The Best Defense? A Good Fence

They are shot at more than any other unit in the army and receive zero media coverage. Meet the soldiers who keep Gaza's fence in tip-top shape

The most expensive material used by the Israel Defense Forces is not a fighter jet, a submarine or an advanced satellite communications system, but a fence. Specifically, the barrier along the Gaza Strip, which over the years has been upgraded and improved dozens of times with sophisticated sensors, cameras and remote-controlled weapons - all of them operated from control rooms.

soldiers repairing fence in gaza Eli Hershkowitz
Eli Hershkowitz

The patrol fence stretches from the Mediterranean on the northwest to the intersection of the Israel-Egypt-Gaza borders in the south, along what the IDF calls the tactical "Huverse Route." To date the defense establishment has invested more than a billion dollars in the continually upgraded barrier. Responsible for maintenance and repairs is a small group of technician-combat soldiers, most of whose work is done under cover of darkness, and frequently under fire.

Since Operation Cast Lead, in the winter of 2008-09, and particularly during the past year, most of the media reports about IDF activity around the Gaza Strip have become increasingly laconic. "An explosive device targeted an IDF patrol - a tank or a helicopter fired back - our forces sustained no casualties." Sometimes the report also spells out which forces were involved: from the tanks or engineering corps, or from one of the combat infantry brigades.

The technicians' unit is involved in every incident along the patrol road, and although it plays a central role there, and its soldiers are exposed to fire more than any other unit, it has never merited a mention in the media. The unit does not even have an official name, except for "the technical squads of the patrol road in the Gaza Division." Hence, it is usually referred to by the code name of its soldiers on the IDF communications network: Kometz (Handful ).

The unit numbers fewer than 20 fighters, who are divided into four squads: two of them deployed in the northern section of the division and two in the southern area. At any given moment, one squad in each section is on alert.

"If I were to compare it to civilian technicians, we have no standard of repair within a given number of hours," explains the ordnance officer of the Gaza Division, Lt. Col. Kobi Dostakam. "When it comes to keeping the fence repaired, we set out within a minute. Day and night, on Friday and on Shabbat."

Every time an incident takes place near the fence, or on it (in the case of infiltration ), a Kometz squad must report to check whether the fence has sustained damage. In the event that it has, the unit's technicians repair it. Support and defense forces in the area - sometimes including a number of tanks and armored personnel carriers - remain on the spot until the squad confirms that it is satisfied the fence has been restored.

The soldiers in the support units are inside armored vehicles most of the time, whereas the Kometz soldiers perform their work while exposed to the eyes of the other side. For this reason, the division commander has ordered, insofar as possible, that repairs and ongoing inspections of the fence be carried out only during the night.

"Only the brigade commander approves our deployment to the area," says the commander of Kometz in the northern section, Warrant Officer Ran Shlomo, "and even that's only after he checks all the intelligence factors. We're the most exposed squad in the area; we work outdoors in places where the infantry gets around only in a armored jeep or an APC."

The Kometz fighters belong to the Ordnance Corps. They were chosen from technical squads and trained as infantry soldiers, too. In addition to maintaining the "smart fence" surrounding the Strip, which combines optic fibers and advanced sensory systems, they have to be familiar with all the other surveillance systems and the radar that operate in the area, in order to maintain and repair them when necessary. The Gaza region is described by the IDF as "the border most suffused with sensors." Because of the large amount of technical knowledge and close familiarity with the area required of them, most Kometz member are soldiers who have signed up for long periods in the standing army.

Four years ago the members of Kometz received rare recognition in the Ordnance Corps, and were classified as combat soldiers in terms of their rights.

"The soldiers in the squad are on the one hand computer and high-tech experts for all extents and purposes - with a large percentage of the inspections of the fence being done with laptops connected to the system," says the officer Shlomo. "On the other hand, we're also combat soldiers who work with a helmet and a ceramic flak jacket all the time, and who also know how to return fire when necessary."

Centers of knowledge

Two and a half years ago, one Kometz soldier, Reuven Tautang, was hit by a Palestinian sniper's bullet while working on a section of the fence. The bullet crushed his shoulder, and after being evacuated to Soroka Medical Center in Be'er Sheva, he had to undergo six months of rehabilitation. Tautang, 25, insisted on returning to the unit, and today he commands one of the squads. His superior officer, Ran Shlomo, 38, has been serving for 20 years on the Gaza fences.

"The guys in this unit aren't even willing to go to an officers training course," says Lt. Col. Dostakam. "They stay here together for many years of standing army service and also become the main sources of knowledge of the sector."

Since the end of Operation Cast Lead, the Palestinians have been unable to infiltrate even once without being caught. In the vast majority of cases, terrorists or job seekers were caught on the surveillance cameras or the radar several hundred meters before the fence, in the area where the IDF carries out what it calls hisuf (leveling ), removing all vegetation that could possibly serve as shelter. IDF forces even use "deterrent fire" to prevent entry into this area.

In most cases, touching the fence is enough to bring a force to the spot even before the infiltrators have managed to cross. In a small number of cases the infiltrators were caught shortly after crossing, with the fence and surveillance equipment providing the forces with a precise indication of their location.

"On the Gaza border there is almost no depth, because of the proximity of Palestinian homes to the fence and the proximity of the Israeli communities on the other side. If a terrorist goes crazy and jumps on the fence, we won't be able to do much about him," explains a senior officer in the division. "That's why the fence is such a critical component. There are advanced systems on it that don't exist on any other border of the country."

"You never know when they'll alert you," says one of the soldiers, Staff Sgt. Dennis Adamcu. "Nor do you know for what. It could be only because something touched the fence or an ordinary repair of the fence, or it could be a breach and fire."

The fence's success in preventing infiltration and the high number of IDF forces on duty around the Strip are the main reasons Hamas and other local terror organizations have been trying to carry out terror attacks by way of a longer route - via Sinai and the far less-protected border between Israel and Egypt.

"Sometimes we only do a check of five or 10 minutes and return," says Warrant Officer Shlomo, "but in a case where some damage has been caused, then there are no shortcuts with this system and we have to remain in the field for four hours. We try to work at night, but it's not always possible. We leave only when the fence is working perfectly."