The APC Disaster

The APC Disaster is a pair of incidents which occurred on 11 and 12 May 2004 in the Gaza Strip two two IDF M113 APCs were destroyed. In the incident, 13 soldiers were killed: 6 in the first incident in the Zeitun neighborhood, 5 in the second in Rafah, and 2 in the Rafah rescue operation. These incidents were exceptional because of the large number of casualties suffered by the IDF, the most numerous in such a short period in the Gaza Strip since the outbreak of the Second Intifada. They greatly affected both the fighting and IDF policy in the Gaza Strip.

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With the beginning of the Second Intifada, the Palestinians attempted to attack IDF armored vehicles, particularly the tanks, which were viewed as "the symbol of Israeli occupation" the Merkava being singled out as being the pride of Israel's defense industries. The main inspiration for this was the actions of Hezbollah which had carried out hundreds of attacks against IDF convoys using RPGs in the security zone in southern Lebanon. Most of the attempts were made by the Popular Resistance Committees using powerful buried explosives since the tanks were not threatened by the improvised and obsolete anti-tank missiles used by the Palestinians.

The Palestinians first managed to hit a Merkava Siman 3 and kill three crew members on 14 February 2002. The tank ran over a buried bomb weighing several tens of kilograms. During 2002 and 2003, they were able to hit two more Merkava tanks and one Magach killing the crew.[1] In the period from September 2000 to February 2003, more than 400 explosive devices were used against IDF forces.

In response to the buried explosives, the IDF took two primary measures, installing armor plates on the belly of the tanks to protect them from buried explosives and mines,[2] and by opening and clearing advance routes by using D9 bulldozers and Bedouin trackers.

As a result of these actions, Israeli casualties from roadside bombs were significantly reduced since the armored bulldozers (D9) used by the IDF were found to be extrmely resistant even to buried bombs containing more than 100 kg of explosives. The bulldozers thwarted hundredd of attacks and even took part in extensive clearing and house demolitions and became, in the eyes of the Palestinians, new symbols of Israel to be shattered. Since the bulldozers were not as affected by buried charges, the Palestinians began using RPG-7s and anti-tank missiles agains the bulldozers and the IDF APCs. To do this they had to smuggle dozens of standard rockets from abroad, then smuggle explosives and ammunition to produce bombs and other explosive devices as well as their small Qassam rockets. The Palestinians also received advice from Hezbollah experts to develop weapons and tactics against the IDF. Despite the numerous attempts to smuggle items in through the sea (see, as an example Karin A) the bulk of the smuggling was carried out through tunnels dug under the Philadelphia route that separated the Gaza Strip from the Sinai Peninsule and pass through the city of Rafah.

The battle for the tunnels only came to the public's attention in 2003, despite the serious firefights and house demolitions that took place in 2001. The houses were used by machine guns, snipers and anti-tank missiles that were fired at lines of advance of IDF forces by the Palestinian groups. Because of the sniper threat, the IDF instructed the forces on the Philadelphia Route to operate only from within their armored vehicles and not to venture out of them. In addition, IDF bulldozers destroyed hundreds of houses in order to create a secure zone and to remove the threat of rocket fire. The Gaza Division operated a team of soldiers whose job was to expose tne destroy the smuggling tunnels and was referred to the the "Tunnel Team". However, the team's activites were not well thought out and according to the testimony of the soldiers, they were assigned too many tasks, without adequate means and protection[3] so the battles in the Philedelphia corridor caused considerable damage to IDF vehicles and even losses in the team but this did not receive much media attention. Journalist Haggai Huberman (Hatzofeh) described the situation in the Gaza Strip in 2003, with emphasid on the difficult battle along the Philadelphia route, the many incidents in which anti-tank weapons were used and the general improvement in the weapons used by the Palestinians:

