zikim base 298.88 ap.
(photo credit: AP)
Late Sunday morning, a convoy of IDF 18-wheeler trucks began entering Zikim army base. They were carrying large concrete barriers designed to protect civilians and soldiers from bullets and shrapnel. The barriers weren't new - some of them were pockmarked with bullet holes and others bore graffiti from the Gaza Strip military bases where they had stood three-and-a-half months ago.
One of the commanders on site, Col. Eldad Peled, denied that they were being brought in merely to assuage the concerns of parents of the young soldiers on the base, following Thursday's Kassam attack that wounded five soldiers on the adjacent base.
"This is all part of the defense plan that was supposed to be carried out anyway," he explained. When asked why it took so long for the army to transfer the barriers, he answered, "It's all a matter of the army's priorities."
The IDF made sure that the fortification events would receive extensive media coverage and summoned TV crews to film Chief Engineering Officer Brig.-Gen. Shimon Daniel, who is responsible for this base. He ensured the media that "there is no question of evacuating the base," as had been reported Sunday morning by Maariv.
Senior officers were at a loss to explain their response to last weekend's television screening of panicked parents arriving at the base, demanding to take their kids home. On the one hand the officers wanted to prove to visiting MKs, the press and especially the parents that all necessary steps were being taken to secure the base, and at the same time assure everyone that there really wasn't a problem.
"It was only one set of parents," insisted Lt.-Col. Ayelet Harel, commander of the Zikim base, "and their daughter was so embarrassed that she begged them to go home. No soldiers have asked to go home or even to be transferred from tents to a concrete building."
Harel is in charge of the basic training of thousands of men and women soldiers destined for non-combat duty. They spend up to a month at the base, during which they are drilled in basic military skills and then sent to their various units.
This is Harel's second year at the helm of Zikim, but the Gaza pullout, with the border only 500 meters away, has now placed her normally peaceful base in the line of fire. Despite the Kassam and the attending drama, she insists that the company that stayed on the base over the weekend "had a wonderful Shabbat, with great food and atmosphere" and that she doesn't know of any soldiers who went home for the weekend who are not planning to return.
All the same, to calm things down, the soldiers' leave was extended by a few more hours and the buses were expected to arrive from the collection points in the afternoon. "Up till now, no one, parents or soldiers, has overstepped the line," said Peled. "That line is going AWOL and anyone who doesn't come back from leave will automatically go to military prison."
Some of the parents decided not to rely on the military transportation system and spent half a day driving their children to Zikim. One father said, "I have a very bad feeling bringing my son back here but what choice do I have?" Another father, David Suissa, said, "I'm a bit worried, but we didn't have any doubts that he'd be coming back today." All the same he decided to make the journey from Yeroham to see the base for himself.
Such a degree of parental involvement might seem surprising to those who served in the IDF in previous decades, but Peled and Harel were at pains to emphasize that inviting parents to comment and ask questions "creates a better environment for the young soldiers."
Next to Zikim is another, smaller base, Yiftah. This is where the Kassam actually fell, but no worried parents mill around the gate. Here the Tzabar battalion is stationed, seasoned Givati infantry soldiers who patrol the security perimeter that was set up between the Strip and Israel following disengagement. A Merkava tank and an M117 APC are positioned at the base's entrance, ready to respond in case of an attack on the perimeter.
Two of the Givati soldiers are waiting on the main highway for a lift back to the base after Shabbat leave. No, they are not at all worried about returning to a base that is reportedly under fire. "I spent two years with my unit in places like Khan Yunis and Rafah, ducking sniper fire all day," says Haim, a staff sergeant. "Kassam rockets don't bother me in the least. We've been through much worse."
To prove his point he pulls out his cellphone and shows a photograph on the screen that he took of a sniper's bullet hole in the window of an IDF observation post a month before disengagement.