To see and be unseen

As a lesson from the Second Lebanon War, Ground Forces Command established a special camouflage unit to train regular infantry how to disappear into their surroundings. Catch them if you can.

September 8, 2010 23:39
A soldier in camouflage.

311_camouflage. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

A week after the Second Lebanon War erupted in the summer of 2006, soldiers from the IDF’s elite Egoz antiguerrilla unit were dispatched to the northern border.

Rumors of the secret underground passageways Hizbullah had built following the withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and of the advanced Iranian-supplied surveillance equipment and weaponry had spread like wildfire throughout the IDF over the years. The response was meant to be Egoz, a unit that operates under the Golani Brigade, with a declared expertise in guerrilla warfare.

Like many operations during that war, the troops from Egoz had their plans changed repeatedly. Many of the soldiers, who were drafted following the pullout from Lebanon, had never really been in enemy territory. While they had fought Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, this was the first time they were off to war in a different country.

Finally, on July 21, the orders came in. Egoz was under instructions to cross by foot into Lebanon, take control of the eastern side of the village of Maroun al-Ras and begin sweeping its streets in search of Hizbullah command posts suspected of being inside and under some of the homes.

The problem was that the force entered Lebanon in daylight without using any means of concealment or camouflage. One officer later recalled how after several meters into Lebanon, the force noticed that it was being tracked by soldiers from UNIFIL.

“If UNIFIL knew where we were, so did Hizbullah,” he said.

He was correct and the force quickly came under massive Hizbullah fire. The results of that battle seemed later to have almost been preordained.

Four soldiers were killed, including a company commander.

This story, as well as others involving IDF soldiers who deployed out in the open during that war, led to an understanding within the Ground Forces Command that infantry soldiers were lacking a basic military skill – camouflage.

located near Modi’in, which celebrated its first anniversary this month. Chosen to head the new unit was Capt. Rafael, 25, from the Paratroop Brigade.

Rafael faced quite a challenge. While certain IDF units – mostly from the special forces – had cultivated camouflage capabilities over the years, there was no unit whose sole purpose was to specialize in camouflage and serve as the knowledge base for the rest of the army.

“There were certain capabilities in special elite units but the main gap was in regular infantry units,” he said. “Each unit had its own doctrine and methods, but there was no consistency between them. There was no code of how to do it.”

ON A RECENT hot August day, The Jerusalem Post joined Rafael and his men on a training mission in the Eila Valley near Beit Shemesh.

The hilly, rocky and bushy terrain was not chosen by coincidence but rather due to its similarity to the type of terrain the trainees will face in a future foray into southern Lebanon. Other training sessions take place in the Negev to learn about camouflage in the Gaza Strip.

“We match the terrain to the scenario and threat,” Rafael explained.

The soldiers in this course were from the Kfir Brigade. Despite the heat and humidity, they had camouflage paint on their faces, large packs on their backs, automatic rifles slung over their shoulders and helmets clamped down tight over their heads. Some were hiding inside bushes learning to blend into the cover nature has to offer. Others were busy learning to dig trenches and cover them with branches, bushes and dirt.

After establishing the unit, Rafael set out on a tour of the IDF, visiting units that had camouflage experience. He wanted to study the issue, but he also had an ulterior motive – to find instructors. One soldier he brought onto the team is Albert, an Egoz veteran who has been in the IDF for more than 10 years and has seen combat in Lebanon and Gaza.

“The importance of camouflaging during an operation cannot be underestimated,” explained Albert, who functions as the unit’s chief instructor. “It also needs to be done correctly since Hizbullah, for example, lives in the field and will easily be able to tell if something is out of place, even if it is just a rock that was moved from where it usually is.”

The idea is to make soldiers aware of their surroundings and to understand that when they break a branch during a hike up a mountain or step in a puddle, they are essentially leaving signs behind for someone else, most likely the enemy, to find.

“The average Israeli does not understand what nature is and what it means to operate outside in the field,” Rafael said.

Other instructors came from the Golani Brigade and the elite General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, known as Sayeret Matkal.

The unit offers a number of different courses.

The basic course is for regular soldiers sent as representatives of their units. They learn how to set up camouflaged positions out in the open, and then return to their units and teach them.

Other, more advanced courses, are offered to special reconnaissance units, and sometimes Rafael and his men are called on by the special forces to advise on specific missions.

Lt.-Col. Ariel Ben-Dayan, commander of the Counterterror School, said that the new training makes the IDF more professional and more lethal.

“The infantry has undergone a revolution since the Second Lebanon War,” he said. “We know that we need to prepare for future wars and not past wars, and this awareness led to the understanding that we need better sniper capabilities, better camouflage capabilities, more accurate mortars and other capabilities.”

Why is camouflage important? “On a battlefield, it is all about who is detected first,” Ben-Dayan said. “The enemy is looking for us and the main challenge for us is to detect the enemy before he detects us.”

In addition to establishing the unit and offering specialized courses, Rafael and his team also developed new materials and equipment that can be used to assist IDF squads in quickly concealing themselves when on missions out in the open.

ULTIMATELY THOUGH, Rafael would like to see soldiers who are capable of building camouflaged positions with nothing more than a shovel and the equipment that nature has to offer, like boulders, branches and leaves.

“Our goal is to connect the trainees to the land and to nature. so they will ultimately look at their surroundings like soldiers and not like someone who is on a nature hike,” he said.

As expected, the unit’s mascot is the chameleon, which has the ability to change the color of its skin to adapt to its surroundings.

During the training exercise in the Eila Valley, one of the instructors suddenly popped his head out of a bush to show off the chameleon he had just happened to catch crawling nearby.

As the chameleon was released back to the wild, Rafael looked at the soldiers hiding in a nearby bush and gave a few pointers how to better merge with the greenery.

“The chameleon is our unit’s friend since it represents what our goal is – to blend in with our surroundings, hide and surprise the enemy before he surprises us,” he said.

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