IDF Downplays Merkava Hit, But
Palestinians Have Struck Israel's
State-Of-The-Art Tank

By Amnon Barzilai
Ha'aretz Correspondent
and Ha'aretz Service

IDF officers on Friday downplayed the fact that the Palestinians had succeeded in penetrating Israel's state-of-the-art Merkava 3, but the army, clearly concerned, continued to investigate how the world's most protected tank had been penetrated, after three soldiers were killed in the Gaza Strip on Thursday when a large bomb was detonated under their tank.
"The blow is painful, but I say to you honestly that I am not surprised that it happened," Brigadier General (Res.) Hanan Bernstein, former head of the IDF's Merkava division and commander of the tank training school, told Israel Radio on Friday morning. The Merkava will continue "to be considered amongst the world's best tanks" Bernstein said, but added that the attack demonstrated the ongoing struggle between those developing protection for the tank crew and those developing weapons designed to harm them.
"We all need to understand that there is no end to this battle between... the ability to protect [the tank crew] and the ability to harm [them]," he said. "And this time, like in the past, those who want to kill us found a way to pinpoint a weak spot, and the Merkava, like any system, no matter how advanced, also has weak spots."
The Merkava 3 - the third generation in a line of tanks which has been specifically designed to meet the operational demands of the IDF - is considered to be the most protected tank around. The last time a crewmember was killed in a Merkava was in southern Lebanon about five-and-a-half years ago, when the tank was hit by an anti-tank missile.
Israel Radio reported that in Thursday's attack, the tank's turret was blown off, landing several meters away, and that the blast gouged a 1.5-meter hole in the ground.
The father of the Merkava, who also served as the head of the project until two years ago, is Major General (Res.) Yisrael Tal. To date, more than NIS 20 billion has been invested in the Merkava's development and more than 100 Israeli factories take part in constructing the tank.
The tank's development was based on the lessons of the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The main goal of the latest model was to better-protect its four-member crew - driver, gunner, loader-signaler and commander. The project primarily attempted to prevent, even in cases of a direct hit, the spread of fire inside the tank, which has in the past led to the deaths of the crew. With this in mind, the tank was designed with no hydraulic systems whatsoever, but only electrical systems.
The Merkava's turret, for example, is rotated by an electric motor developed by Israel's Elbit Systems, which replaced the hydraulic motor that ran on oil and often burst into flames when hit.
The tank's protective shell is one of the most closely guarded secrets. In order to increase the tank's chance of survival against bombs or mines that detonate alongside or underneath it, or against hits by anti-tank missiles, an especially thick armor was developed to cover the Merkava. In some parts of the tank, that armor is almost one-meter thick.
The emphasis placed on its armor makes the Merkava one of the heaviest tanks in the world, weighing in at about 65 tons. It has a 1,200 horsepower engine and carries 1,000 liters of fuel. Even so, it is considered to be fast, capable of reaching speeds of 65 kilometers (40 miles) per hour. The tank carries 50 shells with a 120-millimeter diameter, mortars, smoke bombs and thousands of rounds of light ammunition.
Yet despite all these features, the tank is not impregnable, as Bernstein concedes. He refrained from revealing "to those who want to kill our sons" the specific points of vulnerability, but said those who had carried out the attack "found a point, or one of the spots, it would be more correct to say." He did add that the Merkava's underbelly is less protected than the rest of the tank.
He also said that it was always possible to increase protection for the tank crew, but that this comes at the expense of the tank's speed and maneuverability, due to the weight of the armor and, consequently, the larger engine that would be required. These considerations, he said, had been taken into account in the past and that they "are always reopened for discussion in light of new circumstances," such as Thursday night's attack.
The game of cat and mouse, he concluded, would continue no matter what changes were made. "Just as in Lebanon, after a Merkava tank was damaged and a crewmember was killed, the development team was asked to provide an answer," Bernstein said. "I am sure that the current team will provide an answer to [what happened on Thursday], but I am sorry to say that it will not end there."
Huge Bomb Under Tank Kills 3 Soldiers
By Amos Harel
Ha'aretz Daily
Three Israeli soldiers were killed and one suffered moderate to serious wounds yesterday when a bomb went off next to their Merkava 3 tank on a road between the Netzarim settlement and the Karni checkpoint in the Gaza Strip, Israeli military officials said. The Merkava is considered the safest tank in the world.
