IDF elite reconnaissance unit is looking for a few good men

As a new crop of 130 recruits tries out for the IDF Armored Corps’s elite reconnaissance unit, the ‘Post’ observes their training qualifications.

IDF training
‘A week-and-a-half ago these men were citizens, not soldiers. Now they are in the army and you can see how they are giving it their all,” says Lt.-Col. Itsik Raviv, his slightly rumpled and dusty green uniform glistening in the afternoon desert sun, as he peers out over 130 men trying out to be members of the IDF Armored Corps’s elite “Palsar” unit. Three times a year the Tel Aviv-based lawyer with two children takes a break from his job to come down to this desert base to run three days of intensive tryouts along with a team of like-minded reservists, who want to ensure Israel receives the best possible men to be the eyes and ears of its Armored Corps.
Shizafon training base and the 460th Armored Brigade that it is centered around it is the principal unit involved in training. A relatively new and modern base, it is festooned with tanks – all of them looking out on the parched desert less than an hour’s drive from Eilat. In summer the extreme temperatures reach upwards of 40 degrees, but in winter they hover around 27.
Three times a year, the Armored Corps receives new conscripts as part of Israel’s national draft callups.
Among these new crops of 18-year-olds, some want to try out for the Palsar, or special reconnaissance unit.
“We started yesterday and already, we have had 13 who quit or dropped out for various reasons. Last night they did some sprinting and a 3-km. hike, and today the physical tests begin,” Raviv explains, as the Post spent a day observing the unit’s arduous tryouts.
the palsar unit is not a traditional armored unit despite, its name. “We are a reconnaissance unit that goes out ahead of the tanks to collect information about the field of battle,” clarifies one of the reservists.
Chezi, a resident of Neveh Tzuf in the West Bank who has served in Palsar for almost three years, explains that the unit is unique. “Our job is to sneak into enemy territory, behind their lines, and set up in a house or in foliage and camouflage our position. We have to be totally self-sufficient in the field. Using equipment like binoculars and working closely with other units in the IDF, we coordinate fire and artillery.”
The men are clothed in drab olive uniforms with blue bucket-style hats to keep the sun off their faces; each hat has a number on it so instructors can keep notes on each soldiers’ performance. Many simple, everyday tasks that one might take for granted are being analyzed in the finest detail. They have had the men try to put up an army tent for the first time.
The objective was not just to see if they could figure it out, but if they could work as a team.
“The concept is to see how they work in high-pressure and stressful situations, and that they have adequate physical ability,” explains Raviv. He notes this unit is drawn from all of Israel’s populations, including kibbutznikim, moshavnikim, city dwellers and haredim.
Raviv is proud the men come from differing socioeconomic backgrounds. “What matters is the uniform, when they put it on they are all the same.
It doesn’t matter what they were before, no one is interested in that, it is about what they are motivated to be. When you see 130 men come from all over to try out and you see a guy with payot [religious sidelocks] sit down next to someone who is totally secular, that is what makes you smile.”
Raviv has been in his present position for four years and most of his fellow reservists, each with “Guide” emblazoned on a black shirt, think that being reservists who have been in the Armored Corps for decades or more gives them a special incentive to find the best men and know who will fit into the unit.
Raviv served in Operation Protective Edge in Gaza this past summer, and saw how the selection process paid off in the unit’s high performance. “It is on our shoulders; if we select bad recruits, it will come back to us,” he says.
Originally conscripted in 1994, he served in Gaza during 2009’s Operation Cast Lead and was also called up for Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, when he recalls sitting on the Gaza border awaiting orders to go into the Strip – orders which never came.
After the men complete the three days of tryouts, they are individually interviewed by Armored Corps trainers and the product of the interviews is compared to the marks they received on the physical and cognitive tests. In the final selection, 36 will be picked from the 130.
As the sun lowers on the horizon, the men are marched out to a large, U-shaped valley. The dust in the air is palpable as the men are formed into groups of 20 and made to fill plastic bags with dirt; they then have to run up and down a hill with these 9-kg.
sacks. The idea is to see who will do it the fastest, and if any will fail.
“We try to confuse them as much as possible, so they don’t know what is next,” explains one instructor.
“We see who is natural at being a leader during these exercises. We see, for instance when they are building a tent, who tells the others what to do, who organizes the equipment efficiently.”
The evaluators joke among themselves: “It was harder for us.” Each of them thinks the program Raviv has put in place, of having competent reservists who are veterans of the unit run the tryouts, is a system that has increased the abilities of the recruits in recent years. The reservists – insurance salesmen, lawyers and other types of white-collar professionals in civilian life – seem in their element here, and they look forward to coming back three times a year to take part in this process.
MOST OF the men have a twinkle in their eye and display almost adolescent interest at the idea of watching the new Brad Pitt film Fury, which is set in 1945 and follows a squad of men in a Sherman tank. But the evaluators like Chezi, who served in Operation Protective Edge, note that the challenges they face are different from the Second World War.
He describes how in each of the two Palsar units, one connected to the 7th Armored Brigade and the other to the 401st Armored Brigade, is composed of “50 to 60 warriors, 40 more men who are in qualification and 40 other members, such as mechanics and those in communications.”
The tryouts are just the beginning of more than a year of training for these men, before they are fully accepted as “warriors” in this recon unit. “We want to see how they help each other,” says Chezi, as the conscripts are busy digging foxholes in the hard desert gravel. “It is about how they help each other, does one help when another is tired digging?” Later, the instructor asks the prospective trainees to try sleeping, curled up in the fetal position in the small holes they have dug. “A man can’t survive by himself. In war, everyone has to help each other – and that’s what we’re looking for.”
Most of the men interviewed, including the reservists, note that getting into a special unit was something they wanted from a young age, and that they came from communities where everyone went to combat units or special forces. One trainee named Nadav, his face spattered with dust and sweat, discloses that he wanted to do this for years. “It’s better than sitting in a tank. I come from a moshav in the North where we only go to the best units.”
Does he think he will pass the tryouts? “It’s difficult, the cognitive tests were hard, but I think there is a good chance I will succeed. I believe in the teamwork qualities, and I’ll never give up.”
Although Raviv insists the unit was drawn from diverse backgrounds, the reservists point out that traditionally, Palsar and the Armored Corps had a lot of soldiers from kibbutz and moshav backgrounds, but recently it has appealed also to national- religious soldiers.
Another instructor, named German from Afula, notes he had initially gone to the air force in 2011, when he was called up for his army service, but failed the tests and transferred to armored reconnaissance.
“It was hard training, but it prepared us for this recent war. No one was killed from our Palsar unit, although we had one wounded. It was exactly how we thought it would be.”
He describes being in Gaza and the struggles they faced. Looking out over the valley of young men, exhausted as the sun goes down, he muses, “I never thought I’d get closer to the men in my unit, but this last war made us closer – and that what it’s all about.”