Counter-terror expert trains Kiwi professionals

Israel has had to deal with terror attacks for many years and Dr Itay Gil‘s solemn message for New Zealand is “it’s coming to you”. This was the same message he gave to a group of leaders in Sydney in 1995 when some of those listening to him thought that Australia was immune and could learn little from the tiny Jewish nation.

More than two decades later, Australian emergency services are turning to Israel for training and the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service has identified “violent extremism” as the number one threat to New Zealand.

Dr Gil was an IDF captain and served in the special forces paratrooper brigade, after which he was chosen to join Israel’s elite counter-terror and hostage rescue team (Yamam). He became the chief close-quarters combat instructor for the unit and executive director for all training programs for the Israel border and undercover Police units. His company, Protect, now consults to civilians and government agencies across the world.

Dr Gil was recently in New Zealand offering training and workshops. He trained representatives of the NZ Police and defence forces as well as security professionals and has suggested that the NZDF are seriously considering updating their training program to incorporate Israeli methods that have been refined with experience.

Unfortunately, Israel has had to develop robust counter-terror methods. Gil told IINZ that, following the refusal of German authorities to accept Israeli assistance in resolving the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre and the fact that nine of the 11 hostages murdered were killed during a botched rescue attempt by German police, “there is no one coming to save us – we need to save ourselves”.

This mantra was solidified, according to Gil, in 1976 when Israeli commandos freed 105 hostages and Air France crew members held by PFLP terrorists in Entebbe, Uganda. Operation Entebbe is considered Israel’s most daring rescue mission and is taught and studied by armies around the globe.

But the same sense of self-reliance has been a part of the State of Israel since its founding in 1948, says Gil. The pioneers who turned the swamps into fertile agricultural land share the same spirit as the entrepreneurs that have made Israel the ‘Start-up nation’. Gil recalls Golda Meir’s quote that Israel was founded as “a place where Jews could be ‘masters, not victims, of their fate.’

And he is taking the lessons he has learned from his service and trying to help other nations become masters and not victims. Some of these lessons are the same as Kiwi entrepreneurs have identified from their business delegations to Israel – like the value in compulsory military service and viewing challenges as opportunities.

But Gil applies the lessons to counter-terror and, while sitting in an Auckland hotel, he makes the observation that there are millions of dollars spent on CCTV cameras for the facility but it is unlikely that anyone is prepared to react to an attack and he observes that few Western countries have rapid response teams specifically trained for counter-terror operations. “Would you let your children swim in a pool that had a camera with a lifeguard 20 minutes drive away?” he asks.

Comparing this to Israel, Gil delves beyond the cultural instincts of citizens to run toward a problem to help rather than fleeing the scene and highlights the ‘Good Samaritan’ law in Israel that requires anyone to assist a person in danger or at the very least call for help. He says that every citizen should learn at least the basics of swimming, self defence, first aid and medical skills.

Gil acknowledges there are clear differences between the threat in Israel and in New Zealand (and across the globe). However, “it’s coming to you” he repeats, and insists that the time to start preparing is before an incident forces an inquiry and review of practices.

Dr Itay Gil will be returning to New Zealand next year and will be setting up a Protect branch in New Zealand, headed by Mark Richards. He hopes the NZDF, at least, will be taking the lessons learnt from his workshop this year into practice.

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