Between a rock and a hard place: A night with IDF's search-and-rescue unit

A night with Israel’s Search-and-Rescue Unit as it practices rescuing soldiers and civilians among destroyed buildings

THE WRITER being ‘rescued’ by members of the Search-and-Rescue Unit (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
THE WRITER being ‘rescued’ by members of the Search-and-Rescue Unit
After the first 20 minutes jammed between two concrete blocks with bits of rubble on my legs, numbness set in. First in the right foot and then the leg. After another 10 minutes, the Search and Rescue team arrived. M-16 rifles slung on their backs and black helmets with headlamps on their heads, they set to work to remove a piece of metal obstructing their way. A saw buzzed and sparks exploded as they cut it. Then they moved the rubble, brought a stretcher and carted me away.
It was all part of a training exercise by the IDF Home Front Command’s Search and Rescue Unit. The unit operates a training facility near the Gaza border, not far from Zikim beach. During the day this is a land of dunes pockmarked with shrubs and tufts of grass.
Bronzed men and women crowd the beach and enjoy their time with ATVs, churning up sand and playing in the water. But the relaxed atmosphere today betrays the dangers. In July 2014 during Operation Protective Edge, Hamas commandos stormed the beach and infiltrated inland before being killed by the IDF.
In September 2014 an Israeli named Avera Mengistu crossed into Gaza from this area in circumstances that are still unclear and is still being held by Hamas. If war comes again with Hamas in Gaza, this area will be the front line.
On the Monday night in early October that the Search-and-Rescue Unit was preparing its training, a drone buzzed overhead. The glow of Gaza’s city lights, six kilometers away, hovered in the distance. The light was fading over the training grounds. The IDF uses a group of destroyed concrete buildings as a stand-in for what the unit might face digging through rubble in a battle, or in the aftermath of an earthquake. The site contains a large standing building in the center and destruction splayed out around it. Mounds of broken reinforced concrete compete with metal rebars strewn about, sticking out of the slabs like quills of giant gray stone porcupines. To confront this, in addition to the helmets and headlamps, soldiers are kitted out with knee pads to navigate the maze.
The Search and Rescue unit’s training comes from real-world disasters. During the First Lebanon War in 1982, IDF soldiers were occupying a building in Tyre, when it collapsed after a gas leak. Seventy-five Israelis and 14 Lebanese were killed. Fifty-five survivors were pulled from the rubble, according to the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s website. A bombing in Sidon in the same war in 1983 led to the deaths of 28 Israelis – soldiers and security forces – in a collapsed building. The need to combine the IDF’s various search-and-rescue units as well as civilian expertise led to the Home Front Command creating the present unit in 1984.
“The SAR [Search-and-Rescue] Unit has become a high-quality and professional unit with immediate availability in treatment and assistance as a response team to events and disasters in Israel and around the world,” says the Home Front Command’s website.
Since its formation it has been called upon almost annually for emergencies in a dozen countries, including the 1988 earthquake in Armenia, the bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Argentina in 1994, aiding after three earthquakes in Turkey, two in India and in Haiti. It has also dealt with emergencies in Israel, such as the 2001 Versailles wedding hall collapse in Jerusalem and a gas cylinder explosion in 2003 in Tel Aviv. In light of the numerous challenges facing the Home Front Command, in 2012 it added a fourth search-and-rescue battalion.
Lt.-Col. Elad Edri, who has served in the unit for two years, recently returned from a mission to Mexico to aid in the search for earthquake victims.
“Another engineer [from the unit] and I went to Mexico on Rosh Hashana eve on a plane rather than be with our families,” he recalls. “It was very fast; 12 hours after the first call we were on a plane with equipment.”
Following a quick briefing and the proper medical shots, the team, which included 70 other Israeli men and women from different units, including 25 engineers, arrived on September 21 in Mexico to assess the damage and assist.
“Four hours after we landed, our teams were at five sites.” They began rescue operations. Dozens of buildings had been destroyed in the 6.2 magnitude earthquake.
Edri recalls that many tall buildings had collapsed in the quake.
“The site I went to work on was a six-floor office building where 60 men and women were trapped and unfortunately all dead.” They aided the Mexican authorities in retrieving the bodies so there could be quick and dignified funerals, he says. “Rescuers risked lives to take out bodies. We were there eight days,” says Edri.
When the team arrived back in Israel they were greeted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the airport. “You are the long arm of Israel that reaches around the world, across thousands of kilometers, and you show the true face of the State of Israel,” he said.
