Reconnaissance company Palsar 401 gets ambushed

About half a dozen soldiers waited on Shabbat morning, camouflaged under a tree, for the order to advance into the village in southern Lebanon and take up positions in one of the houses. For the last two and a half days the small unit had been advancing north on foot and it was now about three kilometers from its target. Out of nowhere an anti-tank missile whizzed into the bivouac and five soldiers were wounded. The rest began returning fire and, in the firefight that ensued, began organizing the evacuation of the wounded. "I was hit in my head by a shrapnel fragment," said St.-Sgt. Or Maor at Ziv Hospital in Safed on Sunday. "My helmet broke, but it probably saved my life. I managed to pull out the fragment and evacuated myself." The soldiers hit by the missile belonged to a team of Palsar 401, one of the newest and smallest sayarot, special units in the IDF. The unit was formed only five years ago as the palsar (Hebrew acronym for reconnaissance company) of Brigade 401, one of the IDF's main tank formations that operates the latest Merkava 4, and saw its first major combat over the last few weeks. The palsar's main role is to act as the eyes of the brigade during wartime, to scout out routes over battlefields and help it find its targets. During less stressful periods, the unit's main operating area is the Jordan Valley, where it participates in operations against Palestinian targets. The most high-profile event it took part in so far was the capture of the senior terrorists in the Jericho jail seven months ago. The palsar was the first IDF force to encircle the jail after the international monitors left. After the first team was hit, the company's second team rushed to the scene and started helping with the evacuation. "We took hits from missiles and small-arms fire," said Lt. Tomer Shoham, the palsar's deputy commander. Together with another soldier, he tried to load one of the wounded onto a stretcher when another explosion, probably a mortar round, hit them. "I flew a few meters and fell on my head instead of my legs," said Shoham, who is also being treated for relatively minor wounds in Ziv Hospital. St.-Sgt. Itai Steinberger was less lucky - the explosion killed him. It was the first death of an operational Palsar 401 trooper. The company retreated to a sheltered area, from which a Blackhawk helicopter flew Steinberger's body and five wounded to Safed. "It's very difficult for us as a small unit to lose a friend," Shoham said. "We're so small that everyone's character gives something to the whole group." Beside his bed and those of the other wounded soldiers, a circle of palsar soldiers recently released from service constantly changed places. A few broke down upon reading newspaper pieces on Steinberger's death. "We all know each other, trained together, grew up together," said one of them. "I don't know how this affected the guys out in the field," Shoham said, "but I know that they're still fighting." Shoham's account of the fighting was very similar to that of other young officers. The anti-tank missiles coming out of nowhere and the difficulty in changing the mind-set of soldiers and units used to fighting the intifada. "We're used to going into buildings in the West Bank," he said. "We know how to take up defensive positions and find ourselves there. In Lebanon, it's a different kind of terrain, open and difficult. We've trained for this kind of warfare but we've not experienced it." Despite the death of their friend and their difficult experiences, all the wounded of Palsar 401 can't wait to rejoin the unit, if possible while it's still in the field. "We're not interested in the news or the political debate," said St.-Sgt. Tamir Shnitzky, who was wounded by the first missile and still has a piece of shrapnel in his shoulder. "All we're interested in is doing the work with the rest of the company."