I traveled recently to Israel to visit a state-of-the-art military training facility in the southern Negev Desert opened by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) last year. The facility, at the Tze’elim army base, is meant to simulate urban operations of the kind the Israelis have so often faced in their conflicts with Palestinian and Lebanese militants. Though the degree of emphasis the IDF has placed on military operations in urban terrain has waxed and waned, since the mid-1980s at least it has maintained an extensive training infrastructure for this purpose, which from time to time other armies have admired. After the Second Intifada, however — a conflict that was fought almost exclusively in the densely built-up environment of the West Bank and Gaza — the need for even more and better urban warfare training was deemed all the greater.
Known as “Baladia” (Arabic for “city”), the core of this facility is indeed a small city — or large town — of some 600 buildings of a range of types, including five mosques, several cafes, a clinic, a town hall, a casbah, an eight-story apartment building, a cemetery, and a “youth club,” all arranged in Middle Eastern fashion with narrow winding streets, alleys, and passageways running higgledy-piggledy throughout. Some War on the Rocks readers may be familiar with the place as American and other forces train there quite regularly — and it may remind other readers of their deployments to Iraq. (There was a good Vice News video report on it a year ago that is worth watching).
The wider purpose of my visit to this base was for research on a new book I am writing on the resurgence of fortification strategies in contemporary security affairs — Israel, for obvious reasons, being an important case in point. Specifically, though, at Tze’elim I was hoping to answer a few questions:
1) Does the Israeli defense establishment believe there has been an “urban turn” in military and strategic affairs? Does this mean there is a need to develop (or perhaps more accurately re-develop) skills in modes of conflict such as fortification and siegecraft, tunneling and counter-tunneling, and urban warfare generally, that have been out of fashion for a century or so?
2) Do the Israelis think there is something important to contemporary urban operations that was illuminated by “postmodernist” thinking, as is commonly portrayed in the academic literature on the subject?
3) Is there anything actually new about warfare that the IDF has learned in the urban warfare business?
The answer to these questions is emphatically yes in the first instance — clearly, with respect to Hamas in Gaza and to a large extent also Hezbollah in Lebanon the challenge is inextricably bound up with the urban and peri-urban areas in which these groups operate. In the second, emphatically no (and, moreover, the fascination with such ideas caused much harm to the effectiveness of the IDF in its 2006 war with Hezbollah). In the third the answer is more ambiguous — there is very little new that has been learned though why that is important takes a bit of explaining and is interesting in itself. Indeed, the Israeli case has a lot of generalizable potential.
Here’s a view of Tze’elim from the perspective of the minaret of the mosque in the central square. There are plenty of photos of it available on the web but I rather like my own sketches. No doubt you can tell from my excellent penmanship that that’s a German unit training down there with a Fuchs armored vehicle in the foreground.
Read the Remainder at War on the Rocks