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The General Who Believes in Winning Wars

For the past two decades, Gershon Hacohen has been a lonely dissenter in the highest ranks of the IDF. Unfortunately, he was proved right.

Armin Rosen
February 28, 2024
Gershon Hacohen supervises a parachuting drill, 2012

IDF via Flickr

Gershon Hacohen supervises a parachuting drill, 2012

IDF via Flickr

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Four-and-half months after Hamas commandos overran the police station in the center of Sderot, all that remains is a dusty lot of twisted rebar. Although the city’s police killed over two dozen terrorists before the IDF arrived late in the morning of Oct. 7, it took over a dozen tank shells to bring down the hijacked station, where outnumbered officers had fought Hamas’ Nukhba forces to a bloody impasse. An Israeli tank had never fired on an Israeli building on Israeli territory in combat before.

A freshly painted mural next to the former site of the demolished station memorializes this unprecedented breach in the national reality of the Jewish state: A tank is shown bombarding the building against eerily colorful skies. The numinous image of an open Torah scroll hovers above the scene, recalling the desecrated happiness of the holiday on which the fighting took place. On the day I visited, earlier this month, an American family was on a guided tour, feet away from a group of several dozen uniformed policemen who were also on some kind of organized visit to their force’s newest national shrine. On Feb. 11, the Times of Israel reported that rubble from the station, which was bulldozed the morning of Oct. 8, had been dumped in a nature preserve north of the city.

Is the Sderot battle something to be canonized or buried? It isn’t surprising that the answers, as expressed in the present, are so bizarrely incoherent. One of the major features of the war that began on Oct. 7 is its persisting lack of clarity. Israel might be on the verge of defeating Hamas in Gaza—or it could be weeks away from the steep strategic setback of American recognition of a Palestinian state. While the demobilization of reservists and a newly announced government timeline for the repopulation of the Gaza border region has partly relieved the feeling of an active emergency, an even worse crisis looms in the form of a potential war with Hezbollah, a threat that has so far prevented 60,000 displaced Israelis from returning to their homes in the north.

Months after Hamas’ destruction of a 30-year-old illusion of a settled national existence and the discrediting of most of those responsible for theorizing and implementing it, there is societywide consensus on the need to defeat Hamas and a fog over nearly everything else. There are relatively few senior Israelis left who have proved themselves qualified to see through the morass. Of those few remaining former generals, government ministers, and agency heads still worth listening to, almost none held as senior a position in the security apparatus as Maj. Gen. (Res.) Gershon Hacohen.

‘The fact that Tel Aviv is still full with life is due to the fact that we are controlling Judea and Samaria.’

In 2000, when Hacohen was the head of the IDF general staff’s training and doctrine division, he was asked to produce a paper about how Israel could defend itself without control of the Jordan Valley, which was to be ceded to a future Palestinian state under peace plans that Prime Minister Ehud Barak, nearly the entire top leadership of the IDF, and the next decade’s worth of Israeli leaders did not think were irresponsible. “My paper was very short: It is like asking an F-15 pilot to just rise up without an engine,” he recalled. “No way.”

In the years before his retirement from active duty in the mid-2000s, Hacohen, who was also the commander of Israel’s national defense college, emerged as one of the IDF’s strongest and highest-ranked internal dissenters. Hacohen, now 69, claimed to me that he was the only active-duty general to accurately warn about the likely security consequences of the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, an operation he was then put in charge of.

In a war game in April of 2005, four months before the withdrawal, the IDF general staff simulated a scenario in which terrorists in the coastal strip launched rockets at Ashdod, Sderot, and Ashkelon. Hacohen’s advice in the midst of the exercise was to tell Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that “we don’t have a full way to retaliate because we will not be allowed to cross the border every week, we will not be allowed to launch artillery at a refugee camp of 50,000 residents, we will kill uninvolved people … therefore tell him what will happen will be a disaster, and we will not have a good way for retaliation.” After giving this assessment, Hacohen said he “was warned by chief of staff,” Moshe Ya’alon, “that I was speaking politically. I told him: ‘I am the only one here speaking professionally.’”

