Dressed in civilian clothing, Hezbollah members, the undisputed rulers of southern Lebanon, make every effort to cover their tracks, as they stash heavy weaponry and rockets in Lebanese village homes and prepare for the next war with Israel.
But their movements are being closely watched by the soldiers of the IDF’s Shahaf (Seagull) Combat Intelligence Collection Battalion, based on the northern border.
The battalion – the second-largest in the IDF – this week completed a grueling five-week training drill in the Upper Galilee, designed to prepare its members for all eventualities. During continuous security missions, the battalion expands the IDF’s target list, which will be activated during a future outbreak of war.
Once hostilities erupt, the battalion provides an instant intelligence picture of developments in the field, enabling the IDF to quickly direct devastating, accurate firepower at enemy positions.
The Jerusalem Post joined Lt.-Col. Yiftah Siboni, the battalion commander, during the last phase of the exercise in the Galilean hills this week.
“We monitor Hezbollah and update the list of targets for attack. We’re continuously adding targets to the list. This is the core aspect of our activities.
We are hunters, not fishermen. We don’t wait around for something to bite, but rather, seek out the targets,” Siboni said, as he trekked through dense forest.
The battalion’s soldiers had just completed an allnight 15-kilometer march through highly rugged and mountainous terrain, carrying 40 kilograms of equipment on their back.
In this kind of terrain, it takes 2 hours to cover 2 km., rather than the standard 20 minutes.
The soldiers do not merely locate targets. During hostilities, they must transmit the precise locations of enemy positions, in real time, to the 91st Division, which is based in the Galilee and which would coordinate front-line missions during a war with Hezbollah.
The information, painstakingly collected by the battalion, is passed on to a range of military forces that can direct precise fire on targets, from tanks, artillery and combat helicopters.
“During times of conflict, we can direct fire on targets within minutes of identification. Alternatively, targets are passed on to Military Intelligence,” Siboni said.
Gathering intelligence in the field is always a challenge, in light of the fact that Hezbollah’s members are disguised as civilians, and the terror organization’s facilities are often planted in the middle of civilian areas. “We see them from the border, all across the sector,” Siboni said.
Hezbollah has some 80,000 rockets pointed at Israel, most of them situated in the Shi’ite villages of southern Lebanon. The data being collected by the battalion today will be crucial in a potential future confrontation.
During routine surveillance missions, the soldiers work quietly, setting up forward, camouflaged posts. They can remain in their hidden position for anywhere between two to three days at a time, and spend many hours in the field every week.
Their efforts are backed by operators who monitor video feeds from remote controlled cameras dotted along the border.
The battalion is also equipped with “Raccoon” recon and observation vehicles, which have advanced sensors.
Invisible from even a close distance, one combat team crouched down under the shade of a large pine tree, simulating a wartime mission.
Every soldier was equipped with a map, while one soldier held a device linking him to a command and control system called Digital Ground Army.
The hi-tech system allows all of the IDF’s command levels to see the position of enemy cells, as well as the location of IDF units, in any given sector.
“What they do here is evaluate the targets,” Siboni explained, stressing the most unique aspect of the battalion’s mission. In the field, day or night, in all weather conditions, the soldiers must make quick decisions on the intelligence value of what they see.
During combat, those decisions could lead to a tank shell or a helicopter missile strike, if the soldiers conclude that the target poses an immediate threat. As they engage in such complex judgments, the soldiers have to be ready to engage threats themselves, if they come under fire.
The risk of coming under fire would grow if the battalion joins the IDF in a ground maneuver inside Lebanon. For that reason, the soldiers in recent weeks practiced live-fire exercises in open areas and urban environments.
In other drills, the soldiers practiced scrambling to jeeps and getting to new locations within 30 minutes, to ensure flexibility.
“The combat team must understand the entire division, and know what the brigade commander needs to know to win the battle, and what territory has to be covered.
They have to be aware of how best to provide an evaluation for the higher commanders,” Siboni explained.
In the exercise, soldiers from the Armored Corps played Hezbollah members seeking to take out the Combat Intelligence soldiers. The soldiers had to “neutralize” the enemy and continue in their mission.
Sgt. Yotam Wolf, commander of the combat team hidden under the tree, said, “Currently we’re identifying the enemy in the field. We’re creating a target list for the division commander. As soon as we identify something, we will send it directly onwards. We have to ensure that we’re not looking a UN vehicle or noncombatants.”
Once a hostile target is confirmed during a war, the team will monitor the IDF’s strike on it to ensure an accurate hit. “We categorize the targets – are they weapons storage facilities or lookout posts? What should be done? More surveillance? If we see an enemy unit with weapons, is this a new development?” Siboni added.
Among the soldiers under the pine tree was Cpl. Netzah Miller, a yeshiva student who emigrated to Israel three years ago from California.
“I see this as my duty. I feel that my role has an influence,” he said.
“Just one identification of a target can change the picture. This understanding makes me happy about my role,” Miller added.
To the east, on the Golan Heights, the IDF is setting up a new Combat Intelligence battalion, on the border with Syria.
As Israel’s northern frontiers continue to bristle with developing threats and instability, the IDF is investing advanced resources to enable it to keep close tabs on what takes place over the border. •
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