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Security breach at heavily guarded Negev complex

Suspected car thief breaks into Israel’s most important air base, home to F-35s

Helicopters, special forces lead manhunt at massive Nevatim military camp; after 7-hour search, suspect found to have fled base shortly after entering

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

A stolen car that was abandoned inside the Israeli Air Force's Nevatim Base after alleged thieves drove into the facility, puncturing the tires on security spikes at the gate, on February 8, 2021. (Israel Police)
A stolen car that was abandoned inside the Israeli Air Force's Nevatim Base after alleged thieves drove into the facility, puncturing the tires on security spikes at the gate, on February 8, 2021. (Israel Police)

A suspected car thief broke into the Israeli Air Force’s Nevatim Air Base in the northern Negev Desert on Monday night, after abandoning a car he had allegedly stolen from the nearby town of Dimona, prompting a massive manhunt, police and the military said.

“Police forces, assisted by the Israel Defense Forces, are searching the area,” police said in a statement. The IDF confirmed that it was searching for a suspect.

According to the military, the suspect drove through an open gate into the base, but punctured the tires on the security spikes on the road. He then abandoned the car and took off on foot deeper inside the base.

After some seven hours of searching the massive air base — from roughly 8 p.m. Monday to 3 a.m. Tuesday — the military said it had determined that at some point soon after he entered the base, the suspect had “climbed the two barbed wire fences and a five-meter-high (16-foot) fence and left the base.”

The investigative responsibility was then handed over to the Israel Police.

Two new F-35 fighter jets land at the Nevatim Air Base in southern Israel from the United States on July 14, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Nevatim Air Base is home to Israel’s fleet of F-35 fight jets, the most advanced aircraft in the military’s arsenal, as well as several other advanced planes, such as the C-130J Super Hercules cargo plane. The incident represented a severe, resounding breach of security for what is considered the air force’s most important base, which should be more difficult to break into than by simply driving through a gate and running inside.

“The event will be investigated and the necessary lessons will be learned,” the military said in a statement.

The IDF had said it did not believe there was a concrete threat to the F-35 fighter jets or to the troops serving on the base, but had stepped up security around the aircraft.

Nevatim is a massive, sprawling facility, roughly the size of a city, which made the search more difficult. The perimeter is more then 40 kilometers (25 miles) long.

Military helicopters were brought in to assist in the search, as were teams of the air force’s elite Shaldag special forces unit, along with trackers, the base’s ground security unit, and the police’s helicopter unit, the IDF said. The effort was led by the commander of the air base, Brig. Gen. Omer Tishler.

The entrance to the Nevatim Air Force Base in southern Israel on May 12, 2016. (Judah Ari Gross/ Times of Israel/File)

As a precautionary measure, the families of officers who live on the base were warned to stay inside their homes.

The embarrassing breach was the latest in a series of criminal acts by local thieves in what are meant to be heavily guarded military facilities in southern Israel, where there is minimal law enforcement.

Recent weeks have seen thieves steal military tents and other equipment from the IDF’s Tzeelim training base in broad daylight, as well as the theft of some 20,000 bullets from the Sdeh Teiman military base north of Beersheba.

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