With the combat engineers in South Lebanon

5 soldiers from the Lahav Battalion crouched with their various paraphernalia.

anshel pfeffer 298.88 (photo credit: )
anshel pfeffer 298.88
(photo credit: )
As the Puma AFVs crossed the border fence at 1 a.m. and moved into Lebanon, the order was given for all the soldiers inside the vehicles to lower their heads and close the hatches. Only the commanders remained hunched outside with night-vision goggles, directing the drivers, deep within their armored compartments. Inside, five soldiers from the Lahav Battalion of the Engineering Corps crouched with their personal weapons, LAW missiles and the various paraphernalia they would need for their three-day ambush on a ridge, a few kilometers north of the border, on what's termed "the contact line" with Hizbullah. Squad commander Sgt. Daniel was anxiously checking his soldiers' equipment and insisting that he was not afraid. "We've been inside twice already," he said. "We were sent in to demolish the Hizbullah headquarters and fortifications in Maroun a-Ras." Some of the others were more open about their feelings on spending 72 hours camouflaged on the cutting edge of the front. "I'm trusting God," said Doron, the medic. "He's the only who can help us." One of his friends joshed him: "You've already begun to be frightened?" The troops who would be manning the ambush came from the company's "young platoon," barely a year in the army, and this was the first time that they would be carrying out such an operation. Each of them had been given an "iron number," which would enable the officers to easily keep track of their location throughout the ambush. They passed the half-hour it took to reach the jump-off point with jokes at the expense of one of the company's soldiers who had his picture in the papers on Sunday. Capt. Ro'i, the company commander, was leading the convoy, and he slowly maneuvered each of the Pumas into a wooded south-facing valley, hopefully hidden from the Hizbullah teams still in the area. The platoon couldn't reach the point on foot, as most of the route goes through an old minefield through which the engineers had cleared only one path. Ziggly, the driver, had trouble finding his way up the narrow ridge, and needed directions from St.-Sgt. Shalom, who was in command of the Puma. Ziggly could barely see anything through his night-scope and was essentially driving like a blind man taking directions from his passenger. Finally the Puma reached the narrow gully and the squad disembarked. The deputy company commander, who would lead the ambush, was concerned mainly with making sure that no one was left behind in the dark and that the squads didn't get mixed up. From here, the platoon would have to climb the ridge in silence, and replace soldiers from Sword Battalion, a Druse unit, who were being relieved after their three long days and nights in ambush. The Puma, an Israeli development based on the venerable British Centurion tank, is regarded as one of the heaviest armored fighting vehicles in the IDF, but Capt. Ro'i preferred the vehicles pull back, closer to the fence, while the soldiers were switching places. While he was waiting for the order to go back in, Shalom reflected on the last few hectic weeks. "I haven't been on leave for 24 days," he said. "When all this broke out, we were on Mount Hermon and were ordered to fire into Lebanese territory to deter Hizbullah from moving in that area." The last week was spent in Maroun a-Ras. "We blew up houses and the entrances to Hizbullah bunkers," he said. "We didn't see any of them, but a least some of them were still around. One of our officers was narrowly missed by an RPG." "It's natural that they're afraid now when they're going in and have time to think," he said of the younger soldiers. "But the moment you're inside, you don't have time to be afraid." The order is given to move into position. The Sword soldiers were waiting, but one of the Pumas had damaged its track and returned to the border. As a result, twice the usual number of soldiers piled into Shalom's Puma, and the smell of nine unwashed bodies was overpowering. "It's wasn't easy staying alert up there," said Jamil. "We only managed to sleep two hours each night and two hours during the day." They didn't see any Hizbullah fighters, but fired into areas of undergrowth where they detected movement. Despite the fatigue, they were still capable of joking. Fadi was lugging an empty tank shell that he planned to convert into an ornamental ashtray. The first thing they did on reaching the border, even though it was 4 a.m., was to call up their families. Capt. Ro'i was pleased that one of the first IDF missions on which journalists were allowed was his unit's. "The papers were full of photographs of my soldiers coming out of Maroun A-Ras this week, but the captions always said that they were Golani or Paratroopers," he said, and he was anxious to rectify that. "People have difficulty defining us," he said. "We do so many things. We have infantry capabilities, and we undertake armored missions, demolition, mine-clearing and bridging. We've proven ourselves in all our roles over these weeks." •