Interview with IDF’s Golani Brigade Commander: ‘Our job is to win wars’

Golani Brigade Commander Col. Rasan Alian believes that the expectation of sterilized warfare, without casualties or glitches, is unreasonable. “We are setting the bar so high that we will never be able to live up to it,” he warns.

By Yoav Limor


This week, in which we observe Israel’s Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism Remembrance Day immediately followed by Independence Day, belongs to the Israel Defense Forces’ Golani Brigade in many respects. It is true every year, but especially this year: The brigade has lost 16 of its men in last summer’s Operation Protective Edge — a painful reminder of the toll living in this country takes, but also of the fact that Golani is always there, on the front line, where results are needed and determined.

Golani Brigade Commander Col. Rasan Alian – Photo: Dudi Vaaknin

This year, the results have been somewhat controversial. Everyone agrees that the soldiers comprising the brigade are courageous. They fought with determination and completed the task at hand — destroying Hamas’ terror tunnels — with great success despite less than ideal conditions.

The controversy, a result of the prevailing feeling that the operation dragged on for too long and did not achieve its objectives, revolved around the conduct of their superiors, not just in the government and the top military echelon, but also in the Golani Brigade itself. Harsh criticism was leveled at the top ranking Golani officers, including the commander of the unit, over one incident in which an anti-tank missile was fired into an armored personnel carrier, killing seven Golani soldiers, including Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul, whose remains were snatched by Hamas fighters. Critics claimed the APC was ill-suited for the operation.

This criticism peaked recently when the Channel 2 investigative news program “Uvda” (“Fact”) delved into the incident. The program featured interviews with two Golani platoon commanders who spoke openly about their feelings regarding the incident and everything that followed. Their remarks swept the public and rattled the military, especially the Golani Brigade. Soldiers began asking questions, commanders had to provide answers, and some of them were not so cut and dry.

At the eye of this storm was Golani Commander Col. Rasan Alian. The decision to send APCs into the Gaza Strip was his, and now he wants to explain.

In an exclusive interview with Israel Hayom, joined by two battalion commanders — Lt. Col. Avihai Zafrani and Lt. Col. Barak Hiram — he criticizes the critics and says: “Let’s say that I had decided not to send APCs into Gaza, and send all the troops in by foot. And let’s say that a 120 mm mortar shell hit them and 10 of my men were killed. What would you have said then? That we are crazy for sending soldiers in by foot.”

“That is the reason that I don’t answer questions like that. They focus on the specific, without looking at the bigger picture. Without understanding that there was a war going on.”

Q: And still, if you are completely honest with yourself, is it possible that you made a mistake?

“At that point in time we assessed the situation and made a decision. My message to the troops as well as to the commanders is this: Next time, we will once again have to assess the situation and make a decision that will be right for that point in time, not in hindsight and not equipped with the wisdom of a postmortem investigation. That is what is expected of us: to make the right decision and do what we think should be done.”

Q: In the next war, will you not think twice before sending soldiers into battle in an unfortified APC?

“In wartime, an army cannot operate without logistics. In every convoy, not only are there no fortified vehicles, there are vehicles far less protected than an APC. Just like truck drivers transport fuel or explosives into the battlefield, we will go in too, whatever is necessary, be it in an APC or in a Humvee.

“It is not like every soldier will now have a tank or a Namer [an APC based on a Merkava tank chassis], unless more armored convoys capable of transporting fuel and water appear by magic.”

It is hard to miss the cynicism on Alian’s face. It wasn’t always there. He was deeply hurt by the criticism directed at him. Most painful was the criticism leveled by his colleagues within the IDF. Among them there were those who claimed that had he not been wounded in battle, and had the chief of staff been less forgiving, he too would have had to pay a price for his decisions. Alian says that such claims stem from a profound lack of understanding of the details. According to him, the APC incident was the most thoroughly investigated incident of the entire war. It was inspected meticulously from top to bottom, on every level, from the battalion commander to the GOC. At the end of the day, he believes that the expectation of sterilized warfare, without casualties or glitches, is unreasonable. “We are setting the bar so high that we will never be able to live up to it,” he warns.

