Ever vigilant to the threat of Islamic State nearby, the IDF allowed civilians to visit a road that straddles the Israel-Egypt border in recent days for the Hanukkah holiday period.
The road, Route 10, is usually closed because it is too prone to terrorist attacks. But IDF officers told JNS about special measures taken to enable Israelis to enjoy the desert views safely.
“We understand ISIS is getting stronger in the Sinai,” said Maj. Anan Ganm, a Druze-Israeli deputy commander of the Caracal (Wildcat) Battalion, which is famous for becoming the IDF’s first mixed-gender unit for infantry soldiers in 2004.
The battalion’s mission is to defend the border region and the five Israeli villages that are in the Nitzana area. It also deals with regular attempts to traffic narcotics from the Sinai Peninsula into Israel.
“There are many efforts to smuggle drugs—most of them are disrupted by us, but a small part get through,” said Ganm, in reference to drug smugglers from the Israeli side of the border swooping by to pick up banned substances from traffickers on the Egyptian side.
“But terrorism is the bigger threat,” he added.
At this time, according to the IDF’s assessments, Islamic State is not actively seeking to attack Israeli military units on the border. The terror group is too preoccupied with trying to consolidate its presence and establish control over the Sinai, an objective that has seen it direct almost all of its attacks against Egyptian security forces.
Most recently, an Egyptian military officer was killed Dec. 19 in a shell attack on a military airport near the northern Sinai town of Arish. Islamic State did not immediately claim responsibility for the attack.
At a future stage, Islamic State could turn its guns on Israel. The jihadist organization could at any time target civilians near the Israeli border were it not for the firm and high-tech security presence maintained by the IDF in the area.
“We open Route 10 two to three times a year,” Ganm said. “In line with evaluations, we opened it now for a six-day period. Many tourists come here on the weekend to enjoy the nice scenery, the natural water wells, cliffs and desert landscape.”
The Route 10 area has a track record of terror attacks that struck Israeli territory, though they occurred more than five years ago.
In 2011, a terrorist cell infiltrated into Israel from the Sinai, opening fire on a civilian passenger bus and killing six civilians as well as two security offices.
In 2012, a terrorist cell overran an Egyptian police post in the northern Sinai, hijacked an armored personnel carrier and burst through the border into Israel, armed with machine guns and explosives, bent on causing carnage. The vehicle and its occupants were destroyed by IDF strikes.
“Because of this threat, we understand that it is not right to keep the road open all year round,” explained Ganm. “It is a very long road, and we can’t secure all of it. Keeping it open all of the time would be very dangerous.”
Ganm stressed, however, that there is no known concrete threat to the road at this time.
In recent years, the IDF has made major strides forward in the way it defends the Israel-Egypt border. It has built a tall barrier complete with a range of radars and cameras, which feed into control centers and issue alerts for suspicious movements.
Capt. Noy Cohen, a lookout unit company commander in the IDF’s Sagi (Territorial) Brigade, discussed some of those capabilities. Her unit’s control centers house female operators who monitor sensor feeds, 24 hours a day.
“The military response on the Egyptian border is based on lookouts. The operators see the border all of the time, and know how to deliver alerts to forces regarding incidents, and to direct the units,” she told JNS.
Ahead of the opening of Route 10, additional forces from a combat intelligence collection battalion were brought into the sector, she added. This type of battalion uses a range of means, including camouflaged positions and high-tech observation tools, to secure borders.
“Our goal is to defend visitors in this area in the best way,” Cohen said.
Ganm said the Caracal Battalion is an important part of the IDF’s border protection system, which is based on the concept of light infantry units.
Two such battalions exist on the border with Egypt, and two more are situated on the border with Jordan.
“They are deployed to borders with countries with which there are peace treaties, Jordan and Egypt. Unlike a [standard] infantry unit such as Golani [Brigade], which would have to fight in Lebanon and Syria with heavy armored vehicles, our personnel receive what infantry soldiers need but not heavy armored vehicles,” said the Druze deputy commander.
These mixed-gender border battalions travel in jeeps and on foot.
“We have the ability to see all of the things happening on the other side of the border,” particularly an approach by Islamic State, Ganm said.