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(photo credit: Associated Press)
We have many reasons to be proud of our military which, as a citizens' army, does not just defend us, but is us. This is particularly true of our reserve forces, those of us who slip out of daily life for a month every year and make essential contributions to our security.
Among these points of pride is the knowledge that when the IDF makes mistakes it corrects them. During the recent war in Lebanon, as in all our wars, the IDF learned and adjusted its tactics on the fly. And for all the complaints, some of them justified, regarding the IDF's performance, we also have a quiet confidence that the strong military culture of correcting mistakes will take effect and that costly lessons will not have been learned in vain.
It is in this context that Friday's report in The Jerusalem Post on conditions in the northernmost sector of the Egyptian border is disturbing. The reporter's contacts with members of a reserve company who were based at Kerem Shalom, close to where Cpl. Gilad Shalit was captured in a Hamas attack about 100 days ago, did not produce a picture of an IDF that had been jolted into alertness and efficiency.
The reservists complained of signs of general neglect, such as the lack of attention from brigade commanders, poor accommodations and inadequately maintained latrines. There were also, however, more fundamental concerns voiced, such as inappropriate training for the tasks given and a haphazard and inefficient approach to guarding the border.
Technicians along the border fence said that the electronic warning system it employs was designed to last only 10 years, and yet remains in use a decade later. Accordingly, soldiers receive a standing order that, "the fence works, but it is not 100 percent trustworthy, and it also has many malfunctions."
A few kilometers south there is no proper security fence at all. In these areas the reservists would set up ambushes along the border and also deeper inside Israel. One lieutenant characterized these as "pointless" because the smugglers can monitor IDF radio signals and can "easily" evade the army forces.
The soldiers openly wondered not only why they spent their first days training for ambushes of a different type than they were asked to carry out, but also why it made sense to spend so much effort to compensate for the lack of a fence that could do a much better job.
This question is sharpened further by the soldiers' observation that Egyptian units on the other side were of a very low grade, lacking "even basic equipment, like radios."
An IDF spokesman responded, "The decision regarding where to build a border fence is made by the Defense Ministry, not the IDF."
The concern is that even as government ministers and security chiefs are warning that smuggling is a growing and dangerous problem, the military establishment has neither chosen to allocate the money for appropriate fencing, nor made a priority of providing sufficient training and resources to the forces that are supposed to compensate for the lack of that fence.
One legitimate approach to the problem would be to bring effective pressure on the Egyptian side to fulfill its responsibilities on this common border, particularly as a country claiming to be an advocate of peace and moderation in the region, one that should be committed to preventing the arming of radical forces. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, however, has preferred not to voice criticism of Egypt in this context, and indeed has chastised colleagues who, in his eyes, have been overly critical of Cairo.
Our prime minister, defense minister, and IDF chief of General Staff have been vigorously defending their record during the recent war with Hizbullah. They, and much of our top echelons in the security arena, are under scrutiny, as they should be. How else to learn lessons and prepare for the future? The essential response to such scrutiny, along with providing the necessary explanations regarding the past, is vigorously demonstrating the ability to correct the flaws that have been exposed.
After all, the last thing Israel can afford at any time, but especially amid the rising regional rhetoric and perceived level of threat, is to have its political and military leadership so preoccupied with explaining and defending past actions as to be incapable of taking the decisions and actions necessary to safeguard the future.
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