The Israel Defense Forces Engineering Corps has accelerated the pace of mine removal in the Jordan Valley.
The mines were planted between 30 and 40 years ago between the border fence and the actual border (the Jordan River, about 1.5 kilometers away), when Israel feared hostile activity on its eastern front. In the Golan Heights also, hundreds of minefields still form part of the defense line, in the event of war with Syria.
The IDF is clearing only anti-tank mines, which are relatively easy to disarm, but more than 90 percent of the mines in the area are anti-personnel mines.
“The army keeps very accurate maps and listings of the mines’ location,” explained the commander of the sapper company of the Nahal Brigade, “Capt. Gidi,” whose soldiers have been marking and blowing up mines along the Jordanian border for the past five weeks. “But we’re not taking any chances.
There have been numerous climate changes, digging by animals and mines that have exploded over the years.”
Before leaving each field, the detachment makes sure it has neutralized all the mines . “Our record so far is a mine we found 1.90 meters underground,” says Gidi. “But we have no choice, until we find the last mine we can’t approve it for agricultural use.”
The IDF will not reveal the exact number of mines along the border, but knowledgeable sources in the Central Command say that between 350,000 and 400,000 mines are buried along the 250-kilometer stretch.
After the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan the mines were no longer needed for Israeli security and became a dangerous obstacle to farming and tourism in the area. In 2004 then-GOC Central Command Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh decided to start clearing the mines, but recently the pace of their removal was accelerated.
“In 2010 we cleared 7,000 mines in this area,” Engineering Division head Lt. Col. Shmuel Kurkos says. “That’s 28 minefields that will soon be used for farming. Next year we aim to clear twice as many.”
He considers the work good practice for the sappers. “It’s better than any other training,” says Kurkos. “A unit that comes here has to deal with entering a minefield, which is usually very scary. It builds up the soldiers’ confidence, very important in wartime.”
During a war the sappers would have only a few hours to clear a minefield in order to allow a large military force to cross it. In peacetime they can afford to take every precaution.
The engineering teams first map every mine earmarked for clearing, which can involve digging and the removal of dense vegetation. The sappers use probes or metal detectors to locate some of the mines. After all the mines are found and exposed, the sappers attach explosives and detonators to them. The explosives are connected to a fuse that is activated electrically, exploding all of the mines simultaneously.
The mine hazard made headlines about a year ago, after a 10-year-old boy lost his leg after stepping on an anti-personnel mine in the Golan Heights while hiking with his family. Today the boy, Daniel Yuval, is the main face of a campaign for a mine-removal law.
“The activity is a moral one as well,” says Capt. Gidi.
“Yuval’s accident brought home to the whole country, and especially the army, how dangerous the mines are to civilians.”
Nevertheless the IDF intends to leave in place hundreds of minefields in the Golan that are considered part of Israel’s defense against a possible Syrian incursion.
Anti-personnel mines are small, and even light contact can set them off; very few sappers are qualified to neutralize them. The Central Command believes it can remove all the anti-tank mines in two years, but it is still looking for a safe, high-tech method of safely disarming the hundreds of thousands of anti-personnel mines in the area.
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