Israel’s Elite Combat Engineering Unit Trains Recruits to Meet Tunnel Threat (with VIDEO)
Trainees for the Israel Defense Force's Yahalom elite combat engineering unit take part in their final training exercises on the Elyakim military base in northern Israel in January 2021. (Gil Mezuman/The Media Line)

Israel’s Elite Combat Engineering Unit Trains Recruits to Meet Tunnel Threat (with VIDEO)

Yahalom unit increasingly focuses on underground warfare, with Hamas and Hizbullah tunnel threats a regular risk

On a sunny morning in January, a group of young men gathers around their commanding officer to hear the day’s directives.

They are all trainees in Yahalom, the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) special operations combat engineering unit that specializes in counterterrorism, bomb defusal and neutralizing enemy tunnels, among other covert missions.

Before they can handle explosives and become fully operational, recruits have to complete nearly 16 months of intensive training. The Media Line recently joined a group of trainees at Elyakim Military Base in northern Israel on one of their final days of training, as they pushed through the brush and worked as a team to respond to immediate threats.

“We do as much as we can to make it intense and stressful to prepare them for the real thing, which obviously is quite a stressful situation, standing on top of a bomb,” Allen (not his real name), an officer in the Yahalom unit, told The Media Line.

“Both from the Gaza border and from the northern borders we see on a weekly basis, usually, various sorts of explosives, either with balloons that are now coming from Gaza, or basic Claymores or any other kind of improvised explosive device left along the border for patrols to meet,” he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic reportedly has slowed but not stopped such hostilities, lowering the number of terror attack attempts across Israel and the West Bank.

In a report released in January, Israel’s Shin Bet internal security agency said that 430 significant terror attacks were thwarted in the West Bank and Jerusalem over the course of 2020. By comparison, 563 such attacks were foiled in 2019 and 581 were thwarted in 2018. Stabbings, car rammings, bombings, kidnappings and shootings were just some of the examples of attacks that the Shin Bet managed to foil, according to the report.

Furthermore, IDF figures released in December showed that three Israelis were killed in terror attacks in 2020, compared to 10 in 2019, and 16 in 2018.

Despite this and without elaborating any further, Allen stressed that Yahalom has been “very busy.”

Most of the elite unit’s activities are classified but The Media Line spoke with the officer in charge of training all new recruits at the Yahalom Unit school, referred to as Lt. Col. “O.”

“During the Second Lebanon War, we understood that Yahalom needed to be deployed wherever possible,” Lt. Col. O. told The Media Line. “We work in smaller groups – we’re not all together in one unit – and each group has its own set of directives.”

In recent years, he added, Yahalom soldiers have increasingly focused their efforts on underground combat and developing new methods to neutralize terror tunnels that penetrate deep into Israeli territory from Gaza and Lebanon.

Whether it is Iranian proxy Hizbullah in the north or Hamas, the terror group that rules the Gaza Strip, in the south, Yahalom’s mission is to protect Israel from the threat of enemy infiltration.

“In 2014, during the war with Gaza, there were over 30 tunnels that opened into kibbutzim and small communities in Israel near the Gaza border,” O. said. “The goal of Hamas and Islamic Jihad was to use these tunnels to carry out terror attacks against Israeli citizens.”

With the help of robotics and other cutting-edge technology, the IDF destroys such subterranean threats on a regular basis, though their exact methods remain a tightly held secret.

“We are deployed throughout the army and when there is a potential underground threat, we launch special operations to neutralize them,” O. said. “It’s like a game of chess: The enemy makes a move and we respond but we’re always trying to be one step ahead of them.”

When he is training new recruits for Yahalom, O. continued, he expects each and every one of them to be able take initiative and behave like a commander, such as showing responsibility and daring during drills.

Because they have to be so technically skilled, trainees also are required to commit to an additional year of military service.

“There’s a lot more to learn than just a normal soldier,” Allen said. “We have to know a lot about fighting, about normal warfare, about explosives … whether it’s explosive ordnance disposal [EOD], tunnels or mines. We also have a sub-unit that deals with biological warfare.”

“It’s just quite a lot of knowledge to obtain,” he said.

 

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