Close to the enemy: Joining the IDF on a special operation near Lebanon

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It is still dark and cold outside, just before dawn. The force does some final drills on the commands it has worked on for weeks and steps outside the gate separating Israel from Lebanon.

Walking silently in two straight lines, wearing full combat gear and equipped with all the necessary devices, the soldiers suddenly kneel when their commander gives the agreed-upon sign, indicating that they need to stop.

After making sure that the coast is clear, the force keeps moving toward the gate.

The soldiers are walking on the road along a heavy concrete wall located on the top of the Sulam-Tzor (Tyre) mountain, which is the geographic barrier between the countries, stretching from Rosh Hanikra in the west to Hanita and Adamit in the east.

“The mountain is what we call a(n) [IDF] General Staff essential asset,” said Capt. Gal Tabac, a company commander in the 601st battalion who leads this operation. “Without the fog, we would be able to see Haifa from here. It means that if the enemy manages to get here with anti-tank missiles or mortars, he can shoot anything he wants from here to Haifa.”

CAPT. GAL TABAC (left) and the writer in the enclave. (Photo credit: IDF's Spokesperson's Unit)

CAPT. GAL TABAC (left) and the writer in the enclave. (Photo credit: IDF’s Spokesperson’s Unit)

The force that Tabac is leading consists of a protecting squad, a patrolling squad, a physician and senior medic, and an engineering crew.

Given this rare situation, the force is being backed by tanks and missile batteries, who point their cannons at places that enemy forces might be hiding, according to prior intelligence. It is also being covered by advanced observation units that constantly scan the area for a potential enemy.

“We’ve trained for a variety of scenarios, and the tanks and gunners are ready to fire in less than a minute if needed,” Tabac said.

Reaching the gate, Tabac sends the scout and the Oketz Canine handler to make sure that no IED is attached. After receiving the okay and checking one last time with the fire and observation units, the force starts stepping into the unknown.

 AN OKETZ dog checks that no IEDs were put on the gate before the force walks into the enclave. (Photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit) AN OKETZ dog checks that no IEDs were put on the gate before the force walks into the enclave. (Photo credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

“This is the moment when the adrenaline rises,” Tabac said. “This is a unique activity. There is nothing separating you from Lebanon and you need to stay as vigilant as you can.

“We don’t know what’s waiting for us on the other side. The enemy could be hiding in the bushes,” he said.

THE COMPANY’S day-to-day duty is to protect the border. Their outpost is located on the mountain, and throughout the day they carry out routine patrols with armored vehicles, man fortified watch-towers and execute other casual IDF border-protecting missions.

But this time, they were tasked to do something different – the company was asked to protect a crew of professionals that would map an exposed enclave ahead of an engineering activity inside it.

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The enclave is a piece of territory between the concrete border that was constructed after the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and the Blue Line – the official border that was set after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000. It is one of several enclaves along the border that is sovereign Israeli territory but is outside the security fence. These enclaves were generally created in places where it was difficult to build a wall that could be defended, or was hard to construct from an engineering standpoint.

This enclave is considered a large one; most of it is covered with flora, including high bushes, trees and thorns – and geographically it is very steep. The professional engineers are tasked with mapping the area ahead of bulldozing it and clearing away the dense flora covering it.

The rationale behind it is that such an enclave – which is wide open and accessible to Lebanon – could be a perfect location for Hezbollah fighters to operate. They could use the thick bushes to hide in and carry out attacks against Israeli civilians and soldiers. This is not an imaginary scenario; the abduction of IDF reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev in 2006 that sparked the Second Lebanon War, was carried out from such an enclave, near the area of Zar’it and Shetula. In a video that was released by Hezbollah in 2012, it can be seen how multiple Hezbollah forces attack the two soldiers’ Hummer jeep and how they easily crossed the fence to carry out their mission.

Since then, the IDF changed its attitude toward these enclaves, and it keeps operating within them, both to keep them safe – and to “apply sovereignty.”

“That’s one of our main goals,” Tabac said. “Legally, this is our territory, despite it being behind the wall. We want to apply our sovereignty up until the Blue Line, and show them that we’re here.

“We mustn’t leave our territory to anyone else,” he added. “Here in the Mideast, when it comes to territory, if you’re not on it, you’re losing it.”

The IDF Intelligence Directorate believes that the Lebanese front is the most sensitive among all of the current threats to Israel. It said in its recent annual assessment that Hezbollah is still seeking to avenge the death of an operative who was killed in an attack attributed to the Israel Air Force in Damascus last July.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech in late August, “Israel needs to understand… If they kill one of ours, we’ll kill one of yours.” That came a month after the organization accused Israel of killing one of its members, Ali Kamel Mohsen Jawad, near Damascus.

