Sunday, August 25, 2013

From Beirut to Bat Yam -The Lebanese connection

Lebanon-born Eli Kasheq never thought that one day he would become one of the Israeli military's senior electronic warfare experts

Photo credit: Ziv Koren
Sigal Arbitman..
Israel Hayom..
23 August '13..

Eli Kasheq is a 57-year-old civilian employee who serves as the deputy commander of the Israel Defense Forces' electronic warfare instructional school and the head of its Arab department.

At his base in Tzrifin, adjoining Rishon Lezion in central Israel, Kasheq makes himself comfortable in his office chair. His office is not the typical IDF office. It is small and stuffy and the walls are adorned with pictures of him in his youth, including wearing a soldier's uniform during his own military service. Behind him hangs a large map, spoils recovered during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. It shows the then-borders of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Instead of Israel, "Palestine" appears on the map, and instead of Jerusalem, the map shows "Al-Quds."

Kasheq's office does not exude that IDF aura of efficiency and professionalism, but between the water dispenser and the coffee machine, it does have the feel of a man who is quite at home.

"The best two things I did to upgrade the office was to bring the mineral-water dispenser and the espresso machine," he said. "Without them, I wouldn't be alive."

As he pours water for himself and prepares coffee for his guests, he recalls how he recently noticed that one of his soldiers was endangering the unit's security on Facebook.

Q. Are you friends with your soldiers on Facebook?

"What kind of question is that? Of course I am. Not only that, but I'm not the one that sends them friendship requests. They send them to me. I don't keep track of them on a daily basis. I do check on them to make sure they don't post nonsense, like one of my soldiers who recently posted a map of hills where he was going to do some navigation exercises. It's a good thing I caught him in time."

For Kasheq, security in the field and confidentiality are second nature. The electronic warfare department is one of the most important departments in the IDF, both in times of peace and in time of war, and its job, among other things, is to intercept enemy transmissions and electronic correspondences and to block them.

The unit's soldiers listen to military broadcasts and communications of armies in neighboring countries as well as the terror groups operating in the area. They communicate at various frequencies and they detect threats that need to be neutralized by jamming radio frequencies, blocking antennas and other electronic means. The end result is usually a "broken telephone" used by the enemy, which has a hard time relaying commands. Chaos for the enemy is always a good thing.

Kasheq's path to the unit was a chance one. As the son of a traditional Lebanese-Jewish family, he spent his childhood in the quaint confines of Wadi Abu Jamil Street in Beirut, known as the "Street of the Jews."

The son of a merchant father and a housewife mother, Kasheq, like other Jews in Lebanon, experienced happy times before the 1967 Six-Day War. Most Jews in Lebanon had flourishing businesses, summer and winter homes, and lavish lifestyles. Most also had television sets in their homes. This was at a time when in Israel people were still trying to figure out how to run the country, and where it took a trip to the central post office to enjoy the luxury of a telephone.

Recalling his childhood, Kasheq flashes a wide smile while describing the rich community life predicated on preserving Jewish tradition. It did not take long for him to begin going into detail. When the subject of the Six-Day War was raised, the idyllic setting began to take on a different texture.

"When the war broke out, somebody put up a picture of Nasser on the door of my father's shop in the market," he said. "After that, it was impossible to open up the store without tearing the picture. Nasser was a god at that time. We got the hint, and that whole week we stayed at home until the rage died down. After Israel won the war, the picture was taken down."

That was when trouble began. Palestinian refugees fleeing Israel began coming into Lebanon en masse and whipping up hatred against the local Jews. The Kasheq family, like many other Jewish families at the time, realized that their life of comfort in Beirut had come to an end.

"My dad, rest his soul, sat all of us down in the living room and told us we were going to Israel," he said. "My older brother was a devoted Zionist, and he told my father that he was going to make aliyah either with the family or on his own, so my father decided that we were all making aliyah."