Q: Can you explain?

“When I lose a soldier in battle, I owe his parents answers. I personally investigated every incident. But we won’t always be able to provide all the answers, and not because we don’t want to, but because sometimes it is impossible. When seven soldiers are killed in an APC, there things that happened there that we will never know. There are events, including this one, where you talk to five different soldiers who were present and they tell you five different stories, each from his own angle.

“Take for example the troops who say they were isolated. Nineteen Golani fighters, with tanks 200 meters away from them and a battalion fighting 300 meters away from them. How is that isolated? And even if all those forces weren’t there, it still would not be isolation. Nineteen soldiers is a unit that should be able to raid enemy positions.”

Q: That is how they felt at that point in time?

“It is important to distinguish between the professional and the personal planes. In the professional plane, I think they are wrong. On the personal plane, I do not judge them. Each person has their own point of view and they each process things differently.”

The battalion commanders, Zafrani and Hiram, take a harsher stance. Zafrani speaks openly about “professional mistakes” made by the platoon commander, who was ultimately discharged. Hiram, who is responsible for all the brigade’s training, says that “it would have been easiest for us to bury the event, pay them ‘hush money’ and move on.” But according to his account, “A profession mistake was made. When the APC [got stuck] a certain response was in order. Certain techniques and actions that they were trained for should have been enacted, and for some reason they weren’t. To this day we cannot figure out, not even from them, why they weren’t enacted.”

But most of the anger is not directed inward at the brigade, but outward. In Golani, they are talking about a cultural decline, no less, when it comes to the terminology that has evolved in Israel.

“I read in the newspaper that people are talking about the APC tragedy,” says Alian. “In the next war with Hezbollah, are we going to call every tank that explodes, and tanks will most certainly explode, a tragedy? Why tragedy? Did this APC drive over an explosive device in Tel Aviv? Did it flip over during training in the Golan Heights? Of course it is a tragedy to the families, but I am more concerned with the conduct of the command, because I am all too familiar with the reality: Next time we will have to send soldiers out there in APCs, and what will we say to their commanders? That they are not allowed to make mistakes? Unfortunately, warfare involves mistakes, and for us mistakes cost lives.”

What Alian avoids saying outright is that Israeli society, led by the media, mistakenly views every event in a war as an individual routine security measure. War is the sum of bigger things, and as such it must be judged differently. The expectation of deluxe warfare, completely devoid of mistakes, is enough to paralyze commanders, or could lead to heads rolling. “Our commanders need to make decisions regardless of the fashion or the trends or public sentiments,” says Hiram.

“We are Israel’s most expensive insurance policy. Our job is to win wars. We should be judged on one thing only: Did we do our job. In the next war, we will not be shooting at cardboard mock-ups. We are going to be shooting at actual human beings. We will kill and be killed, and we need to prepare the people for that. In my opinion, that is also the reason why the Golani Brigade recuperates so quickly from these events — people here are not surprised. It is not like we promised them Switzerland and suddenly they find themselves in the Middle East.”

All but one Golani battalions are currently deployed in Judea and Samaria. Soon they will shift to the northern arena. Operation Protective Edge provided the Golani Brigade with significant battle experience. Until this operation, only a handful of Golani commanders had ever actually been under fire. Now, everyone in the unit knows what war is like. “To be in battle, to see people wounded and killed, to fight — suddenly it all became very tangible and it directly impacts our self confidence,” says Zafrani.

Q: It could also have a different impact. In war there are casualties. Not everything was a success.

“I think that only makes us stronger. Ultimately, the soldiers here learned that war is not as sexy as it looks in the movies. There are painful experiences, but even when your friend dies beside you, in the end it makes you stronger and better.”

Professionally speaking, the brigade, like the rest of the IDF, learned quite a few lessons from last summer’s fighting. Some of these lessons, like how to fight in residential areas against a decentralized enemy, simply improve on lessons learned in the past, while others, like how to handle terror tunnels and other weapons that had not been used before, are new lessons that have now been incorporated into the training plans. A significant emphasis has been placed on the mental aspects, and here in Golani, they point to this as a positive. Golani soldiers came to battle ready in that respect.

