A look inside the Israeli military command of the ‘Fortress of Zion’ under Tel Aviv
It was a little past midnight on Friday, and Israel’s supreme command post was rushing to carry out as many strikes as possible in the final hours before a ceasefire with the Palestinian militant group Hamas took effect. 2 a.m.
On a wall covered with huge screens, a three-dimensional drawing of a high-rise building with one of its apartments marked in red appears. On another screen, live video from the air circled over a building in Gaza that looked a lot like the one in the diagram.
This room is the nerve center of a bunker dubbed the “Fortress of Zion,” a new IDF command post deep underground under its headquarters in the heart of Tel Aviv. It is designed to command the kind of high-tech air wars that have supplanted land invasions led by tanks and infantry battalions.
The latest conflict with the Palestinians was the first time the sprawling facility has been used in wartime. It was also the first time the military had allowed foreign journalists to enter one of the country’s most fortified and secret facilities – an effort to showcase Israel’s military and technological prowess, but also to counter criticism of civilian casualties.
From the bunker, the military oversaw thousands of attacks on the Gaza Strip, most from the air, but also from sea and land. The Israelis say they have inflicted serious damage on Hamas, which controls Gaza.
These attacks also wreaked havoc on civilians. Of the 248 Palestinians killed, 66 were children, according to Palestinian officials. This toll sparked international outcry and pressure on Israel from its close ally, the United States, to end hostilities. The Israeli assault also caused the massive destruction of buildings and other infrastructure in the already impoverished Gaza Strip, exacerbating a long-standing humanitarian crisis.
A ceasefire continued on Saturday afternoon as Egyptian diplomats attempted to negotiate a longer-term deal between Israel and Hamas. There have been only a few protests against the Israeli occupation and the war in Gaza, allaying fears of a military upsurge.
The first thing you notice when entering the bunker is the silence. None of the dramas and tragedies of the war are apparent, and people appear alert, focused and calm.
The command post is built for heavily intelligence-based operations conducted from the air or by small groups of special forces. It compiles information from disparate agencies into a single database and translates it into operational terms.
It’s a place where people are measured by the number of approved targets – warehouses, tunnels, or weapons the military can attack. When a senior officer approves one, it is added to a “Book of Objectives” which the Chief of Staff reviews once a month.
Over the past two decades, the “targets” have increasingly been people – such as senior Hamas officials.
The military is well aware of criticism of its tactics and of the loss of innocent lives, which have drawn condemnation from inside and outside the country.
Senior officer, aimed at showing Israel tried to downplay civilian deaths, points to detailed aerial photographs of operation he said was called off because its target was a Hamas facility near a hospital of Gaza. He said many more were similarly canceled out of concern for civilian casualties.
The head of the intelligence division’s targets division, identified as Lt. Col. S. because the military does not allow intelligence officers to be named in the media, said he did not believe that the soldiers were cold-hearted reducing people to “targets”.
Another commander working in the bunker, however, said: “You can’t kill someone without something dying in you too.”
Major General Nitzan Alon, former director of operations for the IDF, said he understood that the remoteness of the battlefield and the treatment of people as “targets” could create indifference to the military. human lives.
“It’s part of the commander’s challenge,” he said, to make sure the operation is effective and “to know that there are human beings on the other end”.
Israel also regularly accuses Hamas of hiding its facilities and weapons in or near civilian buildings, effectively using civilians as human shields.
During regular hours, 300 to 400 soldiers work there 24 hours a day. When Israel decided to launch its air assault on Gaza, thousands of military headquarters above ground joined the bunker. Also present were members of intelligence agencies such as Mossad and the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, as well as representatives of the Foreign Ministry and the police.
For 10 days, they commanded operations from the bunker. Most of them barely left.
Inside the nerve center, around 70 people were arranged on different levels so that everyone could see the screens on the wall. Most wore military uniforms and were under 25, and those who did not wear uniforms were mostly older.
They sat at tables with computers, landlines, or more obscure communication devices. Some of their keyboards fed data into the wall screens – a detailed breakdown of the attacks carried out and the damage done to Hamas.
Israel estimates that it has destroyed 15-20% of Hamas’s rocket arsenal and some weapons production facilities. He claims to have killed around 200 Hamas operatives and cleared 30% of the tunnels under Gaza used to house militants, house command systems and move weapons.
The nerve center also had a map with the locations of ground forces and military aircraft throughout the Middle East.
In the hours leading up to the ceasefire, it was clear that Israel was eager to deliver the final powerful blows to Hamas. A screen traced rocket launches from Gaza and a possible hit on a kibbutz in southern Israel.
At 2 a.m., the commander echoed the Chief of Staff’s order to cease hostilities. But no one was coming home. The post remains on combat alert until Israel determines that the fragile ceasefire will last.
“Fortress of Sion” took 10 years to design and build. Carved deep in the earth, it is protected against a variety of threats, including nuclear attacks. It has enough energy, food, and water to function even though its occupants cannot get to ground level for a long time.
It is an extension of a former command post, nicknamed “the pit”, which has been enlarged several times but deemed too small and dark and which had problems with electricity and sanitation.
More importantly, Major General Aharon Haliva, the current director of operations for the military, said, “Over the years, the needs of the Israel Defense Forces have changed.”
The massive land wars of the past decades have given way to more frequent but smaller operations – known as the “war between wars”. And that change meant relying more on technology and a digital network to pool intelligence, General Haliva said.
The bunker is connected via technology to another underground command post for Israeli political leaders near Jerusalem, the underground Air Force headquarters and the Shin Bet command center.
The complex includes a gym, a synagogue, a kitchen and dining rooms, and a guest room with a row of clocks from different parts of the world, including Tehran. There is also a lounge with food and non-alcoholic drinks – the only place soldiers can use their cell phones.
One floor is occupied by the Army High Command, including a private room for the Chief of Staff with simple furnishings reflected throughout the bunker.
Various military and intelligence services supply the nerve center with information and have a representative physically present. The combined operation allows a large number of shots in an almost continuous flow.
Efforts were made to give the windowless bunker a pleasant atmosphere, decorated with photos of picturesque places in the country and a famous quote from the founding father of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, who says: “In the hands of this army, the security of the people and the homeland will henceforth be entrusted.
Patrick Kingsley contributed reporting.