Security and Defense: IDF’s female operations officers on the watch

In the midst of rising West Bank violence, the IDF’s female operations officers work to keep attacks in check.

January 17, 2015 23:05
IDF soldier

Operations officer Lt. Hila Sharabi’s Binyamin territorial brigade has also seen a clear spike in the number of violent incidents. (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)

Violent attacks by Palestinians in the West Bank have risen steeply in recent months, and the territorial brigades of the IDF’s Judea and Samaria Division are at the forefront of the army’s attempts to keep the situation in check.

At the heart of the brigade’s activities are operations officers, who have the mission of maintaining control of their regions, coordinating responses of military forces and acting on intelligence alerts.

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Three female operations officers spoke to The Jerusalem Post last week, providing a glimpse into their hectic daily lives.

Lt. Nohar Atlas, an operations officer for the Ephraim territorial division, spoke of security incidents occurring “every day,” listing “rock throwing, firebombings and sabotage of the security barrier.

There has been a rise in incidents along the barrier, and on roads; our top priority to maintain a strong presence along the roads, to enable civilians to go to work and get back home safely.”

The Ephraim region is closest to the Israeli home front, located just minutes from Kfar Saba, Rosh Ha’ayin and Modi’in, Atlas noted. “Our first challenge is that a security suspect can move from here to the home front in just a few minutes. Our second challenge is that we have many communities here to defend, as well as roads Israelis travel on daily. It’s a very big area for the division to cover; it takes an hour’s drive to cover it.”

The brigade most recently responded to a Molotov cocktail attack that critically injured an 11-year-old girl last month and lightly wounded her father; two Palestinian suspects were later arrested.

To ensure its combat readiness, the Ephraim Brigade held a large-scale exercise recently, testing responses to explosives, gun battles and Krav Maga self-defense techniques.

“Every day can look different – one day, I accompany the brigade commander and tour battalions and companies; on another, we hold security evaluation and planning meetings to monitor the situation in our sector. There are days when we are in the command centers to manage incidents,” Atlas explained.

“I have to always be in control of the sector, to be on top of incidents and know where the forces are located.”

Although others have the specific task of scrambling forces following violent incidents, Atlas said she must act as a bridge to higher command and ensure field units remain in touch with the IDF’s higher echelons. “It means I have to maintain control of the whole of the area, from the smallest detail to the biggest threat,” she added.

On a weekly basis, Atlas meets with representatives of all army forces in the Ephraim area, based in the Kalkilya area of the West Bank.

“Each IDF representative sums up what has happened, and briefs the others on plans for the next week. We search for ways to improve every week,” Atlas said, “and we depend on a continuous stream of incoming reports. Our recent focus has been to increase readiness and patrol areas we haven’t been in, to show more of a presence.”

Over among the Binyamin territorial brigade, based near Ramallah, operations officer Lt. Hila Sharabi has also seen a clear spike in the number of violent incidents.

In the past two months, she said, there has been an “unusual escalation” in rock throwing, Molotov cocktail attacks and friction between Israelis and Palestinians.

“We try to place forces on the major roads to reduce attacks on traffic. We are starting to see results: The Trans-Binyamin Road [Route 465], which three months ago experienced many rock attacks, is now down to zero incidents,” Sharabi noted.

“One of our central focuses is defending Route 443, which connects Jerusalem to Modi’in,” the officer continued. “As soon as it is blocked off, it affects everyone; we have roads that are very threatened.”

Sharabi’s primarily role is supervising daily security missions in her sector and ensuring units are sent to incidents. “I’m in the field, or at command centers. I’m involved in all of the brigade’s activities and liaison with backup forces, as well as police and Border Police units sent to assist us.

“Before reports of incidents reach commanders, I am involved, and plan out our activities based on my knowledge of the area. I oversee the operations in the name of my commanders.”

Intelligence evaluations are key to knowing where to position battalions, Sharabi stated.

Previously a training officer serving on the Golan Heights, Sharabi said she fought hard for the opportunity to take up this role. “It’s because I really believe this is a position that has many challenges, and brings with it so much responsibility and control of so many aspects. I have a sense of purpose and belief in the things I do.”

Lt. Adena Lesnick is operations officer for the Judea territorial brigade, where Armored Corps and paratroop units are currently stationed as part of the IDF’s force rotation cycle.

Lesnick said her area is not in the midst of an intifada, despite an increase in rock throwing and firebombings. “We can contain this,” she stressed.

She often begins her days at 5 a.m. in the brigade’s control center. “We respond to intelligence information and our security evaluations,” she said. “In recent days, [the Paratroops’] Battalion 202 found many weapons in Hebron. They set up checks of vehicles and people in an activity dubbed ‘checkpost,’ and found weapons in searches of a vehicle and its occupant.”

In December, the brigade dealt with an uptick in rock throwing near the Beit Awa area and attempts to burn the West Bank security barrier; it responded by arresting rioters in night raids.

The brigade must also guard ultra-sensitive sites such as Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs, where thousands of Israelis and Palestinians come to pray each year.

Comparing the brigade to a “strong tree that needs many roots to keep it strong,” Lesnick said most of the incidents it deals with never reach the media. One example of such activity is the arrest of three suspected Islamic State-affiliated operatives in Hebron in recent weeks, a special operation that required Lesnick’s input to succeed.

“We teach the forces what Islamic State is, so they are not surprised when they encounter it,” she explained. “We work very closely with the Shin Bet [Israel Security Agency].”

The brigade carefully calibrates its responses to intelligence alerts in a way designed to avoid causing fright to local residents; this requires plenty of covert military activity, Lesnick pointed out.

The officer said she is acutely aware of how strong Hamas is in Hebron, adding that most of the arrests in her sector are linked to Hamas.

Unorganized violence is also a key concern of the brigade, she said, describing how “the correct deployment” has already prevented many incidents.

Originally starting out her service in the IDF’s Education Branch, Lesnick said she felt she wanted “to do something bigger in the army. The nation build the military, which in turn builds the nation; I wanted to take a bigger operational role.”

The role of operations officer has only recently opened up to women, she noted. “All of the girls doing this have a strong personality. I’m the second girl to hold this position in my brigade.

What we do is beyond significant and satisfying – it is vital. Everything we do has significance.

“If we put a force in a certain area, we see how incidents are prevented from occurring because of our actions.”

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