In April 2015, Israel sent a Boeing 737 with 260 people to aid Nepal after the devastating earthquake there. Three search-and-rescue teams were dispatched with 95 tons of equipment. Edri, who served as an operations officer of the Nepal mission, recalls “the destruction was more severe in Mexico because Nepal’s buildings were very simple. Mexico had tall buildings.” The smaller brick-made houses in Nepal made it easier to pull out survivors. “We were also working in cooperation with other delegations, including the US, Japanese and Spanish,” Edri says.
On the Monday night in October that Edri stood waiting for his men to arrive, he was preparing for a scenario different from the one faced in Mexico.
The shattered concrete blocks near Zikim are meant to represent what the IDF might encounter in Gaza or Lebanon or elsewhere during operations. This is a very realistic challenge. In 2014, soldiers in Gaza faced booby-trapped buildings in house-to-house fighting in places like Khan Yunis. A Golani soldier was given a citation for his bravery in entering one such building and preventing terrorists from detonating the building.
“This battalion-level exercise tonight is to train commanders. I have three companies, the first for officers who will be platoon commanders, and then the squad leaders who are one year in the army.”
A squad typically has eight to 12 soldiers in it, with men and women in this unit. Arriving at night to practice “saving” other soldiers trapped in the rubble, the drill is supposed to sum up what they’ve learned over the last 13 weeks of training.
“It combines all the skills and abilities they need to control as infantry and nonconventional warfare,” says Edri. Yesterday the same group of soldiers practiced confronting “nonconventional” threats, such as biological or chemical weapons.
“So we will see four platoons arrive and simulate entering an enemy village, like a scenario where they cross the border in a war and how they deal with a house or building that has collapsed.” It might have collapsed on soldiers and civilians, and the rescuers have to deal with not only getting the survivors out but also confronting the enemy.
Eventually, after some time waiting, the search-and-rescue soldiers appear. In the dust they lug their heavy backpacks into the glowing lights of a backhoe located near the ruined mock village. They look tired from their march, but this simulates the conditions they would face in Gaza or Lebanon, forced to walk into an enemy environment at night or in the day.
Each soldier carries an M-16, and some have specialized equipment for search and rescue, such as stretchers or a saw to carve through metal.
“We train for combat and crossing the border [to enemy areas], as happened in [Operation] Protective Edge,” says Sharon Brunner, a member of the Search-and-Rescue Unit.
“We have to go in with all these different bags on our back and different tools, maybe 10 to 30 kilos worth,” she says. Like her comrades, she is proud of being a combat soldier who is also trained to rescue people.
Among the rubble, the trainers have placed a number of dummies to be “rescued,” large dolls jammed under concrete blocks and rubble. There are also real soldiers amongst the rubble who will have to be carried out on stretchers. Since I’m supposed to play one of the “wounded,” Edri takes me to a nook between several concrete blocks and asks me to stuff myself among them. “Here, put this block on you and some stones,” he says.
Then Edri leaves to allow his soldiers time to search the rubble. In the distance, the sound of a mock gun battle punctures the air. “Rat-tat-tat; rat-tat-tat.” Soldiers scamper among the concrete blocks, making their way toward one of the many mounds of rebar and blocks that were once houses.
The shooting stops. Soldiers with headlamps appear near where I’ve been stashed. They bring up a large saw to cut away a metal “obstacle.” The sparks fly everywhere. After some minutes another team of three soldiers, their faces blackened with face paint, come up behind me and lift me onto a stretcher.
It’s a bumpy ride out of the rubble, with the feel of being on a berth in a train, except with dust and a female soldier’s elbow in my side.
After the “rescue,” we wander around to see the rest of the exercise. At one site, three soldiers watch and operate a mechanical jack to lift a concrete block off a dummy. One of them positions a block that looks like a little staircase beneath the mass of concrete. Each time the jack moves the concrete up, he puts the little staircase in further, holding it off the ground until the “wounded” dummy can be moved.
As the multi-hour exercise begins to wrap up, some of the soldiers come back from the rubble piles they have been working on. They’ve rescued those in need and battled enemies unseen.
Their faces are caked with dust and paint.
“I’m proud to be in this unit,” says 22-year-old Tamari Gardyn. “To study something new every time and meet new people and also have new experiences that you wouldn’t have in many other units.” She has served four years in the army and one year in Search and Rescue.
The drone humming nearby is still overhead. In the distance are the lights of the electric station in Ashkelon. It’s a quiet, peaceful night with a waxing moon. Soon these soldiers will be back doing their usual routine, which often involves deployment to the West Bank as combat soldiers.
But they will be ready for the next round, whether it comes in Gaza or Lebanon or means another trip to rescue people abroad.