TZEELIM MILITARY BASE, Israel — Under the cover of thick smoke, a Muslim call to prayer sounding in the background, the masked Israeli commandos stormed a concrete building and “killed” two soldiers posing as Hezbollah guerrillas.
Monday’s drill was accompanied by simulated helicopter, tank and rocket fire, but it was the setting that really made it realistic — a mock Arab city in the Negev desert complete with mosques, apartment buildings, even a fake refugee camp.
For Israeli troops frustrated by last summer’s war in Lebanon, it was the perfect place for practicing how to avoid another inconclusive outcome.
“We’re definitely training for the next war,” said Sgt. Shalev Nachum, a medic who fought in the Lebanon campaign. “Next time, it will be different.”
The $40 million Urban Training Center, built with help from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was unveiled as Israel named a new army chief of staff. Gabi Ashkenazi, a retired general, succeeds Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, who resigned last week over the failure of Israeli’s largest operation since 1982.
Ashkenazi’s appointment still needs Cabinet approval, which is expected.
The new commander’s main task will be restoring confidence in the military, whose preparedness and tactics have been harshly criticized. The Urban Training Center can play an important role toward that goal, re-creating the conditions that bedeviled troops during the fighting in Lebanon.
“This is a very important part of the solution,” said Brig. Gen. Uzi Moskovich, the center’s commander.
Israel launched the full-scale assault just hours after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers and killed three others in a July 12 cross-border raid. The resulting 34-day war killed more than 1,100 Lebanese guerrillas and civilians while Israeli officials said 159 Israelis were killed, including 39 civilians.
Despite the fierce fighting, the military failed to achieve its two objectives — crushing Hezbollah and freeing two captured Israeli soldiers.
Hezbollah fired almost 4,000 rockets at northern Israel, stopping only when the United Nations brokered a cease-fire, with Hezbollah claiming victory over the Israeli military.
The training center consists of some 500 structures packed into eight square miles. It has all the elements of an Arab city of 50,000 — a main square, high-rise apartment buildings, even a mock refugee camp, Moskovich said.
Some buildings are designed to rotate and walls to become transparent, enabling the military to prepare for various scenarios of urban warfare — in Lebanon or against Palestinian militants in the West Bank or Gaza.
In the future, the training center will host friendly foreign armies for a series of war games.
“This is our playground to practice for anything we need,” said Lt. Col. Arik Moreh, the base’s second in command. “This complex is the only one of its kind in the world — its size, its characteristics and its technical abilities.”
These include surveillance equipment throughout each of the 4,000 scattered rooms and GPS systems attached to each soldier, allowing the command center to track the movement of its units. Each soldier also wears sensors that monitor whether he was hit by the enemy’s laser-beam fire.
In Monday’s drill, some 600 soldiers were charged with occupying the city and dealing with 350 civilians, including demonstrators and journalists, and suicide bombers hiding in their midst.
Bomb-sniffing dogs searched apartments and the pop of gunfire followed troops through the empty streets.
Playing the Hezbollah guerrillas this time around were a group of women combat instructors covered with camouflage paint and armed with weapons firing laser blanks.
In one scenario they gunned down a charging Israel infantryman.
“Even if they lose, they just have to learn from it,” said Lt. Dana Marcowicz. “We are here to help the war effort.”