According to the commanders, the result was not only a heightened sense of trust in the system (as was clearly demonstrated in a survey taken by Golani soldiers after the operation), but also an increase in motivation. There has been a marked increase in the number of soldiers who show interest in training to become officers or commanders.

Among new recruits, the numbers are even more extreme. Six recruits vie for every available spot in the brigade, and that number only rises from operation to operation.

“Our biggest challenge is taking this virtual motivation, that they bring from home, and turning it into real motivation,” says Hiram. “Most recruits come here because of a myth. They heard, saw or read something. On the one hand, it is an advantage because they come eager. But on the other hand, they can quickly become disappointed because it is not Hollywood here. Reality is far harsher and more painful.”

The way into the brigade takes you through the Golani fighting legacy, all the way from 1948 to Gaza 2014. But most of it is training. Most recently, all the platoon commanders underwent intensive studies on Hezbollah. The idea, much like what happened on the eve of Protective Edge, is to prepare the commanders, and thereby the soldiers under their command, for what is ahead in the next Lebanon war. Everything from knowing the enemy to mentally preparing for warfare.

Q: Preparing for what?

“To be ready for certain events, and to know how to recuperate from them. Our training is routine security, and as such we seek 100 percent success rates, which is nice. But in war, things are more complicated and we will have glitches and there will be things that we will learn about ourselves and about the enemy as we go. One of the objectives is to prepare the troops — mainly the commanders.”

“That is the key to waging a war we can win.”

Over the last few days, the Golani Brigade has dedicated its time to visiting bereaved families. Hiram says that there are two types of Israelis who do not need any memorial days to remember the fallen — bereaved families and commanders. Alian reminds us that “we are a brigade rife with fallen soldiers. Sadly, we know how to handle it.”

Q: But still, that is not something you can get used to.

“I said we know how to handle it. Not that we are used to it.”

Before this interview, Alian visited the family of Maj. Zafrir Bar-Or who was killed in Gaza last summer. For him, meeting with the family is the essence of being an Israel. When he left the family’s home, Zafrir’s mother asked him what he planned to do after Memorial Day. Her husband said that they were “going to hike, have a picnic, for the grandchildren. For the family.”

This very Israeli link between remembrance and independence does not end this week. Next Sunday, the Golani Brigade will hold its traditional race from Mount Hermon in the north to Eilat in the south — 830 kilometers (516 miles). During the that time, they will meet with students in more than 80 schools nationwide. They don’t need any more recruits (the quotas are more than filled, including an impressive list of sons of former brigade commanders who are now eating sand in basic training), but the outreach has to continue. This is what makes Golani the very essence of being Israeli.

“We always say that a mother of a Golani fighter is a mother for life,” says Alian, paraphrasing the old Golani cliche that says that you can leave Golani, but Golani never leaves you. “There is a winning combination here of having the eye on the prize — determination and toughness — coupled with all this warmth and family and love. There are commanders here who truly love their men.”

You can look at all this as some syrupy kitsch, or you can look at it a different way: In an era when fewer and fewer Israelis enlist, and fewer and fewer of those who do enlist join units that actually make a difference, Golani (and the rest of the infantry brigades) is an oasis that traverses all of Israeli society.

Responding to claims that more and more Golani soldiers are religious Jews, the commander says “I have 370 Ethiopian soldiers in my brigade. We have Muslims, Christians and lone soldiers from every place you can imagine on the planet.

“Last year, three Chinese soldiers enlisted in the IDF. Where did they want to serve? Golani. God knows how they heard of us.”

Q: So today’s youth are not as apathetic as they appear?

“After Operation Protective Edge, we did a unit-wide diagnostic test. A kind of extensive questionnaire where we tried to find out a lot of things, like what makes the soldiers do what they do. The answers were incredible, also because they were identical to those given in a similar survey Golani did in 1967. The soldiers said they were doing it for their friends in their teams, and the second reason was a love of Israel.”

“Quite a few soldiers wrote that throughout the years and in previous wars there were others who fought, and now it is their turn and they will do it. So there might be a decline in the youth’s motivation, but anyone who comes here does amazing work.”


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