Grooming the IDF's top guns

Holed up for the past 40 years in the middle of the desert, the IDF's officer training school is still producing Israel's finest.

tough idf soldiers 88 (photo credit: )
tough idf soldiers 88
(photo credit: )
Maj. Yoni Shetbon paces back and forth at the front of the classroom. His M16 rifle slung over his shoulder, the bearded Shetbon walks up to the board in the front of the hall and writes down two words - "Combat Ethics." He then turns to his audience - a group of 300 wide-eyed young soldiers in the last weeks of their studies before becoming officers. They are sitting in the Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Hall at the IDF's Officer Training School near Mitzpe Ramon, popularly known by its Hebrew acronym Bah'd 1 (basis hadracha - instruction base). Shetbon knows what he is talking about when it comes to combat ethics. During the Second Lebanon War, the 29-year-old religious father of four demonstrated them as chief operations officer of Battalion 51 of the Golani Brigade. On July 26, Battalion 51 lost eight soldiers, including several officers, during a battle with Hizbullah in Bint Jbail. Shetbon took command of one of the companies and in what he says was a split-second decision took a team of soldiers and retrieved the bodies of their dead comrades before they were taken by Hizbullah. Following the war, he was one of 17 soldiers to receive a citation of excellence from IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi. Due to his exemplary service, after the war the IDF sent Shetbon to be an instructor for Battalion Gefen, the combat officer course. The breakdown in military values discovered during the war, the drop in motivation to serve and the overall feeling of discontent in the military was behind the decision to send officers with a record like Shetbon's to educate the future generation of infantry commanders. There is no better way to do this than by telling his personal story from Bint Jbail. "A commander has several seconds to make a decision," Shetbon tells his soldiers, a mix from the IDF's various infantry brigades and special forces units. "In Bint Jbail there were five bodies in an open field and we received a tip on the secure phone line that Hizbullah intended to seize them. I had to make a decision within several seconds whether to send soldiers to risk their lives to retrieve the bodies or not." The soldiers, most of them just over 18 months in the army and with almost no combat experience, sit riveted in their seats as Shetbon continues. "The top brass is telling us that a conflict with our enemies can erupt at any time," he says while retelling the story of Maj. Ro'i Klein, Battalion 51's deputy commander who was killed in Bint Jbail. "A commander who doesn't live according to a set list of values will not know how to make those split-second decisions and will not jump on the grenade [as Klein did during the battle] in the moment of truth." This is the IDF following the Second Lebanon War, investing not just in new training regimens and advanced combat platforms but also in the moral standard of its soldiers and ensuring that its future commanders will be taught the right values so they understand what they are fighting for. This is not a simple task, particularly in light of the recent rise in draft-dodging. Ahead of the IDF draft last summer, the Human Resources Department reported an increase in the number of teenagers dodging military service. The total reaches 25 percent of those born in 1989 and scheduled to be drafted this year - 11% of them are haredim and received exemptions, an increase of 1% over last year. Seven percent did not enlist for medical reasons, including physical and mental conditions. The figure is nearly double what it was in the 1980s. Motivation to serve is not the only problem. Following the war and the damage it caused the IDF's image, the Ground Forces Command recorded a 20% drop in the number of soldiers who asked to go to officer training school, which not only creates a more difficult service for a soldier but also extends it by another 18 months - four and a half years instead of the mandatory three. The drop in applications, which has in the meantime been curbed, is possibly one of the greatest challenges this training school has faced since it was established 40 years ago in the barren hills near the Ramon Crater. BEFORE THE BASE opened its doors, the IDF's officers' school was in Pardess Hanna and then at Camp Sirkin on the outskirts of Petah Tikva. With the establishment of the state 60 years ago, the IDF replaced the Hagana which had since 1921 held training courses for its fighters in Kfar Giladi in the North. Before the 1967 Six Day War, prime minister David Ben-Gurion decided to transfer all of the IDF's training schools from the center of the country to the South as part of his efforts to settle the Negev. Bah'd 1 was chosen as the first school to make the move, which was pushed off until 1968 due to budget constraints. On May 27 - this week 40 years ago - the new school opened its doors. Since then it hasn't stopped for a day. Today, the school gives a number of courses for staff officers, support combat officers and combat officers. The first two are fully integrated, and female soldiers make up more than half of the cadets in most classes. The combat course lasts 13 weeks, following which infantry officers carry on for another four months of specialization. Soldiers from the Armored, Engineering and Artillery Corps complete their specialization back at their units of origin. The IDF is facing another growing challenge when it comes to officer training - 25% of the cadets in the combat course come from the national-religious camp, including a large number of settlers, by far the largest representation of a single sector. IDF officers point out that these soldiers are highly motivated and are found predominantly in the mid-ranks of infantry brigades like Golani, Nahal and Givati. They are eager to fight Israel's enemies but as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's peace talks with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas advance, there is an underlying concern in some political circles that these soldiers will not follow orders to evacuate West Bank settlements. Base commander Col. Aharon Haliva is not concerned with the statistics or the political unease. The makeup of his training school is after all, he explains candidly, an exact reflection of trends in Israeli society. "Today the national-religious see themselves as the state's pioneers," he