“We can see for miles into the Gaza Strip”

Special: Touring the IDF’s observation balloons on the Gaza border, with the aim of preventing anyone approaching the security fence

Photo: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit

The white, helium-filled balloon, overlooks the Gaza Strip from several hundred miles in the air. On the ground below are balloon operators, sergeant Afek Avivi, and corporal Nadav Dayan.

An observation balloon is a delicate creature which requires 24/7 care and attention, since it is always in the air. At the bottom of the balloon is a powerful camera, capable of photographing up to several miles inside the Strip. The photos are then sent to the operation rooms of the Southern Brigade, where they are constantly viewed by lookouts. This is just one of several means of observation employed by the IDF across the Gaza Strip – north to south, east to the sea.

“Mars”, “Sufa”, and “Kerem Shalom”

The observation balloons at the heart of the Gaza Strip are manufactured by Israeli company RT Aerostats. The company has a variety of Skystar balloons, which very in cruising altitude, balloon size, and carrying capacity – between six and 10 kg. The balloons in the southern division are called “Mars”, “Sufa” (storm), and “Kerem Shalom”.

IDF fighters attend a special course during which they learn how to operate the observation balloons.

Sergeant Afek Avivi said that “our role is to man the balloon, be in physical proximity, refuel it with helium, maintain its altitude – with the thumb rule being the higher, the better. When the balloon is hundreds of miles up in the air, it covers huge areas of the Gaza Strip.

“A balloon is made of two layers: fabric, and nylon. The fabric protects the nylon from the sun. Filling the balloon with helium is a complicated operation that must be studied, since the gas is very sensitive.”

Observation balloons are highly affected by the weather. Corporal Nadav Dayan says, that “in the summertime there are winds that might knock it down. During the winter, the balloon is found at a much higher altitude than during the summer. The balloon is attached to the ground with a main cable and a few auxiliary cables, and there are other security measures which keep it stable.”

An observation balloon is defined as a positive means of collecting data. In the past, balloons have aided several IDF operation, in locating terrorists and kidnappers. What the balloon films is viewed 24/7 by the female observation teams who man (or rather, woman) the operations room.

“Our mission is to be a partner in the protection of the citizens who live near the Gaza Strip as well as the IDF soldiers in the area. Our role is to observe, inspect everything we see, distinguish between regular and unusual events, and report any exception,” says Lt. N., a 20-year-old operations room commander.

Daily life in Khan Yunis and Rafah

On the screens, you can see daily life in the Gaza Strip. Two women are working in the field. A large truck is parked near the perimeter fence, a jeep is driving slowly on a dirt road. A little further away there is a village with houses and laundry hanging outside.

“The observers, balloon operators and brigade all work together,” says lt. N. “Operation ‘Breaking Dawn’ was a good exercise for us for transitioning from routine to emergency, and we spotted quite a few events over the fence, which were valuable for the field and intelligence units. We can also see dead areas.”

In the Nahal Oz operation room, lt. L. says that the main tasks are to prevent approaching the perimeter fence and area at large, to determine whether a person approaching the fence is innocent or whether an unusual event must be reported. “We are the eyes of the forces in the field,” she says.

The balloon operators are all male, while the observers are all female. However, the female commanders says that there are women operating balloons in the Egyptian border sector, and that the incorporation of males in the operation rooms is under review.

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