In the early 1970s, the family packed up their belongings and eagerly left -- or perhaps fled -- Lebanon for Cyprus, where they stayed for a week. Afterward, they were on their way to Israel.

Do you remember how you felt at the time?

"Leaving was very hard for me. There was a good feeling that we got out of there before things got really bad, but, still … we left a developed country where we were considered wealthy to come to a place that was -- as unpleasant as it is to admit -- much less developed. When we arrived, we waited seven years for a telephone. A telephone! And we didn't have a television. In Lebanon, these were things everybody had. We came to this country and we received cots as beds in Bat Yam. It wasn't easy."

Five weeks later, the family suffered a horrible tragedy. Kasheq's father was killed in a work accident in a cotton wool factory.

"I'll never forget that day," he said. "It was Tu Bishvat, and I went out with my classmates to plant seeds in Bat Yam. We walked past the yard of the factory, and I remember waving to my father, who saw me from the window. I came back to school, and then I went home. Once I got home, I saw all of my uncles downstairs, and they told me that my father had been killed."

What happened?

"That same day, [my father's] brother and sister who had stayed behind in Lebanon were supposed to come to Israel. He was eager to leave work so that he could meet them at the airport. He was so eager that he neglected to turn off the machine that he was working with before he began cleaning it. I think it also had to do with the fact that he didn't know Hebrew so well and he didn't properly read the cleaning instructions in Hebrew. His hand was caught in the machine, and then cut off. By the time the ambulance reached him, he had lost a tremendous amount of blood. That was how we started our lives in Israel."

The tragedy did not prevent Kasheq and his family from adjusting to the country. His older brothers were sent to various boarding schools, thanks to the generous funding from his wealthy uncle from Lebanon. Kasheq stayed home to take care of his mother and younger sister.

Some time later, the family moved into a better neighborhood in Bat Yam. Kasheq decided that 11 years of schooling was enough for him, and in his junior year he left high school and began working in order to support the family. In 1974, he enlisted in the IDF, and after his basic training joined the Communications Corps, where he underwent an introductory course in Morse Code.

Why the Communications Corps? Did you have any experience with electronics?

"No way. I just randomly ended up there. I could have been doing something that dealt with weapons, or in the Communications Corps. I preferred the Communications Corps. It was a really big gamble."

The gamble paid off. Two months after he began his course, two electronic warfare officers came to visit his unit in search of potential candidates for their division.

"Electronic warfare at the time was a tiny department," he said. "It was two tents, a few offices, and two classrooms. Once the officers realized that I was fluent in Lebanese Arabic, they did all they could to enlist me. They even deceived me a bit. They said that electronic warfare offered perks in that there were air conditioners in all of the classes and that soldiers had the option of walking around in civilian clothes, and all these other things. That intrigued me quite a bit, and I agreed. Needless to say that none of these things were true. There were no air conditioners. Instead we had dusty tents and cabins instead of classrooms. But that was when the fun started."

For a signal operator in the military, it was love at first sight.

"This was a job that was tailor-made for me," he said. "I thanked God that I got there. Most of the Lebanese who made aliyah with me went to routine jobs in intelligence, and I was the only one who changed direction. I used the thing that I knew best, my Arabic, and I learned a new profession that I could do really well, electronics. Together, this was a lethal combination. It was clear to me that I wasn't going to leave the army so fast."

Kasheq was quick to commit to serving in the military beyond the three-year compulsory period. He did not even undergo officers' training since he did not want to switch jobs.

"In 1977, I signed up for three years in the professional standing army," he said. "I received what at the time was known as 'a grant and a couch' -- 25,000 liras. I used this money to pay for the wedding, and I married the woman who was my girlfriend at the time and who today is my wife. The wedding was held at a military hall on Carlebach Street in Tel Aviv, where soldiers in the standing army got a discount. With the money we received from guests, we bought our first house. There's no doubt that the army was the main contributor the start of my life. It's thanks to the army that I achieved what I did."

