Lotar Eilat: The face of counterterrorism

The unit that protects Israel’s southernmost city is trained in the most advanced counterterrorism tactics and ready to go from standby into battle in just a few minutes

Date: 06/08/2013, 9:42 PM     Author: Noam Witman

Within a few minutes, fighters from the Lotar Eilat counterterrorism reserve unit have to transform themselves from regular Israeli citizens into combat soldiers ready to fight terror. They know that there is no choice: no matter where they are when they are called, whether with their wives at the supermarket, visiting their parents, or reading a story to their kids, they must leave to fulfil their mission: to protect the city of Eilat.

Lotar Eilat: The face of counterterrorism

Earlier this month, the elite unit’s soldiers gathered to undergo a unit-wide training at the IDF (Zahal)’s Mitkan Adam counterterrorism training facility. One of the training session’s unique exercises had the soldiers learn how to storm a hijacked bus. “The exercise is meant to make sure that all the systems in the unit are in synchronisation,” said Company Commander Cpt. P in between exercises. “In addition, each squad trains in the most basic elements of an operation: identification, entering a room, and how to act in various scenarios. The difficulty level rises as we train, and near the end of the week, the exercises will become more complex,” he said.

Lotar Eilat: The face of counterterrorism

How it all began

Lotar Eilat was founded in the 1970s by IDF (Zahal) soldiers who had completed their mandatory service. The founding soldiers were all volunteers, whose goal it was to prevent terror attacks in the city of Eilat. But the real story of the unit begins in 1989, when a Jordanian terrorist penetrated Kibbutz Lotan in the Arava region in Israel’s south, kidnapped a small girl, and barricaded himself in a house. The child’s life was in mortal danger.

Tactical recovery units were called to the scene immediately, but timing was critical and they were taking too long to get there. Lotar Eilat, which at that time was a small reserve unit, arrived at the location of the attack, but did not have the proper training to carry out the rescue operation. The IDF (Zahal) Chief of the General Staff made a decision: he would allow them to attempt the operation. They succeeded, rescued the girl and saved her life.

Since then, the unit has taken part in many successful operations, including the tactical recovery of enemy aircraft that had landed in Israel. In the year 2000, after it had proven itself time and again, Lotar Eilat was officially recognized as a tactical recovery unit.

The unit was in the headlines again in August 2011. Terrorists had infiltrated into Israel through the Egyptian border, and carried out coordinated attacks which killed six and injured many more. Lotar Eilat was called to the scene, arriving within minutes of the incident. In cooperation with other IDF (Zahal) forces and special units, they engaged and neutralized the terrorists. The unit also dealt with an incident in an Eilat hotel in 2012, when a  man grabbed a security guard’s gun and killed a hotel employee.

Threats to Eilat are very real, so the existence of the unit means that residents of the city can sleep peacefully at night. Even the soldiers of the unit feel that peace of mind, and know that they can send their kids to kindergarten, and in any scenario that occurs, their friends will be there to protect them.

It is crucial that the fighters of the unit are ready to go at any given moment, so they train together regularly to ensure they meet all the requirements asked of them. Their reserve duty is unlike that of any other reserve unit – they are obligated to do 100 days of reserve service a year. “We train every few weeks, do unit-wide training twice a year,” said Cpt. P. “We try not to stop living our lives because of the numerous training exercises we have to do, but sometimes you have to in order to achieve the goal. The work we do is around the clock, even when we are not in reserve duty.”

“My children are already used to seeing me in uniform, and there’s no separation between work and military duty for them,” said Lt. Col. T., commander of Lotar Eilat. “The sharp transition between routine and the life of a soldier who goes into combat requires a different mental approach. You are not really ever detached from the army.”

No ordinary unit

The sense of duty among Lotar Eilat reservists is absolute.  “Everyone who is here is here because he wants to be and believes in what we do,” Lt. Col. T said.  “When I recruit for training , attendance rates are one hundred percent and will always remain so.” The commitment of these reserve soldiers is so high that one of the platoon leaders was present at the training exercise two days before his wedding.

Lotar Eilat is no ordinary reserve unit. “Once past the gates of our base, we are a full-fledged military unit, not just some ordinary reserve unit,” Lt. Col. T. said. Due to the highly classified nature of their missions, the soldiers in this unit are hesitant to share details and frequently call their commanding officer in the middle of an interview, asking if particular questions being posed to them can be answered.
 
There are three essential conditions which must be met for any soldier to be qualified to serve in the counterterrorism unit: the candidate must live in Eilat or the southern desert; he must be registered as a career combat soldier, and must have a high security clearance. Candidates who meet those three requirements then undergo a series of personal interviews and medical examinations. If deemed worthy, the candidate is then sent to a three-week course at the IDF (Zahal) Counterterrorism School. “Whoever finishes the course is sent to join a unit and undergoes a yearlong training. Upon completion, he joins the squads and from there undergoes an additional two years of training,” the unit’s commanding officer explained.