Hacohen was given a monthlong time frame for the removal of Gaza’s 9,000 remaining Israeli civilians, a job he finished in only two weeks. “Why did I succeed?” he asked. “Because I convinced the settler leaders to join me, to understand that they must struggle, but not to the fatal end, because in that way they will lose that legitimation they needed for the main battle about Judea and Samaria.” No soldiers died implementing the withdrawal, the settlement movement retained its credibility in Israeli society and dramatically grew in power, and there were no subsequent unilateral Israeli pullouts from the West Bank.

Hacohen is active in the Bitchonistim, known in English as the Israel Defense and Security Forum, an organization of over 20,000 former security and defense officials who are opposed to any overly risky concessions to Israel’s enemies, most notably the Palestinians. In 2022, the organization presented a detailed security assessment in which it argued for the strategic necessity of forcibly disarming the Gaza Strip. Yoav Gallant, the current minister of defense, attended the launch event for the paper—retired Gen. Amir Avivi, the Bitchonistim’s founder, worked closely with both Gallant and Hacohen when he was in the army. Members of the Bitchonistim are perceived, fairly or unfairly, as having access to the current government, which has informally drawn on their advice over the course of the war.

Israel is a country where ex-generals, including the quietly influential ones, have no particular aura to them—within the martial and Jewish-flavored egalitarianism of Israeli society, a former member of the general staff could be mistaken for a professor or a farmer or a bus driver. Hacohen is different even from the typical run of Israeli former officials. He speaks in a hypnotically slow, even, and high-pitched English, and the spindly retired officer often looks and sounds like a poet or a desert hermit who only happened to have commanded men into battle for over 40 years. I met him late on a Thursday night in Tel Aviv in mid-February, at a mostly deserted cafe near the Defense Ministry headquarters. A few hours earlier, protesters had blocked traffic in front of the ministry, demanding new elections and an immediate hostage release deal, even though there is no realistic one on offer. The demonstration was the city’s one glaring pocket of abnormality: Dizengoff was packed even beyond pre-conflict levels; my hotel in Ramat Gan was at capacity with Israelis heading to a concert at nearby Menora Mivtachim Arena.

“Tel Aviv was empty like a dead city at the beginning of the war. It took time to resurrect it. What you can see now is a miracle,” Hacohen said. Was the miracle the performance of the IDF in Gaza? I ventured, given that the army was slowly progressing toward full control of the territory and rocket fire from the Strip hadn’t threatened the city in weeks. “No,” he replied, “it is because of the power of life.”

The endurance of even a superficially normal existence in wartime Tel Aviv was a fragile miracle in the former military man’s view, and not only because of the long-range missiles that Hezbollah has aimed at the city. “The idea of President Biden to build a Palestinian state is a threat much more serious to the existence of Israel than the nuclear bomb in Iran—definitely,” he said. “And if Israel will not struggle against this idea, we are just opening the door for the fatal end of Israel.”

Israel’s closest ally is now supporting two regional military forces who see their paramount foe as Israel, and provide practical support and political cover for Iranian-backed terror militias.

Hacohen’s injunctions might sound unduly alarmist. Then again, few military professionals foresaw the current nightmare on the eve of the Gaza pullout, and many serious Israeli security types thought that Operation Guardian of the Walls was a game-changing victory just a couple of years ago, showcasing Israel’s technological superiority and ability to dictate to its enemies. “The fact that Tel Aviv is still full with life is due to the fact that we are controlling Judea and Samaria,” Hacohen said. The loss of that control would bring Israel to a dire existential crux.

Hacohen then rapidly moved on to the bigger question of why the country needs to exist at all. Security is a necessary condition of life anywhere, he said, but that was not the point of Jews being sovereign in the land of Israel. “If the American administration thinks that we are here just for security, as they are always telling us, I’m telling them, always, that our story is not security. If all our anxieties are just security, why not look to find that in New Jersey? What’s bad there? Why struggle here for more than 100 years, only for security that’s still not achieved? Security is only the means for another goal. The main goal is redemption … Tel Aviv without being a gateway to Jerusalem is nothing beyond Brooklyn on the Mediterranean.”