explains from his desert office where bookshelves are stocked with sets of Talmud, several volumes of the Bible and assorted books on military, Jewish and Israeli history. "This is today. Years ago the pioneers used to be the kibbutzniks." In his previous job, Haliva, 40, who climbed the ranks in the Paratroopers' Brigade, served as commander of the Ephraim Regional Brigade, responsible for all military operations in Tulkarm and Kalkilya. Commander of the officers school is almost a definite step toward general. Of the last 16 commanders, 10 went on to become generals, including Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, a former chief of General Staff. In what some might interpret as controversial, Haliva speaks openly about the different sectors in society and those which are sending and not sending their children to the school. Like one of the predecessors - OC Human Resources Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern - Haliva is critical of the education youth are receiving in urban areas. "We don't get enough soldiers from cities," Haliva said. "This is because of the type of education they get at home." Following the Second Lebanon War, Stern stirred controversy when he said in a radio interview that he did not need to visit bereaved families in Tel Aviv. "I see which homes I visit and, with all the pain and pride, I also look at the homes I don't go to... there's no bereavement in those homes. There's no bereavement there and there won't be bereavement there." Following in the footsteps of his self-proclaimed mentor, at the end of each course Haliva sends thank-you letters to high schools whose graduates become IDF officers. One of the things he is most concerned with is the apparent disconnect between Israeli youth and their Jewish roots and values. "We need to have our finger on the pulse of our country's educational system all the time," he says. Haliva served in the territories in a wide range of positions throughout the second intifada. He says candidly that one of the country's mistakes ahead of the Second Lebanon War was that "we sanctified the watchtower and the patrol car in the West Bank." In contrast, since the war and having taken over officer training, the curriculum he set up has cadets spending a mere 10% of their time on training for low intensity conflicts - like the conflict with the Palestinians. The rest of the time, soldiers learn how to lead platoons in a conventional war. "If a cadet learns how to be an officer and lead troops in a conventional war against another country like Syria, then he will know how to operate inside Nablus," Haliva says. WHILE HALIVA was leading troops when the second intifada broke out in October 2000, Shetbon was just starting his officer's training course. Looking back at his training, Shetbon says that today the IDF is putting a greater emphasis on what some might call "old-fashioned" military values such as the need to always strive for contact and engagement with the enemy. The importance of this value was made clear in April when Ashkenazi fired a battalion commander who, according to military probes, failed to engage Islamic Jihad terrorists who infiltrated the Nahal Oz fuel depot along the Gaza border and killed two Israelis. "We make clear to cadets that they always need to strive for contact with the enemy," Shetbon explains. "We teach them to understand that they have capabilities - both physical and mental - that they don't yet know about." Shetbon recently wrapped up three weeks of intensive training on the Golan Heights with his company of cadets. There, the future officers practiced storming mock Hizbullah "nature reserves" - fortified positions found in southern Lebanon and used to launch Katyusha rockets - and also honed navigational skills by sending each cadet for a 30-kilometer hike alone at night. "We try to simulate for them what a battle will look like," says Haliva. "We run live-fire exercises after they haven't slept a whole day and create an atmosphere like there is a real war, since we need to be ready and we need to win the next war." Micki Ohayun from the Paratroopers' Brigade and Yoav Sarussy from Golani are currently finishing their officer training. Both fall into the minority sector of their course - they are from cities - Beersheba and Haifa. Sarussy, 20, says that before he volunteered for officer training school his friends tried to dissuade him from signing on for more time in the army. "They asked me what I needed this for," he recalls. "I told them that someone needs to do it and if it won't be me, who will it be?" Ohayun is a littler older and has been in the army for more than two years. He grew up in a military environment and attended a military high school. During the Second Lebanon War his battalion was deployed in Maroun A-Ras. The home he holed up in came under heavy Hizbullah rocket and machine-gun fire. One of his officers was killed. "That event helped me make up my mind that this was what I wanted to do," he says. "Today with people talking about destroying us, there is no doubt that we need a strong military." Soldiers like Sarussy and Ohayun are given the option of attending officers' school after a year or more in the army and after undergoing a series of tests. According to Haliva, more than 6,000 cadets come through the school annually, with some attending the staff courses, combat support course and combat course. The cadets not only study military tactics and strategy but are also imbued with Jewish values. They are taken to Jerusalem to visit the Old City, Yad Vashem and the Supreme Court. Shetbon, Sarussy and Ohayun's commander, says that while youth today are more self absorbed than in the past, the soldiers who arrive at the school are the "crème de la crème of Israeli society." "Most people today care about how what they are doing affects them," Shetbon says. "Bah'd 1 is proof that youth today are still willing to sacrifice themselves on behalf of the other." While he will be celebrating his school's 40th anniversary this week, Haliva says he is extremely concerned with what the next 40 years have in store for the country and not just from a security perspective. "I wonder what type of country we will have in 40 years," he says, leaning back in his chair with a massive picture of the Temple Mount behind him. "Will we have peace with our neighbors? What will be with the economy and national security?" One thing he is sure of is that the school will still be here when Israel celebrates its 100th anniversary. "This school," he says, "is guaranteeing our future."