"As a D-9 bulldozer enters the area to carry out a clearing operation, the Palestinians open massive fire at it with two explosive charges and seven anti-tank missiles. Later on, the fired standard RPGs from those that had been smuggled in by tunnels from Egypt, or homemade rockets such as the Al-Bana (of Hamas) or the Al-Battar (of Islamic Jihad). They fired rocket after rocket in the hope that one of them would penetrate. So far, thank god, there have been no fatalities among the bulldozers. Only one operator was seriously injured. But this fact should not blur the reality: These rockets penetrated even the most massive protection, not even that of a bulldozer could stand for long. The small number of casualties does not truly indicate the destructive power of these weapons. The explosives in the Strip are getting better and so are the missiles and anti-tank rockets that the Palestinians themselves produce."[4]

The incident in which the American civilian Rachel Corrie was killed brought the Philadelphia Route into the public consciousness. At the same time, the escalation in the firing os Qassam rockets at Sderot and the firing of thousands of mortar shells into Gush Katif resulted in the increased frequency with which the IDF entered the center of the Gaza Strip.

In April and May of 2004, the IDF carried out a series of operations in which tanks, APCs and engineering vehicles were sent to the Zeitun neighborhood and to Khan Younis in order to prevent the firing of mortar shells and Qassam rocktes at the communities of Gush Katif and other surrounding settlements.

The First Disaster

On 11 May 2004, an armored force from the Givati Brigade entered the Zeitun neighborhood on the outskirts of Gaza City. The force was accompanied by a group of journalists from Channel 2 who were reporting the event. Early in the morning as they left the neighborhood, the force realized that an APC from the FALACHA"N platoon had disappeared. A search of the neighborhood revealed that the APC had been completely destroyed in an explosion. In the same operation, another APC was seriously damaged. Both of the APCs were M113s, considered obsolete and vulnerable.

Six soldiers were killed in the explosion, and Islamic Jihad fighters disfigured the bodies. In response, the IDF sent rescue forces under the command of Brig Gen Shmuel Zakai, commander of the Gaza Brigade,[5] to the neighborhood and thoroughly search the area until all of the remains were returned to the IDF for proper burial. During the operation in Zeitun, dozens of enemy fighters were killed and the Zeitun neighborhood suffered extensive damage. The IDF threatened that bulldozers would work in the neighborhood and would not leave until the soldier's remains were returned, with the Palestinians giving in to the demands returning the remains to the Red Cross which returned them to Israel. Reuters later published a photo showing armed Palestinians entering a UNRWA ambulance, leading Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz to accuse the UNRWA of allowing their ambulances to be used to help smuggle body parts from the neighborhood to Islamic Jihad.[6]

The Second Disaster

On day later on 12 May, an M113 APC carrying the Southern Command 'Tunnel Team' exploded during action on the Philadelphia Route on the border with Egypt. Palestinians on the roof of a building fired RPG-7 rockets at the APC and a bulldozer that was accompanying it. The bulldozer was slightly damaged but the rocket that hit the APC penetrated it, detonating the explosives it was carrying inside. All five crew members of the APC, including the commander of the Tunnel Team, Captain Aviv Hakani, were killed. While the first APC rescue operation was still under way, other IDF forces entered the area where the APC of the Tunnel Team was hit to help evacuate the injured.

IDF armored D-9 bulldozers set up dirt embankments around the area where the incident occurred to protect the searchers and destroyed houses from which fire was directed at the recue forces. According to B'Tselem, the IDF demolished some 116 houses.[7] Soldiers from the Golani Brigade arrived on the scene in their heavy Achzarit APCs. The soldiers assembled to inspect the area together with members of the military rabbinate and the General Staff's burial unit in order to identify the bodies and recover them for burial. Pictures of the soldiers searching through sand on their hands and knees provoked sharply divided responses. Supporters viewed the action as a symbol of the IDF's values and its commitment to its soldiers while their opponents saw this as an unnecessary risk for the soldiers. [8]

During the rescue operation, two more soldiers who were guarding the area were killed. A team of soldiers carried out security from a house that overlooked the scene of the incident, including a Palestinian family. One of the soldiers in the house was hit by sniper fire and killed. When news of this spread, the unit approached the APC of the company commander who ordered the crew to carry out a rescue. The rescue was carried out under fire with two more wounded and another soldier was killed. The driver of the APC who refused the order of the company commander to remain in the vehicle, went out to rescue the wounded and later received a decoration after the operation. Those killed and wounded were all from the Tzabar Battalion, and a company that had only recently lost its commanders, Hagai Bibi and Leonardo Weissman, during an incident on the Kissufim route.