“I spoke like that always while in the army,” Hacohen said. The religious register was once a commonplace of the worldview and vocabulary of Israeli military figures who are now considered icons of the country’s snuffed-out era of hopeful secular liberalism: “This was the way in which Moshe Dayan spoke. Yitzhak Rabin spoke like that,” Hacohen said. Over time, that mutually reinforcing sense of danger and purpose grew dimmer in Israel, even though the basic realities of the country hadn’t really changed. In Hacohen’s view, the country’s elite lost sight of continuities in the Israeli condition, the nature of war, and the connection between war and national survival, a mass delusion that Hamas shattered in horrifying fashion.

Hacohen began his career in the army in the early 1970s and was one of the soldiers who crossed the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War. One day in 1977, as a company commander along the front line in the Golan Heights, he loaded a dozen tanks onto flatbed trucks to send them to a nearby live-fire exercise. Gen. Rafael Eitan, soon to become IDF chief of staff, was on hand and suddenly ordered a different kind of drill: Hacohen was to imagine the Syrians were attacking across the line of control, right that very second, meaning he had to get the tanks off the trailers as fast as humanly possible. “He did that to emphasize that the enemy is coming by surprise: Everything could happen at the very definite wrong moment, unexpectedly,” Hacohen said.

“The basic principle of defense is that you are not dependent in the field upon an alert,” he continued. “It is a part of the military profession as commander to keep the ritual of readiness.”

The ritual lapsed, along with the culture and the mindset that allowed it to exist in the first place. Even now, months after Oct. 7, it is possible to trick yourself into thinking that Eitan’s snap exam in the Golan belonged to a different era in warfare. It is true enough that the Syrian army of the late 1970s, whatever its myriad faults, was at least a uniformed regular military with a doctrine based around actual combat and a sense of honor that compelled it to stand and fight against other soldiers. In contrast, on Oct. 7, Hamas commandos fled from active confrontation with armed Israelis in order to maximize the number of Israeli civilian dead, and the group’s tactics in Gaza are based on sacrificing the largest possible number of Palestinian civilians while avoiding combat altogether. But if the long-ago Syrian army is a different kind of opponent than today’s Hamas, it requires a similarly inventive and broad-minded approach to military leadership to see each enemy clearly. Hacohen believes that mentality has all but vanished within the IDF.

In Hacohen’s view, the army lost the institutional memory of what it really means to “participate in a huge war,” something the IDF hadn’t done since the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. In time, Hacohen said, “most of the commanders did not have that experience of warfare.” The end of the Cold War tricked the world’s leading militaries into believing that generals no longer needed to think or even care that much about the prospect of major combat for military leadership, and that wars would be small and manageable from now on—as Hacohen noted, even the viciously unsentimental Vladimir Putin was convinced that a handful of special forces could conquer Ukraine in a couple of days.

Hacohen, at right, speaks with a settler during the Gaza disengagement, 2005
Hacohen, at right, speaks with a settler during the Gaza disengagement, 2005

Yagil Henkin/Alamy

In the post-Cold War era of the Oslo Accords, peace with Jordan, and near-peace with Syria, the Israeli establishment became convinced that the country had fought its final existential battle. The rising generation of IDF generals were people who seemed well-suited to the smaller, more contained, lower-stakes conflicts of the post-historical world. “Those who were promoted came from special forces,” Hacohen said. “They cannot understand warfare in the same way that a very excellent brain surgeon cannot understand [general] medicine.”

According to Hacohen, the belief that mass-maneuver warfare was a relic of military textbooks from the past, and that the skills involved in fighting such conflicts no longer had any relevance, fed a growing institutional malaise within the IDF. The country’s strategic complex, busily preparing itself for peace with Yasser Arafat, generated self-fulfilling excuses for why the army needed to move away from the rough business of large-scale conflict. The profession of an IDF general went from existential warfare to “fire dominance by standoff,” as Hacohen explained—the idea that enemies could be fought at a distance through specialized units, airpower, and technological superiority. This was convenient, given that these were areas in which Israel already excelled, and which were central to the country’s newfound economic prosperity.

