Security and Defense: First in the line of fire

Suddenly, they rose, firing shots at figures of terrorists ahead of them, advancing ahead and shouting information and orders back and forth.

IDF soldiers stand guard during a demonstration by Palestinians against the closure of the main road in Jabaa area south of the West Bank city of Bethlehem (photo credit: REUTERS)
IDF soldiers stand guard during a demonstration by Palestinians against the closure of the main road in Jabaa area south of the West Bank city of Bethlehem
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The reserve soldiers lay hidden in a grassy slope, clutching their M16s and waiting for the signal to move.
They were silent, and the only thing audible for a moment was the breeze blowing through the trees at the training grounds, near the paratroop base in southern Israel.
Suddenly, they rose, firing shots at figures of terrorists ahead of them, advancing ahead and shouting information and orders back and forth.
The silence had been shattered by the sounds of war, though this time, it was only a drill.
The soldiers continued to ascend the hill, firing their machine guns as they went.
“Advance right!” yelled a field commander, as bullets pierced boulders ahead, sending small clouds of dirt into the air.
The soldiers holding this war drill are members of the reserve Maglan unit, which until very recently was in the Paratroop 551 reserve Brigade.
Soon, this battalion will make history, by becoming the first reserve unit of the recently established IDF Commando Brigade.
On this day, the soldiers were training for the storming of a Lebanese village rife with Hezbollah gunmen, as part of a mission to destroy rocket launchers. According to the drill’s scenario, a helicopter had just dropped off the soldiers in the heart of Lebanese territory, and now they were on their own.
“We are hunting rocket launchers,” said Maj.A. (full name withheld), the battalion commander.
“The soldiers identified three terrorist targets, stormed them, and then saw two more terrorists. They will advance into another line of targets, until they reach their final destination,” the commander said.
Fighting deep in enemy territory to destroy targets, and to gather intelligence, are core missions with which this soon-to-be commando battalion is familiar.
All soldiers here are former conscript members of the Maglan elite unit, which specializes in operations against valuable targets far behind the front lines.
The IDF selected this unit to become the first Commando Brigade reserve battalion because it is unlike many other infantry reserve forces.
The soldier-civilians serve 90 days of reserve duty annually – a massive burden in light of the fact that many are working fathers. They arrive for reserve duty without objections or questions. Live-fire battalion-wide drills occur annually, keeping the soldiers sharp and prepared for the sudden outbreak of war.
“The commander has to understand what is going on in the depth of enemy territory,” Maj. A. told The Jerusalem Post.
“He has to know, are there wounded or not? By this stage, we would be fighting in an overt manner. We have to know how to direct battle helicopters.
We will not have continuous supply lines or be next to the rest of the military,” he said.
Col. Avi Bluth, commander of Brigade 551, the soon-to-be former home of the battalion, said, “These combat soldiers are former Maglan conscripts. They have been accepted for a special force. Their motivation is high. They feel a sense of mission. We invested a little more in them during their conscripted years and in their professional development. They trained for a year and half, and then carried out a year and a half of special work.
They became commando experts.”
For years, the reserve Maglan unit lacked a permanent home and wandered in larger military frameworks.
It was once under the command of the wartime Division 98, but the division command headquarters could not afford it the proper time to build up its power.
In 2004, the battalion arrived at Brigade 551 because it most resembled other battalions here. The brigade’s units carry 50 kilograms of gear on them, are experts in helicopter drop-off missions, and getting around combat arenas rapidly in Land Rover jeeps. They hold frequent live-fire drills in open, rocky terrain, to improve their ability to engage Hezbollah in commando raids across Lebanon.
In the coming months, the battalion will move to the Commando Brigade, which held its own first combat drill in February. “The Commando Brigade is building itself up, and it needs a reserve unit under it,” said Bluth.
Before soldiers arrived here, their commanders in the battalion came to refresh their infantry skills. “They fired for a whole day as if they were soldiers,” said Maj.
A. “Then the rest of the battalion arrived. The reconnaissance companies, which lead the way, held their training. Machine gunners, snipers, and other weapons operators [who cannot be listed] were included,” he said.
“This is the force that the army will call up. They are after 50 hours of craziness now, with just a few hours of sleep. The crew you are looking at now is the most veteran here. The IDF conscripted them in 1998,” the major added.
Once injected into hostile areas, the battalion can split up into battle crews. “You can put them anywhere where they are needed, and they will be fine. The soldiers take all of the equipment they need with them, and can stay in the field for a long time. They have their own control crews, and each battle crew has its own company commander who handles the missions,” Maj. A. stated. “We can resupply ourselves without receiving logistical supplies.”
The battalion fought in the 2014 Operation Protective Edge against Hamas, taking part in classified activities that “led to dozens of terrorists being killed,” Maj. A. said.
“We fought in the Second Lebanon War, too. We destroyed dozens of rocket launchers.”
When tensions peak in the North, Maj. A. and fellow commanders go on high alert. The army calls them up to make preparations, just in case.
Maj. A., a father of three who owns his own start-up company, which employs many hundreds of people, provided a glimpse into the hectic lifestyle he and other members of the battalion lead.
“People here are very busy. Many are independent business owners or hi-tech workers. I have people in the office now who cannot reach me. At the end of the day, it seems to me that those who come here do so out of choice. Everyone who is here now decided to be a part of this special unit,” he said.
“We live in the field. We have knowledge of how to live out in the field for a long time, such as knowing what plants grow near water wells,” the major said.
In civilian life, members of the battalion remain in close touch, creating networks of mutual support, he added.
A second live-fire drill involving another team is about to begin.
The team just completed a dry run, and gathered around a company commander who was giving them feedback. A lively discussion ensued between the soldiers and the commander on tactics.
“I would not move at that angle to attack... the whole crew does not have to move at the same time,” the commander told his soldiers.
Soon afterward, the sounds of automatic fire, accompanied by the booming thud of a heavy machine gun, rang out from the forest.