On Both Sides of the Fence

It is one of the most anonymous units in the IDF, but those serving in it operate along Israel's "hottest" fronts – the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, and Syria. The Kometz Unit is responsible for all of Israel's border fences. "The availability of the forces and the promptness of the alert and malfunction reports are extremely critical"

Fighters of the Kometz Unit operating on the border (Photo: IDF)

This is the unit that risks itself every day and night right on the border. Although they are not combat troopers, the soldiers of the Kometz Unit operate at the borders with the Gaza Strip, Lebanon and Syria. They see the whites of the eyes of ISIS, Hamas and Hezbollah terrorists, and despite all that – the unit has remained fairly anonymous. You hardly ever hear about it, you hardly know what the unit does. The Kometz Unit is responsible for all of Israel's border fences, from north to south – from the IDF stronghold on Mount Hermon to the fence in Eilat.

The Kometz Unit is also employed in operations in the Gaza Strip: its soldiers report to the fence before anyone else when the fence needs to be opened so the tanks of the IDF can cross into the Strip. The same troopers remain last in the field when the fence needs to be mended after the fighting had ended and all of the friendly forces exited the Strip. The years go by and the border fences only become more refined, in line with the "Villa in the Jungle" concept.

Maj. Yakir Sela is the Technology & Logistics officer of the IDF Golan & Hermon Brigade. In the past, he served as the commander of a logistic detachment in the field of surveillance. He started out in the 601st Battalion of the Combat Engineering Corps, then transferred to the Kfir Infantry Brigade, then to the Armored Corps and finally to the Kometz Unit.

"The Kometz Unit belongs in the Technology & Logistics Corps," Maj. Sela says in an interview to Israel Defense. "It is made up of regular servicepersons as well as compulsory service conscripts, and its task is to maintain the serviceability of the fence systems. The detachment commanded by Maj. Sela has been in existence since the new early warning fences were erected along the borders with Syria and Lebanon. The fences were always 'smart,' namely – they were capable of generating an alert for every motion or contact. Now, a maintenance layout has been established for those fences, whose purpose is to maintain the operational continuity of the fences along the borders with Syria and Lebanon.

"We employ several technologies and fence types," explains Maj. Sela. "We have five fence models, erected according to the area cell and capable of generating an alert in the event of an intrusion into Israeli territory. The core of our activity is providing a maintenance routine as well as providing solutions to random malfunctions, and this detachment is constantly engaged in maintaining and assimilating technological innovations. The technology employed on the Golan Heights is evolving all the time. The fence is only one element in a range of obstacles deployed between the Syrians and us. The alert system of the fence is only one of many systems that help us provide early warning in the event of an intrusion attempt. An intrusion may start with an alert generated at the fence, then activate a series of surveillance systems, as was the case in several recent incidents, where the fence has proven itself on the Golan Heights in the last year."

What happens when you have identified contact with the fence?

"It starts with a contact with the fence and goes on to resources that are capable of communicating with the fence technologically and alert our forces to the exact location, very quickly. We know exactly where we should go when an indication of an animal coming into contact with the fence has been received.

"The fence cannot distinguish between an animal and a terrorist. Today it generates an alert for every contact, including animals. The decision is that we should strive for engagement in any case of contact with the fence, be it an animal or a terrorist. The enemy can dispatch an animal carrying an explosive charge that may be detonated remotely, so we are never complacent, whether the target is an animal or a human target. A robot may also be used in an attempt to penetrate through the fence, so it is important for the fence to alert us of any entity. We do have numerous sensor-based capabilities that may distinguish between a human target and a vehicle."

What can you tell us about the situation along the border fence with Syria vis-à-vis the bloody civil war taking place on the other side of the border, with the rebel groups and ISIS forces deployed along the border?

"In the last year, we had a number of incidents of attempted intrusions into our territory. Around the Holiday of Pentecost, a man attempted to cross the fence in the southern part of the Golan Heights from Syria into Israel, and in fact, the fence system generated an intrusion alert. The surveillance system directed our forces to the intrusion point, and they closed in on the intruder even before he managed to enter our territory. It is very difficult to interrogate those people. Some of them are lonely and seek salvation in a country they are not familiar with as they have nowhere else to go, so that intruder was handed over to the ISA for interrogation."

Did you change anything in the deployment of the Kometz Unit along the border with Syria following the civil war since 2011?

"The war in Syria has a significant effect on the activity of the Kometz Unit when we prepare to mend the fence. It begins, first of all, with a situation appraisal and a battle procedure where we analyze the characteristics of the space where we have to mend the fence: where we are exposed and where no clear line of sight is available, and where, in the vicinity of the fence, Syrian government elements and rebel elements were observed exchanging blows. We approach the fence according to suitable directives, with personal protective gear and with forces securing us."

To what extent are you exposed to danger while working on the fence?

"We practice quick maintenance operations and hence the risk to the forces exposed to danger. We carry combat equipment and protective gear, and the soldiers of the Kometz Unit are capable of returning fire and defending themselves."

Were there any shooting incidents on the fence in Syria in which you were involved?

