Security and Defense: Challenging times

The IDF finds itself preparing for war that could erupt out of upheaval sweeping region and working to contain Palestinian demonstrations.

September 23, 2011 16:16
Paratroopers during live-fire exercise

Paratroopers. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

On June 5, when pro-Palestinian protesters tried crossing from Syria into Israel like they had on Nakba Day a month earlier, the Paratroopers Brigade was already deployed nearby.

In the month that had passed since the first border infiltration, Col. Amir Baram, the commander of the brigade, had worked with his staff and the IDF Ground Forces Command to develop an effective way to stop the protesters from getting anywhere near the border.

One of the problems the officers discovered was that in the morning, there is a thick fog over large sections of the Israeli-Syrian border, making it difficult for sharpshooters to effectively and accurately hit protesters in the legs with live bullets or even nonlethal impact rounds.

The solution proposed by Baram and used effectively during the Naksa Day protests in June was to station a soldier equipped with an electro-optical laser designator – which can see through fog – next to each shooter, who will then aim directly at the place where the laser is pointing. It worked and in June, not a single protester succeeded in crossing into Israel.

On Thursday, Baram was standing not far from the West Bank settlement of Ma’aleh Amos watching a live-fire exercise of the brigade’s 202nd Battalion in the middle of the Judean Desert.

Looking out at the amazing views of the dry hilly landscape and with bullets and mortars whizzing nearby, Baram gave orders to the soldiers.

“Take cover over there,” he told one company commander.

“Flank the enemy on the right,” he shouted out to another.

Battalion 202 held the drill as the final stage of training ahead of its deployment soon outside of Nablus. The drill was a simulation of war against a conventional enemy like Syria under the assumption that once soldiers have mastered skills required for the most difficult threats Israel faces they will then know how to derive the skills they require for the threats lower down on the scale.

Until Wednesday afternoon, the battalion was still at its base along the border with Lebanon when it received orders from Baram to board buses and drive down to the Judean Desert. Arriving at the Dragot Cliffs near the Dead Sea at 10 p.m, the battalion embarked on a 30-kilometer trek before beginning the live-fire exercise Thursday morning.

This type of drill was not part of the battalion’s training regimen, which is set by the IDF Ground Forces Command, but came at Baram’s initiative as part of a way to prepare his soldiers for war that could erupt when they least expect it.

“No one knows what will develop in Syria, what will happen in the Gaza Strip and if we will be called there in a few weeks for an operation or what will happen on any of Israel’s other fronts and for that reason we always need to be prepared,” Baram explained over the sound of explosions on the opposite hill. “That is why we need to be flexible and know how to wage war and at the same time how to contain a large-scale Palestinian demonstration in the West Bank.”

While live-fire exercises are an essential part of any military’s training, the hope in the IDF is that no real bullets will fly over the coming months and that the 202nd Battalion’s West Bank tour will pass quietly.

Baram is aware of the current sensitivity in the West Bank and how one wrong move could set off a larger conflict with the Palestinians, with greater and more strategic implications.

In 2009, after a stint as the Samaria Regional Brigade commander, Baram spent a year in the United Kingdom as a student at the Royal College of Defence Studies and Kings College. While he was in the UK, the IDF launched Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Baram found himself forced to defend Israel on a battlefield unlike any he had seen before.

The experience made Baram aware of just how far-reaching implications tactical mistakes or misunderstood operations can have on Israel. Nowadays, when he plans operations as commander of the Paratroopers Brigade, media awareness is not something he needs to even point out during pre-mission briefings since it has been organically installed inside the brigade’s standing orders.

This is the IDF today. Its soldiers need to prepare for possible war that could erupt out of the current chaos and upheaval sweeping through the region while at the same time working to prevent violent escalations, further diplomatic isolation and additional delegitimization.

Following the exercise in the Judean Desert, the 202nd Battalion will move next week to the Central Command’s Lachish Training Base where it will undergo simulations and training to prepare it for the demonstrations and protests it will face outside of Nablus where it will be deployed for the next few months.

OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Avi Mizrahi has put an emphasis on having commanders at the front of every engagement with the Palestinians as part of an effort to lower the risk of a tactical mistake that could lead to a larger national and strategic crisis.

Under Mizrahi’s leadership, the IDF has invested close to NIS100 million in new riot gear, training regimens and a special crowd-dispersion systems that should effectively contain expected demonstrations with minimum casualties and as little diplomatic fallout as possible.

There is the “Skunk” which sprays a foul-smelling liquid, the “Scream” which emits a sound people cannot tolerate and the “Venom,” a 12-barrel long-range tear gas canister launcher. The IDF has also developed a technique to drive with armored jeeps into the middle of a large demonstration and within a matter of minutes unravel a kilometer-long piece of barbed wire and cut the protest in half.

The IDF has learned some lessons from the large demonstrations it faced in the summer in the Golan Heights. Firstly, Israel’s various intelligence agencies regularly connect new intelligence from social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

The Central Command is also completely independent in its intelligence work and, while it receives support from Military Intelligence, it also has its own branch collecting relevant information.

This was done as part of the lessons learned from the Nakba Day protests in May when the Northern Command blamed MI for not providing intelligence on the planned protest and vice versa.

As reported earlier this week in The Jerusalem Post, the IDF has prepared a list of goodwill gestures it can offer the Palestinian Authority to decrease the chance of an outbreak of violence following the PA’s planned declaration of statehood at the United Nations later this week.

The list includes a reduction in IDF operations inside Palestinian cities and towns in territory defined as Area A, and permits for construction projects in Area C as well as possible moves to improve freedom of movement in the West Bank.

While these steps could help lower tension they will not be able to stave off demonstrations the size of those that overthrew Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia. That is of course if the Palestinians want to launch them.

When could this happen? No one in Israel or in the PA really knows. One indicator was the fact that earlier this year, when all of the revolutions were sweeping the Middle East, the Palestinians stayed home. Why? Because at the time they were not interested. The UN move this week, however, could serve as the catalyst to wake them from their slumber.

So could settler violence and additional socalled “price tag” attacks. While it is obvious that the IDF needs to work against Palestinian terrorism, some people forget that there is also such a thing as Jewish terrorism and that this needs to be stopped. On Thursday, Mizrahi issued a restraining order against a settler banning him from the West Bank, the 13th such order he has issued in the past month.

The concern is quite obvious and the PA has told Israel that if settler violence continues and escalates it will not be able to hold back its people from responding violently.

What will happen if next week or even in a month, a “price-tag attack” claims a number of lives? This almost happened a few months ago when a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a home in the West Bank village of Hawara where three children were sleeping. Their mother grabbed them and they escaped the flames.

The biggest challenge, though, is trying to predict how a crowd will behave. While it is relatively easy to collect intelligence on a person or a military unit, it is almost impossible to accurately predict what a crowd will do, how it will develop and respond and whether it will turn violent.

Mizrahi and his regional brigade commanders have met a number of times in recent weeks with their Palestinian counterparts.

During one recent meeting, the PA security chiefs asked Mizrahi if Israel will treat Palestinian protesters the way it treated Israeli protesters camped out on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv as part of the recent social protests.

“If your protesters behave like ours than the answer is yes,” Mizrahi told them.

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