Being grateful to the army that provided him with economic security, Kasheq managed to shine as a devoted, capable soldier. In 1976, the IDF realized that the Phalange in south Lebanon had the potential to serve as a useful ally. That was when the army began organizing the Phalange into an organized fighting force. Kasheq played a critical role in this process.

"My training enabled me to amass vast knowledge in communications equipment, and because I knew the language fluently, they sent me to Lebanon. There I met with those who would comprise the fighting force of the South Lebanese Army, and I taught them a communications course in Arabic. We had a classroom, and I taught them everything from A to Z. I taught them all about the communications equipment supplied by the military."

Was it strange to return to the country of your birth after so many years?

"It was amazing to come back, but I was also a bit scared because I still had family in Lebanon, and I was afraid something would happen to me. Maybe I'd be kidnapped or something, and they would ask for a ransom. But I enjoyed it greatly. We even taught their daughters all about communications. The Lebanese were very enamored with Israel, and they realized that without us they were lost. We taught hundreds of courses, and every evening we'd have a party at the encampment. They were really taken by the fact that I was also Lebanese. I felt as if I was returning to my roots."

During the 1978 Litani Operation, Kasheq was constantly on the radio. His job was to listen to various frequencies and try to intercept enemy communications.

"Electronic warfare is built on having every soldier receive a frequency from an intelligence officer," he said.

"During the operation, I received a frequency on which nothing happened, and, because I was very impatient, I started to move to other frequencies to try to intercept something significant.

"Suddenly, I heard someone report to the forces in the field that he had seen a Zionist helicopter hovering overhead and that he wanted to give the order to down it. I immediately called my intelligence officer and asked him for permission to jam the frequency, but permission was never given. So I'm sitting there, hearing how the enemy is planning to bring down our helicopter, and my hands are tied."

Then, the drama began to unfold.

"I decided to take the initiative," Kasheq said. "I thought to myself, 'Either they demote me to private or I'll get a citation for bravery.' I took the risk and I jammed the frequency without permission, all the while shaking with fear. I jammed the frequency for six minutes, and then the red telephone rang. On the line were the officers praising my intelligence officer for his actions, saying, 'Kudos for giving the order to jam the frequency.' As it turns out, the chief of staff and the defense minister were on the helicopter. Because of what nearly happened during that war, the two were forbidden from traveling at the same time on the same aircraft during combat. Today, by the way, I teach my students not to do that."

Why not? It worked for you.

"Well, yes, but I'm Lebanese. It's not a matter of showing off, but there is no other Lebanese soldier around here. All of my students are wonderful people, yet they are -- if you'll pardon the expression -- Ashkenazim who learned Arabic in school. If one of my students was to hear that frequency, he wouldn't understand the nuances of the language. You need to really live the language in order to grasp these aspects. If someone does do something like that and saves the country, I'll give him two kisses and everything will be all right, but if not, it could be a disaster."

Do our enemies know we are jamming their communications?

"Usually they think it's a technical mishap. Suddenly we hear them say, 'Switch the antenna, improve the reception, recalibrate,' all these things that are supposed to revive the device. They don't suspect it was us. Even though their commanders and intelligence know we have a unit that interferes with their radios, it hasn't trickled down to the rank and file."

Do you ever stumble across normal conversations that they have among themselves?

"Sure. Less so during combat and more so when it's quiet. They talk about the exact same things that we talk about: a lot of profanities, 'your mom is so and so and your dad is so and so,' jokes, especially about women, all kinds of stories about how things went with this girl or that one."

Kasheq turns serious in summing up his role.

"We really can save lives," he said. "We are on the ground close to the combat zone. We don't go in, but our soldiers are stationed with their equipment and they are placed in specific areas, whether it's in Gaza or on the Golan Heights, and they listen to various frequencies. If I block an order given by a commander during real time, even if it's 10 minutes, then that's it, I changed the whole course of the battle."

Original Title: The Lebanese connection

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