli as the target. And then a miracle happened. Israel, as a nation, suddenly stopped and remembered how we got into this imbroglio. We were a nation at war with each other. We were one step away from our own Civil War. Hamas leaders admit that this was one of the reasons that they attacked when they did. We were a country in disarray, and they believed that we were at the tipping point. But they were wrong. A common enemy, a common mission, and a common destiny have galvanized the Israeli population over the past seventy days. Nowadays, when people hear vitriol on the radio, they turn it off or switch to another channel. The same thing happened here. Cooler heads prevailed. The dead were buried, a full investigation was performed, and the IDF has made necessary changes to its strategy.
But the question still remains: Why did the IDF not take out the building? Why did they risk lives? These questions were addressed in detail in the weekend’s newspapers. Perhaps the best article I saw appeared in “Makor Rishon.” The article, written by Amir Rappaport, a local defense analyst, asked if the IDF decided against using air power in Sajaiya because it was afraid of the potential for collateral damage, and by doing so, endangered the lives of IDF soldiers. It asked if an aerial bombardment would have changed the course of the events in Sajaiya that day. The answer, claims Rappaport, is “complex.” The capability today to soften an area in northern Gaza with aerial bombardment or artillery is essentially unlimited. All non-combatants have been moved to southern Gaza, such that the only people remaining in northern Gaza are terrorists or terrorist sympathizers. COL Yaniv Barrot, the CO of the Kfir Brigade said in an interview on Friday that “anything that moves” in northern Gaza gets shot at, no questions asked. But even with infinite softening, it is impossible to clear out pockets of enemy soldiers without “boots on the ground.” Without reaching the openings to the tunnels, the terrorists and their rockets will remain safe inside, fifty feet underground. Air support is always ready if called by the soldiers, but cases of air support inadvertently killing soldiers on the ground are not as rare as we would like them to be. At the end of the day, there is no substitute for the foot soldier.
This is the painful truth. There is no happy ending to this tragedy. On Friday, three Israelis hostages who were kidnapped to Sajaiya and had managed to escape from their captors, “gave themselves up” to a team of Golani soldiers. They were shirtless to show that they were not carrying any bombs. They were carrying a white flag at the end of the broomstick. These gestures did not convince the Golani soldiers. Feeling their lives were threatened, they opened fire on the hostages, killing all of them. While the army immediately came out and stated, “This is not how we treat people who give themselves up,” one can only imagine the Golani soldier who has spent the past fifty days in hell, who just buried his CO, who is certain that behind every door lies a terrorist who wants only to murder him and his buddies.
There is no right and no wrong here, only pain. So much pain…