Results and Effects

On the Military Level

Following the incident on the Philadelphia Route, the IDF launched an operation in Rafah named "Rainbow in the Cloud" which targeted 54 terrorist operatives, including 40 terrorists, with no IDF casualties.

The events also led to organizationa changes in the IDF. The 'Tunnel Team' of the Gaza Division was attached to the YAHALA"M, the elite unit of the Combat Engineering Corps. In the YAHALA"M the team was called the S'MO"R (סמו״ר - סליקים ומנהרות weapons caches and tunnels) and its level of training and resources increased considerably. The older M113 APCs were removed from service in the Gaza Strip and the IDF forces there were equipped with heavy APCs such as the Nagmachon, the Nakpadon and the PUM"A. In addition, the Givati Brigade was reinforced with battalions from the Golani Brigade that were equippied with heavy APCs. At the same time, the IDF bagan developing a new heavy APC based on the Merkava tank chassis which entered trial service in the Givati Brigade in mid 2005, entering operational service at the end of 2008. The Ordnance Corps developed new solutions for the transport of explosives. The IDF carried out extensive fortification and reinforcement work on the Philadelphia Route to increase the security of the soldiers guarding it.

On the Political Level

These two events which occured so close together, sharpened the questions about the Israeli presence in the Gaza Strip, particularly in light of the disengagement plan proposed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

On the night of Saturday, 15 May, a mass demonstration was held by the "majority headquarters" (affiliated with Peace Now and left-wing parties) in support of the withdrawal from Gaza. The demonstration had been planned before the disasters, and it was decided not to respond to requests to cancel it but instead to still hold it but with a more restrained tone.[9] Between 100,000 and 150,000 people attended the demonstration calling for a withdrawal from Gaza and the withdrawal of the troops as had been done in the security zone in Lebanon.[10]

See Also

Operation Rainbow The Tunnel Team

External Links

Ynet reporters, the six members of the company were killed in one moment, Ynet website, May 12, 2004 Nrg and Ma'ariv, five boys, on NRG website, May 13, 2004 Pictures of the soldiers scouring the sand in search of the remnants of the APC disaster on the Philadelphi Route. A log of 13 photos documenting the activities of the tunnels team, the BBC website. Elad Simhayof, The story of the first tunnel officer of the IDF and the chilling picture from the Philadelphi Route, on mako website, April 15, 2013 Ben Caspit, Citizen Zakai, Ma'ariv, June 3, 2005, as posted on the Fares website. Amos Harel, the comptroller warned: The armored personnel carriers are not sure - the IDF did not draw conclusions, Ha'aretz, May 14, 2004. Hanan Greenberg, "I saw the pain on the faces of my soldiers," Ynet website, May 13, 2004.


NFC, 19/03/2004 The addition of the armor damaged the mobility of the tank but in a number of cases prevented fatal injury to the crew (for example, in this case (nrg) The "I Accuse" of the Tunnel Unit, nrg 27/1/2006 "When will the public realize that the Gaza Strip has a war for everything?" Hagai Huberman, at the site Ben Caspit, Citizen Zakai, Ma'ariv, June 3, 2005, as posted on the Fares website. Country 15.5.04: B'Tselem's investigation into the operation in Rafah, B'Tselem An article by a trainee in the course of squad commanders who took part in the search for the bodies Attila Somfalvi, ahead of the leftist rally: lower the tone, Ynet website, May 13, 2004 About 150,000 participated in a demonstration to get out of Gaza, Walla, 16 May 2004