IDF Brigade Faces Challenge in Samaria

The commander of the IDF Ephraim Brigade talks about the challenges facing his brigade in the Western Samaria sector.

From the vantage point near the Tzofim IDF post in the Kalkilya area, one can see the entire central region of Israel even on a cloudy and rainy day. The official message page of the IDF is proud of the fact that the violent incidents that troubled Eastern Jerusalem over the last few months have not drifted into the West Bank, where the situation remained relatively calm. But behind the relative tranquility in the territories stands the hard work of many people. One of them is Colonel Guy Berger, commander of the IDF Ephraim Brigade, the regional brigade in charge of the Western Samaria sector, which includes, among other places, the town of Kalkilya.

Berger is a “by-the-book” paratrooper, known in IDF jargon as “Yellow”: he is tall, intelligent, and profoundly understands the tactics and strategy of the complex brigade he commands. Berger advanced through the ranks of the IDF Paratroopers Brigade, in the 101st battalion and the Magalan unit, commanded the Paratroopers Brigade Reconnaissance Unit during the Second Intifada and served as commander of the 202nd battalion and the Paratroopers Brigade Training Base.

150,000 Israeli settlers reside within the sector of the Ephraim Brigade, and Berger and his troopers are charged with the task of protecting them.

Pursuant to the complex summer the State of Israel in general and IDF in particular have experienced, we ride Berger’s Jeep on a patrol through the Kalkilya area, and along the security fence and the Cross-Samaria route.

“Throughout Operation Brother’s Keeper we were engaged in extensive operations against Hamas in the West Bank,” recounts Berger in an interview with Israel Defense . “We had conducted such activities prior to that operation, but intensified our efforts against Hamas during Operation Brother’s Keeper and Operation Protective Edge. We focused on three primary activities: arrests of activists like the terrorists released in the context of the Shalit deal and others – anyone involved in terrorism; a concentrated effort against charitable societies, ‘Da’wa’ and ‘Kutla’ organizations of various types and the athletic society they had here, a member of which was apprehended at Ben-Gurion Airport by ISA. We arrested anyone associated with Hamas. The second activity involved searches for weapons. For example, we found in Salfit a Carl Gustav submachine gun with magazines and a combat vest. The third activity involved the seizure of terrorism funds. This entire operation put us in contact with the infrastructure which ISA had regarded as the strategic infrastructure of Hamas, headed by senior Hamas officer Saleh al-Aruri, who operates out of Istanbul, Turkey. One of the central figures in that network was Riad Nasser from Dir Kadis, a village in our sector. He was the key figure of this entire organization.

“This infrastructure established terrorist details that operated in Jenin, Hebron, Ramallah and Kalkilya. Pursuant to Operation Brother’s Keeper and the campaign against Hamas, we uncovered these details. Operation Brother’s Keeper was associated with the reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, but as far as we are concerned, there is no difference in our activities – and the other side maintains the same position. This covert organization caused numerous red lights to light up at the offices of the security organs of the Palestinian Authority. We refer to it as ‘super sector’ infrastructure. We found 150,000 US dollars that they used to buy vehicles and arms. They wanted to stage a coup in the West Bank and dominate the Authority, just like Hamas had done in the Gaza Strip almost ten years ago. They started mobilizing their infrastructure on the basis of shooting attacks, but eventually they planned to stage a coup against the Palestinian Authority so that Hamas may seize power.”

How did the events of last summer project on the sector of the Ephraim Brigade?

“During Operation Brother’s Keeper and Operation Protective Edge we witnessed an increase in the amount of incidents we call ‘hot hammer’: incidents involving stone throwing and Molotov cocktail attacks on the roads, explosive charges and vehicle run-over attacks, so we reinforced our surveillance/documentation infrastructure along the routes. This was one of the conclusions drawn from the kidnapping in Gush-Etzion on June 12, but the process had begun even before that. The surveillance cameras will help us identify the vehicle used in the kidnapping and close the cycle on it. It improves our dominance of the territory. We reinforced the OrBat assigned to us, our large reservist battalions, by an additional company of former troopers of the Duvdevan Unit, the Kfir Brigade and the Oketz Unit, so the residents of the local settlements here hardly felt the increase in the number of violent incidents. Keeping a sizable OrBat on hand is a restraining act. For the local residents in this sector, at least for some of them, Operation Protective Edge simply passed by them. At a meeting with the local residents during Operation Protective Edge, some of them complained that they were unable to send their children to the amusement park in Tel-Aviv because of the rockets being fired into that city. I told them: ‘guys, if that is your problem then I am delighted, because it means that the reservists are doing a good job over here’. Operation Protective Edge has lodged itself firmly into the consciousness of the Palestinians over here and that, too, has a restraining effect. There are also economic restraints. We have not reverted ten years into the past.”

