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The IDF's Urban Warfare Training Center at the Tze'elim base in the western Negev, June 30, 2022.  Photo by Nati Shohat/Flash90.
The IDF's Urban Warfare Training Center at the Tze'elim base in the western Negev, June 30, 2022. Photo by Nati Shohat/Flash90.
featureIsrael-Palestinian Conflict

The IDF trains hard for ethical urban warfare

When in doubt don’t shoot, the army teaches its fighters.

The Israel Defense Force’s Urban Warfare Training Center is located in the Negev desert, near Kibbutz Tze’elim.

This writer was part of a group of international journalists on a tour organized by Israel’s Government Press Office headed south to explore the training center on a very hot day. (Disclosure: the invitation came before the recent operation in Jenin).

In 2005, the IDF, with the assistance of the United States, established the Urban Warfare Training Center inside the larger Tze’elim Training Base, at a cost of $45 million. The 7.4-square-mile training center’s mission is to instruct soldiers in urban warfare techniques. The replication of a Middle Eastern-style city is a maze of multistory buildings, including minarets, schools and a village square that was used to film scenes in the popular “Fauda” television series.

Inside the Israel Defense Force’s Urban Warfare Training Center in the Negev, July 12, 2023. Photo by Yoav Dudkevitch/TPS.

Inside one of the buildings is a space decorated as a private home replicating what a house might look like in an Arab village, all the way down to the newspapers on the table and framed photos. Simulators are used to prepare soldiers for what they might find outside the windows.

The center has been used to train a number of militaries, including the U.S. Army and U.N. peacekeepers. The project was developed in response to the need for better urban warfare training by the IDF, as a response to the challenges of the Second Intifada of 2000-2005. It is updated with each new terror technique, including a terror tunnel and a tall building similar to those built in Arab cities in recent years.

Before wandering in the sand through the graffiti-decorated “village” and going underground through the dark, dangerous terror tunnel, we heard from Brig. Gen. (res.) Bentzi Gruber. Gruber is an entrepreneur involved with startups and innovation, a real-estate developer who has also initiated biotech research.

As deputy commander of the 252nd “Sinai” Division, Gruber has led an armored formation of 20,000 soldiers. He has participated in five of Israel’s wars, he said.

Gruber created the “Ethics in the Field” multimedia presentation and lecture to shatter misconceptions and present the facts missing in today’s discussion of Israeli counterterrorism.

(As founder of the nonprofit Chesed in The Field, he also brings IDF reservists together with chronically ill and disabled children for special events, to instill in thousands of soldiers the values of community and social responsibility.)

At the Urban Warfare Training Center in the western Negev, July 12, 2023. Photo by Yoav Dudkevitch/TPS.

Eight seconds

In the field, a soldier has eight seconds (if he’s lucky) to make a decision. Often very tired, with 60 to 120 pounds on his back, he must decide how to respond—to shoot or not to shoot.

The Israeli Code of Ethics presented by Gruber had four main points, which he supported with video clips of real recorded incidents. One example illustrated how a smiling suicide bomber was able to cross a canal in a jeep while the guard on duty was distracted by gunshots at a pre-coordinated time. 

The Israel Defense Forces must ask:

1. Is force used solely to accomplish the mission? The soldiers must decide how much force is necessary to accomplish the mission. However, how does one recognize the enemy? In previous wars, all combatants wore uniforms. These urban “fighters” are dressed in jeans and T-shirts.

2. Is force used solely to target the enemy? When in doubt don’t shoot. One image was of a booby-trapped kitchen IDF soldiers had encountered. 

3. Is the potential collateral damage proportional to the immediate threat? There have been situations when a pilot is flying toward a terror target and aborts the mission because there are children in the area. With the development and use of drones, getting smaller and more accurate, Gruber lamented the “unfortunate talent [that has to be] wasted on stupid drones” and added, “With all that talent we could have a cure for cancer.”

4. Minimize the damage! Scenes were shown of ambulances being used as cover and civilians as human shields. But another serious concern is that the Israeli soldier remains sensitive after war, and “remains a human being,” elaborated Gruber. “Nothing is left there [on the battlefield], it comes back with you.”

The Urban Warfare Training Center inside the IDF’s Tze’elim Base, July 12, 2023. Photo by Yoav Dudkevitch/TPS.

Gruber ended his presentation with an old photo taken in Europe. It depicts his mother as a young woman, standing next to her sister in a group family photograph. The two young women survived as “Mengele twins” and then a death march. The rest of the family was murdered in the gas chambers soon after the photo was taken.

In response to questions that were raised about the IDF, Gruber reiterated that a young soldier cannot think 10 times before taking action and that the soldiers carry guns for one purpose—to avoid threat. 

In the Jenin refugee camp/neighborhood two weeks ago, an estimated 12,000-90,000 people were crowded in a small area, yet not one civilian was killed, there were no collateral casualties. Only known terrorists were targeted and killed.

How does the IDF value life? People in buildings are warned before a raid begins, not only by the old method of “knocking on the roof,” a small hit to warn people to leave, but also with social media posts and cellphone calls.

Gruber drew a comparison to learning to drive. When you first start lessons you have to think of the various steps involved. But when repeated over and over again, driving becomes a more natural process. In the same way, the 18- to 19-year-old soldiers have to drill over and over again the scenarios that could occur in order to be prepared.

When there is no time to stop and think, they must react to fight to win and yet remain human beings. That is the challenge the Israel Defense Forces faces every day and night.

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