It was a little after midnight on Friday, and Israel’s High Command post was running to complete as many attacks as possible in the last hours before the ceasefire with Palestinian Hamas takes effect at 2 p.m.
On a wall covered with huge screens, a three-dimensional diagram of a high-rise building with one of its apartments marked in red appeared. On another screen, a live video from the air revolved around a building in Gaza that looked very much like the one in the diagram.
This room is the nerve center of a bunker known as the “Fortress of Zion”, a new command post of the Israeli army deep underground underground at its headquarters in the heart of Tel Aviv. It was designed to command the type of high-tech air wars that replaced ground invasions fought by tanks and infantry battalions.
The recent conflict with the Palestinians was the first time the spacious facility was used during a war. It was also the first time the military allowed foreign journalists to enter one of the country’s most fortified and secretive facilities – an effort to showcase Israel’s military and technological capability, but also to deal with criticism of civilian casualties.
From the bunker, the army supervised thousands of attacks on the Gaza Strip, most from the air, but also from the sea and land. Israelis say they have done serious damage to Hamas, which controls Gaza.
These attacks also took a heavy toll on civilians. Of the 248 Palestinians killed, 66 were children, Palestinian sources say. This price led to an international outcry and pressure on Israel from its close ally, the United States, to put an end to hostilities. The Israeli attack also caused extensive destruction to buildings and other infrastructure in the already impoverished Gaza Strip, deepening a protracted humanitarian crisis.
The ceasefire continued on Saturday afternoon as Egyptian diplomats tried to mediate a long-term agreement between Israel and Hamas. There were only a few demonstrations against the Israeli occupation and the war in Gaza, which allayed fears of a military flare-up.
The first noticeable thing that is noticed at the entrance to the bunker is the silence. Nothing of the drama and tragedy of the war is noticeable, and people seem alert, focused and calm.
The command post is built for operations that are largely based on intelligence and are carried out from the air or by small groups of special forces. It collects information from different agencies into one database and translates it into operational terms.
This is a place where people are measured by the number of approved targets – warehouses, tunnels or weapons that the military can attack. When a senior officer approves one, he is added to a “target book” that the chief of staff examines once a month.
Over the past two decades, the “targets” have been more and more people – like senior Hamas figures.
The military is well aware of the criticism of its tactics, and the loss of innocent lives, which have drawn condemnation from within and outside the country.
One senior officer, whose goal is to show that Israel tried to minimize the deaths of civilians, points to detailed aerial photographs of an operation that he said was canceled because his goal was a Hamas facility near a hospital in Gaza. He said many others were similarly eliminated out of concern for civilian casualties.
The head of the intelligence branch of the intelligence division, who was identified as Lt. Col. S. because the army does not allow the names of intelligence officers to be published in the media, said he does not think soldiers have become cold-hearted by reducing people to “targets.”
Another commander who worked in the bunker said, however, “You can not kill someone without something dying in you as well.”
Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, former director of operations of the Israeli army, said he understands that the distance from the battlefield and the treatment of people as “targets” can create indifference to human life.
“It’s part of the commander’s challenge,” he said, to ensure the operation would be effective and “to know that there are people at the other end.”
Israel also regularly accuses Hamas of hiding its facilities and weapons inside or near civilian buildings, effectively using civilians as human shields.
At regular hours, 300 to 400 soldiers work there around the clock. When Israel decided to launch an air strike on Gaza, thousands of ground-level military commanders joined the bunker. Also present were members of intelligence agencies such as the Mossad and the Shin Bet, the Israel Internal Intelligence Agency and representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the police.
For 10 days they commanded operations from the bunker. Most of them barely left.
Inside the nerve center were held about 70 people at different levels so that everyone could see the screens on the wall. Most of them were in military uniform and under the age of 25, and the uniform holders were mostly older.
They sat at tables with computers, landlines or obscure communication devices. Some of their keyboards entered data into the wall screens – a detailed breakdown of the attacks and the damage done to Hamas.
Israel estimates that it has destroyed 15 to 20 percent of Hamas’ rocket arsenal and some weapons production facilities. She claims that she killed about 200 Hamas operatives and eliminated 30% of the tunnels under Gaza that are used for armed shelters, housing command systems and moving weapons.
The nerve center also had a map with locations of ground forces and military aircraft throughout the Middle East.
In the hours before the ceasefire, it was clear that Israel was eager to inflict strong final blows on Hamas. One screen followed rocket launches from Gaza and possible damage to a kibbutz in southern Israel.
At 2 a.m., the commander echoed the chief of staff’s order to stop the fighting. But no one went home. The job remained on combat alert until Israel determined that the fragile ceasefire would continue.
“Fortress of Zion” took 10 years to plan and build. Dig deep in the ground, it is protected from a variety of threats, including nuclear attacks. It has enough energy, food and water to function even if its occupants cannot reach ground level for a long time.
This is an extension of an old command post, called the “pit”, which was expanded several times but was considered too small and gloomy and had electricity and sanitation problems.
More importantly, Major General Aharon Haliva, the current director of the army’s operations, said that “over the years, the needs of the Israel Defense Forces have changed.”
The huge ground wars of decades that have passed have given way to more frequent but smaller operations – known as the “War Between the Wars”. And that change means more reliance on technology and a digital network for intelligence gathering, General Haliva said.
The bunker is connected via technology to another underground command post for Israel’s political leaders near Jerusalem, the Air Force’s underground headquarters and the GSS command center.
The complex includes a gym, a synagogue, a kitchen and dining rooms, and a guest bedroom with a row of clocks from various places in the world, including Tehran. There is also a lounge with non-alcoholic food and beverages – the only place where soldiers can use their cell phones.
One floor is occupied by the Army High Command, including a private bedroom for the Chief of Staff with simple furniture reflected throughout the bunker.
Various military and intelligence departments feed the nerve center with information and have a physically present representative. The combined operation allows for a large number of strikes in an almost continuous current.
Several efforts have been made to give the windowless bunker a pleasant atmosphere, adorned with pictures of landscapes in the country and a famous quote from Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, who said: “In this army, Israel’s security. The people and homeland will now be entrusted.”
Patrick Kingsley contributed to the report.