ISRAEL: Triggering Tourism

A LOTAR unit drill. - Pierre Klochendler/IPS.
A LOTAR unit drill. - Pierre Klochendler/IPS.
  • by Pierre Klochendler (eilat, southern israel)
  • Inter Press Service

Red alert in this Red Sea port: terrorists have taken people hostage. They threaten to blow themselves up with the hostages unless their demands are met. Special intervention forces are brought out. They surround the building where the hostage-takers entrench themselves.

A long standoff ensues until, in the dark of night, the commandos storm the premises.

The would-be hostages are freed, unscathed, while the would-be hostage-takers are swiftly neutralised.

Would-be terrorists, would-be hostages — still, these are real commandos. 'We’ve just drilled a complex hostage-rescue operation,' says drily Lt-Col T., the LOTAR unit commander.

LOTAR is a Hebrew acronym for counter-terror war. For security reasons, the unit’s members are called by their initials; their faces are wrapped in black hoods.

In August, Islamist guerrillas from the Gaza Strip infiltrated the Egyptian Sinai desert into Israel and ambushed motorists, killing eight Israelis, wounding 30 others.

LOTAR teams engaged the militants in hot pursuit, killing them at close range. 'I was on the first team that engaged the terrorists,' recalls Sgt-Maj. A. 'We handled the situation well. That’s all I’ll say,' sums up the team leader.

Five Egyptian soldiers were inadvertently killed in the crossfire. Israel apologised.

'Our purpose is to engage the enemy as quickly as possible, to rescue whoever needs to be rescued,' adds T. 'Our mandate is to kill terrorists. Sorry to say, we know how to do this.'

The LOTAR fighters won’t mark the cross of their assault rifle for every enemy they kill in combat like Wild West gunslingin’ bounty hunters, the unit’s commander says.

'You could call us a nature reserve. We’re all idealistic patriots. We do what we do not for money, nor for pride or honour, or fame. Reporters can say all’s quiet on the southern front. But things happen — they just don’t make headlines because we stop them ahead of time.'

Indeed, the LOTAR teams have accomplished many missions over the years. Most have been kept out of public scrutiny to this day.

LOTAR was created in the wake of a massacre during a hostage-taking incident in the city of Ma’alot which lies alongside the Lebanese border, on the northern tip of the country.

In 1974, Palestinian militants had attacked an elementary school, taking pupils and teachers hostage. Israeli troops stormed the building. But during the takeover, the militants opened fire with grenades and automatic weapons, killing 22 children.

Eilat is located on the country’s southern tip, between Jordan to the East, Egypt to the West and South, and the inhospitable Negev desert to the North. Due to the distance from the closest base, deploying a special force here would’ve taken hours.

Hence, the decision to create a rapid deployment force embedded in the city. All the LOTAR soldiers live here.

'Being both a local and territorial unit has a double advantage,' notes T. 'First, we fight for our home. Second, we fight on our home turf. We know every corner, alley, dead end, every building. We’re on alert 24/7, capable of tackling any situation on the spot.'

They all volunteer. 'If we wouldn’t do this job, no one would,' A. says. And, they’re all reserve soldiers. 'We have families and we are family; we help one another,' he adds.

Forty-year-old T. has been in the unit for the past 18 years. 'We’re like good old red wine. We get better with time,' he jokes. 'Seriously, we trust ourselves, our maturity of judgment.'

Today, LOTAR is Israel’s number-one-and-only military unit specialising in hostage-rescue raids.

Though military challenges change and never get easier, for the past year, the political and security reality on the ground has evolved dramatically. 'As far as I’m concerned, there’s no ‘Arab Spring’ but an ‘Islamic winter’. It’s blowing around our doors,' T. muses, referring to the border with Egypt.

The border attack in August has speeded up construction of a five-metre high metal wall to replace the old barbed wire fence. By the end of January, the first 100 kilometres of the great new wall will be in place. The 240-kilometre wall shall be completed by September 2012, vows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In September, touring the area, the Israeli prime minister declared, 'Israel’s border with Egypt is a border of peace. But for it to remain peaceful, we must strengthen our security and, to this end, a fence is necessary. Its rapid construction as well as additional means and human resources are important for both peace and security.'

There’s no such thing as an impassable obstacle, formidable as it may be. So, for good neighbourly relations, a fence as mighty as this one isn’t just enough, say the LOTAR fighters. 'We’re only but a single tool in the Israeli military’s toolbox. Yet, here the toolbox is getting bigger,' T. explains.

While the LOTAR commandos train, tourists sleep peacefully, and wake up to the song of hotel muzak.

In this exclusive touristic resort squeezed between Egypt and Jordan, sometimes it isn’t clear whether peace prevails. In the past, there have been sporadic rocket attacks by Islamist militants from Egypt on the city.

But 'Don’t Worry Be Happy,' is the invariable murmur in the lobby.

The LOTAR fighters have vowed to preserve peace and tourism between Israel and its neighbours as if there was no terrorism, and to fight terrorism as if there were no tourists, and no peace, to paraphrase peacemaker Yitzhak Rabin.

A soporific version of Bob Marley’s 'Everything’s Gonna Be Alright' whispers on the beachfront.

Everything’s all right as long as the hooded fighters are around, tourists are told.

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service