Israel Is Fencing Off Its Borders, but Even That Won't Be Enough

Even if Israel is still relatively protected from the surrounding chaos in the Arab world, it will have to use more than just high fences to protect its citizens.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Work on border fence between Israel and Jordan. September 2015.
Work on border fence between Israel and Jordan. September 2015. Credit: AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lets up a little in his fight against the Iranian nuclear program, he’ll face another burning issue. But first, regarding the nuclear issue, Netanyahu’s failure in Congress was a predictable outcome stemming from the advantage of powers greater than he — the Obama administration and the entire international community.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives interview to U.S. news media outlets.Credit: Haim Zach / GPO

Regarding the other issue, Israel’s response to events on its borders in the coming years will depend largely on Israel itself. The past month suggests that alongside the security risks normally discussed in detail (Iran and its proxies in the region, Palestinian events), the upheaval in the Arab world will have a gradually increasing impact on Israel’s security.

The assessment already heard three years ago — that “unstable stability” wouldn’t prevail forever — is slowly coming true. Even if Israel is still relatively protected from the surrounding chaos, it will have to use more to protect its citizens and borders.

Netanyahu’s strategic approach — based on deep suspicion and pessimism about Arab intentions — is underscored by the transformations in the Arab countries. He believes he’s always proved right; for example, the refusal to withdraw from the Golan in exchange for an agreement with Syria. Full withdrawal would have let the Islamic State and Al-Qaida maniacs, not just Syrian soldiers, dangle their feet in Lake Kinneret.

A June 16, 2015 photo showing smoke rising during fighting in the Druze village of Hader in Syria, as seen from the Israeli side of the border fence between Syria and Israel on the Golan Heights.Credit: Reuters

There’s also the insistence on building a high, almost impenetrable fence along the Egyptian border — an idea that many observers derided. Above all, there’s Netanyahu’s prediction about the fallout of what was optimistically called the Arab Spring.

We still remember that Jerusalem press conference with Netanyahu and Angela Merkel in the winter of 2011 as the masses in Tahrir Square called for Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. Merkel offered European lip service in praise of the Egyptians demanding their rights. Netanyahu warned that the Muslim Brotherhood was just around the corner. And who was right, he asks nearly five years later.

Netanyahu’s response to new threats — a wave of refugees climbing north form Yemen, mass flight from Syria, Islamists running amok in Sinai — is lots more of the same. His vision, to surround the country with fences against refugees and terrorists, has come true on the Egyptian border and with the construction of a better fence on the Golan. Now comes the Jordanian border.

An archive photo of Israeli border police and soldiers near the separation fence in the West Bank, March 24, 2014.Credit: Reuters

A collapse of the Hashemite rulers amid Sunni jihadist terror and domestic riots is Jerusalem’s nightmare. Israel invests significant efforts in security coordination with Jordan. But no one will say this publicly and explicitly — once every few years when an Israeli official stumbles and predicts a dark future for King Abdullah, a raft of denials and apologies follows. Israel must plan for even worse scenarios in which terror will again be launched from its longest border in the east.

Last week, right after the refugee crisis captured the world’s attention, Netanyahu declared that the eastern fence would be built. At this point it’s a modest plan — only 30 kilometers from Eilat northward, mainly to protect Timna Airport under construction very near the border.

But we may assume that funding and justification will be found to extend it to the north. Brig. Gen. Eran Ofir, the energetic builder of fences, is perhaps the least-known person with the greatest impact on Israel’s landscape over the past decade. He’s already focusing on the Jordanian border.

The prime minister’s vision in this case conforms with the Israel Defense Forces’. In discussions on the writing of an IDF strategic document, which Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot released last month, the possibility was mentioned of an escalation on the borders due to terror acts. The army, as has often been said, is worried more about an unplanned escalation due to misunderstandings and miscalculations on both sides than a neighboring country’s launching of a war.

But though Eisenkot is focusing on the changes heralded in the IDF’s multiyear plan, he remembers well what happened to one of his predecessors, Dan Halutz, with the 2006 Second Lebanon War. As chief of operations, Eisenkot saw what happens when an army deep in organizational reforms is caught unprepared. From this comes Eisenkot’s exhortations to commanders to maintain a high state of preparedness, which he backs with surprise exercises.

Currently, the long borders are particularly vulnerable. Even before the multiyear plan is implemented, action has been taken to bolster the borders. The IDF has closed some of its specialized combat units or changed their purpose. It’s also establishing border units that combine intelligence-gathering units with light infantry, where men and women serve together.

