The headlights of several jeeps pierce the darkness in the desert. It is now midnight, but the soldiers of the elite counter-terror unit Lotar Eilat are always ready for action.
Terrorists from Jordan and Egypt have infiltrated Israel and taken a group of teenagers hostage in an amusement park in the resort city of Eilat. An exercise? Yes, but everything looks very real.
Something is different about these soldiers — some of them have graying hair, unshaven beards and wrinkles around their eyes. Most IDF soldiers are in the 18-21 age bracket. These men, however, range between 25 and 70 years old and are reservists who are voluntarily serving in this elite unit.
The atmosphere is relaxed, and there is no doubt that the soldiers know each other well. A mobile command center is quickly set up, and every soldier is given his weapon.
“You see before you a family here, like brothers,” said one of the fighters. “Our unit does not change every three years like in regular IDF units. We constantly enhance our capabilities, but never have to start again from scratch. We’re all used to working together, we know we can trust each other. So no, we’re not anxious, just concentrated.”
The soldiers of Lotar Eilat can be called up for action at any time. Once the alert goes out, they have exactly seven minutes to arrive at a specific location, and then another seven minutes to put on their uniforms and gear. That’s a total of 14 minutes to leave their place of work, slip away from a family dinner or get out of bed in the middle of the night — 14 minutes to justify once more that they have to leave their wives and kids.
The special case of Eilat
Eilat, a city of 55,000 people, is located at the southern-most tip of Israel, wedged between Egypt and Jordan. Because the city is so far from the center of the country, it needs an independent counter-terror force that can be ready on short notice.
With this in mind, IDF reservists living in Eilat who served in some of the IDF’s best units volunteered to create Lotar Eilat in the 1970s.
“Few people believed in us in the beginning,” said A., the oldest soldier of the unit. But when a Jordanian soldier infiltrated Israel in 1989 and took a young woman from Kibbutz Lotan hostage, the IDF called up Lotar Eilat who eliminated the threat and freed the hostage. Since then, the unit has taken part in many different operations. Since the early 2000s, Lotar Eilat has been considered one of the best special forces units of the IDF, alongside units such as Sayeret Matkal or Shayetet 13.
A loss in the unit
On August 11, 2011, eight Israelis were killed and 40 more wounded in the triple terror attack that took place 20 km north of Eilat. In these attacks, Lotar Eilat lost one of its own.
Pascal Avrahami, one of the oldest soldiers in the unit at 49 years old, rushed to the scene of the attack with a small force and was killed by enemy fire while trying to fight back the attackers. In addition to being a part of Lotar Eilat, Pascal was also the most veteran sniper of YAMAM, the Israel Police’s elite anti-terror force. Pascal had insisted on staying on active duty, and despite his age was still a fighter, ready to spring into action day and night. He was a true inspiration within his unit and won the admiration of his peers for his commitment, admiration and humility.
Since the attack, the construction of a new security barrier along the Egypt-Israel border has been accelerated. “In many places the barrier is already completed and in those places the security situation has greatly improved,” one of the reservists said.
Father and son
Pascal Avrahami was also the father of three children, with whom he had strong ties. His family was always on his mind and he deeply loved his wife and home. “We all have two families,” said a reservist. “Our wives and kids, and our brothers in the unit.”
“My son used to see me in uniform a lot,” said D, who has been a reservist for more than 40 years and is father of three young children. ”He didn’t ask questions about my work, but when people asked him what I do, he would reply, ‘My father has two jobs.’”
After the exercise, the sun rises over the mountains of Jordan, illuminating the mountains in Egypt a short distance away. It’s a position that needs constant monitoring.
The sleepless night does not seem to have taken a toll on the soldiers who have already began their situation assessment. From the outside, it is hard to understand from where these soldiers draw their strength.
The answer probably lies in a sentence that many in the unit expressed throughout the night: “If we don’t protect our home, who will?”