search
Photo essay

‘Mini Gaza’: The IDF’s Urban Warfare Training Center, a town that’s known only war

In maze of tight alleyways and drab buildings, decorated by army’s sole official graffiti artist, soldiers hone skills needed for conflict in Gaza Strip, West Bank or even Lebanon

  • Israeli soldiers climb on a wall as they conduct a mock assault during an urban warfare exercise at an army training facility, in Tzeelim army base, southern Israel, Jan. 24, 2022. (Oded Balilty/AP)
    Israeli soldiers climb on a wall as they conduct a mock assault during an urban warfare exercise at an army training facility, in Tzeelim army base, southern Israel, Jan. 24, 2022. (Oded Balilty/AP)
  • Israeli soldiers take positions during a training session simulating urban warfare at the Tzeelim army base, southern Israel, Jan. 4, 2022. (/Oded Balilty/AP)
    Israeli soldiers take positions during a training session simulating urban warfare at the Tzeelim army base, southern Israel, Jan. 4, 2022. (/Oded Balilty/AP)
  • Two M-16 rifles hanging on a wall with a graffiti featuring the Palestinian flag at the IDF Urban Warfare Training Center at the Tzeelim army base, southern Israel,  Feb. 10, 2022. (Oded Balilty/AP)
    Two M-16 rifles hanging on a wall with a graffiti featuring the Palestinian flag at the IDF Urban Warfare Training Center at the Tzeelim army base, southern Israel, Feb. 10, 2022. (Oded Balilty/AP)
  • Israeli soldiers rest in a damaged car, during an urban warfare exercise at an army training facility at the Tzeelim army base, southern Israel, Jan. 4, 2022. (Oded Balilty/AP)
    Israeli soldiers rest in a damaged car, during an urban warfare exercise at an army training facility at the Tzeelim army base, southern Israel, Jan. 4, 2022. (Oded Balilty/AP)
  • Israeli soldier carry ammunition next to a graffiti featuring the Palestinian flag, during an urban warfare exercise at an army training facility at the Tzeelim army base, southern Israel, May 25, 2022. (Oded Balilty/AP)
    Israeli soldier carry ammunition next to a graffiti featuring the Palestinian flag, during an urban warfare exercise at an army training facility at the Tzeelim army base, southern Israel, May 25, 2022. (Oded Balilty/AP)
  • Israeli soldiers are seen trough a broken window of a guard post during an urban warfare exercise at an army training facility at the Tzeelim army base, southern Israel, Nov. 9, 2021. (Oded Balilty/AP)
    Israeli soldiers are seen trough a broken window of a guard post during an urban warfare exercise at an army training facility at the Tzeelim army base, southern Israel, Nov. 9, 2021. (Oded Balilty/AP)
  • Israeli soldiers carry supplies at the end of an urban warfare exercise session at an army training facility at the Tzeelim army base, southern Israel, Feb. 10, 2022. (Oded Balilty/AP)
    Israeli soldiers carry supplies at the end of an urban warfare exercise session at an army training facility at the Tzeelim army base, southern Israel, Feb. 10, 2022. (Oded Balilty/AP)
  • Israeli soldiers climb on a wall as they assault a complex during an urban warfare exercise at an army training facility at the Tzeelim army base, southern Israel, Jan. 24, 2022. (Oded Balilty/AP)
    Israeli soldiers climb on a wall as they assault a complex during an urban warfare exercise at an army training facility at the Tzeelim army base, southern Israel, Jan. 24, 2022. (Oded Balilty/AP)
  • Israeli soldiers have their lunch during an urban warfare exercise at an army training facility at the Tzeelim army base, southern Israel Jan. 4, 2022. (Oded Balilty/AP)
    Israeli soldiers have their lunch during an urban warfare exercise at an army training facility at the Tzeelim army base, southern Israel Jan. 4, 2022. (Oded Balilty/AP)
  • Israeli soldiers aim their weapons toward their colleague dressed as a Palestinian fighter, while he exits from a fake tunnel, during training session simulating urban fighting at the Tzeelim army base, southern Israel, Jan. 4, 2022. (Oded Balilty/AP)
    Israeli soldiers aim their weapons toward their colleague dressed as a Palestinian fighter, while he exits from a fake tunnel, during training session simulating urban fighting at the Tzeelim army base, southern Israel, Jan. 4, 2022. (Oded Balilty/AP)
  • An Israeli soldier pretending to be dead Palestinian fighter lies on the ground during a training session simulating urban warfare at the Zeelim army base, southern Israel, Jan. 4, 2022. (Oded Balilty/AP)
    An Israeli soldier pretending to be dead Palestinian fighter lies on the ground during a training session simulating urban warfare at the Zeelim army base, southern Israel, Jan. 4, 2022. (Oded Balilty/AP)
  • Israeli soldiers rest next to a faded posters slain Palestinian fighters, during an urban warfare exercise at an army training facility, in Tzeelim army base, southern Israel, Jan. 4, 2022. (Oded Balilty/AP)
    Israeli soldiers rest next to a faded posters slain Palestinian fighters, during an urban warfare exercise at an army training facility, in Tzeelim army base, southern Israel, Jan. 4, 2022. (Oded Balilty/AP)

