'It's nothing short of historic,' says IAF general

In first, US establishes permanent military base in Israel

Head of IDF’s Aerial Defense Command lauds new air defense facility as a symbolic and operational achievement

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

For the first time in history, the United States on Monday established an official, permanent military base in Israel: an air defense base in the heart of the Negev desert.

Dozens of US Air Force soldiers will call home the new base, located inside the Israeli Air Force’s Mashabim Air Base, west of the towns of Dimona and Yerucham.

Brig. Gen. Tzvika Haimovitch, head of the IAF’s Aerial Defense Command, announced the establishment of the installation on Monday evening.

“It’s nothing short of historic,” he said. It demonstrates the “years-old alliance between the United States and the State of Israel.”

Col. Liran Cohen, head of the IDF’s air defense school, left, and Col. David Shank, of the US 10th Army Air & Missile Defense Command, cut the ribbon to open the first American military base in Israel, inside the Mashabim Air Base, on September 18, 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israeli brigadier general also told reporters the establishment of a permanent US base in Israel “allows us to improve our defense, in discovery and in interception and in preparedness.”

According to Haimovitch, the new air base, along with other recent improvements to Israel’s air defense program, “will improve our abilities significantly. It won’t get us to 100 percent, but it will get us much closer to achieving important things during war.”

He said that the importance of air defense was made clear during the 2014 Gaza war, when thousands of rockets were fired at Israel, as well as through “assessments of the threats we expect to face in the future.”

Brig. Gen. Tzvika Haimovitch, the head of Israel’s Aerial Defense Command, left, stands with Lt. Gen. Richard Clark, commander of the US 3rd Air Force, during a ceremony to commemorate the establishment of the first American military base in Israel inside the Mashabim Air Base in southern Israel on September 18, 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)

Haimovitch insisted that the timing of the base opening wasn’t tied to any specific current event and noted that the process of establishing it had been in the works for some two years.

However, he said, the permanent presence of a US base on Israeli soil sends a “message to the region and our surroundings that our partnership with our friend the United States is important.”

The “base within a base” will be run by the US military’s European Command (EUCOM). It includes barracks, offices and support services.

In his speech, Maj. Gen. John Gronski, deputy commander of US Army National Guard in Europe, said the base “symbolizes the strong bond that exists between the United States and Israel.”

It is located not far from a US military radar installation east of Dimona that tracks ballistic missiles once they are launched and provides details on their flight paths to defense systems.

US military forces are routinely based in Israel, both for joint exercises and for routine cooperation with the IDF, but Haimovitch described the new base as a meaningful change.

“We established an American base in the State of Israel, in the Israel Defense Forces, for the first time, with an American flag,” he said.

Brig. Gen. Tzvika Haimovitch, the head of Israel’s Aerial Defense Command, left, and Maj. Gen. John Gronski, head ofUS Army National Guard in Europe, hold a document marking the establishment of the first American military base in Israel inside the Mashabim Air Base in southern Israel on September 18, 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)

Gronski also discussed the already close relationship between the two militaries.

“The United States and Israel have long planned together, exercised together and trained together. And now, with the opening of this site, these crucial interactions will happen every day,” he said.

In addition to Gronski, high-ranking military officers and officials from the US and Israel participated in the ceremony, including Lt. Gen. Richard Clark, head of US 3rd Air Force.

The Walla news site first reported on the construction of the US air defense base last year, but lacked specific details, like its location and size.

Haimovitch noted that in addition to the establishment of the US base on Monday, Israel’s collaboration with the Americans on air defense would again be seen in a few months, when the two militaries launch the Juniper Cobra exercise in February.

The annual exercise pits the two nations against the threat of a large-scale missile attack. Thousands of Israeli and American soldiers take part in the drill.

The David’s Sling missile defense-system seen at the Hatzor Air Base, Israel, April 2, 2017. (AP Photo/ Sebastian Scheiner)

While Haimovitch touted the operational benefits of having a US base in Israel, he stressed that Israel would continue to be solely responsible for its own security.

“The State of Israel, the IDF and the Air Force know, knew and will know how to protect themselves in war- and peacetime,” he said.

Haimovitch also noted that the process to open the base began under former US president Barack Obama and continued under President Donald Trump, showing that the “connection between the armies, the commanders, the [air] forces, is stronger than this or that administration.”

The air defense chief lauded the opening of the US military base in Mashabim as the latest in a series of improvements to the country’s anti-missile program.

The Arrow 3 missile defense system that was delivered to the Israeli Air Force on January 18, 2017. (Defense Ministry)

Haimovitch pointed to the long-range Arrow 3 and medium-range David’s Sling missile defense systems that went operational over the past year, as well as the expansion of the short-range Iron Dome program.

Earlier this month, the air force opened a new Iron Dome battalion that will be responsible for “more systems” and provide “better preparedness against the threats form the northern and southern arenas,” he said.

“It’s a few days before Rosh Hashanah” — the Jewish new year — “and we are undergoing a renewal and growing in our abilities that are important and necessary for the State of Israel.”

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