This week Col. Yehuda HaCohen will be wrapping up his service as commander of the Sagi Brigade.
HaCohen worked for the last two years to prepare the brigade for scenarios that the IDF had never even thought of before.
The Sagi Brigade sits on a 170 kilometer stretch watching over the Israeli-Sinai border. Under the Red Division, positioned in the Southern command, the brigade is responsible for watching over the western Negev.
The Division, named after Mount Sagi, was established in 2007 after Israel saw an increase in infiltration and smuggling from the Sinai.
For the past two years the division has seen a new threat coming from the Sinai, the global terrorist organization Islamic State, which has turned the area into a complex security challenge.
In the days before he says his goodbyes to the brigade and begins his studies at the National Security College, HaCohen met with The Jerusalem Post's
sister publication Ma'ariv
at an observation post on the Egyptian border.
In the heart of the seemingly calm and quiet desert sits the world’s most brutal terror organization. No one has any doubts, an attack could occur at any moment.
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In the Gaza Division lie five communities, most of their resident’s farmers, some work in tourism. Though the Egyptian side of the border can barely raise a grain of wheat, the Israeli side is flourishing in agriculture and boutique wine.
The Holot Detention center housing thousands of migrants is also situated within the borders of the division.
"When you look at the Sinai you can see the settlements are mainly near water sources," explained Hacohen.
"Where there is water, there are people. What is amazing is that the Sinai never really interested the Egyptians. Egypt has 90 million residents, here there are about 350 thousand Bedouins, and the Egyptians have already spent their limited resources on Egypt itself."
"The Sinai began to interest Egypt when we arrived and began developing it, suddenly they saw that the Sinai can be a great resource," he added.
Half of the Sinai is often considered a problem area.
"The area was created without sovereignty, and an area without a government isa breeding ground for terror," Hacohen posited.
"Al-Qaida brought terror to the Sinai and then there were a few small terrorist organizations, the biggest of which being Ansar Beit al- Maqdis, responsible for rocket attacks on Eilat, which they have targeted for years, trying to harm what they viewed as infidels of faith... they do not care how we live, they only cared to sanctify their ideology."
"In the past year and a half their methods have changed. People brought the Islamic State’s ideologies to the Sinai. The concept has changed, they aren’t just about attacking us. Now they first are looking to take care of what they consider infidels among them, and then those on the other side," HaCohen noted.
"ISIS has set out first to purify themselves while expanding their territory. They act as if they are in the Middle Ages. They occupy territories and publicly behead those who don’t join, the rest automatically join."
"They control lots of resources such as gas and they traffic people. They sell people into slavery, buying weapons with the money," he added. Waiting for the F-35
People began to notice the group’s presence in the Sinai after they downed a Russian passenger jet using a soda can full of explosives. ISIS claimed the attack shortly thereafter, and Egypt's fears of the organization were soon realized.
Hacohen recalled that only recently they began to understand what ISIS is and to see their weak points.
"ISIS has started to work in Western countries. What they need to understand with us is that soon we will have the F-35, putting an end to all their fantasies," HaCohen stated confidently.
Hacohen continued, "From the moment that we are no longer their goal they began to intensify their activity. In numbers they aren’t big, only about 1,000 members, but there are attacks against Egypt almost daily. The Egyptians are actively working against them but they are still succeeding in larger attacks. "
HaChoen continued: "We aren’t only watching and analyzing them, we are preparing out troops. This isn't like the stabbings at the Damascus Gate, these scenarios involve hundreds of terrorists shooting, with high trajectory fire as well as anti-tank missiles. This is what we took into account when making changes in the area."
The Egyptian side of the border has also adjusted to the growing threat.
"The Egyptians understood that they are dealing with a terrorists with advanced methods while they are stuck somewhere in 1973," continued Hacohen.
"They have undergone a significant change in a short amount of time. We know how to fight terror, for the Egyptians this is new. We know how to search for an ant in a village, for them it’s hard," HaCohen said, adding "They are succeeding in fighting the terrorists though."
"It is important to understand the Egyptians can't lose. They want to be the leader of the Arab world, while Turkey is also fighting for this title. Even if the region doesn’t interest them the problem needs to be taken care of."
"Egyptian security forces have succeeded in reducing the gap in terms of years in the fight against terrorism. They have acquired tons of knowledge. You can see their bases, the new versus the old. Suddenly you can see bases with observation systems and surrounding sand piles, showing strategic thinking. They understand they need to win, they need to curb terrorism in the Sinai before it enters Egypt."The Beduin War
The brigade commander also spoke of another recent change he's observed in the conduct of the terrorist organization. "The terrorists understood that they need to strike in the west in order to produce momentum for their movement. You can see that in the attack on the Russian airplane. They created steam and embarrassed Egypt, showing the world they can successfully establish terror cells in the country."
"At the end of 2015 the organization issued a manifesto summing up their activities. If there was an ISIS competition for which region is best, they would win. They have succeeded in a remarkable number of attacks, leaving hundreds dead and thousands injured... from this perspective they have been quite successful.
"We have also seen attempts of trying to rule over the Beduins. But the Beduins were not persuaded. The drug trade in the Sinai is very lucrative, and the Beduins are not willing to give this up so easily."
"There were battles between the and ISIS.," HaCohen said. "There were times when everyone shot at each other and no one knew who they hit. In this battle, the Beduins won in open areas, while ISIS won in the cities."
HaCohen noted that the changes the Egyptian army has made so far have shown impressive results. In recent months, the effectiveness in fighting the terror organization nestled in the Sinai has increased considerably.
"You can see that even though ISS it attacking daily, their organization is weakening," explained Hacohen.
"In the past we saw things like the shooting of anti-tank and anti-plane missiles together. These multi-level attacks have stopped."
HaCohen warned, however, that Islamic State would not be so easily eradicated from the Egyptian peninsula.
"I think this organization will remain here for a long time, on the back burner."
Attacks at all times
HaCohen told Maariv
that ISIS knows the Egyptians have improved their strategy, and is convinced that there will come a day when ISIS will turn their focus towards Israel.
"They say to themselves: 'first we will finish the infidels, than we will take care of the dogs'...We are a notch below the infidels."
"The reason they have not done it yet is the deterrence. They can conduct attacks on us at any time on the border, but they are asking themselves if it is worth it. They know we can take action against anyone. That doesn't mean they will not try in the future. In any case, we aren’t relying on being only a deterrence, we are preparing for any scenario."
HaCohen notes, however, that Israel faces a dilemma: Where is the point of emphasis when tackling the ISIS problem and where should we put our resources.
"This is an organization that we have not yet met but are expecting to meet in the future," Hacohen explained. "We see their activities and successes, we are studying and analyzing their military doctrine."
"Of course I could map out what is critical, such as protecting our communities. In some places, an ISIS member will be met with fighting on the border, and sometimes he will meet a different obstacle that he has already successfully overcome."
"The story will end with the F-35. In some places it will take ISIS four hours to arrive, we can beat them there."
The IDF is preparing, but still hoping the day won’t come. In Israel, the country is not looking to enter a battle fought on the other side's terms. Not in Syria, not on the Jordan border and not on the Egyptian border.
Recently Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that Israel is helping the world in regards to the "Islamic State."
Starting this week, a new officer will take charge of the Sagi Brigade, Col. Avi Rahamim. On his watch he will seek to continue to see the farms in the Negev flourish and the wineries continue to produce, and the sounds of corkscrews popping will reign, not that of bombs and rockets.
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