How has the increase in the number of violent incidents since last summer been reflected here?

“We had a lot of stone-throwing incidents, ‘ripening’ charges (a burning tire on the fence that might explode), and we had a lot of shooting incidents. Over here we normally cope with riots without using live fire. During Operation Protective Edge we had demonstration focal points of hundreds of people, and because of Ramadan, most of those demonstrations were held during the night, and they were using fireworks and slingshots. During Operation Protective Edge one Palestinian was killed in this sector, in the town of Beit Safa. We operated very cautiously but with determination.”

Can you control the West Bank today using reserve forces almost exclusively, and free up regular forces quickly so that they may transfer to Lebanon and the Gaza Strip?

“I had reserve forces here, all trained and ready for their mission. Most of the reservists were former troopers of the Kfir Brigade. The battalion commander of our sector now, for example (the Tzofim Sector – O.H.) will spend his reserve service terms here and will also serve here if he is called to duty by an emergency service order. I have met a reservist company commander who told me this was his fourth emergency service order in this sector: Operation Defensive Shield, Operation Cast Lead, Operation Pillar of Defense and Operation Protective Edge. In my opinion, I am the only brigade commander, or one of the very few, who, during Operation Protective Edge, mobilized his entire brigade and also went into action with it in the context of the war in the Judea and Samaria District, the way it was reflected over here. I told the reservists upon their discharge: you should know that you can expect to end up here in the next round as well. The mix we have here always consists of an artillery battalion, an armored battalion and a reservist infantry battalion. During Operation Protective Edge we had a lot of explosive charge incidents, including a car bomb at a roadblock on the Cross-Samaria route. It was someone who thought that it would be easy to explode in Ariel or Kdumim with gas cylinders on board, but they stopped him at the roadblock. These are not the same explosive charges that we had experienced in Lebanon, but a charge of this type can definitely cause trouble. Take, for example, the village of al-Luban near Beit-Arie/Ofarim. The local Palestinians work at that settlement year round, and suddenly everything flared up during Operation Protective Edge and we arrested 12 local ‘popular terrorism’ activists who had thrown stones and Molotov cocktails. They have adults there who pay the youngsters to stage attacks. The campaign against Hamas is an on-going affair, and as far as we are concerned we continue to ‘mow the grass’ even after things had calmed down. Our determined and aggressive action and the memories of Operation Defensive Shield with IDF tanks in the streets led to a situation where Operation Protective Edge just passed by most of the local inhabitants.

“Take, for example, the incident involving an explosive charge activated by a cellular telephone of August 31. One of our vehicles is travelling along the road, so they place a burning tire on the road, expecting the occupants to dismount and extinguish the burning tire, at which time they would activate the explosive charge with the nuts and nails. Such a charge would do nothing to an armor-protected vehicle, but can kill dismounted troopers within a radius of fifty meters.”

What can you say about Hamas involvement in the sector of the Ephraim Brigade? Are there currently Hamas cells in the area with infrastructures that attempt to stage significant terrorist attacks?

“We had an incident here where we found, at the home of one of the suspects we arrested, a complete explosives laboratory. The infrastructures we see here are more elaborate than what we were familiar with. I served here as the commander of the Paratroopers Brigade Reconnaissance Unit in 2004, and in those days they had an orderly hierarchical structure. There were shootouts and ‘pressure cookers’ (a battle procedure where IDF forces close in on the house of a wanted terrorist – O.H.), but you knew who you were fighting against. Now it could be two ordinary fellows who get up in the morning and decide to stage an attack. These are not the same terrorists we used to find in Nablus [Shechem] in the past. These are 20 year old and 16 year old youngsters who go about throwing stones and staging shooting attacks, like the incident near the Dor-Alon filling station on Road 443 to Jerusalem. It was a local detail, but we must not be confused – it was an organized local detail from a village identified with Hamas. Some of the arrests end in a shootout and you have to perform them using undercover counterterrorism specialists masquerading as Arabs. There are detainees who say during their interrogations: ‘I saw what happened in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge’, and that influences them to become involved in terrorist activity.

