Soldiers Who Witnessed Gilad Shalit's Capture Were Inexperienced Recruits

Testimonies of the lookout troops who witnessed the capture of Gilad Shalit demonstrate some of the confusion and helplessness that prevailed in the forces that were supposed to prevent it. The testimonies were published in the latest issue of the IDF weekly Bamahane.

Most of the lookout soldiers in the Amitai camp who observed the Kerem Shalom area, where Shalit's tank was attacked, through close-circuit cameras had only recently begun their service. The shift commander, reserve Staff Sgt. Omer Kertes, was only a corporal at the time. He told Bamahane reporter Oriane Rosner that the attack began at 5:13 A.M. with mortar shelling. "I knew they were distracting us," he said, adding that he instructed the lookouts to trace the smoke trail of the shells to locate the launching area.

Minutes later, the base received an alert that someone had touched the border fence and that this was now an infiltration attempt. In fact the attackers, who had dug under the fence, were already inside Israel. One of the cameras was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and stopped working; the soldier responsible for it broke down in tears. "She was just two a half months into her army service," Kertes said.

At this point, Kertes acted contrary to instructions and left the operations room to get his rifle and ammunition belt, and informed the battalion operations room about the damaged camera. He was later removed from operational duty and shifted to an instructor's post, despite claiming he feared the building was under attack and could not contact the battalion operations room by telephone because the line was busy.

When Kertes returned to the operations room, only one, relatively distant camera was working, and the screen showed three people, one of them Shalit, retreating into Gaza.

"I saw three people climbing under the fence, with two of them pulling the third guy, and then he started walking with them. We only understood he was captured later," Kertes said. "I thought the attack failed. I thought the terrorists were running away into Gaza without going deep into Israel."

The internal inquiry into Shalit's capture and the killing of fellow armored corps soldiers, First Lieutenant Hanan Barak and Staff Sergeant Pavel Slozker, found a number of failures throughout the command structure, from communicating intelligence alerts between the Shin Bet security service and the IDF, through the conduct of the brigade and battalion, to the functioning of the tank team and the Bedouin scouting force called to the scene. It was also found that the lookouts failed to make an up-to-date assessment of the situation, which could have helped the commanders to prevent Shalit being taken into the Gaza Strip.

In the four years since the attack, the lookout system along the Gaza fence has changed radically. The role was taken up by lookouts from the Field Intelligence Corps, whose training lasts three months. An experienced officer is present at every shift, and each lookout comes to specialize in a given perimeter. The technological means at the lookouts' disposal have grown and improved, including an Israeli-made remote-control gunfire system that allows shooting at targets from the operation room.

There have also been improvements in cooperation between the lookouts and the forces in the field, with better links between the intelligence operations rooms. In most cases, the lookout would spot suspicious movement in her sector first, and pass on the information directly to the sector commander and the forces patrolling the field.