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At IDF’s Faux Hezbollah Village, Israeli Troops Prepare for a Third Lebanon War

Last week’s rocket attack and the weekend’s car bombing in Tripoli add urgency to Israeli counterinsurgency drills

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Soldiers train at Elyakim. (Lironne Koret/IDF)
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The officer counted down from 10 and then clapped his hand against his leg, the signal for the drill to begin. Avi—who had the words “I Am My Brother’s Keeper” tattooed on his neck—jumped onto the ladder and started making his way down, but the soldiers holding the green ropes that control the Magen David didn’t quite have the hang of it. They lowered the shield far too quickly the first time, leaving Avi almost completely exposed as he came down the ladder. The next time, they lowered the Magen David more slowly, but the shield came down unevenly, protecting Avi’s left side without covering his right one. “Congratulations,” the officer told them sarcastically. “He’s only half-dead this time. Yaa’lah! Do it again.”

Mock villages like Elyakim aren’t unique to Israel. Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Pentagon built model Iraqi towns at a handful of Army and Marine installations to train its troops in counterinsurgency tactics. The largest and most realistic of the faux villages were built at Camp Irwin, a giant base in California’s Mojave Desert. As at Elyakim, actors playing militants fired paintball pellets and blanks at the soldiers to simulate insurgent ambushes, moved around using sophisticated networks of tunnels, and tried to kidnap individual troops. The fake insurgents at Camp Irwin used Hollywood-style pyrotechnics to simulate suicide bombings and mortar attacks against U.S. outposts. The training was so realistic that a few soldiers had their deployment orders rescinded after they showed symptoms of battle fatigue—and at least one soldier was expelled from the military after he snapped and “killed” a group of civilians.

Elyakim is a minor-league version of its American counterparts. The U.S. mock villages functioned like real towns—complete with actors, many of them actual Iraqis recruited from the large expatriate community in San Diego, who lived there nearly year-round—and were so big that troops could spend weeks there. Elyakim, by contrast, is so small that you can walk through all of it on foot in less than 15 minutes. The trainers at the American villages created detailed narrative scenarios that could last for days and balance raw combat tactics with other counterinsurgency strategies, like getting to know village elders.

Elyakim
(Lironne Koret)

At Elyakim, trainers try to instead make the most of the base’s small size by running different scenarios through the same buildings. Troops repeatedly practice different aspects of village fighting, like the safest ways of entering and clearing an enemy tunnel. The village contains roughly 60 one- and two-story white houses, all arrayed around a central mosque with a tall prayer tower.  The roads are wide enough that units can practice moving alongside their tanks and scanning surrounding buildings for enemy fighters. The simulations also extend underground, where Israel has built exact replicas of the Hezbollah tunnels it found studded throughout the villages of southern Lebanon.

“The tunnels weren’t ratlines like we used to see in Gaza,” Leonard, a spokesman for the training base, told me. “In Gaza they were made by kids digging with a spoon. In Lebanon, Hezbollah sent in trained engineers with bulldozers. The Hezbollah tunnels have concrete walls, air vents, and lighting. We’ve recreated all of that here. Our guys won’t go in blind next time.”

The training personnel at Elyakim also study Hezbollah battlefield techniques so they can give Israeli infantry troops a taste of what they would encounter in Lebanon. Soldiers dressed as Hezbollah fighters fire blanks at the invading Israeli troops from the mosque and pop up out of the tunnels to ambush small groups of soldiers or try to kidnap stragglers. The simulations are designed to force soldiers to acclimate themselves to the stresses of seeking shelter or treating wounded troops amid the noise and chaos of house-to-house combat.

Elyakim personnel wearing sand-colored mountain camouflage were sprinkled across the hills with orders to sporadically ambush the Israeli troops by popping up and firing machine guns packed with blanks. When soldiers were hit, they lay on the ground and waited for medics to come put them onto makeshift gurneys and carry them away. The fake Hezbollah fighters were always found and killed; in Elyakim at least, Israel always won. As I was leaving the hilltop, I noticed that one of the dead Hezbollah troops was wearing a knit yarmulke.

This story was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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At IDF’s Faux Hezbollah Village, Israeli Troops Prepare for a Third Lebanon War

Last week’s rocket attack and the weekend’s car bombing in Tripoli add urgency to Israeli counterinsurgency drills

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