"I do not recall situations where the soldiers of the unit were forced to shoot, but they were exposed to fire from the other side. They operate very close to exchanges of fire between rebel and government forces that could easily include a round straying into our territory. There is also the entire issue of stray rounds fired into the fence, which is the core activity of the troopers of the Kometz Unit. There is an early warning fence, most of which is located on the eastern side of the border, on the Syrian side, and along most of the sector there is also the 'Sha'on Hol' fence (the new, tall fence originally erected along the Egyptian border and recently erected along the Syrian border as well – O.H.). Along the border with Syria, there is currently almost 100 kilometers of the 'Sha'on Hol' fence, which has a height of seven to eight meters. The most critical point is located between the 'Sha'on Hol' fence and the indication fence, as extrication in the event of our forces coming under fire or facing a threat is not possible from every point. It is not possible to get out of every point.

"The technicians are accompanied by a security detachment of IDF warfighters who can provide covering fire while they can get back into Israeli territory. There is a predetermined sequence of operations in the event of an incident and a procedure for entering an incident. The fence-mending operation is the simplest one. The operations of entering the sector where the fence is are the ones taking most of the time.

"Evidently, IDF elements operating along the border with Syria came under fire not once and not twice. You cannot always determine whether the fire is actually aimed at you, as the area is saturated with intensive fighting. The volatility of the circumstances leads to a situation where if an incident should break out, it will go from zero to a hundred in seconds, and sometimes it will develop into a combat encounter and it will take time. We do our best to reach faulty points and points where maintenance is required in order to get the fence back to maximum serviceability."

Is the speed at which you reach the fence and mend it really significant?

"There are points where, if the forces fail to do their job properly, a situation might develop where the fence will not provide the service required. The availability of the forces and the promptness of the alert and malfunction reports are extremely critical. We remain constantly alert like a coiled spring."

"Warfighters to all Intents and Purposes"

One thing that bothers the troopers of the Kometz Unit is the fact that they are not considered 'Point Warfighters' like the troopers of the infantry or armored units. 

"This layout should be given more recognition. In some of the sectors, these troopers are issued with warfighter certificates," says Major Yakir. "There are fences along the Syrian border as well as in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, and detachments of the Kometz Unit are deployed in all of those sectors. In the Syrian sector, our troopers do not have warfighter status, unlike other sectors, while Syria is at the core of the threats and the troopers are warfighters to all intents and purposes.

"In recent years, the threat they face, beyond the logistic challenge, is a mental challenge. In my opinion they should be awarded warfighter status. If we place this issue on the table, I think they deserve it."

Are there women serving in the Kometz Unit?

"This is a very meaningful service. There are women in the Kometz Unit, and they are right on the fence – fence technicians. This service affects the national security of the State of Israel – the ability to affect the early warning fence in such a manner. We guarantee the national security on holidays and Saturdays, 365 days a year, during the Yom-Kippur fast and at four o'clock in the morning. We are a coiled spring inside a gun – with the very first call, they must dash directly to the fence."

"Every Job is an Operational Activity"

Not far from the border with Syria, at the border with Lebanon, is where Maj. Slava Sinai, the Technology & Logistics officer of the IDF 769th Brigade is stationed. The 769th Brigade is the eastern brigade of the IDF Galilee Division, in charge of the eastern section of the border with Lebanon. 

"At the 769th Brigade, the Kometz platoon is charged with maintaining the obstacle and fence system erected along the Blue Line outlined after the pullout from Lebanon in 2000. We have the sensing system deployed along the border, an indicative fence, a system fence, a track blurring road. All of these elements make up the obstacle system and the troopers of the Kometz Unit are the ones maintaining it. The primary characteristic of working on the fence is the fact that this work sometimes, in some locations, leads to friction with the other side, say in Metula, which is located opposite the villages of Adeisa and Kila. Every situation of going down to the fence and working on the fence is an operational activity to all intents and purposes. It includes the preparation of the forces and the actual departure to the fence, and it constitutes a point of weakness. After all, you are static at a given point, and you are mending what you have to mend."

I assume that the incident in which Dov Harari, the commander of the reserve battalion, was killed during maintenance operations on the fence in this sector is still an open wound from which you derived numerous lessons.

"You refer to the incident codenamed 'Tiltan Bo'er', which started out as a routine job of cutting down a tree near the fence, in an operation coordinated in advance with UNIFIL, and eventually ended up with tragic results. Jobs that we carry out today are fully coordinated with UNIFIL and the Lebanese Army, namely – UNIFIL is a relevant force in the sector, as they constitute a liaison between us and the Lebanese Army."

Have you experienced any irregular incidents on the fence along the border with Lebanon recently?

"There were several incidents opposite the Lebanese Army of a military force facing a military force. The stronger and more vigilant we are, the more effectively we will deter the enemy. The troopers of the Kometz Unit receive training at Bahad (training camp) 20 in the IDF's training camp complex. Some of them are associate engineers, as we aspire to recruit people with a technical background who had studied electronics. We do not have the privilege of deferring the fence handling job to a later date. We must handle the job immediately anywhere, any day, at any time and under any weather conditions." 

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