Tel Aviv — Israel marked two major milestones in the past two weeks in efforts to defend against infiltration along its southern desert borders.
On Jan. 2, the Ministry of Defense announced the completion of a 230-kilometer fortification running from the Kerem Shalom crossing point with Gaza down along its Sinai Egyptian border to just north of the Red Sea resort town of Eilat.
The effort, known here as Project Hour Glass, is likely to exceed $300 million by the time the last 12-kilometer stretch through the Eilat Mountains is completed in May.
Built in less than three years by MoD-managed construction teams working nearly around the clock, the Hour Glass project aims to prevent terrorist infiltration, illegal migrants from Africa, and the smuggling of weapons, drugs and other contraband through the Sinai Desert.
It consists of a 5- to 7-meter-high fence, multiple layers of barbed wire, and patrol paths and access roads. Cameras, radars and other systems are integrated into the Israeli Army’s command-and-control system, allowing for remote surveillance of the vast border area.
Completion of the main stretch of fortifications follows the late December inauguration of a regional brigade — the third attached to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Edom Division — to defend Eilat and surrounding areas against terrorist and criminal threats.
Col. Roei Be’eri, commander of the new Eilat Regional Brigade, is responsible for a vast triangular territory that starts at the tip of the Gulf of Aqaba and straddles some 100 kilometers along Israel’s eastern border with Jordan and the western Sinai border.
“We’re deploying to defend a monstrous area first and foremost from the terrorist threat, and after that from the criminal elements that often work hand-in-hand with the terrorists,” said Be’eri, a former commander of another brigade in the Edom Division who has spent the past three years in Israel’s southern desert region.
In a Jan. 3 interview, Be’eri said his active-duty brigade is supported by an elite counterterrorism reserve unit and other specialized elements, including a company of female observers trained to analyze the integrated data that will stream into his command center from sensors deployed in Project Hour Glass.
“During this year, the fortification barrier will close around Eilat, and we will have the full situational advantage provided by advanced technologies,” Be’eri said. “At the same time, we’re training according to a new operational concept that provides low-signature high security to the people of Eilat and surrounding areas.
“Our mission is to defend the area in a modest yet efficient way, so that residents and tourists won’t see us too much; they’ll only feel more secure,” he said.
The operational urgency for the new brigade followed an Aug. 11, 2011, coordinated terrorist attack near Eilat. Six civilians and two soldiers were killed in the three-stage attack, which started when terrorists fired at an Israeli bus, followed by the bombing of an IDF patrol and an anti-tank missile launch at another vehicle.
In April 2006, three people were killed in an Eilat bakery by a suicide bomber who authorities say reached the resort town through Sinai from the Gaza Strip.
And last March, Israel’s Shin Bet security service announced the arrest of a Hamas operative from the Gaza Strip, whom authorities credited with exposing a Sinai-based operation aimed at the abduction of an Israeli soldier and a terrorist attack in Eilat.
At a Dec. 26 inauguration ceremony, Brig. Gen. Nadav Padan, commander of the Edom Division, said the new Eilat Regional Brigade is a manifestation of the IDF’s response to the changing security environment.
“The changes in the region and the influence of Gaza-based and local terror organizations pose new operational challenges,” Padan said. “This reality compels us to change our operational perception. ... [while] adapting to the growing threats and ensuring the quality of civilian life in the area.”