The Muslim call to prayer echoes through a remote town in southern Israel that has known only war.

Its 500 buildings, the tallest eight stories high, are deserted. Its narrow alleys are adorned with militant murals and posters honoring slain Palestinian fighters. It cannot be found on any map.

Officially, it’s known as the Urban Warfare Training Center. The Israeli soldiers who run military drills here call it “Mini Gaza.”

The military began building the $45 million facility in the Tzeelim army base in 2005, toward the end of the second Palestinian intifada. Over the previous five years, Israeli troops had battled Palestinian terrorists in cities and towns across the West Bank and Gaza.

Since then, Israel has fought four wars in Gaza against the Islamic terror group Hamas, with some battles erupting in densely populated cities and refugee camps.

In each war, Israel has been accused of using disproportionate force in crowded residential areas, contributing to the civilian death toll. The military says it makes every effort to spare civilians, while accusing Palestinian terrorists of using them as human shields.

“The nature of war has changed,” said Col. Eli Abeles, the facility’s commander. “Today our principal fighting… is done around built-up areas and in built-up areas.”

Israeli soldiers take positions during a training session simulating urban warfare at the Tzeelim army base, southern Israel, Jan. 4, 2022. (/Oded Balilty/AP)

The tight alleyways, drab concrete buildings and open areas in the roughly 60-acre (quarter square kilometer) facility are meant to simulate the urban environments in which Israel’s soldiers often operate. These can include Gaza and the West Bank, as well as southern Lebanon, where Israel has warned potential future fighting with Hezbollah terrorists would likely take place.

The army’s sole official graffiti artist decorates the streets with murals featuring Arabic slogans and portraits of Palestinian and Lebanese militants.

Between exercises, soldiers rest in the shade of the buildings, smoking cigarettes beneath the faded posters, some of which honor those killed in battle with Israel. Others don red-and-white checkered scarves to role-play enemy fighters in an upcoming drill.

The training center can accommodate exercises for an entire brigade of 2,000 soldiers at a single time, Abeles said. Visiting American troops and forces from European allies — most recently Cypriot soldiers — have also trained in Mini Gaza.

But when the guns fall silent and the soldiers withdraw, the training center reverts to a ghost town, the wind howling through empty rooms and creaking metal.

Israeli soldiers aim their weapons toward their colleague dressed as a Palestinian fighter, while he exits from a fake tunnel, during training session simulating urban fighting at the Tzeelim army base, southern Israel, Jan. 4, 2022. (Oded Balilty/AP)
Israeli soldiers have their lunch during an urban warfare exercise at an army training facility at the Tzeelim army base, southern Israel Jan. 4, 2022. (Oded Balilty/AP)
Israeli soldiers climb on a wall as they conduct a mock assault during an urban warfare exercise at an army training facility, at the Tzeelim army base, southern Israel, Jan. 24, 2022. (Oded Balilty/AP)
Israeli soldiers buy cold drinks during an urban warfare exercise at an army training facility at the Tzeelim army base, southern Israel, Jan. 4, 2022. (Oded Balilty/AP)
An Israeli soldier reads a book next to graffiti featuring the Palestinian flag, during an urban warfare exercise in an army training facility at the Tzeelim army base, southern Israel, Nov. 9, 2021. (Oded Balilty/AP)
Israeli soldiers rest next to a mural depicting the late Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, during an urban warfare exercise at an army training facility, in Tzeelim army base, southern Israel, Jan. 4, 2022. (Oded Balilty/AP)
An Israeli soldier dressed as a Palestinian fighter, poses for a photo during training session simulating urban warfare at the Tzeelim army base, southern Israel Jan. 4, 2022. (Oded Balilty/AP)
Israeli soldiers gather during an urban warfare exercise at an army training facility, in Tzeelim army base, southern Israel, Jan. 4, 2022. (Oded Balilty/AP)

read more:

We have a new, improved comments system. To comment, simply register or sign in.

Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed