The tour was part of the 45th annual Conference of Presidents (COP) Leadership Mission to Israel, led by Chairman Arthur Stark and Executive Vice President and CEO Malcolm Hoenlein.
The group began with the first-ever visit by a foreign group to see construction on the barrier, where Israel is digging deep into the ground along its border with the Gaza Strip. Participants received a detailed briefing on the threat posed by Hamas tunnels that are dug to cross into Israel, and the methods being used to prevent this. They also watched some of the heavy machinery in action.
The Deputy Commander of the IDF’s Gaza Division gave the group a strategic overview at their headquarters near the border. He also spoke of the ongoing unrest at the border fence, explaining that more than half of the Palestinians killed since the violence began last May were Hamas members.
“This a war. This is not a riot. This is not the ‘yellow vests,’” he said, referring to the violent social protests taking place in France.
The Deputy Division Commander also spoke of the 2.1 million people who live in the Gaza Strip, as well as the schools and universities there.
“They educate many professionals, including engineers,” he said. “They are capable of sophistication. The hand grenades Palestinians throw during these violent confrontations are identical to Israeli grenades, but are manufactured in Gaza, as are many of the other weapons used against Israel.”
Delegates then traveled to the Nevatim Airbase near Arad for a briefing by the base commander, Israel Air Force Brigadier-General Eyal Grinboim, and Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Hecht, head of the Air Force’s International Affairs Branch. Hecht explained that the IAF’s job was to prevent an all-out conflagration in what he referred to as a “campaign between wars.” He also spoke of ongoing military cooperation and joint training exercises with other air forces, including those with the US, the UK, Germany, Cyprus and Greece, to name just a few.
Also taking part in the briefing was US Air Force Colonel Matthew B. Willis, the American air attaché in Israel, who told the participants, “You have contributed much more to Israeli defense than you would think. The MOU [defense memorandum of understanding between the US and Israel] went into effect this year, but allocation has increased from $3.1 billion to $3.8 billion. Our money is well spent in Israel.”
He added that Israel has been the first country outside the US to receive a direct delivery of the F-35, an ultra-sophisticated, American-built combat aircraft that is the newest in the IAF’s arsenal. Nevatim Airbase is now home to those jets.
The participants were the first foreign group to visit the F-35 squadron. They received a briefing by Major M., the squadron’s executive officer, and got a closer look at the stealth jet – witnessing a thunderous take-off by two of the aircraft.