The first thing that gets you is the vertigo -- the inability to navigate the space around you. From the moment you pass through the system of electronic gates and descend down the wide stairs, you begin losing your sense of direction. Another small turn, either to the left or to the right, and that's it. You don't know where you are. Without guidance, you are lost. You have no idea which way is north, where the exit could possibly be or what to do in the event of a real emergency.
The truth is that in the event of a real emergency, "The Pit," at the Israel Defense Forces headquarters in Tel Aviv known as the Kirya -- dozens of meters underground -- is probably the safest place you can be. An underground city through which the army passes as a matter of routine. It is by way of the Kirya that the IDF manages emergencies: layers upon layers of cast concrete, countless bare-walled corridors lined with miles and miles of cables -- the only line of communication with the outside world. This is probably the only place left on earth where there are no mobile phones -- because they are prohibited for fear of documentation or cyberattack but also because of the simple fact that there is absolutely no reception. There are only land lines in The Pit.
This complete isolation from the outside world is not just for guests. On the second day of the November 2012 campaign in Gaza -- Operation Pillar of Defense -- at dusk, the top echelon of the IDF convened in The Pit for yet another operations consultation on the ongoing fighting. The chief of staff sat in the center, surrounded by the heads of the general staff departments. On video phones were the GOCs of the various arenas speaking from their respective headquarters. Other screens displayed a string of different aerial photos from the battleground in Gaza, including footage of launches and assaults. Everything was strictly routine. That is precisely what The Pit was designed to create -- a bubble of fighting without any external or distracting noise. That is why none of the participants in the discussion could hear the sirens that wailed at the time over the Tel Aviv skies, paralyzing the city's inhabitants, warning of an incoming rocket. It was only after a few seconds that the GOC Homefront Command informed the top military echelon by conference call that the sirens had been activated in Tel Aviv.
At that moment, the people entrusted with our security were biting their nails along with the rest of us, waiting anxiously to see what happens, without any ability to change the outcome. Moments later, the IDF spokesman emerged from The Pit into the open air and reported that "there was no strike on the ground." This incident prompted a decision to expedite the deployment of another Iron Dome missile defense system battery. The battery was hastily placed at the outskirts of Tel Aviv. Shortly down the line it even intercepted a few projectiles.
Not everyone approved of the rare and exclusive glimpse, afforded only to Israel Hayom, into the beating heart of the IDF -- the operational center of the military. The debate was harsh, replete with principles. The gatekeepers argued that this was a fortress that could not be allowed to fall; that it was essential for the operational mechanism to remain obscured from the media. There were also those who were in favor of the exposure, but even they had to admit that there was logic to the opponents' argument. Anything that gets out cannot be put back in. Ultimately it was decided to grant us access, and, for the first time, let us take photos, but under strict supervision. We agreed to all the conditions, knowing that they would allow us to give the world, for the first time, an inside look at the place where things really happen.
But we also did it for the history. After all, it was in these corridors that countless fates were sealed. Almost all the transcripts that were recently released for publication from the Yom Kippur War 40 years ago represented events that took place here, in these conference rooms, deep underground in The Pit. The surprise attack of October 6, 1973 and the consequent fiasco, which ultimately turned into an impressive military victory -- all these were managed from here. And even before then, the victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, the War of Attrition that followed it, and two years later the First Lebanon War, and then the Second Lebanon War, not to mention the thousands of operations launched in between.
The sparse photos on the odd wall do not reveal the intensity of the drama that took place here since The Pit was first used in 1956 -- not by a long shot. Even people who served here in The Pit have trouble recounting the events, and not just because of the strict compartmentalization of information that passes through here. The intensity, in such a chaotic country as ours, makes it so events don't have individual, pinpoint significance -- they are plots on an endless sequence that appears completely natural. The fluorescent lights are never turned off in The Pit.
Focus on the big picture
The routine in the Operations Directorate, as much as you can call it a routine, can be crudely divided into two parts: Half the time, maybe slightly less than half, the focus is on the everyday work -- routine security measures, training, operational models etc. -- and the other half of the time is dedicated to preparing for operations. Every war plan executed by Israeli forces is designed and put together here. This is where they take shape, get a name, and then get sent down the line to the commanders and to the relevant branches, where the content is poured into them.
"The Operations Directorate is not interested in tactical work," the outgoing head of the department, Colonel B., explains. "It is less important to us which air force squadron carries out a mission or which armored corps division. We define the targets, the 'what' and the individual branches decide on the 'how.'"