Candidates for high rank in the IDF weren’t prized for their ability to think creatively or deliver victories—victory being an outmoded concept in the new age of surgical operations in the service of peace—but for being good organizational functionaries. As war itself became hopelessly abstracted, the Israelis responsible for its theory and practice grew alienated from their core civic function, which is to prepare for the unthinkable, to live at the brink of national doomsday so that civilian life could be as orderly and productive as possible. Hacohen said that in his experience, when given the chance to study in the United States, most active-duty Israeli generals chose to learn industrial management at the National Defense University in Washington, rather than field command at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania. Even chiefs of staff, Hacohen said, saw these stints in Washington as a chance for officers to educate themselves for their post-military careers.

“Warfare is a realm of uncertainty,” Hacohen said. “It is definitely a different profession. Most of the generals are not at all fitted to the profession of warfare. They are not educated enough, and actually also in Israel generals don’t like warfare. They don’t like their profession. They are not learning about it—not learning enough.”

Instead, he said, they are learning “bullshit, management, studying in the Wexner program at Harvard—knowing how to speak nicely.”

I was in Israel earlier this month as part of a fact-finding mission organized by the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum—I met Hacohen the evening after the program concluded. Early in the trip we got a vivid sense of what Hamas accomplished within the strategic blind spots of the IDF’s standoff doctrine, which Hacohen said the Islamists had started to counter in the mid-2000s by putting tarps up over the streets of Khan Yunis, creating a highly effective, low-cost shield against Israeli surveillance aircraft.

The group saw a display of weapons recently recovered from tunnels in Gaza. The dozens of stubby metal cylinders capped with flat-topped cones were antitank mines; a wide plastic tube connected to a hoselike detonator was a tunnel bomb, cemented into the boundary between an underground passageway and the street above. There were frisbee-shaped antipersonnel mines, as well as an explosive metal frame used for breaking through fencing. Hamas figured out that with a little clever modification, a gardening hose could be used as a delivery system for a strip of TNT. All of these devices were produced in Gaza, where Hamas had developed a capability that even the most generous two-state outcomes do not envision a Palestinian state possessing: a domestic military industry that can equip a vast army for tactical and even strategic victories over its Israeli enemy through the mass production of “improvised” weapons.

Hamas’ strategy is based on “deniability of superiority,” Hacohen said, which is strategically though not tactically reminiscent of Egypt’s area-denial strategy in 1973, in which Soviet-made antitank and antiaircraft missiles stopped Israeli armor and air power during the Egyptian army’s advance across the Suez Canal. In today’s world, far vaster disparities in military power can be bridged though even simpler means. An adversary no longer needs even a single warship to successfully fight the United States Navy—they just need Chinese-, Russian- or Iranian-produced land-to-sea missiles, like the Houthis in Yemen have, that can collapse the Navy’s advantages over a much smaller force, at least within the context of current U.S. naval warfighting doctrine in the Red Sea. Similarly, much of the IDF’s comparative strengths against Hamas threaten to evaporate if they’re fighting on the Islamists’ terms—the size or sophistication of the invasion force might not matter if Hamas can slow down the IDF’s advance and hold out underground long enough for the U.S. or the international community to order a stop to any Israeli operation.

“Hamas, Hezbollah, and other militia are postmodern military organizations,” Hacohen explained. “They don’t need an air force, a navy, or artillery, and yet they are creating an enormous strategic threat.”

What they did need was displayed for our group: Mass-produced simple explosives, North Korean-made rocket-propelled grenade launchers, locally made rockets, Iranian-built drones just a couple meters in length. We got the fortunately rare and psychologically jarring chance for a hands-on examination of a real-life suicide belt, with the ice pack-like explosives swaddled in plastic to insulate them against the muggy atmosphere of a Gazan tunnel. The vest had two color-coded arming plugs connected to a 5-volt battery and a pair of identical green buttons ensconced in black rectangular holders, a redundancy in case one of the mechanisms failed. Pressing either button is the culmination of an entire lifetime. In much the same way, the Hamas statelet’s decision to launch a self-destructive, genocidal war on Israel fulfilled the intended end result of what is objectively the Palestinian people’s freest and most advanced project of national autonomy. The vest, like Oct. 7, was the enemy’s way of proclaiming their fundamental worldview as loudly as possible.

