Tuesday, February 26, 2013

#24h In the Life of a Soldier: Facing Hezbollah on the Israeli-Lebanese Border

Episode 1 - Facing Hezbollah on the Israeli-Lebanese Border
The area near the Israeli-Lebanese border is beautiful. The rainy season has painted the area green. We’re joining a group from the Herev Battalion, most of whom are Druze soldiers permanently stationed at Israel’s northern border. Their base is only ten meters away from the border. You can clearly see the Lebanese villages on the other side.
Israeli-Lebanese border
These soldiers know every square foot of the area. “We need to be ready to respond at any given time,” says Osama, a company commander. “Our soldiers are brave and willing to give everything for the mission. Our strength is everything we’ve got.”
They aren’t playing around – the danger on the northern border is real. “Each of my soldiers is defending his own home,” Osama says. “Almost all of us live less than 30 minutes away from the border. During the Second Lebanon War, in 2006, rockets hit our villages.”
We joined the battalion for 24 hours – a day in their lives. Here’s what we saw:
Early Hours of the Morning – Night Patrol
For several soldiers, the day actually starts at nightfall. In the early hours of the morning, the night patrol meets for a briefing. The commander talks about the current threats at the border and peppers his soldiers with questions. He divides the patrol into three teams. We set out.
It’s a windy night – a tree falls and crashes into the border fence. The soldiers are about to remove the tree when a vehicle arrives from the Lebanese side of the border, flashing its lights in our direction.
We leave the area, and inspect every inch of the road. “This road is very dangerous,” says the patrol commander. “We’re in a valley, a vulnerable position to be in. We don’t stay here long, but it’s still part of the patrol area.”
The group continues its patrol, and repeats the same route several times. Another group replaces them a few hours later.

As Dawn Breaks – The War Room
In each military base there’s a room that never sleeps – the war room. All information about the area passes through here: positions of ground forces, commands and intelligence. If individual companies in the field are the arms and legs, this would be the brain.
There is one soldier on duty from midnight to midday. He must react quickly to requests and control the information flowing in at all times.
“Serving in a war room isn’t a job for every combat soldier, but it’s vital for the people who are out there fighting,” he says. “Even during the dead of night, when everything is pitch-black, I need to have a clear grasp of the situation on the ground.”
Early Afternoon – Training Time
Some soldiers wake up early for base cleanup, and some are allowed to continue sleeping. In the early afternoon, a select group of the soldiers on base begin training for a reconnaissance mission due to take place in the coming days.
Members of a tank crew clean and fix their equipment, then gradually turn on the heavy engines. Close by, Herev combat soldiers practice short-distance shooting. Near the base, a reconnaissance force is also training. The force includes a handful of soldiers, including a member of the Oketz canine unit and his dog. The dog goes first into the field and sniffs out any explosives in the way.
Meanwhile the commander reminds the soldiers of the different types of hazards they might encounter and the different ways to deal with them. Everyone is aware that the next time they go out, it won’t be a drill.
Oketz soldier
Evening – On Guard
We join Adam, a combat soldier in the Herev battalion. He’s in the middle of guard duty – namely, watching over the boundaries of the base. It’s a job that demands constant alertness. He needs to make sure that nobody climbs the fence and that the base isn’t under threat.
As the hours of his shift pass, the sun sets and the wind begins to get colder. A large part of these soldiers’ duty is guarding – guarding borders, bases, land, people. The threats may not always be noticeable, but they’re always present. Adam knows this. He stays sharp.
Night – Last-Minute Briefing
Dinner. The soldiers eat, never missing an opportunity to thank the chef who cooks for all 60 of them every day. Sometimes, a good chef can make or break a battalion.
Afterwards, the mission team gather for a last briefing before heading out. Attendance is mandatory, especially for members of the various recon squads. The mission has to be coordinated between all forces. Moreover, each of them has his own field of expertise, and all opinions are important. The mission commander doesn’t hesitate and tackles his soldiers with questions this time around, too. There is no room for error during the mission.
Later On – End of Guard Duty
Adam finishes his guard duty and goes straight to rest in his room. His quarters are, in essence, a big bunker, windowless and without natural light. From inside, it’s difficult to tell what time of day it is. His neighbors, soldiers from other rooms, come in to talk, trade jokes, and ask if guard duty went well.
inside the base
Before he talks to us, Adam calls his brothers, whom he has not seen in over a month. “We’re triplets, and we all serve in the Herev battalion,” he tells us afterwards.
“Basically, only one of us was supposed to serve as a combat soldier,” Adam says. “The people at Human Resources told us that the other one was supposed to serve in a desk job, and the third didn’t have to join the IDF at all. But it was obvious that each of us would want to become the combat soldier, and serve in the battalion. So we all did.”
Adam doesn’t regret his choice. He enjoys every moment of his service – or at least most of them. “Ever since I was little, I always dreamt of becoming an officer in the IDF,” he says.
Even though the soldiers all speak Arabic at home, when it comes to the army, they make sure to speak Hebrew as a matter of principle. “We also speak Hebrew to other soldiers who arrive at the base, like the tank crews and field intelligence people. It enables us to get to know them better and have a laugh together. Our origins and language are never an issue.”
When he comes home from the army on weekends, if he’s lucky, Adam gets to see his brothers and his father, who is a career soldier himself. Matching up weekends in the army is something of an art form.
“Usually, I wash up and go out with friends, at least the ones who are home that weekend,” says Adam. “On Friday evening, everyone comes to the village’s bar, The Friends Meetup Place. It’s fun to sit around with friends before a game of snooker or a good soccer game. I wish I could continue with my Judo training, but I don’t have time for that with my military service. It’s a shame – my brothers and I all had black belts. We’ll continue our training after we’re done with our service. For us, Israel comes first.”
Adam’s determination is unmissable. He hopes to continue as a career soldier in the army, like his father, so he can stay in service. His story is only one among many – stories of Israeli teens in uniform who guard Israel day and night.

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