'It’s like being a duck on a firing range'

On the frontline with Gaza, fence menders face nightly peril

Under cover of darkness, the soldiers of the Kometz unit risk sniper fire, bombs, rocks and more to maintain border defense

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

A Kometz soldier, standing on a ladder on the Gaza side of the barrier, fixing the fence (photo credit: Netta Asner/IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
A Kometz soldier, standing on a ladder on the Gaza side of the barrier, fixing the fence (photo credit: Netta Asner/IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

The commander of a patrol, heading toward a section of Gaza border fence near Shejaiya, looked about half a decade away from his first shave. A Nahal Brigade sergeant, he discussed the order of travel in the convoy, the number of vehicles and the different radio frequencies in the region.

He enforced the use of helmets and ceramic bullet proof vests. He had each person print his or her name and ID number on a sheet of paper, presumably to be checked against a body should the need arise, and finally led our small party northwest from Nahal Oz toward the fence.

His squad consisted of combat soldiers, but they were only playing a supporting role. “If things go bad, we’ll take care of it,” said Sgt. First Class Reuven Tautang, a career soldier who, in the line of service, has been targeted by rocks, mines and anti-tank missiles, and been struck in the arm and chest by sniper fire.

Tautang, unlike the Nahal Brigade soldiers, is not an infantryman. He is the deputy commander of the Kometz unit, which is part of the distinctly unglamorous IDF Ordnance Corps. Yet, his task, as a frontline fix-it man — tending to the northern half of the Gaza border fence, re-stringing torn strands of barbed wire and repairing the electrical damages done by winter rain and lightning — is unremittingly dangerous, laborious and crucial.

The 60 kilometers of fence separating Israel from Gaza, first built with the onset of the Oslo Accords in 1994 and bolstered physically and technologically since then, can be, at times, a ticket to relative safety for some Gaza residents.

In recent months, from September to January, 84 Palestinians from Gaza have been arrested for crossing the border fence, The New York Times reported this week. The rise, up from a reported 13 per month average before the summer’s war, is seen as an expression of desperation. Compared with Gaza, “the prison in Israel is like a five-star hotel,” Youssef Abbas, a former fence-crosser, told the paper.

For the army, though, and for the majority of Israelis, the fence is the frontline against terror infiltration. And the men tasked with its upkeep are prime targets in an area that is seldom visited by patrolling troops on account of the dangers of sniper fire and IED ambushes, sprung by luring the troops to the fence.

“It’s like being a duck on a firing range,” said Sgt. Maj. Ran Shlomo, the Kometz unit commander, who has been tending to Israel’s many border fences in and around the Gaza Strip since he joined the army in 1990.

Deputy unit commander, Sgt. First Class Reuven Tautang, left, and three Kometz soldiers along the fence (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
Deputy unit commander, Sgt. First Class Reuven Tautang, left, and three Kometz soldiers along the fence (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

Shlomo, who began his service with Kometz along the Philadelphi Corridor, which separated Gaza from Egypt, said in an interview that he has seen the threats against the Kometz soldiers evolve from gravel to fist-sized stones, to small arms fire, to mines, to short-range anti-tank missiles, to more complex guided missiles.

Speaking of improvised mine fields, a terror tunnel packed with so much explosives that it blew an empty jeep high into the air, and an RPG anti-tank missile that exploded a few dozen feet from him, he said, “There were things that only a miracle from above saved us from.”

Several years ago, Tautang, who immigrated to Israel from India as a member of the Bnei Menashe community, sought to finish a crucial piece of repairs during the last hours of the night. As the day dawned, a sniper from within Gaza opened fire and dropped him. He was badly wounded but returned to service.

Kometz soldiers working on the northern section of the Gaza border fence (photo credit: Netta Asner/ IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
Kometz soldiers working on the northern section of the Gaza border fence on February 16, 2015 (photo credit: Netta Asner/ IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

On nearly a dozen other occasions, Shlomo said, with Tautang’s silent confirmation, the deputy commander read the situation in the field and avoided a coordinated attack, which is readily staged by tinkering with the fence and summoning the Kometz unit.

