The doctors on standby for the IDF Gaza rescues

The pilots and medical teams of Squadron 123 are on permanent alert to evacuate wounded IDF soldiers


Always ready: members of Unit 669, with a Black Hawk helicopter

March 07, 2024 12:51

One of the most reliable barometers for the level of IDF operations in Gaza is the flight-line of Squadron 123 (The Desert Birds) at the Israeli Air Force’s Palmachim Base. The three hours we spent there this week were calm. The UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters stood on the flight-line in the afternoon sun while the squadron’s technical crews worked on a lone Black Hawk in one of the maintenance sheds, bringing it back to full readiness.

The flight-crews were in their ready-rooms nearby and the doctors, paramedics and fighters of Unit 669, the IAF’s dedicated search-and-rescue unit, rested in their detachment hut, which they ambitiously call “the villa”. There were no signs to the casual visitor that this was a squadron on full war footing. Apart from one of the Black Hawks briefly having its engines tested, all the noise came from unmanned aircraft taking off and landing from a nearby runway.

The squadron’s main role during this war has been to fly teams of Unit 669 into Gaza on evacuation missions of wounded IDF soldiers — swooping in low, often under fire, to makeshift landing-areas and ferrying the wounded back to hospitals in Israel, while inside the Black Hawk the doctors and paramedics have only a few minutes to try to stabilise and treat their patients. There were no sirens or sudden take-offs to Gaza this afternoon.

“Any moment there could be a siren and you’ll see teams running to the yanshufim [Owls, as the Black Hawks are called in the IAF],” says Sergeant-Major G, a 30-year-old paramedic in Unit 669, who has been on reserve duty since October 7. “We flew missions to Gaza this morning but naturally, with the lower volume of operations right now in Gaza, the number of missions goes down, but we’re still at full readiness.” Fierce fighting is still ongoing between the IDF and Hamas in Gaza. Last Friday, three soldiers were killed and 14 wounded when Hamas activated an explosive device in a building in Khan Younis. But besides Khan Younis in the south and Dir el-Balah in the centre of the Gaza Strip, most of the IDF operations are now mobile and sporadic. The IDF’s ground manouevre in Gaza began on 27 October and quickly built up with five divisions, including more than 20 brigade combat teams, deployed. Now just two divisions and five brigade teams are in Gaza.

Unlike many younger reservists for whom the war has wreaked havoc upon their academic studies, G, who as a fifth-year student at the Tel Aviv University School of Medicine was doing his stint in a surgical department, has been getting valuable experience for his future career on the rescue missions. Captain D, one of the doctors of the 669 detachment, a senior anaesthesiologist, only half-jokes when he says he’s going to hire him the moment he completes his training.

Like nearly all the doctors in 669, the 40-year-old captain is also a reservist and for the past five months has rotated between shifts at his regular workplace, one of Israel’s largest hospitals, and flying missions into Gaza.

“The sudden moves between a war zone and civilian life are one of the experiences which will most stick with me from this war,” says D. “Like the Friday afternoon when we had just landed at Ichilov Hospital with a severely wounded soldier we had stabilised in-flight and my wife calls me to ask if I know where our daughter’s hairclip is.”

The IDF’s operational-security rules demand that flight crew and members of Unit 669 can only be identified by their rank and first initial, but D’s flat north London accent and the way he often lapses into speaking English, give away the biographical facts that he was born and raised in Edgware, and trained in London’s finest hospitals, before making aliyah.

The gradual scaling-down of the war and the possibility of a ceasefire in the coming weeks means for some reservists the chance to spend more time on the civilian side of life. But for others it also means preparing for another war. Lieutenant-Colonel O, one of Squadron 123’s veteran pilots, is working on the IAF’s plans for how to carry out Medevac missions in Lebanon, should war break out there with Hezbollah.

“We’ve learned a lot in a thousand missions we’ve carried out in this war in Gaza,” says O. “We measure ourselves by the time that elapses from the moment a soldier is wounded in Gaza and we’ve improved our operational procedures, especially through giving the forces on the ground a better idea of how to provide us the information we need.

“Our average time over the war is an hour and five minutes until the wounded soldier is in hospital. Most missions now are completed within less than an hour from the wound. But in Lebanon the terrain and distances are very different, and the anti-aircraft weapons Hezbollah has at its disposal, are very different as well.”

l A British diplomat who was asked this week about Foreign Secretary David Cameron’s decision to meet with Benny Gantz in London said that as far as the UK government was concerned he was “representing Israel”.

Gantz is indeed a minister in the war cabinet but, technically at least, he isn’t representing Israel. He’s a rogue minister, having high-level meetings in Washington DC and London against the express wishes of his prime minister. Benjamin Netanyahu has even ordered Israel’s embassies in those two capitals not to support Gantz in any way. His trip is being paid for by his party, National Unity, and not the government.

I asked the diplomat if he was aware of any precedent for the foreign secretary meeting a rogue minister of a country with which Britain has friendly relations. He smiled and answered: “These are not normal times.”

There’s a better answer, by the way. As far as the Americans and the British are concerned, Gantz is a member of Israel’s war cabinet and as such they have a lot to discuss with him. If, from the perspective of Israel’s prime minister, Gantz is acting against his wishes by flying off and holding these meetings, he can go ahead and fire him.

That is the real story. Not that Gantz is meeting with the most senior members of the US and British governments, but that he can get away with it.

Netanyahu fears the wave of protests that will break out if he fires Gantz so much that he can’t stop him. The Americans and the British, who long ago lost trust in Netanyahu, know that he is in office but no longer in power.

March 07, 2024 12:51

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