Hacohen is not a believer in peace with the Palestinians, but he does not think violence alone can solve Israel’s strategic dilemmas. Two days before I met him, the MEF group had been in the north of Israel, looking through binoculars into the dread stillness of communities that had been ghost towns since early October. The naked eye could spot a white building on a far ridge, a U.N. post 80 meters inside of Lebanese territory where Hezbollah staged a military demonstration in April of 2023. The evacuation of 60,000 Israelis from 43 towns within 5 kilometers of the border had created a free-fire zone for the Shiite jihadists, who have blown up over 500 Israeli houses since October, and severely wounded a 15-year-old in Kiryat Shmona earlier that same day. Without an Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon, Iran-backed militants seemed unlikely to withdraw to the Litani River, their farthest permitted position under the worthless U.N. Security Council resolution that ended the 2006 Lebanon war.

Hacohen does not think such an invasion will be easy. “First of all it is a mountainous area,” he said. “We must learn from the Allied forces, the United States and the British in their march under the command of Patton from Sicily to Monte Casino. It took them too much time. … The Germans succeeded to stop them for nine months in Monte Casino.” Southern Lebanon “is a land, a very specific infrastructure, and a terrain giving all conditions for a small army to stand against a huge army,” he said.

Even if Hezbollah were chased back to the Litani, Hacohen thinks that peace would be unlikely to dawn over northern Israel, or any other part of the country for that matter, because so much of the Jewish state would still be within range of Hezbollah’s surviving arsenal. “They intentionally build themselves so that they can fight even by losing that southern part of Lebanon. They have depth,” Hacohen warned. Hezbollah would be able to bombard the center of Israel even if the IDF made it all the way to Beirut. “The idea that [Hezbollah] can go ahead with warfare, even though they are defeated in the battlefield, it is one of the [things] explaining the difference between the 1967 war and now,” he said.

There was one more crucial layer of complication: The Lebanese army, like the Palestinian Authority security forces, is a project of the United States, meaning Israel’s closest ally is now supporting two regional military forces who see their paramount foe as Israel, and provide practical support and political cover for Iranian-backed terror militias. “We must admit that there is huge strategic embarrassment for Israel,” Hacohen said.

“The first solution is to be aware about the dilemma,” he explained. The way out of the morass might involve careful diplomacy with the U.S., clever war-planning, and a high national threshold for chaos—above all, it means steeling the Israeli public for a second unprecedented national crisis in six months.

If Hacohen is optimistic about anything, it is the Israelis themselves, who “decided to fight for the honor of the Jewish people” after Oct. 7. Hacohen, who says he has 50 family members on active IDF duty, credits the army’s successes in Gaza to the rank-and-file rather than their commanders. The IDF had spent three decades avoiding massive face-to-face combat. Its soldiers have now dismantled three-quarters of Hamas’ brigades and chased its terrorists through hundreds of miles of cramped and booby-trapped tunnels without any sag in morale.

Hacohen used an unlikely example to illustrate how this fight for survival might change Israel. During World War II, Marlene Dietrich’s “Lili Marleen” became a favorite of both Allied and Axis soldiers. Dietrich, who as Hacohen noted performed in Israel in 1960, knew that she was the last female voice that thousands of young men would ever hear. In light of her significance to the deadliest event in human history, a postwar career in Hollywood proved unsatisfying to Dietrich, who opened a club that veterans from across America flocked to. The German actress, like the soldiers who had heard her over the radio and who now came to hear her sing in person, realized that the war had been more than just an episode, and that it had become a defining aspect of her own identity.

The point of Dietrich’s story is that “if you are a real warrior, a real general, participating in a war that is almost like independence warfare, it is just the highlight of your life,” Hacohen said almost wistfully. “After that, just to be something else, it is not really to respect what happened in that huge challenge that you overcame.”

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have fought in such a war for their national existence since Oct. 7. How they understand what they’ve fought for and why could determine the country’s future as much as any geopolitical event. Against a sometimes-bleak horizon of official failure and looming conflict, the strength of Israel’s people is perhaps the most important remaining unknown.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.