The steep, green hills southwest of Hebron were peppered by white large boulders, before making room for a valley, in which a Palestinian village was nestled.
Approaching it was a convoy of IDF jeeps carrying officers from the 7th Armored Brigade, as well as a row of fast-walking infantry soldiers, members of the brigade’s elite Reconnaissance Company.
They were all taking part in a drill designed to improve their ability to storm Hezbollah-controlled villages in southern Lebanon. The mission: To test the ability of company and platoon commanders to plot ground offensives on challenging terrain, and enter a village without exposing their soldiers to deadly Hezbollah fire.
The exercise is what the IDF calls a “skeleton drill,” involving only commanding officers and a few units.
The onus is on the officers – they must simulate an attack and test theories on how best to achieve their goals.
The officers had left their tanks and subordinates behind at the nearby Lachish Training Center, where a brigade-wide drill was held in the morning. Now, the jeeps converged on a section of the village of Idna.
The 7th Brigade is expected to be one of the wartime formations that will be called in to deliver a knockout punch to Hezbollah in a future large-scale clash.
The brigade has begun a process to upgrade its fleets of tanks from the veteran Merkava Mark 2 to the cutting-edge Mark 4 models, a process that will be complete in the next two-and-a-half years.
Though an armored formation by definition, the brigade includes a specialized Reconnaissance Company, which gathers intelligence and directs the brigade’s firepower, and a number of additional non-armored units.
“We’re not just tanks. We’re made up of multiple forces, and operate on multiple fronts,” a brigade source told The Jerusalem Post.
“We are in the process of building up power. We have incorporated an Engineering Corps battalion, and a combat assistance company that is made up of soldiers who do patrols, set up lookouts, and deploy precision firepower,” the source added.
Gesturing towards the approaching village and hilly landscape, the source said, “This is just like Lebanon. Even the fence is the same color. We’re simulating a northern arena and observing this terrain, some of which is open and some of which is built up. We want to instill ground awareness into these officers.”
The aim of the drill, and others like it, is to ensure that a common language exists among the officers that make up the brigade, and to make sure they are ready for a sudden conflict with Hezbollah.
A kilometer before the entrance to the village of Idna, the lead jeep, containing the Brigade Commander, Col. Nadav Lotan, pulled over to the side of the road, near a row of olive trees. “See how important it is to set up a position in this olive grove?” Lotan said to a subordinate.
In the same jeep, a commander of the 7th Brigade’s 77th Armored Battalion, Lt.-Col. Yair Or, closely observed the terrain.
Or has been stationed in this area with his battalion for three months for routine security missions.
“We’re no strangers to Idna,” he said, adding that the army makes routine arrests here, mainly of criminal suspects believed to be behind thefts of vehicles and metals.
Currently, the 77th battalion is engaged in foot and jeep patrols. But in any conflict, its members would be quickly mobilized to the Lebanese border, before storming Hezbollah positions in tanks.
This hilly countryside and Palestinian village provided the stage for the battalion’s officers to think about how best to do that.
“We’re taking advantage of an area in which we are operationally active in, to maintain our readiness,” Lt.-Col. Or explained.
Before coming here, the officers had made plans on how to seize this patch of land. Now, they tested their plans to see if they matched up with reality.
Where should armored fighting vehicles pass through to get to the village? What is the width of the village’s entrance road? What are the best vantage points? And what route is insurmountable? These are the questions that occupied the minds of the officers.
“Hezbollah is an experienced organization that understands what it wants,” the army source said. “It has a lot of operational experience; it’s been fighting in Syria for two years. Hezbollah can surprise us. We will also surprise it. That’s what we’re preparing for now, maneuvering into a village,” the source said.
The jeeps entered the village and officers began a foot patrol, before gathering in a semi-circle. Palestinians walked by and drove through in vehicles. Two men in a car waved, and greeted the soldiers in Hebrew. One woman began filming the commanders from afar on her cell phone.
“The officers must become acclimatized to interacting with civilian populations,” the source said. “That’s part of the drill.”
In the background, mosque loudspeakers called Muslims to prayer.
Col. Dotan, the brigade commander, stood facing his officers.
“At the moment, we are hidden from the north, but are exposed to the south,” Lotan said. “Look at your plans and see if they are applicable” An intense debate began among the commanders. Can D-9 bulldozers open a path for armored vehicles on one particular route? Opposing views were aired, each with supporting arguments.
Lotan resumed his talk, and the officers fell silent. “We’re passing through different terrains here. From an open territory, we descended into a narrow bottleneck, directly into a built-up village… a company commander must decide how to enter a space like this. Any force that tries to get past a fence can be hit with an anti-tank missile. That’s why it’s so important to deploy look-outs. Make sure you are working in coordination with your maps,” he said.
“If a mistake occurs, don’t continue as normal, and make it worse. Look at this wall, you can set up a position behind it. Realize that moving past this kind of area will not take 20 minutes. It will take longer than that… This mission is time-limited,” he added.
Eventually, the officers got back into their vehicles and left the area, marking the end of the drill. Lt.-Col Or expressed confidence that such exercises boosted his ability to attack Hezbollah.
“I have all of the tools and training to prepare me for combat,” he said.