IDF Forms Elite Unit to Monitor Unsteady Border With Egypt

Yoav Galant envisioned a special unit for the Egyptian border, and now Rimon has become a reality amid a changing Middle East.

Since its inception, the Rimon unit has not had a base of its own. That is, it has a base somewhere in the heart of the Negev where the officers and the commanders sleep when new fighters are doing their training at various Givati Brigade installations. But it does not have a permanent home nor is it clear whether it will ever have one.

"Had we a permanent base, it would be possible to keep the entrance under surveillance and see when vehicles go out, follow us and see where we set up ambushes. We need to understand that we are exposed," says the commander of the young unit, Major Benny.

Rimon troops training - Eliyahu Hershkovitz - 17102011
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Who will see? In the Israel Defense Forces they do not talk openly about the identity of the enemy Rimon fighters are training to confront. And not only because of security of information orders and political and diplomatic sensitivities. In the rapidly changing reality of Israel's southern border, it's not even clear whom they will be facing in the near future. Palestinian terror organizations? Bedouin smugglers? Infiltrators? The Egyptian army?

The IDF decided to set up the unit about a year and a half ago. At the time, then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was still in his palace in Cairo, and the main aim was to set up a commando unit specializing in combat in and around the Gaza Strip. The subsequent year saw the recruitment of the unit's first soldiers, who stood at attention yesterday on parade grounds set up especially at the Ben-Gurion Heritage House in Sde Boker. Meanwhile, reality in the Middle East has been transformed. Dictators have toppled, regional stability (decades old ) has been shaken to its core, and Israel's long border with Egypt has altered from a border of peace to the security establishment's biggest headache.

The IDF responds to changing security challenges by establishing special units. In the mid-1980s the Duvdevan special unit of fighters, who disguise themselves as Arabs, was established in the Central Command. Its major role was to fight terror cells in the West Bank. In the mid-1990s, in light of the strengthening of Hezbollah, the Egoz unit was set up in the Northern Command, specializing in microcombat in areas of southern Lebanon. Now, it's the turn of the Southern Command.

The move to establish Rimon was initiated and promoted by the previous GOC Southern Command, Maj. Gen. (res. ) Yoav Galant. The man who at the last moment was prevented from becoming chief of staff still has numerous disciples in the army. "He realized before anyone else that there would be a need to deal with the southern border," said an officer who served under him this week. "It took him a long time to convince the General Staff it was necessary to invest in such a unit. Now everyone realizes he was right."

Major Benny, who began his military service in the Air Force rescue unit (669 ) and later served in Givati Brigade company command positions, defines the official role of Rimon as "a special unit for thwarting and intercepting hostile destructive operations, patrolling and intelligence-gathering." This includes a wide spectrum of combat descriptions, among them operations in the crowded streets of the refugee camps in the Gaza Strip. However, the IDF has quite a number of units specializing in combat in built-up areas. Benny's heart is drawn to ambushes and patrols in the open and empty desert spaces of the 240 kilometer border with Egypt. "The desert requires us to employ special qualities, patience, calmness, creativity, survival and independent work. The desert has its own kind of time and it is suited to people who love it. We will be a desert commando - a specialization the army has hardly gone into in recent years."

Building from zero

Formerly, when the IDF established new special units, it took fighters and even entire teams from existing units to cobble together the initial nucleus, parallel to recruiting new soldiers from the intake base. In accordance with the different desert time and perhaps because of the prevailing sense two years ago that the south was still calm, it was decided to build Rimon from zero. In the future it is supposed to be about the size of an entire battalion, "but at the moment it's still small and intimate," says Benny. "Gradually it will develop, accruing specializations and manpower."

Capt. Yaniv, commander of the Rimon training company, which has been building the unit's training program from scratch, says there was no pressure on him. He comes from a Duvdevan unit and is familiar mainly with the backstreets of Ramallah and Hebron and the hills and woods of Samaria (the northern West Bank ). "I myself needed to learn about the desert first," he says. "I went to existing special operation units, like Sayyeret Matkal, to learn from everything they know on the subject."

In the subsequent phase Yaniv and the other men of the unit had help from Bedouin scouts, Nature and Parks Authority wardens and anyone else who could provide information about life in the desert, and they are still learning. At the Southern Command they are also interested in creating a center of professional knowledge concerning desert fighting. In the army they do not like to cast doubt on the loyalty of the Bedouin scouts who accompany the forces but incidents have come to light of collaboration between the scouts and Bedouin smugglers, and that and suspicions about other cases led to the decision to establish a desert unit not based on Bedouin.

As of yesterday, the unit has at its disposal a first, and sole, operational team. In fact, the work begins only now. Rimon was set up in the framework of the Givati Brigade, the Southern Command's regular infantry brigade, and its recruits go through a training course along with the Givati patrol unit that lasts an entire year. For a new unit, like Egoz, which was established within the Golani Brigade, belonging to a large brigade is essential to benefit from its training resources and installations. Until now, however, all the training maneuvers in which the fighters participated - combat in a built-up area, navigation, fighting terror, intelligence and patrolling - have been identical to those for soldiers in other elite units.

Last week, the first team was still on maneuvers in the "final week" of the training with the patrol battalion, spending five consecutive weeks in surveillance and ambushes in forested areas of the Judea plain and Lakhish, not exactly desert topography. Starting next week, they will be directly subordinate to the Rimon commanders and begin the phase of specific maneuvers.

Ready to deploy

The commander of the first team, Lt. Yonatan, who grew up in the Shaldag special ops unit of the air force, says of his fighters that "they are not yet ready to carry out their specialized missions. They still need at least four months of training for that. But as of next week, they are already fully operational for everything, and we understand that in the current reality in the south, they can already assign missions to us."

One grasps that the Rimon officers choose to emphasize the unique desert character of the developing unit but in future they are supposed to carry out a wide variety of missions and serve as a rapidly deployed "intervention unit" of the Southern Command in a broad spectrum of terror scenarios. The uncertainty in the south, the need to deal simultaneously with the activities of Hamas and the other Palestinian organizations in the Gaza Strip, the increasing anarchy in Sinai, the multiplying alerts concerning attempts at infiltration and terror attacks inside Egypt and the extensive smuggling by Bedouin tribes will all be within range of Rimon's missions even as it is taking in and training additional operational teams and developing its combat doctrine.

It is impossible to draw up a representative cross-section of a unit that currently constitutes only one team of 20-something fighters and another three in various stages of boot camp and basic training. While the commander of the unit comes from a family that immigrated to Israel from the Caucasus and settled in Acre, his deputy comes from a veteran pioneering family with sons prominent in the areas of settlement and security. The commander of the first team grew up in one of the extremist Jewish settlements identified with "price tag" actions but his commanders say that "he is already far from there."

What does nevertheless characterize the new unit is that it goes against the deepening trend in the IDF of integrating technological means and is trying to connect to the desert. "I don't want to rule out anyone," says one of the officers, "but I am not sure how suited this will be to urban guys."