The growing terrorist presence in Sinai continues to pose a threat to the South. But the female and male combat soldiers of the Caracal Battalion – Israel’s only co-ed combat unit – are training hard to ensure that they are ready to fend off the next jihadi attack and defend the southern region, the unit’s outgoing commander, Lt.- Col. Jackie Ben-Yakar, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
Ben-Yakar, 36, will complete his term as battalion commander next week, and there is no doubt in his mind that there will be more terrorist attacks from Sinai.
“Our working assumption is [that] an attack will happen. It’s a matter of time. We are preparing for hostile action, we’re preparing the forces, training them and keeping up their operational readiness,” he said.
“The next attack will always surprise us,” he continued.
“Our goal is not to be defeated, despite being surprised. This is what I teach my soldiers. If a terrorist cell launches a cross-border attack on us, it will apparently come as a surprise. Our goal is to storm the terrorists and kill them.”
That’s what happened on September 21, 2012, when three terrorists on the Egyptian side of the border opened fire on the members of the unit, killing Cpl.
Natanel Yahalomi as he returned fire.
A female Caracal soldier, identified only as Cpl. S., arrived swiftly and opened fire, killing a terrorist and ending the attack.
She received a citation for bravery.
“The price we paid in that attack – losing a soldier and having a second soldier sustain injuries – wasn’t easy. It was the first time the unit killed a terrorist attacker,” Ben-Yakar recalled.
“Now, it’s quiet. But beneath the surface, things are bubbling,” he went on.
“We’re preparing the soldiers for complex tasks, drilling extreme scenarios and doing all we can to give them the tools to deal with the situation. Terrorism in Sinai is growing stronger. We have to prepare.”
He said there was no tangible difference between commanding an all-male battalion and commanding a co-ed one.
He had only praise for the female soldiers.
“These are the best fighters. They’re carefully selected. It’s like Sayeret Matkal [the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit] for girls. They have high levels of discipline, professionalism and maturity,” he said.
Being a battalion commander is always challenging, he added.
“It involves looking out for a unit of 500 soldiers. The role is very demanding. It’s a way of life. Battalion commanders have to do many things simultaneously, while also taking care of our families. And we must do all of this in the best possible way,” he said.
He listed his objectives as threefold: defending the southern border – “the core mission”; returning the soldiers home safely; and building up the battalion.
“This is all taking place in a hot sector where we see incidents every day,” he said.
Hardly a day goes by without someone identifying a suspicious figure on the Egyptian border fence, he revealed.
“A battalion commander must always think about the enemy,” he said. “What will he do? I make my evaluation based on my experience, training courses, the army’s doctrine and, in the end, a gut feeling. The one who is two steps ahead of his enemy will win.”
The Caracal Battalion also intercepts criminal gangs trying to smuggle narcotics and other illicit goods into the country. In the past, it busied itself with locating African migrants illegally crossing into Israel, but that mission has essentially been removed from its task list, thanks to the completion of the Sinai security fence, and improved border control.
As Ben-Yakar turns his attention to his next role – deputy commander of the Northern Gaza Territorial Brigade – he sees commanding a brigade as a different kind of challenge.
“I don’t know Gaza,” he said. “I’m going there to learn. It will be something new.”