The Caracal model

That’s the formula already working on the Egyptian border via the Caracal light infantry battalion. Last year the IDF began establishing two similar battalions on the same model: a majority of women, and the men with a slightly lower medical profile (and sometimes lower motivation) required for infantry brigades.

An Israeli soldier of the Caracal battalion stands next to backpacks after finishing a 20-kilometre march.Credit: Reuters

The army is limited in fielding reserve units for such work, both because of the law on reserve duty and the high cost of calling up reserves. Shortening service for men by four months, which began with the July 2015 draft, also lowers manpower and requires greater reliance on women combat soldiers.

Eisenkot wants to give front-line units more time for training, which has eroded over two busy decades amid funding restrictions. Top-priority units will still spend more than half their time in operational activities, but these will focus on tougher areas: the Lebanese and Syrian borders, the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.

Caracal and similar outfits, even if they’re protecting the border in the east and south, won’t lead the troops into battle. They give the infantry brigades more time to prepare for the harder wars that could break out with Hamas or Hezbollah.

The army had the solution all the time. It has been 20 years since the army, forced by the High Court, hesitantly began opening certain combat units to women. Since then the incorporation of women in pilot training, artillery, air defense and other units has been a success story. The trend also conforms to society’s spirit of equal opportunity. But only 3 percent of all women soldiers have been sent to combat duty (and they’re all volunteers).

The army misses no opportunity to showcase its women combat troops. Two weeks ago Channel 10 showed a documentary on Capt. Or Ben-Yehuda, a company commander in Caracal (now at Officer Training School) who, in an outstanding effort, was shot by smugglers from Sinai last year. And last week an urban warfare exercise by female Caracal soldiers made the main headline on the Ynet news site.

The media loves it. But the ordinary reader might mistakenly think the IDF is preparing a secret plan to take over El Arish or Sheikh Zuweid in Sinai on the back of courageous Caracal women.

In any case, the creation of more battalions like Caracal is a necessity. The threat of conventional warfare with a regular Arab army is much reduced since the upheaval in the Middle East, but the military blanket is short considering the threats in the territories and on the border. So the IDF needs a patchwork of new solutions.

It’s dangerous to exaggerate the capabilities of this model. Ben-Yehuda and another woman Caracal soldier excelled in an incident two years ago on the Sinai border in which an artillery soldier was killed. But it’s an exaggeration to necessarily expect similar results on the western border.

The question is not women’s abilities compared to men’s but the training and equipment for light infantry battalions compared to those for veteran infantry brigades, not to mention long-term command, unit traditions and operational norms. With all due respect, Caracal and the two new battalions aren’t yet equal in their abilities to the Givati or Nahal brigades.

The army has to take a calculated risk; these are the forces it can station today along relatively quiet borders, compared to threats in the north or Gaza. But a few key facts. Jihadist groups in Sinai have already conducted two ambitious raids into Israel — at Ein Netafim, where eight Israelis were killed in 2011, and an attempted raid at Kerem Shalom a year later.

Since then, these group’s capabilities have increased immeasurably. The largest group, Waliyat Sinai, has pledged loyalty to the Islamic State. Apparently generously funded, it has been responsible for sophisticated attacks on Egyptian army bases in northern Sinai. In terms of losses to the other side, this modest-sized group might be the Islamic State’s most effective branch in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Israel is struggling with a lack of intelligence. Warnings of attacks in Sinai are few. Despite close cooperation with Egypt on the border, MI officers admit they still have difficulty identifying the command structures of the Sinai groups. The IDF has modest forces patrolling the 240-kilometer border with Egypt. With such a length, bringing in tanks, drones or fighter planes when there’s no warning takes time.

After the 2006 abduction of Gilad Shalit, the head of the Shin Bet security service at the time, Yuval Diskin, said “two tactical failures of the IDF embroiled it in two strategic events.” He was referring to the abduction two and a half weeks later of two reserve soldiers at Zarit on the Lebanese border, which led to the Second Lebanon War.

We can only imagine what the outcome could be of the abduction of a soldier on the border, and even more so a female soldier. The possible damage to the trend to involve women in combat would be the smallest of our problems, though the whole model could collapse.

“Alone in ISIS captivity.” The media wouldn’t complain. And who knows what the long-term implications would be on the war against terror and ties with Egypt and Jordan.

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