(July 30, 2018 / JNS) Two months ago, Cpl. Shani Davidyan, an Israel Defense Forces video surveillance operator, was sitting in her operations room, monitoring the Gush Etzion sector south of Jerusalem, when she suddenly received a radio report from the Border Police.
“Shots were fired at their booth,” she recalled during an interview with JNS. “I started scanning the area and identified a person in my sector walking between two roads, near the Border Police checkpoint. He was walking towards an Arab village.”
Davidyan became suspicious and directed the Border Police in the man’s direction. “Within two minutes, they reached the person. I saw him produce a firearm and open fire at them,” she said. “He opened the Border Police vehicle door and shot. They managed to close the door just in time and drive in a circle around him. He fired at the vehicle twice more.”
As this severe incident unfolded, Davidyan declared a “hot hammer” incident—an operational term meaning an armed attack taking place on security forces. Security forces began rushing towards the situation. But the Border Police unit gained control, firing back at the suspect. He sustained a light injury and fled, vanishing into the night.
Thirty minutes later, the suspect was in custody, together with his gun and a knife.
“I couldn’t sleep for two days after that,” said Davidyan. “I was shocked that it happened to me. I was just swapping shifts. It was an incredible feeling. Here I felt the sensation of helping to capture a suspect who carried out a shooting attack.”
Before joining the IDF’s Border Defense Array, Davidyan had heard that being a video surveillance operator wasn’t anything to write home about. But after experiencing the service, she said, she realized that this was just a negative stigma.
“I and many girls did not want to serve in this role. But then we reached training, which was very fun, lasting three months, and friends turned into family. Then we reached the operations room. You get to know your sector, and do four-hour shifts. I safeguard the whole of Gush Etzion. We protect human lives, which is the most important thing in the world,” she said.
Davidyan stated that she has seen a drop in recent months in the number of shooting attacks, which now stand at an average of once a week. “I hope it will stay at lower levels,” she said.
‘They will consult with us first’
The video surveillance operators are part of the wider IDF Border Defense Array, which was established a year ago, swallowing up the older Combat Intelligence Collection Corps and adding several other units to it, such as mixed-gender border-defense battalions and Bedouin scouting units. Today, the Border Defense Array is active in all of the IDF’s arenas.
Capt. Argaman Zechariah, head of the recruitment desk at the Border Defense Array, said its creation is part of a whole new change in the Israeli Defense Forces, based on the idea of creating local expertise in different areas.
“The way I see it, this is going to be the largest and most significant array in the military. Because on a daily basis, we deal with defense. We do this not only when there is combat or war, but every day. I see this corps turning into a professional structure, playing an advisory role to the IDF,” she said. “Our personnel are stationed permanently in arenas, and they know best who the enemy is. When forces that maneuver into enemy territory arrive, they will consult with us first.”
During routine times, the units of the Border Defense Array gather intelligence on various enemies, including like Hamas and Hezbollah, while conducting security surveillance in the West Bank.
In addition, on the northern and southern borders, the military tasks them with finding out information about specific targets that would become of interest in the event of a war, according to Zechariah.
“The Border Defense Array has tripled its numbers, and it will only grow,” she said.
In a growing numbers of surveillance rooms, the IDF is installing a high-tech system called MARS, which uses a combination of radars and sophisticated video cameras to locate threats automatically.
“The system can say, look at this spot first because you had incidents here in the past. It is much smarter than the older system and can monitor lots of territory, classifying movements according to importance,” explained Zechariah.
The Border Defense Array’s school, near Eilat, has also become a training center for the surveillance drones, which are continuously being upgraded.
“There has been a huge increase in the number of recruits. I am always opening more surveillance and operations rooms,” said Zechariah.
“Many people are not aware of this change taking place in the IDF. My role is to get in touch with those who are being recruited here, and tell them what they will be doing, [and] how they will help and fit in the Border Defense Array,” she said. “If in the past, we had to convince the girls to join, today, this is not the dialogue. They already understand that this is a very important role.”
‘We guard the area 24-7 without stopping’
Capt. Ariel Bitton, Ezion Company Commander, told JNS that defending this sensitive area south of Jerusalem is an ancient tradition.
“Two thousand years ago, when other people were here, they understood they could not defend Jerusalem without holding Etzion. This is true for the First and Second Temple eras. Today, we also understand that we can’t defend Jerusalem without this area. Hence, we call it the southern guard of Jerusalem,” she said.
The Etzion sector is home to 100,000 Israelis, including the city of Efrat, a central feature of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, which is close to Bethlehem (controlled by the Palestinian Authority).
“It is a quickly changing sector,” she said, describing an area that is influenced by events in the region, in the Gaza Strip and other parts of the West Bank.
Muslim and Jewish holiday can also raise tensions. “We work according to time periods. Some are calmer than others; we have to adapt ourselves,” Bitton said. “We guard the area 24-7 without stopping. We have our eye on the ground all of the time, operating out of two control rooms and looking through special cameras.”
Security incidents include shootings, Molotov cocktails and rock-throwing. When the surveillance operators spot something, they become “the heart of the incident.”
Bitton says the operation “has to accurately describe what is occurring and mobilize the forces to the right spot. Her goal is the capture of the attacker.”
She continued, saying “the enemy is developing. We have to stay caught up. Our technology is different from what it was 20 years ago. We work with large [defense] companies to produce new systems. A lot is classified, but we are not standing in place. Every year, we get something new.”
Female operators suit this kind of role, added Bitton, with its need for long concentration spans and multi-tasking. Ultimately, it’s about keeping their cool while completing their mission, despite having very different personalities and challenges.
“There is no doubt that this is hard. They have four-hour shifts and cannot lift their eyes from the screen. As soon as anything distracts their attention, lives are put at risk,” said Bitton. “But the pride is in stopping a terrorist gunman who could have killed a family. She is the one who saved the family.”