It was a bit previous midnight on Friday, and Israel’s Supreme Command Post was racing to finish as many strikes as doable within the ultimate hours earlier than a cease-fire with the Palestinian militant group Hamas was to take impact at 2 a.m.
On a wall coated with large screens, a three-dimensional diagram of a high-rise constructing with one of its residences marked in crimson popped up. On one other display screen, a stay video from the air circled above a constructing in Gaza that appeared rather a lot just like the one within the diagram.
This room is the nerve heart of a bunker dubbed the “Fortress of Zion,” a brand new Israeli Army command put up deep underground beneath its headquarters within the coronary heart of Tel Aviv. It is designed to command the type of high-tech air wars which have supplanted floor invasions fought by tanks and infantry battalions.
The newest battle with the Palestinians was the primary time the sprawling facility was used throughout wartime. It was additionally the primary time the military allowed overseas journalists inside one of essentially the most fortified and secretive installations within the nation — an effort to showcase Israel’s army and technological prowess but in addition to counter criticism over civilian casualties.
From the bunker, the army oversaw thousands of attacks on the Gaza Strip, most of them from the air, but in addition from the ocean and land. The Israelis say they inflicted serious damage on Hamas, which controls Gaza.
Those assaults additionally took a excessive toll on civilians. Of the 248 Palestinians killed, 66 had been kids, Palestinian officers say. That toll introduced a global outcry and pressure on Israel from its close ally, the United States, to end the hostilities. The Israeli assault additionally brought on widespread destruction to buildings and different infrastructure within the already impoverished Gaza Strip, deepening a long-running humanitarian disaster.
A cease-fire continued to carry on Saturday afternoon as Egyptian diplomats tried to mediate a longer-term settlement between Israel and Hamas. There had been just some protests in opposition to the Israeli occupation and the conflict in Gaza, easing fears of a army flare-up.
The first noticeable factor one notices upon getting into the bunker is the silence. None of the drama and tragedy of conflict is obvious, and other people seem alert, centered and calm.
The command put up is constructed for operations primarily based closely on intelligence and carried out from the air or by small teams of particular forces. It compiles information from disparate companies into one database and interprets it into operational phrases.
It is a spot the place persons are measured by the quantity of authorised targets — warehouses, tunnels or weapons that the army can assault. When a senior officer approves one, it’s added to a “Targets Book” that the chief of workers evaluations as soon as a month.
Over the final 20 years, the “targets” have more and more been folks — like senior Hamas figures.
The army is properly conscious of the criticism of its techniques, and the loss of harmless lives, which have drawn condemnation from inside and out of doors the nation.
One senior officer, aiming to indicate that Israel had tried to attenuate civilian deaths, factors to detailed aerial images of an operation that he mentioned had been canceled as a result of its goal was a Hamas facility close to a Gaza hospital. He mentioned many others had been equally canceled out of concern for civilian casualties.
The head of the Intelligence Division’s Targets Branch, recognized as Lt. Col. S. as a result of the army doesn’t permit the intelligence officers to be named within the information media, mentioned he didn’t suppose troopers grew to become coldhearted by lowering folks to “targets.”
Another commander working within the bunker mentioned, nevertheless, “You can’t kill someone without something dying in you, too.”
Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, a former director of operations for the Israeli army, mentioned he understood that the gap from the battlefield and the remedy of folks as “targets” might create indifference to human lives.
“This is part of the commander’s challenge,” he mentioned, to make sure that the operation is efficient and “to know that there are human beings at the other end.”
Israel additionally commonly accuses Hamas of hiding its services and weapons inside or close to civilian buildings, successfully utilizing civilians as human shields.
During common instances, 300 to 400 troopers work there across the clock. When Israel determined to launch its air assault on Gaza, hundreds from army headquarters above floor joined the bunker. Also current had been members of intelligence companies just like the Mossad and Shin Bet, Israel’s home intelligence company, and Foreign Ministry and police representatives.
For 10 days, they commanded operations from the bunker. Most of them scarcely left.
Inside the nerve heart, about 70 folks had been arrayed on totally different ranges so that everybody might see the screens on the wall. Most had been in army uniforms and below 25, and people out of uniform had been principally older.
They sat at tables with computer systems, landline telephones or extra obscure communication units. Some of their keyboards fed knowledge into the wall screens — an in depth breakdown of assaults carried out and harm carried out to Hamas.
Israel estimates that it destroyed 15 to twenty p.c of Hamas’s rocket arsenal and a few weapons manufacturing services. It claims to have killed about 200 Hamas operatives and eradicated 30 p.c of the tunnels below Gaza used for sheltering militants, housing command programs and shifting weaponry round.
The nerve heart additionally had a map with places of floor forces and army plane all through the Middle East.
In the hours simply earlier than cease-fire, it was clear that Israel was wanting to deal highly effective ultimate blows to Hamas. One display screen tracked rocket launches from Gaza and a doable hit on a kibbutz in southern Israel.
At 2 a.m., the commander echoed the chief of workers’s order to stop hostilities. But nobody was going house. The put up stays on fight alert till Israel determines that the delicate cease-fire will final.
“Fortress of Zion” took 10 years to design and construct. Dug deep into the earth, it is protected against a spread of threats, together with nuclear assaults. It has sufficient power, meals and water to perform even when its occupants can’t get to floor stage for a very long time.
It is an extension of an outdated command put up, nicknamed “the pit,” that was expanded a number of instances however was deemed too small and gloomy and had electrical energy and sanitation issues.
More vital, Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva, the present director of operations for the army, mentioned, “Over the years, the Israel Defense Forces’ needs have changed.”
The large floor wars of many years passed by gave method to extra frequent however smaller operations — often known as the “war between the wars.” And that shift meant relying extra on know-how and a digital community to pool intelligence, General Haliva mentioned.
The bunker is linked through know-how to a different underground command put up for Israel’s political leaders close to Jerusalem, the Air Force’s underground headquarters and the Shin Bet’s command heart.
The complicated features a gymnasium, a synagogue, a kitchen and eating rooms, and a bed room for visitors with a row of clocks from totally different components of the world, Tehran amongst them. There can also be a lounge with meals and nonalcoholic drinks — the one spot the place troopers can use their cellphones.
One ground is occupied by the military’s excessive command, together with a non-public bed room for the chief of workers with easy furnishings mirrored all through the bunker.
Various army and intelligence departments feed the nerve heart with information and have a consultant bodily current. The mixed operation permits for a big quantity of strikes in an virtually steady stream.
Some efforts had been made to provide the windowless bunker a pleasing environment, adorned with photos of scenic locations within the nation and a well-known quote by Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, that reads: “In the hands of this army, the security of the people and the homeland will now be entrusted.”
Patrick Kingsley contributed reporting.