One after the other, they rose out of the desert sands, soaring toward the bright blue sky: steel masts painted white and orange.
The army jeep, having left a military complex on Mount Harif, on Israel’s border with Egypt, drove along the recently constructed fence on the frontier.
Like clockwork, another tower appeared every few minutes.
The structures dot the 240-kilometer frontier, and represent a revolution in border security launched by an IDF seeking to create an effective response to the ongoing threat of terrorism from the semi-lawless Sinai Peninsula.
These masts serve a dual use for the IDF. For the Eitam 727 Combat Intelligence Collection Battalion, they represent the latest in border surveillance. Radars sensitive to human movements, thermal cameras and optical cameras that peer deep into Egyptian territory are pinned to the top of the towers.
For the 681 C4i teleprocessing battalion, the masts are broadcast centers that allow for a range of advanced communications networks, linking security forces to one another and enabling command-and-control networks in the harshest of desert mountain terrains.
“We understood that Sinai is an effective hothouse for terrorism, whether the attackers come from Gaza or Sinai,” said Lt.-Col. Erez Savion, the battalion’s commander as he drove this reporter through the rocky landscape under a glaring early April sun.
From the time Israel left Gaza in 2005, planners in IDF Southern Command saw growing warning signs that this sector was facing the threat of instability, leading up to a decision in 2012 to set up the battalion.
Savion listed the warnings: In 2007, a suicide bomber who entered Israel from Egypt killed three Israelis at an Eilat bakery. In 2011, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was toppled by a revolution that sent shock waves through the region, marking the beginning of an ongoing period of turmoil and uncertainty for Israel’s southern neighbor.
As terrorists affiliated to al-Qaida’s call for an Islamic caliphate proliferated in Sinai, that same year, a squad of gunmen and bombers crossed into Israel and attacked civilian traffic near the border on Route 12, murdering eight Israelis on the highway from Mitzpe Ramon to Eilat.
Seven months later, in 2012, the IDF made a decision.
It split off Combat Intelligence Collection forces from the Gaza border, and siphoned them off to the Egyptian border, creating Battalion 727.
All the while, illegal African migration had hit 50,000 and become a major issue, and criminal smuggling gangs continued to ferry narcotics and weapons across the border.
“But terrorism was the main catalyst,” Savion recalled. As the Defense Ministry quickly constructed a border fence, dubbed Sand Clock, Battalion 727 got ready to defend it. The unit became operational in November 2012.
“We’re called the Eitam Battalion because that was the name of the second stop overtaken by [the biblical] Israelites in Sinai, on their way out of Egypt,” Savion said. “We are a strategic combat response to any developments on this border. If we see travelers in this region during the holidays, it’s a sign we are succeeding.”
THIS IS how the battalion works: The surveillance towers growing out of the dunes feed control centers with advanced radar and visual imagery, and the data is sent to two regional control centers.
From there, controllers scanning their screens direct security forces to the sites of any unusual or suspicious movements.
On the ground, in camouflaged positions, members of the battalion’s field lookout company keep watch.
These squads are made up exclusively of highly trained female soldiers (forming the only all-female combat unit in the IDF).
“They lie in wait in their positions for days, searching for intruders,” Savion said, speaking of the young women with a quiet pride.
An additional company travels around in jeeps and activates surveillance balloons. It is designed to provide a swift response to developments within the battalion’s areas of coverage.
“We’ve never seen a border secured like this in our country,” Savion said. “We also work with Unit 8200 [the signal intelligence unit of Military Intelligence].”
Savion acknowledged the limitations of the impressive capabilities at his disposal. He said he is troubled by the ongoing threat of rocket fire from terrorists located 30 to 40 km. away, deep in Sinai. But the ability of the IDF to deal with cross-border attacks has improved by leaps and bounds.
Additionally, Savion stated, tactical cooperation with the Egyptian security forces is good, as both sides are driven by a shared interest in maintaining a stable and peaceful border region.
When the battalion identifies questionable movements on the other side of the border, it can send messages to Egyptian security forces via the IDF’s Foreign Communications Unit. “The Egyptians respond positively,” Savion said.
Like desert trackers, the battalion’s members have become specialists in this barren region, due to the fact that they are stationed here permanently, and not rotated around borders like so many other units.
But the amorphous enemy hiding in the desert is evolving as well, Savion warned. “It is searching for ways to get through, searching for the easiest points of access,” the commander said.
Beyond the threat of terrorism, the battalion has also stopped millions of shekels’ worth of cross-border narcotics- smuggling efforts.
It helps the army distinguish between friend and foe, which is critical for avoiding mishaps that might cast a shadow over relations with Cairo’s military establishment.
“How can we know if the man holding a Kalashnikov at the border is an Egyptian soldier or a threat? This question arises almost every day. We must be able to distinguish a friendly presence from a predator,” Savion explained.
That task often falls to the field lookout squads, one of which had set up a temporary base near an orange and white mast as our jeep approached it. The squad was in the midst of observing a potential threat.
SQUAD COMMANDER Lt. Bar Michaels, who arrived here six months ago, briefed The Jerusalem Post about her daily tasks.
“Our mission entails gathering intelligence along the Egyptian border. We all have our areas of specialty. We don’t just deal with intelligence, we’re also combat, and train in storming enemy positions a lot,” she said.
The threat over in Egypt is fluid, Michaels continued.
“Our battalion moves all of the rest of the forces here, and that’s a big responsibility,” she said. “Sometimes it’s just me and the squad. Our decisions have a big influence, and the information we transmit can determine outcomes to significant events. We’ve directed forces, and done other things that were crucial to making sure we don’t lose control of the situation here.”
The women sometimes travel undercover, in civilian clothing. They have even pretended to be sunbathers on beaches in Eilat, for the purpose of gathering information.
Corporals Shir Ardi-Brill and Rami Diamond stopped their work for a brief conversation, and stressed that the best time to set up an undercover lookout post was at night.
“We don’t see everything, but we’re the first on the ground if something happens,” Diamond, who emigrated to Israel from the US, said. “It’s important that they [Sinai terrorists] know we are here,” added Ardi- Brill.
The threat of being shot at always exists, they acknowledged, yet “every soldier asked to be here,” Diamon said.
“So long as terrorists don’t enter a community and carry out an attack, and tourists come to vacation in Eilat, we are winning,” she added.
Back at Mount Harif, 71 female controllers staffed a control room fed by the array of radars and cameras mounted on top of the masts – the biggest Combat Intelligence control room in the IDF. Work to complete the center was completed in recent weeks, and The Jerusalem Post was the first in the media to gain access to it.
Inside the air-conditioned building, dozens of controllers kept their eyes glued to multiple screens at every station. Red dots appeared on radar screen showing potentially suspicious activity. Two other screens showed feeds from thermal and optical cameras.
Capt. Ya’ara Maman, the company commander in charge of the room, which serves the Sagi Territorial Brigade, said all of this technology enabled the military to respond to incidents on time.
“This is a very large sector. The Gaza border is a quarter of this,” she said. “If we don’t provide alerts about [suspicious] activities deep in Sinai on time, we’ll have problems.”