In practice, what Colonel B. is saying is nearly impossible. In a country where every tactical move becomes strategy instantly, the tendency is to intervene, to influence. The officers of the Operations Directorate all came from command posts, and will return to the field in the future. They get phone calls, pressure and requests from the people in the field. And that is just the least of their problems. The bigger problem arises during emergencies: Modern technology makes almost anything possible; from The Pit one can look through every camera, observe every bomb and supervise almost every soldier. The temptation is to run the battle from The Pit, instead of the field commanders. To prevent this from happening, a separate conference room was built for the chief of staff. It is situated adjacent to the central war room, where emergency situations are overseen, but it is also separated from it so that the chief of staff can focus on the bigger picture without being sucked into the pinpoint clashes.
This room, the chief of staff's room, contains an elliptical desk and several screens mounted on the walls. A glass partition separates it from the war room, where the top brass of the IDF sit in a half crescent: The chief of staff in the center, flanked by the relevant officers on either side and behind him. They are all facing screens displaying the relevant video conference and the operational footage. On the other side of the corridor lies the chief of staff's office, adjoined by a small break room. On that side there are also the offices of the other high ranking general staff officials, the prime minister, the defense minister and another conference room for meetings of the Diplomatic-Security Cabinet. Everything is extremely minimalistic, mainly due to crowding, but also for the sake of efficiency. There is no ceremony in The Pit. There is no showing off; no guests; no festive receptions. People come here only to work and to oversee military operations or wars.
During routine peacetime, when the high ranking officials and dignitaries are not there, The Pit is occupied by the Operations Directorate. Their job, in its most distilled form, is to serve as the operations headquarters for the general staff -- the arm with which the general staff activates the entire army. This is where the general staff gets its information on things that have already occurred, and plans for what will occur in the future. It could be as minor as providing assistance to a foreign government when needed, or an operation to free a captive Israeli soldier, like Gilad Schalit. If the IDF is involved in something in any way, it is from The Pit.
There are, of course, exceptions. They occur mainly in the gray areas, which the IDF has recently labeled with the code name BBW, or battle between wars (or the more pleasant name that has been going around the Kirya lately, "presentations between operations"). This gray area presumably includes all the operations for which Israel does not explicitly claim responsibility, but are attributed to Israel by the foreign media. Such operations are more classified, and the number of people in the know is far more limited. A covert operation in a faraway country may not elicit an immediate response, but any action in neighboring countries always has the potential to become volatile. In such a case, the mechanism has to be prepared and ready for action, sometimes without any warning. Even when it is impossible to call up a draft in advance or to prepare the homefront, so as to avoid causing panic or exposing secrets, someone has to be ready with a contingency plan, in case the need comes up.
Such contingency planning, in general terms, exists for every front and every arena. When the prime minister or the defense minister tells the Israeli public in recent years that Israel is capable of striking Iran, that means that someone has made an operational plan for such a strike with more than just an attack plan -- which jets drop which bombs on which sites -- but also accompanying plans in the realms of intelligence, oversight, teleprocessing, and, of course, the homefront. If there is a plan for an attack on Iran, there is certainly a plan for a possible confrontation on the northern front or in Gaza. The plans change all the time, obviously, as various intelligence is gathered or the threats and targets shift, but these plans have to exist to prevent the opening of a dangerous void, like the one that emerged during the 2006 Second Lebanon War. In 2006, the IDF went to war without a clear cut plan and found itself chasing its own tail in southern Lebanon without a clear objective or purpose.
That war was replete with failures, most of them resulting from faulty management and bad decision making in the higher echelons. But it exposed two more prominent issues, having to do directly with the Operations Directorate: The IDF entered a war without being trained or ready for the missions at hand (which were not clearly defined anyway); and the war itself, at least the military aspects of the war, was not overseen from The Pit.
Then-IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz held consultations at his above-ground office and didn't stick to a "war clock," which dictates a logical and continuous sequence of situational assessments, meetings, approval of missions and operations, and everything over again from the beginning. Such a timetable is designed to force the entire mechanism into an organized pattern. Ostensibly, this is just semantics, but in practice, military investigations have proven that there was a fundamental problem with the management of this war. When you hold consultations in The Pit with a permanent order of actions and the same permanent individuals you mold the process into a having a clear shape and allow for continuous self-monitoring. Halutz, who chose to consult with changing teams of people, in meetings that frequently changed format, and didn't convene a single meaningful meeting in The Pit (which didn't even serve as a war room), sabotaged the IDF and, in the process, himself as well.