“These days, the atmosphere is one of violence, but we have not reverted ten years into the past.

“Someone among those terrorists may have a father working inside Israel and there is an economic context that restrains the local population. Some of the terrorists released in the context of the Shalit deal now reside in Gaza and attempt to guide terrorist details here in Kalkilya. It’s not just a person and a half but a more organized detail.”

What is the state of the “White Intifada” in the villages of Bil’in and Na’alin, located within the sector of your brigade?

“We operate effectively over there, too, and things have calmed down. They perpetuate the conflict over the fence. During Operation Protective Edge the situation over there became very severe. They have a hard time recruiting activists today. Wherever the fence is vandalized, people get arrested. We have complete freedom to operate and enforce our operational control. Wherever a terrorist detail is getting organized in Bil’in or in Na’alin – fireworks, slingshots, whatever, even when Ramadan was an influential factor, we operate not only along the main routes, but along the side roads and inside the villages as well.”

How does the security coordination between the Ephraim Brigade and the Palestinian organs work?

“Just yesterday, Palestinian policemen extricated a sixty year old Israeli civilian from Kfar-Sava who went shopping in Kalkilya just so he could save some money. Operation Protective Edge and the recent period showed that the potential for escalation exists here. Pursuant to the vehicle run-over attacks, we placed concrete barriers at the bus stations. The settlers have not stopped hitch-hiking, but there is less of it.”

As a paratrooper officer, was it difficult for you to be here in the summer when the focal point of the action was in the Gaza Strip?

“My wife told me that for the first time she was glad that I serve in the territories. The required achievement here is different. We fully understand that the influence of Gaza and the north on whatever happens here is immediate. Our deployment is consistent with the threat – not with the relative calm on the ground. We will not get confused even if everything appears to be quiet. In the Judea and Samaria District, over the last six or seven years, we were busy building our reservist battalions. The reserve forces are critical here as we should be able to free up the regular forces as quickly as possible if they need to transfer to the north and to the Gaza Strip. The third insight involves the effect the Judea and Samaria District has over the entire region. My job is to enable my superiors to manage Gaza as the primary theater. As a brigade commander, it is important for me to understand the local mood, which is influenced by Al-Jazeera, among other things. I am very pleased that there is talk now about imposing more severe punishment on ‘popular terrorism’. This road that we are now travelling along, which is now quiet, was in a catastrophic state during Operation Protective Edge.”

Colonel Guy Berger intends to remain in military service for as long as he can, to command a reserve brigade and subsequently compete for the command of a regular brigade.

Berger belongs to a generation of IDF commanders who spent their compulsory service on the front line in Lebanon, in the IDF posts inside the security cordon: “I spent the first few years of my military service in Lebanon, between 1996 and 2000. It was a formative period for me in the professional contexts. Back then, you thought every piece of wire was an explosive charge. They would transmit some mumbled words on the radio, and then you would realize that you had to spend 24 more hours in ambush. I was a platoon commander at the IDF posts in Taybeh and Aishiyeh. Today, if you say to a trooper ’96-hour ambush’, he will think you have lost your mind. We understood very well what we were doing out there. In the early 2000s, when I was the commander of the Reconnaissance Unit, things were highly complex over here. You march inside a village and assume at a high degree of probability that you will be fired upon. Now we are trying to be as sharp as we can. Until a year ago, we took into account the peripheral threats and deployed ‘zig’ ambushes and deploy ‘grass widows’ (a procedure where an IDF detachment temporarily occupies a local house for operational purposes). We have no intention of increasing the friction (with the local population), but rather to capture places out of which they throw stones at the route. For the Gaza Strip, of all places, there were some very interesting knowledge developments. As the commander of the Paratrooper Brigade Training Base, I had the built-up warfare training facility transferred from an open area to a built-up area. Today, not a single paratrooper has missed the ‘wet’ training stage. Today, at the Brigade Training Base we have a model of the subterranean medium. I think the development of knowledge works extremely well. As a primary lesson from the Second Lebanon War, the training in built-up area combat tactics improved significantly. The ‘war week’ we used to have is now three weeks long. In our training exercises, you will see tanks and naval elements and air force elements.”

Original article appeared on www.israeldefense.com.