Hezbollah sees the situation as an account that needs to be settled and according to Nasrallah’s remarks, it is believed that it will try to kill an Israeli soldier in order to maintain the “equation.”

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BEING INSIDE the enclave feels like venturing into the wilderness – a no-man’s-land where colorful flowers manage to grow undisturbed. Within the large green area are some black spots that seem burnt.

WALKING IN the enclave, with the border community of Shlomi seen in the background. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)WALKING IN the enclave, with the border community of Shlomi seen in the background. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

“This is a result of illumination bombs that were fired here when there was a suspect in the area,” Tabac explained.

The entrance to the enclave is located at the top of the hill and the exit is a few kilometers down at the bottom. To get to it, the force will have to go down the slippery and bushy slope.

The fog dissipates and the border community of Shlomi suddenly appears behind the wall at the bottom of the hill. This sight underscores the importance of the operation – if the area remained unrazed, a Hezbollah warrior could easily shoot rockets or missiles from the bushes at the small town.

The top part of the enclave was already exposed and razed by heavy machinery, and after the protecting squad took its positions and pointed its rifles toward the bushes, Tabac and the battalion commander, Lt.-Col. Avshalom Dadon went to examine the situation and see what was accomplished in the enclave so far.

Behind the concrete wall, the actual Blue Line is marked with United Nations bright blue barrels scattered throughout the field. The shining blue is visible from far away, and the sign on the barrels says in both Arabic and English in all caps: “BLUE LINE: LINE OF WITHDRAWAL 2000 – DO NOT TRESPASS.”

Throughout the entire operation, Dadon makes sure that no one goes beyond the barrels, even by mistake.

“Doing so is a violation of Lebanon’s sovereignty,” he said. “We are here to make sure that they don’t violate our sovereignty, so we should respect the rules, and they are expected to act the same.”

The operation is executed phase after phase, step by step. Each squad carries a bright red flag, so eye contact can be maintained even inside the thick bushes. The scout and the dog clear the path, the protecting squad takes positions, and the patrolling squad accompany the engineers and the battalion commander as they examine the ground.

“We are here to measure the incline of the slope, the type of the ground, altitude and terrain, so next time we enter, we can come with heavy machineries such as D-9s and excavators and raze the ground,” Dadon said.

“Our next entrance will take several weeks, in which we will turn the sharp slope into large, razed terraces,” he said.

GOING DOWN the slope gives one a feeling how combat in Lebanon would look like in a future war.

The IDF dubs this terrain “roof bushes,” which essentially means that it covers you completely, and you feel as if you have a roof over your head. The forces need to pave their way inside the bushes and the thorns, while the protecting force constantly needs to stay on alert and ensure that no one is emerging from behind the blue barrels.

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At some point, the observations tell Tabac that they spot suspicious movement on the Lebanese side.

The force gets into positions, and the battalion’s armored vehicle patrol, which operates on the Israeli side of the fence, tells by Tabac to scramble to the point, and see if they can spot enemy troops while the observation forces scan the area.

In these tense moments, Tabac makes radio contact with the different squads and ensures that the artillery and the tanks are ready and in position to lay down fire, if needed. After several tense minutes, Tabac is told that everything is okay, and that his troops can keep moving. However, he’s told he is being watched by the Lebanese Army intelligence’s pickup trucks. The IDF claims that these trucks are used by Hezbollah operatives who sit in civilian clothes side-by-side with Lebanese soldiers, despite UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which bans any Hezbollah presence in Southern Lebanon.

On the one hand, Tabac’s troops go on heightened alert in case a confrontation erupts. On the other hand, the observation by the Lebanese helps the force achieve its goal to assert dominance and show the other side that we are here.

 SOLDIERS WALK near the concrete wall, inside the enclave. (Photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit) SOLDIERS WALK near the concrete wall, inside the enclave. (Photo credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

This new information doesn’t stop the force from completing the task and after reaching the bottom of the valley, they cross the concrete wall and are safely back inside the less exposed part of Israel. After finishing, the company takes a group photo – a memento from a unique activity.

“We achieved our goals in this operation,” Dadon said, just before the force starts walking back to its borderline outpost. “We studied the terrain so that next time we can come with the heavy machines. We also learned the importance of understanding the area – it is exceedingly thick, and razing it will help us monitor every small movement within it. There were some cases in which only after events took place did we understand that hostile forces came very close [to the border] inside the bushes.

“This is the first step that will eventually lead to better control of the border area – and greater safety for the residents,” he concluded. 

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