The Operations Directorate's files
As a lesson of the Second Lebanon War, the IDF went back to basics. The Operations Directorate was bolstered; The Pit was made into a war outpost, and the military resumed training. Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, who replaced Halutz as the chief of staff, raised the concept of going back to basics to an almost godly level, to the point that everyone around him felt that he had gone too far: he was spending too much money, investing too many resources and too much energy in training and equipment. Meanwhile, no one knew for sure whether any of it would ever actually be useful. This was especially true for land operational structures, which are growing less and less central in any future battle scenario. If Ashkenazi had invested less in training and more in amassing means, the IDF may have preempted the recent budget cuts and gone through the same process it is going through now, but during a time of budgetary freedom.
But alongside the criticism, there is also the fact that the IDF entered an organized process of real preparation for the next war. In Operation Cast Lead (the Dec. 2008 campaign in Gaza), led by Ashkenazi, the IDF was far more prepared. In Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, there was another leap forward, in all aspects of the fighting. It began with the level of preparedness, which started with a clear operational plan that was handed down to the commands and the various branches, and continued through with guidance as to the need for the operation. One example was the systematic, painstaking documentation of rocket launching sites, and the location of Hamas and Islamic Jihad commanders. This information was diligently collected and documented on maps, which were then pulled up when needed and used in real time.
Immediately after the IDF assassinated Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari in November 2012, the air force launched a campaign to destroy rocket launchers and munitions, and started deploying forces in the south, in accordance with another plan pulled directly from the Operations Directorate files.
"The Second Lebanon War is before our eyes every day," says Colonel B. "That war, with all its failures, has an existential presence in the military. It is present in every operations plan, in every briefing, even in budget meetings."
And still, the lessons of that war are most tangible in The Pit -- a place whose entire essence is the rapid shift from routine to emergency in no time. To the outside observer it may seem inconsequential -- what connection could there possibly be between a place and an essence? -- but anyone who lives this on a daily basis understands that it is critical. The organized conduct, with a continuous process of planning for the days ahead coupled with regular situation assessments, and all the while having the ability to draw an accurate, real time picture from any arena and to manage it, all could very well determine the end result.
There are about 300 to 400 officers and soldiers serving in The Pit who are responsible for this process. During times of emergency, they are joined by a few hundred reservists, some of them much older. A senior officer who spent a significant amount of time in The Pit in recent years recounts that this was one of the things that he found most surprising. "You see people in their sixties down there, sometimes older, who could have been exempted from reserves duty years ago, but they continue to come and serve in the reserves, overseeing the fighting. As cynical and cocky that we are, convinced that we know everything, we learned that there is no substitute for their experience."
Part of this experience is in synchronizing the mechanism. This is a civilian practice that was adopted by the military and is carried out regularly at The Pit. The synchronization is required not only in the event of a specific operation -- between the fighters and auxiliary forces in the intelligence, logistics, sometimes the Mossad, the Shin Bet security agency and the Foreign Ministry -- but also on a wider scale, between arenas. When the IDF fights in Gaza, there is always the fear that the northern arena will ignite as well. When a rocket is fired at Eilat, there is a fear that Lebanese copycats could emerge in the north.
This process of transferring information upward, to the general staff, and sideways to the branches and commands, is done here, under the supervision of the arena commanders. They are all senior officers and combat fighters who have two jobs: to represent the chief of staff in the commands and to represent the commands in the Operations Directorate. In this way, the IDF ensures that the general staff directives make it all the way to the field, that they are fully understood and implemented in both planning and active operations, but also that the experience amassed by the command officers, who naturally have a better understanding of their arenas and are the ones who have to fight in it, make it to the Kirya and meet with the general staff.
Naturally, some arena commanders' authority spans over the commands (southern command, northern command, central command and homefront command) while additional arena commanders are responsible for routine security measures and the reserves and all the activity known in the IDF as "combined" -- the air force, navy, and all the special units (including the Mossad and the Shin Bet).
"Our jobs span the core to the knife," says Colonel B. "We can wake up one morning with a possible routine security threat on the Gaza border and go to sleep that night with a potential war on our hands. Endless flexibility is required, proficiency in the field, and most importantly, the ability to be ready quickly -- to go from zero to a hundred in seconds."