The army said it was preparing to respond to the attack, which marked the first time a roadside bomb managed to seriously penetrate an Israeli tank's armor in the territories. Even in roadside bomb attacks in Lebanon over the past decade the armor of Israeli tanks has never been hit hard enough to strike an entire tank crew.
Military officials said half an hour before the tank was hit, Palestinians opened fire on a civilian convoy guarded by soldiers and set off a bomb that damaged a bus but caused no injuries. The army sent a tank into the area and a huge bomb exploded under it in what appears to have a planned two-stage gun-and-bomb ambush. Hamas and Fatah claimed responsibility.
The tank was toppled on its side and the turret blown off. The only surviving member of the tank crew was evacuated by helicopter to Soroka Hospital in Beersheba.
Channel Two television reporter Sagi Bashan was lightly injured by shrapnel when Israeli soldiers opened fire on him for trying to circumvent a checkpoint while covering the rescue operation. Basham told the soldiers they did not have the right to stop him from entering the area unless they had a written order from the Southern Command indicating it was a closed military area.
The soldiers said they did not have such an order, so he told them he was going in, got into his car and drove by. They then opened fire.
The bomb, an unusually large and sophisticated one weighing perhaps scores of kilograms, apparently hit the Merkava 3 tank - the most sophisticated and best protected model used by the IDF - at an unusual angle. It thus managed to penetrate the armor, according to an initial army investigation of the incident.
The attack will oblige the military to reconsider its regulations on military traffic in the Gaza Strip and is sure to be considered a major victory and morale booster for the Palestinians.
Joint claim
A group including the military wings of Hamas and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction jointly claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement sent to Reuters news agency.
A statement by the Salahudin Brigade, the military wing of the Popular Resistance Committees group, said the attack was in response to Israel's killing on Wednesday of five Palestinian policemen during a raid in the Gaza Strip.
"In response to the killing of five soldiers of the national security forces and in response to the raid on our cities and villages ... Salahudin Brigade detonated two roadside bombs against a Zionist convoy ... then sprayed the convoy with machinegun fire", the statement said.
Wednesday's incursion into Palestinian-controlled areas of Gaza, the largest IDF operation in the strip since the intifada erupted more than 16 months ago, was in response to Kassam-2 rockets fired by Hamas militants. It involved the arrest of 18 suspected terrorists in the northern Gaza Strip. Yesterday the IDF released 16 of the suspects. Palestinian sources said all Palestinians on Israel's wanted terrorist list had managed to escape the area before the IDF entered.
Just a few hours after withdrawing from Gaza, some IDF tanks returned to take up positions near Dir al-Balah yesterday morning. Troops set out to search for those responsible for firing three mortars on Israeli targets overnight. One landed in the south of the strip, a second near an outpost in the Gush Katif block of settlements in northern Gaza and a third near Morag settlement. No injuries were reported.
Four Palestinians shot at Israeli troops before dawn yesterday near Morag and the soldiers fired back, killing one. The other three managed to escape. The settlement of Atzmonah also came under fire, as did an IDF outpost near Neve Dekalim.
A small number of troops are still deployed in the hilly region overlooking the village of Beit Hanoun.
Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer yesterday said the IDF had prevented eight terrorists entering Israeli territory this week - he made the comments during a speech at the Labor Party's Beit Berl headquarters. Security sources later confirmed the IDF had thwarted several terrorist attacks in the last week, but said not all of those behind the attempts had been arrested.
Backing the soldiers
The defense minister denied reports that he had criticized the IDF's performance in the territories. He said he had supported the operation and had approved it. The IDF's performance in the territories has come under censure from government and defense officials in the past few days. Critics say delays in carrying out planned operations have seriously reduced their effectiveness. "I have no complaints against the IDF. These children [soldiers] operate around-the-clock to protect us," he said.
The object of Wednesday's incursion into Gaza was primarily to destroy terrorist infrastructure and prevent future attacks, the army said. Allegations were unfounded that the IDF had responded too slowly to the Kassam rocket attacks, thus failing to capture the culprits, it added. ubContrassID=1&sbSubContrassID=0

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