Ready for any surprise, the reservists of the Desert Blaze battalion keep both eyes on Gaza

The ‘Post’ spends a day with the soldiers of the Desert Blaze Battalion, as they prepare to defend the Gaza periphery from attack by Hamas

February 21, 2015 02:12
IDF SOLDIERS OF THE Desert Blaze Batallion

IDF SOLDIERS OF THE Desert Blaze Batallion. (photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN’S UNIT)

Scattered on barren desert hilltops in the Negev, soldiers from the Desert Blaze reserve battalion lay on their stomachs with their firearms, waiting for the command.

To their right, a soldier held up a red flag that flapped in the cool winter desert breeze, marking the peripheral limit of their shooting zone.

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The soldiers then rose and advanced, while some behind them provided mock cover fire. Over a hilltop a few kilometers away, the sounds of shots peppered the air, as a neighboring platoon engaged in a live-fire combat exercise.

Members of the battalion had arrived at the Southern Command training base in the South to train for combat against Hamas terrorists.

The scenario at the heart of this exercise involved gunmen from Gaza who emerged from cross-border tunnels, seeking to kill Israeli civilians and soldiers.

Watching this scene was a man who has spent years working to ensure that the battalion reached its current level of operational readiness: Lt.-Col. Anwar Salame, 44, from the Druse village of Yarca in the North.

Salame, a father of four, is about to retire after 25 years of military service.

His commanders are reluctant to let him go, and have in the past convinced him to sign on for more service. But now, he is about to return to his village and civilian life.

Salame exuded a quiet pride when discussing the achievements of the battalion, whose future was in doubt some years ago.

Made up of Givati soldiers, the battalion is an integral part of the Northern Gaza territorial brigade, itself a part of the Gaza Division.

The Desert Blaze Battalion defends and patrols the highly sensitive border with the Gaza Strip, protecting the Nahal Oz region.

In 2009, when Salame took up his role, it was difficult to imagine the unit would be where it is today.

“Back then, it was operationally unfit for duty, and failed an exercise,” Salame said. “It was an assortment of soldiers from various brigades; a company commander from the paratroopers commanding soldiers from the Golani brigade.”

Salame bulldozed his way into the unit, reshaping and restructuring it.

“It wasn’t built right,” he recalled. He decided to fill it with Givati reserves soldiers in their early- to mid-20s, whose level of fitness is nearly that of conscripted infantry.

Crucially, Salame ensured that the battalion acquires expertise on its fixed area of coverage, the Gaza border region. Next came long periods of grueling training.

Then, at the end of 2011, the battalion experienced a watershed moment – when it successfully completed a complex combat drill, leading the IDF to declare it fit for deployment.

The battalion had been rebuilt, and turned into a significant fixture in the IDF’s Southern Command.

“We started a very long process; it took a year to build up the platoons and companies of the battalions. I changed most of the officers,” said Salame.

The newly constituted Desert Blaze Battalion did not have to wait long for its first test, which came via November 2012’s Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza. “Soldiers showed up for duty without being called up,” Salame recounted. “Some had left the battalion before the changes, but they came back when they saw there was a battalion in place.”

Units carried out patrols of the Strip, utilizing knowledge of the terrain in defending Gaza border communities.

“This knowledge of the terrain gives us an enormous advantage,” the commander stressed.

But the real test came last summer, during Operation Protective Edge, which lasted for 50 days and saw the IDF battle Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza. Well-armed and highly trained terrorists there used cross-border tunnels to infiltrate Israel and ambush IDF patrols. Salame and his men were about to become a front-line defensive wall for the Nahal Oz area.

As the conflict approached, the battalion carried out a three-day intensive exercise, and was then deployed to the border. It participated in a number of exchanges of fire with terrorists, and came under multiple mortar attacks.

Salame described the clashes as intense, with the unit engaging terrorist cells from Gaza. Fortunately, the unit did not sustain casualties.

Yet the high cost of the fighting was never far away. Salame recalled a conversation over the communications system with the commander from the neighboring Gefen Battalion.

It occurred seconds before Lt.- Col. Dolev Kedar, who commanded that battalion, and three other soldiers were killed in a Hamas ambush, launched by a cell that entered Israel from a tunnel.

Salame said he remembered every world said in that conversation. “I can’t talk about it; it’s too personal.”

After 30 days of defending Nahal Oz, the IDF rotated the battalion away to another area to give its members a badly needed rest.

Today, Salame said, the battalion knows that “Hamas in Gaza is engaged in a massive armament program. The next wars will be different. We see Hamas’s preparations. It is getting ready for the next round, and so are we. We are training and strengthening areas we saw were weak last summer; this is one of the goals of the current exercise.”

Maj. Kobi Elkabatz, a company commander, oversaw the training of platoons.

“This is a platoon exercise. We are preparing for the sector of Nahal Oz and Kfar Aza. In Operation Protective Edge, we conducted quite a few battles and engaged infiltrators; here, we are practicing engaging terrorists who emerge from tunnels. We teach the soldiers that terrorists who come out of a tunnel are in open territory, and this is like any open-territory engagement. It’s the same threat,” he explained.

Salame oversaw bigger exercises in the following days, which peaked with a live-fire battalion-level drill.

Units from the Armored Corps, Combat Intelligence Collection Corps and Engineering Corps joined in.

Some of the reservists are students who disrupted their exam schedule to get here and train.

“We are more active than any other reserves battalion. This activity is very high priority, because the Gaza Division understood the importance of our role,” Salame said.

“Hamas will try to surprise us in the next war, but we will be ready for them. Our soldiers can spot the smallest change on the ground, and immediately see when someone has entered.

“We will train, again and again.”

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