Nofar
Where tanks fear to tread - Nofar in action. Photo by Yaron Kaminsky
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"The truth is, it's like taking some sort of jeep tour in regular civilian life," says First Lt. Natan Weinberger, a law student from Moshav Shafir who is on reserve duty, as he drives an off-road vehicle through the Dishon riverbed in the Upper Galilee. The clear night sky is full of stars; here and there jackal or fox eyes gleam in the dark. Herds of cattle gaze in amazement at the scary creature that has rudely awakened them.

Every few minutes during this exercise, reports of "wounded" and "dead" come over the field radio, with urgent calls to come to the collection point. Weinberger, a company commander in the newest unit in the Israel Defense Forces, navigates and brings his force into the area of fighting to treat and rescue the casualties.

Investigations of the 2006 Second Lebanon War showed that in many cases, wounded soldiers remained in the field for many hours because of the difficulties in sending in a helicopter or an armored vehicle with a medical team, to evacuate them from areas where Hezbollah was operating rocket-launching cells.

As a result, Brig. Gen. Yoel Strick, commander of the Galilee Division, decided to establish a new unit called Nofar (the acronym in Hebrew for "medical mobility and evacuation" ), which is being trained to use four-wheel-drive vehicles to evacuate the wounded from battle zones in southern Lebanon. Two weeks ago, after a year and a half of preparatory work, Nofar carried out its inaugural exercise in a series of field navigation drills in the Upper Galilee - a region that is similar topographically to the Lebanese arena.

The teams in the vehicles consist of fighters, scouts, field drivers, paramedics and medics, all of them reservists who have volunteered for the unit.

In the wake of the lessons learned during the 2006 war, the IDF has invested considerable resources in improving the ability of medical teams to operate under fire.

"Nofar isn't a replacement for those teams," stresses the division's chief medical officer, Col. Dr. Max Cohen, who spearheaded the establishment of the unit. "We saw there was a need to find other ways to evacuate the wounded, especially in the early days of fighting, when there are few roads that can be used and many threats directed at our men and equipment in the field."

The Nofar squads will be deployed to transport medical equipment and provisions in situations when the usual supply lines are obstructed. According to studies carried out by the IDF, the ability to travel relatively quickly in the field will make it difficult for Hezbollah anti-tank units and other cells to operate, and will improve the chances of IDF fighters' survival. In particular, speedy navigation in difficult field conditions via 4x4 vehicles will enable Nofar to arrive faster at an incident with mass casualties, such as that in the Lebanese village of Dabal, in which nine paratroopers were killed and 30 wounded when a rocket hit the building in which they had taken cover. To carry out such missions, the force must fight and offer treatment simultaneously.

Meanwhile, during the exercise, the vehicles arrive at a gallop at the winery in the Dalton industrial zone, which is playing the part of a building that has been hit. The fighters surround the structure and start clearing the area. At the same time, the paramedics and the doctors rush in to locate the casualties in most urgent need of help. "This force will have to operate in uncleared areas and ensure continuing treatment of the wounded while evacuating under fire," explains Cohen. "Such casualties must be under constant care until they reach an operating room."

The vehicles used in a real war scenario to transport the wounded to transfer points on the Israel-Lebanon border will carry sophisticated medical equipment, making it possible for the paramedics to keep the seriously wounded alive, even while traveling and evading enemy fire. In the Galilee Division, they believe Nofar's maneuverability, swiftness and mobility are likely to help save lives in places where tanks and helicopters cannot enter.