The following two incidents occurred almost concurrently: for the first time in years, Hezbollah detonated two explosive charges on an IDF patrol in the Har Dov sector in Lebanon, and the commander of the 51st battalion of the Golani infantry brigade, Lt. Col. Barak Hiram, asked the brigade commander, Colonel Yaniv Assor, to remain with his battalion on the front line at the Lebanon border instead of taking command of the brigade training base.
Lt. Col. Hiram knows Lebanon well. He was born in Haifa, joined Sayeret Egoz, the specialist reconnaissance unit of the Golani brigade in 1997 and rose through the ranks until he became the commander of the Egoz unit's guerrilla warfare school, which trains the troopers in the specialized entangled cover warfare – the kind of warfare they are required to engage in opposite Hezbollah in Lebanon. Having served as the deputy commander of the 12th battalion of the Golani brigade, he left to study at the IDF Command & Staff College and ten months ago he was appointed to command the 51st battalion.
In two months' time he was supposed to leave the battalion and assume command of the Golani brigade's training base, but instead, "I asked the brigade commander to remain in the same position. There is nothing like working closely with the troopers. It is something you become attached to with all your heart. In a battalion exercise you remain close to your people all the time. You eat with them, you get wet with them, you stage assaults with them and you suffer the cold and the heat with them."
In the summer of 2006, Hiram was the commander of a combat troop of the Egoz unit when the war started. He was injured in his head and in his eye by shrapnel and insisted on returning to the unit as soon as his condition allowed it. Hiram lost one of his eyes in the battle and was awarded a citation for his battlefield performance in the engagement with Hezbollah, after he remained in the field all day, waiting for nightfall, despite his severe head injury. He bandaged himself and refused to be evacuated to Israel so as not to expose the location of his force.
"Major Barak Hiram, for demonstrating persistence and aspiration for victory, responsibility, personal example and professionalism," state the reasons for his citation. A glass eye was implanted in his eye socket, but it does not disturb Hiram in commanding the battalion exercise of the 51st battalion of the Golani brigade. In the last two months he covered dozens of kilometers in the Galilee and on the Golan Heights, on foot, at the head of hundreds of troopers.
When Israeli intelligence is called upon to provide the national leaders with a quick estimate of whether Hezbollah has come to the end of its restraint period, during which he left the Israel-Lebanon border quiet since the end of the second Lebanon war, the general feeling among the people participating in the exercise of the 51st battalion is that the third round is only a matter of time. The understanding is that the Golani brigade, mounted on its fast Merkava (Namer) APCs, will be required to stage a very fast and very deep maneuver into Lebanon, so during the exercise, we ride the APCs at a speed of 40 kilometers per hour.
"We have been training continuously for the past two months," says Lt. Col. Hiram to IsraelDefense. "It was a long exercise, a full-scale exercise.
Six Months in Gaza
How to you maintain your competence for a total war while engaged in a mission of holding the line in Gaza in the days when the line was relatively quiet, how do you do that?
"By engaging in intensive training during the line employment and by strictly observing operational norms that you do not always have to observe for the line during routine security operations, but you need for full competence. Despite the fact that you can reach any point in the sector by vehicle – go there on foot. This has to do with keeping physically fit and also with maintaining the competence of an infantry force – getting everywhere on foot."
How did you summarize at the battalion the six-month line employment in Gaza?
"What we experienced while we were holding the line was the event of uncovering the tunnel in Kibbutz Ein-Hashlosha and a few explosive charges on the fence. The tunnel was found within the battalion's sector through some of the divisional tunnel detection activities. The battalion secured the uncovering operations as well as the demolition operations. One of the things we stress is cooperation, the employment of combined forces like infantry, surveillance and combat engineers in order to make the most of all of the ground and air capabilities. Operations there incorporated all forces deployed in that sector."
You commanded the event of blowing up the Hamas tunnel in which Lieutenant Ahia Klein of the Samur Tunnel Unit of the Corps of Combat Engineering was severely injured. What are your conclusions from that event?
"I was there on the ground when it exploded. Very close. I commanded the operation on the ground. At the same time as executing the mission and destroying the tunnel, we also handled the evacuation of the wounded. It was a successful operation and I am very proud of it".
What went through your head when you saw that tunnel?
"We had estimated its size prior to that, but it makes you appreciate their determination. It helped me explain to the troopers what we were up against.
"In Gaza, you take every operational activity very seriously and add more weight and additional movement in order to practice your capabilities. We held the line in Gaza with our Namer APCs and the weapon systems we are supposed to operate in the next war."
You have just completed your six-month line employment in Gaza and the sector is heating up again…
"After six months when you had 'signed' for the sector and pledged to defend its inhabitants it is a little difficult to leave. The commitment does not leave you when you board the buses".
A winter training exercise on the Golan Heights can be a complex thing…
"It is always complex to train in winter. There are the physical difficulties of the cold and rain, difficulties of negotiability and mud and visibility, logistic difficulties that you need to overcome in order to enable the forces to train continuously. There are many new weapon systems that have been introduced over the last year, like the Namer APCs and the Tzayad C3 systems, and this is an excellent opportunity to practice using them."
There was a debate regarding the Tzayad system, whether it drops on a tactical echelon like a battalion commander too much information, which could burden his movement…
"The Tzayad system is very user-friendly. When you practice using it during routine security operations as well as in training, you learn how to quickly filter out whatever is irrelevant. In our company exercises as well as during our line employment, we insisted on using the Tzayad system, and the same goes for the battalion training exercise.
"In our scenarios, we practice operating with the Tzayad system as well as without it, so as not to abandon the old capabilities, and we use the Tzayad system as a force multiplier".
During your training on the Golan Heights, do you see the civil war in Syria?
"We occasionally hear at the border the Syrian Army shelling the rebels. My troopers understand very well the reality they live in and everyone understands where this is going."
You are about to hold the line in Lebanon, and it seems Hezbollah is heating up the sector
"We are going to hold the line opposite an enemy who could escalate things in our sector. Our forces must be constantly alert and ready for action".