In order to ensure that the system is running smoothly, the Operations Directorate holds frequent drills. The understanding that the processes that happen here will determine the success or failure of the next operation or war, and every action in between, calls for a well-oiled, skilled mechanism. All the officers here come from the operational core of the IDF: The arena commanders are combat soldiers who commanded over battalions. The department heads were brigade commanders, the head of the Operations Directorate was a division commander. Most of them have a well-defined career trajectory, knowing where they will be posted next, taking with them the experience they accumulate in The Pit.
"When you are a regiment commander, you don't always understand how everything, even the smallest thing like a safety violation or contact with a fence, makes its way immediately to the chief of staff," says the head of the Operations Directorate. "Here, you learn that it is all part and parcel of a well-oiled mechanism that tries to keep chance occurrences to an absolute minimum."
And still, unplanned events are a part of life. Sometimes, it takes even the Operations Directorate time to prepare properly. Such was the case, for example, in the terror attack on route 12 in Aug. 2011 (a series of cross-border attacks in southern Israel near the Egyptian border), in which seven Israeli soldiers were killed and dozens were wounded. The IDF took a relatively long time to understand and confront the situation. Part of that stemmed from Israel's relations with Egypt and some of it from the distance and topographical conditions and the absence of any actual barrier at the border. Since then, the arena has changed completely. The Kirya has also drawn the necessary conclusions, especially in regard to the handling of the delicate meeting point between the military and civilians in a region that can turn into a battlefield in an instant.
This meeting point is of great interest to the IDF in recent years. The endurance of the homefront is a central component of any operational plan, which is why a special place is reserved for the homefront command in The Pit, alongside the combat commands.
"Once we thought about everything in terms of front and rear, but today we know that there is only one front," says Colonel B. "The homefront's and the economy's ability to remain continuous is critical to allow us to fight, and the chief of staff must take this into account in every decision he makes. That is why the reserves draft is done here, in the Operations Directorate. Not just to ensure that it is closely monitored, but also because it is usually done under fire, and with quite the pandemonium going on. There has to be a body that ensures that things are done in an orderly fashion."
A scenario that begins like a terror attack
The Operations Directorate conducts a series of training exercises that stretch over the course of the entire year. These exercises focus on scenarios. Recently, the navy was drilled (and the rest of the military as well, as a result, with an emphasis on intelligence and the air force). The scenario began as a seeming terror attack on civilians. A ship was kidnapped by a terror organization in response to disagreements over allocation of natural resources in the Mediterranean Sea. The main challenge for the units being drilled was to identify the ship, to reach it as quickly as possible and to prevent it from being taken into enemy waters.
To make the drill more realistic, the IDF rented a private boat that had just returned from a trip abroad, "commandeered" it, and only then summoned the navy forces, accompanied by the entire IDF. It took the navy some time to locate the ship, then to figure out who the kidnappers were, what they wanted and even what language they were speaking. In today's terror world, with the endless variety of global jihad organizations, the IDF may have to negotiate in a language that very few Israelis, if any, actually speak.
The drill spanned four days, and ended with navy commandos taking control of the ship and extracting the hostages. In the meantime, Israel was attacked by Hezbollah, and retaliated. There were many casualties, and for a moment there was a real concern (how a drill can imitate the real world sometimes) that things could devolve into all-out war.
During those moments of stress and adrenaline, Colonel B. says, the only thing that the people in The Pit dream about is a tiny window and a drop of oxygen. Indeed, in their world, between alcoves and tunnels, with recycled, compressed air, chronic fatigue and nosebleeds are common symptoms. There is no contact with the outside world, precisely because of the need to isolate the facility from the world. Here, too, there is a paradox: the very location of The Pit (and the entire Kirya headquarters for that matter), puts Israelis in harm's way. In any future conflict, the enemy would likely target the Kirya in efforts to undermine the IDF's capabilities. The assessment of a future conflict involving Tel Aviv talks about hundreds of rockets and missiles that will obviously hit not just military facilities but also surrounding civilian sites.
The best solution would be to remove the Kirya from Tel Aviv. This would also give rise to a significant real-estate frenzy (the Kirya is located in a prime real estate location). In this day and age, there is really no relevance to where the headquarters are situated. The general staff could do its job just as well in Jerusalem or Modiin. But as of now there are no such relocation plans. The next war will be overseen from the same old Pit, which was last renovated more than 30 years ago and looks like the polar opposite of the fancy office buildings that were recently built in the Kirya. This is a silent testament to everything that the IDF truly wants to represent: professionalism, efficiency, simplicity.