The 401st Tank brigade controls the area around Hebron, conducting searches for weapons and protecting Israel’s border as a new fence is constructed. The soldiers have been up late every night conducting raids. There are arrests to be made, searches for illegal weapons, military gear, pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails. “We aren’t the first to do this, says Lt. Col. Tsafrir Harshoshanim, commander of battalion 46 of the 401st tank brigade, “but the offensive operations we are doing have found many weapons. We have failed two terror attacks. We located [Palestinians] preparing firebomb attacks.”
The 401st has been protecting a large area of the West Bank around Hebron for the last four months. The base of the unit sits atop a small hillock called Har Manoch on the southern flank of Hebron city.
It’s 928 meters above sea level and has a commanding view of the Palestinian factories and houses on the outskirts of Hebron on one side and the Jewish community of Hagai on the other. Not far from here was where Rabbi Michael ‘Miki’ Mark
was murdered in July. Rabbi Yaakov Litman and his son were also murdered on a stretch of route 60 near here in November 2015. The three killings are some of the dozens that have occurred in the last decades of terror around Hebron. This region has also produced numerous terrorists who have infiltrated Israeli communities in other parts of the countries and killed people.
And there have been dozens of stabbing and car ramming attacks in Hebron and on the roads.
Hashsoshanim and his men know tanks by profession. They are used to sitting in 65-ton Merkava IV with trembling engines and high explosives. The battalion lost one of its top platoon commanders, Natan Cohen, in July of 2014 to a Hamas sniper in Gaza. It has motivated soldiers, such as Yonatan Weisinger, a twenty-two year old Lone Soldier from the US who made aliyah to serve in the army. Here in the area of Hebron the tankers are infantry soldiers, whose job is not only to guard Israeli communities but provide security for the region. For veteran soldiers like Hashsoshanim, who served in the Second Lebanon War, Defensive Shield, Protective Edge and other battles over the last decade and a half of army service, knowledge of the enemy and an active defense is paramount to security. His soldiers don’t seem to leave any stone unturned. They’ve been finding bags full of firebombs, Molotov cocktails ready to be used in bags, and improvised “Carl Gustav” guns of the type used in the Sarona Market attack in Tel Aviv by Khaled and Mahmoud Mahamrah.
On a tour of the region being held by the 401st, the commander drives west through the rolling hills and villages near Hebron. “We have over twenty villages in our battalion’s area and two towns. Tarqumiya and Idhna. Tarqumiya is the major economic terminal for the West Bank, exports and imports flow through here via Israel to the world.
Thousands of Palestinians cross legally for work early in the morning and Israel has taken measures to open the checkpoint longer and reduce waiting tmes. This is the economic lifeline of the Palestinians, and preserving peace and quiet is essential to maintaining it.
The road here narrows and navigates small Palestinian villages with names like Tarama, Harasa, Marajam, Tabaka, Fuqeiqis, all perched along a ridge line. These are ancient hills, with old calumbariums, springs, and sheikhs tombs. The valleys are deep and crossed by rock walls to hold the water for agriculture. “We are now in Area A but Israelis drive here. So we do constant patrols back and forth to Otniel. The patrols watch for Molotov cocktails. People have thrown them at civilian cars. In our white van, with no armored windows, the commander’s M-16 rests on the passenger’s side as he drives. He wears binoculars strapped to his bulky tactical vest, and carries a camelback style waterbottle on his back.
Below us a small Jewish community named Negohot overlooks the Shephelah and coastal plain. Founded in the late 1990s after Oslo it’s 70 families use this road to commute. The commander points to a nearby Arab house and says that it’s the house of a local Mukhtar. One son is in prison for a terror attack, another is in prison for being an illegal resident in Israel. “We know this area intimately…Each village has its expertise. Down in Idhna there are thieves who steal tractors. If someone wants a tractor he puts in an order and they steal it from a kibbutz or moshav in Lachish area. In Deir Tzanat the youth make Molotov cocktails.”
This is also the area where thousands of Palestinian workers come to try to cross into Israel everyday for work. Although tens of thousands of Palestinians have legal permits to cross into Israel for work, there are also tens of thousands who seek to enter illegally and work in field work or construction or other industries. This region, because of its sparse population and weak links in the fence between Israel the Palestinians, is a corridor for illegal work. Months ago on a drive here at six in the morning I witnessed dozens of men coming under a hole in the fence and scrambling into vans.
“There is a huge organization of drivers here [who work in smuggling people[. For 250 NIS a driver will bring you here [to cross]. They might come from somewhere in the north such as Salfit to do it.” The army is confronted with a complex situation. It’s job is to provide security, not chase after illegal workers in fields. So the 401st works closely with the Border Police and Israel police to deal with the illegal workers who cut holes in the fence everyday. But the main goal of the army here is to prevent terror, to make sure those trying to enter illegally are not a danger. There is also a balance of economics here. “Bedouins make money smuggling people. If you can’t enter Israel legally, so you pay 500 NIS, for example, to get in. If there is no employment, then people turn to terror.” The villages that sit on the hills here overlooking Israel are often made up of large extended families of hamulas. Like those in Dura, many are closer to Hamas in this region. That means there is also coordination between the IDF and the Palestinian Authority. Each side has an interest in quiet and, in the words of the commander, “coexistence.”
Although the villages closer to Hebron are in Area A, those along the Green Line are not, and it is these that the 401st uses searches and raids to prevent terror putting down roots in.
As we drive towards the sparse, quiet hills, outside the Green Line, there is a lone pillbox at a junction near the large village of Beit Awa. “It’s a study case there. We had 6 firebomb attacks on civilian cars and on the pillbox,” says the commander. “After Sarona there was a blockade [of villages] and lockdown here. So we closed the gate to Beit Awa [so cars couldn’t enter]. We hurt the economy, so the Mukhtars came and said their youth would not throw firebombs.”
Eventually the IDF captured all those involved in the attacks he says, and quiet returned.
After Sarona the government decided to build a concrete fence along the border here stretching for 44 kilometers from Tarqumiya crossing to Meitar. The army has begun construction at four points along the route, laying down twenty large concrete slabs a day. It’s hot, backbreaking work. Slow and steady and it will take a year to complete by December 2017. “If you don’t control the barrier, then it’s just a fence, it just delays” says Harshoshanim. It’s a solution to the illegal workers crossing, because at seven meters high, topped with coils of razor wire, and with a patrol road and the old fence on one side, and a secondary layer of razor wire, this new fence won’t be penetrated.
The fence will change the economy in this region, and thousands will have to find another route to enter Israel. The 401st is optimistic that the current quiet can be maintained. The commander thinks most Palestinians desire education and an economically secure future, rather than resort to violence. Compared to a region in turmoil, like Syria or Iraq, people here receive welfare and education, he says. But there will always be individuals and groups of terrorists. In mid-August there were five attempted terror attacks, including stabbings and car rammings in the Hebron area. “We learned from a year ago, but we need to keep learning. We need to understand what is the next side of terror, terror develops, it evolves.”