The Wolf armored personnel carrier, escorted by an IDF jeep, quietly approached the Gaza security fence on Monday night, as the lights of Gaza City’s Shejaia quarter, where fighting raged last summer, shone just over the border.
“Helmets on,” ordered St.-Sgt. Maj. Reuben Touthang, the 30-year-old deputy commander of the Kometz (Hebrew for “handful”) unit. Several soldiers emerged from the vehicle, armed with assault rifles, helmets with flashlights and an array of technicians’ tools.
The unit did not arrive to engage an enemy, but to do something equally important: to repair a glitch in the electronic border fence, and eliminate a blind spot that could be exploited by terrorists in Gaza to infiltrate Israel.
The unit belongs to the Munition Corps, and it carries out the vital, high-risk job of fixing the electronic fence on a nightly basis.
This barrier is packed with touch sensors, radars, cameras and remote-control machine guns. It acts as the IDF’s eyes and ears, alerting the Southern Command to infiltrations from the terrorist-infested Strip in real-time, enabling units to capture infiltrators within minutes of receiving an alert.
On that star-studded, warm June night, Touthang was sitting in his office at the Northern Gaza Brigade’s base when the fence’s computer system reported a glitch, providing its precise location.
The unit must repair the problem as soon as possible, but it also must wait until after nightfall to decrease the risk of being targeted. Soldiers got to work, taking apart a section of the fence, replacing wires and sensors, and carrying out tests.
One of the unit’s members, Cpl. Vladislav Miroshnkov, mounted a ladder and began working on the upper section of the fence, maintaining a deep focus on his work despite the fact that Hamas gunmen could not have been very far away, and that Hamas lookouts were likely monitoring his every move.
“This unit is always on the front line,” Touthang revealed earlier that night. A veteran member of the unit, he has been in Israel for nine years; he is a member of the Bnei Menashe community that emigrated from Manipur, northeast India. Arriving in Israel at age 13, Touthang quickly becoming assimilated into Israeli society and the country’s school system; he later attended a boarding school, studied engineering and enlisted in the IDF at age 21.
The experience of settling in Kiryat Arba has been overwhelmingly positive, he related, describing the “amazing friends” he has made, many of whom joined elite combat units.
“Some of them are not with us anymore. They fell in battle,” he said quietly.
In 2008, while carrying out a fence repair mission, Touthang came under Palestinian sniper attack and sustained a bullet wound to his arm. It took him over six months to recover, but within a year of the shooting he had returned to his unit, and to the front line.
In 2009, after his father died, his military status changed in a way that meant he would have to leave the unit.
But Touthang fought, once again, to remain in it. “I intend to stay here,” he vowed. That same year, he won a Presidential Award for Excellence.
The officer provided a glimpse into the unit’s daily life: “Ultimately, we know that our work is saving the lives of residents who live around here.
“We are made up of two components: the Northern Gaza Brigade, and our fellow soldiers in the Southern Gaza Brigade. We work for each other; there is a family atmosphere. There is no way a soldier would not come to the help of another in need. At the end of the day, we are soldiers first, and technicians second. We combine both professions.”
The soldiers obtain basic combat skills and undergo a three-week technical training course before arriving at the Kometz unit.
“As soon as they get to me, I train them further, until they do the work perfectly,” the deputy commander detailed. “Most of the soldiers live in the South; they asked to be able to serve in the Gaza sector.”
“We are always a target, no matter where we are. The threats are there,” Touthang stated. “Due to the threats we face, we work at night and emit as little light as possible.”
Once on-site, the soldiers must focus on getting the job done as quickly as possible, and pushing the eternal threat they are under out of their minds, unless it materializes – as it has done repeatedly over the years since the fence was built in 1994. Since the end of hostilities last summer, Touthang said his unit has felt the quiet that has reigned on the border, but added firmly, “We must be ready for anything that happens. We must be ready for the worst.”
In Operation Cast Lead, it was the Kometz unit that opened the gates for ground forces to enter Gaza, and worked on repairs throughout the war. Touthang witnessed Gazan rockets and mortars fly over him toward Israel, and IDF missiles heading for Gazan targets heading in the opposite direction, right over his head.
“We have been ambushed more than once,” he recounted, “and targeted with projectiles. In our minds we had to separate the Gazan side where the war was occurring, and the Israeli side, where civilians were still under threat from infiltration.
“I have had a lot of heart-to-heart conversations with the soldiers.
They’re not all the same, and I’m not their father, but I try to know what goes on in their minds.”
“Our unit a real melting pot. We have Ethiopian, Russian and Yemenite soldiers – and one from India,” he noted with a smile, referring to himself.
Outside Touthang’s office, soldiers from the unit geared up, putting on ceramic vests and helmets while trading jokes and fondly mocking one another. The jovial atmosphere faded after they entered the vehicle and approached the Strip, and a discernible tension descended on the unit.
Before they set out for another dangerous repair mission, the soldiers stood outside of their Wolf armored personnel carrier on base, awaiting their security escort to travel to the border.
“Anyone who claims they are not scared to approach the border is simply lying,” asserted St.-Sgt. Roee Fogen, a unit member. “When we get there, we become very alert; we pay attention to every noise.”
Sgt. Yaso Malako explained how he had been trained to respond to attacks.
“It depends on what they fire – if it is projectiles, you enter the vehicle and drive off. If it is small arms-fire, you hit the ground, search for the source of fire and return fire.”
“We’ve been attacked with mortars, rockets and gunfire,” concluded Touthang. “On one job we evacuated the area, and later found a mortar crater exactly where we had been standing.”