Tautang, the recipient of the President’s Award for Excellence in 2009, said he always looks to see if elements in the field are out of place – if rocks have been moved or if something in the landscape has shifted. On one occasion, he spotted a motorcycle next to an old piece of farming equipment. The contrast drew his attention. He stopped the force and radioed HQ, requesting aerial cover and assistance. As he stepped out of the armored vehicle, a bullet slammed through the windshield and, as he dropped for cover, against a tire. The ambush, perhaps even an effort to kidnap a soldier, was foiled, with the aircraft eliminating the squad of gunmen.

The fence itself, Shlomo stressed, is not meant to bar an infiltration but to provide an indication of one. The earliest efforts, beginning in the 1970s in the Jordan Valley, involved trip wires and an illumination flares. By the 1990s, the fences around Israel’s borders could indicate where the barrier had been touched. Today, the fence is equipped to not only give the precise location of an infiltration, but also to provide an immediate picture of the attempt and to automatically follow, via cameras, whoever has crossed the barrier.

Shlomo described the Gaza fence as “the heart” of Israel’s defensive deployment outside Gaza and said that its efficacy is the main reason why Hamas has gone through the trouble of tunneling under the border.

An Israeli Merkava tank operating along the Gaza border on August 6, 2014 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/ Flash 90)
An Israeli Merkava tank operating along the Gaza border on August 6, 2014 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/ Flash 90)

Year round, and particularly during winter, the fence requires upkeep. Lightning is drawn to the fin of metal that cuts through the open field and rainwater channels beneath the barrier. Moreover, when a strand is severed, as one was this week by a stray bullet, it exposes the copper-covered fiber optic cables running through the fence to the rain, which can cause malfunctions across large swaths of fence.

“It’ll shut down four kilometers,” meaning that an entire infantry battalion will have to stand guard until the fence is back up and running, Shlomo said.

A long night of work

After the interview, and after a series of conflicting orders, Tautang, known as Tau-Tau to his soldiers and friends alike, headed out to the field with two other soldiers for a long night of work: to test the fence near Beit Lahiya, where a nine-year-old had recently crossed; to fix the strand of barbed wire near Shejaiyah, cut by a bullet; and to attempt to unclog a mud-filled water carrier on the western Gaza side of the fence.

The Times of Israel accompanied the Kometz soldiers on the first chore of the night. Tautang explained that most of the work is done in the dark in order to exploit Israel’s relative advantages at being able to see in the dark using technology. He was led by the Nahal Brigade soldiers to the fence. As the other two vehicles dropped back to defensive positions, he approached, telling his soldiers softly to be ready with the ladder as soon as the armored vehicle stopped.

Wearing gloves and carrying a tray of wrenches and pliers, the soldiers opened the fence gate and crossed to the western side, turning their backs to Gaza. And though the vehicles had approached the border without headlights, each wore a headlamp over his helmet emitting the sort of bright white light that an ordinary combat soldier would not dream of turning on.

“There’s no other solution,” said Sgt. Major Eliezer Sogawunker, the commander of electronics training at the Ordnance Corps school. “The soldiers need to discern between 14 different colored lights. You can’t do that with night vision.”

The men worked for close to an hour, tapping the barbed wire with wrenches and reading the indications on a small screen. They crossed to either side of the fence and bobbed up and down the ladder. In the near distance, the sparsely lit enclave of Gaza was quiet.

Six months after a 50-day war, Hamas is re-arming but has not launched any significant attacks since August. And yet, as the soldiers turn their chests toward Gaza, there is no avoiding the ease with which a sniper could pick them off.

“Everyone is afraid,” Shlomo said, before sending us off. “But in the field it passes. When you are in the field, you push everything aside. It’s just you and Blessed One be He.”

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