Fans of Fauda may recognize something familiar about the Tze’elim Urban Warfare Training Center (UWTC) in the western Negev Desert near Kibbutz Tze’elim. The base – where IDF infantry and commanders train in the type of house-to-house and subterranean combat expected in the Gaza Strip but also in the West Bank, southern Lebanon and other Middle East theaters – was used as a set for the hit TV series. But while fauda means “chaos” in Arabic, the disarray here in this sprawling 24-hectare base has been finely calibrated to accustom troops to real-life conditions of Arab cities and villages.
Located inside the larger Tze’elim Training Base, the UWTC simulates a maze of a multi-story Arab urban environment. Established in 2005 as a response to the challenges of the Second Intifada of 2000-2005, it was built at a cost of $45 million.
How the IDF simulates urban warfare in Palestinian towns
The warren of 600 structures includes garbage-strewn streets, storefronts, schools, houses, shacks, an eight-story apartment block, and mosques. The muezzin’s call blares from the minarets, which are illuminated with green Islamic lights. Garages advertise cars for sale. Jeeps patrol the dusty streets. Holes blown in walls allow soldiers to avoid entering a building via the doorway – which may have been booby-trapped. It’s all an eerie Potemkin village.
Most striking are the murals and graffiti scattered across the site, some painted by Batsheva Schneider when she was doing her military service. The images include Islamic Jihad fighters firing RPGs; Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmad Yassin; Kassam rockets from Gaza; and guerrillas with their faces covered with a keffiyah scarf marked “shahid” (martyr). One Arabic sign threatens simply “death.”
Entering a mock-up of a claustrophobic Gaza terrorist tunnel, this writer felt the growing sense of panic among my fellow journalists behind me as they urged me forward, crouching along in the pitch-black darkness.
Other buildings are decorated to replicate a salon in a private home. The verisimilitude extends down to framed family photographs, flowers in a vase, recent newspapers from Gaza, and art with Koranic verses. Simulators showing mortar strikes and explosions suggest to soldiers what they might witness outside the living room window.
In addition to the IDF, Israel’s “Mini Gaza” has been used for urban warfare training by US Army soldiers and UN peacekeepers. The project was developed to meet the need for better urban warfare training by the IDF and is regularly updated as new terror strategies evolve.
Training exercises here are meant to help soldiers and their officers distinguish between combatants and civilians, and prepare them for situations in which terrorists exploit civilians as human shields. ■
This writer was part of a delegation of international journalists on a tour organized by the Israel Government Press Office.