Isr Egy border 298.88.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
"A" Company ended 25 days of reserve duty on Thursday without mishap. But the soldiers and officers driving home in the evening after a long frustrating day of cleaning weapons, returning equipment and lining up for discharge papers were far from relieved.
This was the third time over the last four years that the company has carried out its annual service on the northernmost sector of the Egyptian border, next to the southern tip of the Gaza Strip and the Philadelphi Corridor. "But this time they told us that things are hot around here," said one sergeant.
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The intelligence briefing given to the company included the warning that terrorists, unable to penetrate Israel through the heavily defended fence around the Strip, might take a detour through Egyptian territory instead. That would bring them straight to the sector it was defending.
The company was stationed at the base at Kerem Shalom, near where Cpl. Gilad Shalit was captured in a Hamas attack just over 100 days ago. Reports in the media over the last few weeks on the training that Hamas has been receiving from Hizbullah and al-Qaida didn't do much to improve morale.
"Kidnapping another soldier sounds like something al-Qaida would definitely like to do," said one officer.
The company's main mission was to patrol the border. The first few kilometers beyond the Strip are demarcated by an electric fence, which is supposed to give an immediate indication when it is touched or cut. "We don't trust the indications," Sgt. Itzik said bluntly.
Technicians who work on the fence told the soldiers that it was built to last 10 years but has been in use for twice that long. "Even the army doesn't seem to care about the fence" said Itzik. "There has been a malfunction in one place, and we're getting a constant indication there. A week has passed, but no one has been sent to fix it."
The IDF procedure takes the fence's condition into account, and one of the standing orders is "the fence works, but is not 100 percent trustworthy, and it also has many malfunctions."
Last week a Sudanese refugee managed to cut through the fence and walk into Israel. Thanks to the quick reaction of the soldiers and the instincts of a Beduin driver, he was caught before he had managed to advance 200 meters, but the concern over how the incident might have ended if the intruders were armed terrorists remained acute.
The fence ends after a few kilometers and the border is open, save for an old cattle fence, full of holes. "Camels cross that border easily," said Lt. Ronen. "In that case, so can people."
One of the soldiers' main complaints was that the army is afraid to defend the border properly due to diplomatic considerations. "They are relying on the fact that it's a 'border of peace,' so they hope that the Egyptians also have the same interest," said Sgt. Amit.
But it doesn't seem as if the Egyptians are very busy on their side of border. It's not only the 19 tons of explosives that the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) claims has been smuggled into the Gaza Strip under the eyes of the Egyptians in the past year or so. It's also that the soldiers seen by "A" Company are very low-grade, according to the company.
"They haven't even got basic equipment like radios," observed Sgt. Itzik.
Lt. Ronen complained about the rules of engagement.
"The basic rule is that you don't fire in the direction of Egypt unless there is a clear life-endangering situation, and even then, it's better to take cover and report. You don't shoot into Egypt even if a soldier is captured. We didn't pass that on to the soldiers. We prefer they use their common sense."
It is not only the fence that bothered the company. In addition, routine operations in the sector seemed pointless. In the southern area, where there is no fence, the company had several night ambushes.
"The logic would have been to build a fence. It might cost a lot of money but in the long run, it would save thousands of days of reserve service, vehicles and large forces," said Amit. "Why should reservists go out every night to lay in ambush when a fence could do the job?"
"The ambushes are too routine; they can easily spot us, " said Ronen. "One of the ambushes is deeper within Israeli territory to stop smugglers. It's pointless. They know the terrain like the palm of their hand. They listen in to IDF radio. They can evade us easily. And besides, what can we do against them?"
"It's a police job. Why are IDF reservists doing it?" asked Amit.
The company also felt it was ill-prepared for their missions. Like every reserve unit, they had a brief three-day training period before taking responsibility for their sector. According to the soldiers and officers, the training was irrelevant to their mission.
"No one thought to first check what exactly we were supposed to be doing on the border before planning our training," said Itzik. "We just did a standard program."
For half a day, the company practiced moving into ambushes with a large number of soldiers over open terrain, when in reality, the ambushes were much smaller and in a totally different pattern. The company carried out an exercise on defending a fortified post. When they reached the border, they discovered the pillboxes were built differently than the ones on which they had trained.
"Even the Sufa jeeps that we practiced on during the training were of a different configuration than the ones we actually used on the border," said Ronen. "Since on the first day everyone is arriving, and on the third day we're already going to our operational position, there's really only one day to train, and how much can you do in one day?
"My feeling is that the brigade doesn't care about us. They didn't visit us out in the field. As an officer, I didn't meet the brigade commander or any of his staff officers even once during this period. They didn't take any interest in us."
The feeling of disregard for the reservists was further proven by their living conditions within brigade headquarters.
"While the rest of the base is well kept and the buildings have air-conditioning, we were given dilapidated, broken-down rooms," said Itzik. "One of us fell through the floor while taking a shower - the wooden floor had rotted away."
The soldiers also spent long days and nights in the positions on the border. The conditions there were no better. Without proper sanitation, the soldiers had to use chemical toilets, but the civilian contractor - whose job it is to pump out the refuse and whose radio call-sign is "honey sucker" - arrived only once a week, while the chemical in the toilets was effective for only two days.
"The army is trying to save money on my hygiene," said Itzik.
All the soldiers interviewed stressed that despite their complaints, morale was high among the company of infantry soldiers, most of whom did their regular service in the Givati Brigade and are now in their late 20s. Because of the war in Lebanon, they were called up on special orders with only eight days notice, but turn out was exceptionally high.
"We all came, but we can't defend the country's border like this," said Amit. "If I'm willing to come and risk my life to defend the civilians here, I'd expect that at least my complaints should be acted upon."
An IDF spokesman responded to some of the complaints.
"All the soldiers on the base have the same living conditions, and the reservists are not discriminated against. The decision regarding where to build a border fence is made by the Defense Ministry, not the IDF. Wherever there is no fence, there are outposts. In any case, where lives are in danger, soldiers are also allowed to fire in the direction of Egypt. As to the ambush against smugglers, there is also a force of Border Police working with them, and the IDF does not decide its own missions. The frequency of chemical toilet maintenance will be checked."