Early Monday morning on Highway 40 near the Ramon Crater, Beduin smugglers in a truck drive north, playing lookout for traffickers in a white pickup
trailing behind, loaded with heroin and hashish. The smugglers have been under
surveillance for months and at the moment, they’re being tracked by undercover
police on land and in the air, following the point vehicle as it heads for the
Beduin villages in the Ramat Negev area.
As officers from the MAGEN
anti-smuggling unit and the Border Police’s undercover Mistarvim unit move in
and stop the lookout truck, the driver of the second vehicle hits the gas,
eventually ramming a police jeep before running off the road. After a short foot
chase, officers arrest the smugglers and when they search the jeep, they realize
that like they expected, the trafficking game had changed in the
“We knew they’d try to move the hashish smuggling to Jordan, it
was a matter of time,” MAGEN commander Chief Inspector Noam Kaiser said Wednesday,
adding that as the Egyptian border fence went up and the smuggling routes from
Egypt largely dried up, the smugglers began to change tactics – and today,
Jordan is no longer the route for only heroin and cocaine.
which seized 17 kg. of heroin and 48 kg. of hashish, was the first time that
smugglers had been caught trying to bring in a large-scale hash shipment from Jordan, Kaiser
said. The hash seized was black, pliable and wet, a much different product than
the light brown, dry hash that has traditionally been caught entering Israel
from Egypt, Kaiser said. The officer said he did not know what the origin of the
new product was, or if it was made in Egypt and smuggled into Jordan, or if it
came to Jordan from the East – possibly Asia.
Kaiser did confirm that it
is much different than the hash they used to seize. Sources in Tel Aviv
confirmed that the market in the city has seen an influx of the black hashish
Kaiser said the operation was carried out following several
months of an undercover operation in which MAGEN officers trailed members of the
tribe, gathering intel ahead of the upcoming shipment from
According to Kaiser, smugglers have plenty of options for getting
around the Egyptian border fence, including sending blocks of hashish on ferries
from Sinai to southern Jordan, or by way of motorboats across the Red Sea. He
said that since Jordan doesn’t face the same security threats as Israel, they
have less strict customs checks, a situation easily exploited by
The situation on the Egyptian border has also changed in a
two-pronged way that has both eased and hindered the work of traffickers, Kaiser
explained. On the one hand, since the Egyptian revolution there has been an
almost complete loss of law and order in the Sinai, the very land where the
smuggling gangs base their operations. On the other hand, once they get to the
Israeli border, they have to find ways to pass a 5- meter fence, a situation
that never existed in the past.
“If before they would have sent trucks or
jeeps every night, now they’ll send guys on ATVs or tractors, and less often,”
Kaiser said, adding that with all of the technological means at the smugglers’
disposal, they’ve begun a utilize a decidedly low-tech tool: ladders.
guy will drive up to the border in a truck with a long ladder and another guy
will be waiting on the other side on an ATV. He’ll throw the drugs over and the
other guy will grab it and take off.”
As the smuggling game has become
more difficult, smugglers have also become bolder and potentially more violent,
Kaiser said, adding that while two years ago the drug runners rarely used to be
armed, these days they are almost always carrying firearms, a situation also
linked to the easier-than-ever access to guns in Sinai. Also, Kaiser said there
is no longer a free-for-all at the border, and as the stakes have gotten higher,
the part-time smugglers who used to sneak cigarettes and other small-time
contraband in from Egypt have all but disappeared.
“The professionals are
still in the game, but the amateurs have moved on, it’s too hard for them now,”
The fence and the heightened patrols of the police and the
army in the South have brought a well over 50-percent drop in the amount of
hashish entering Israel from Egypt, Kaiser estimated, a figure that would be
easy to believe in Tel Aviv and elsewhere in Israel – where there has recently
been a serious shortage in the hash supply.
The shortage has driven up
prices and increased the stakes for smugglers, in a self-perpetuating cycle of
supply and demand familiar to any first-year economics student.
who has commanded MAGEN for the past three years, also said that the fence has
put an almost absolute stop on the smuggling of African migrants, drying up
another source of income for Beduin smuggling tribes that will only increase the
draw of the drug trade for tribes on both sides of Israel’s southern
These tribes have been in the business since long before the
State of Israel existed, back when their ancestors smuggled and bartered across
ancient Middle Eastern trade routes.
“The smugglers were born into this
world and grew up with it; it’s something they’ve done since the spice routes.
They know how to survive and live off the land, and they know the land better
than anyone else,” Kaiser said.
Kaiser said each smuggling networks
includes an “operations chief” at the head, followed by a clear chain of command
of drivers, scouts and runners. The drivers, Kaiser said “are the best there
are, they know every path, every road, and can drive them in pitch darkness with
the lights off.” The network’s foot soldiers and commanders, many of whom have
done military service and received training from the IDF, according to Kaiser,
show a high degree of professionalism and cunning as well.
chicken sandwich at an Aroma café next to the Negev sub-district headquarters in
Beersheba (“That’s the problem with this job, you’re always running, you often
forget to eat,” Kaiser said), the MAGEN commander described the type of officers
who volunteer to go to war with tribes that have been in the drug trade for
centuries, and will remain in the business long after Kaiser and his officers
Kaiser, a 39-year-old resident of a moshav in the South who
served as an officer in the IDF’s Duvdevan undercover special forces unit, said
MAGEN, which was founded in 2008, includes a little less than 100 “fighters,”
all of whom must have served in an IDF combat unit as a preenlistment
requirement. When they sign up with the police they are drafted directly into
MAGEN, and begin training for both of the unit’s two main requirements:
gathering intelligence and carrying out direct action operations. On operations,
they work alongside officers from the southern branch of the Border Police’s
Mistarvim unit, with the full cooperation of the IDF Southern
When asked if the unit includes any Beduin, Kaiser said, “I
prefer not to answer that question,” but he did say that the intelligence aspect
includes long-term surveillance of suspects and their associates, and that “we
study a man, who he is, who his friends are, which cars he drives, what he does
and where he goes.”
The fighters in the unit are on-call around the
clock, Kaiser said, relating an incident from last Thursday when dozens of
members of the team were at the wedding for a fellow member of the unit, when
they got a call that the smugglers they’d been following for months were on
their way to the Jordanian border. Many officers cleared out of the wedding
hall, which luckily was located in the South, but unfortunately the drug drop
was only made on Monday.
The past few years have been successful for the
unit, their commander said, adding that they’ve managed to crack 13 smuggling
networks and make a number of high-profile arrests, including three weeks ago,
when they captured Jamal Abu- Zuheyah, who Kaiser said was the top smuggling
kingpin on the Israeli side of the Egyptian border. Abu-Zuheyah was picked up
for a traffic violation in central Beersheba by officers who had been trailing
him for months, and with a long record of road violations he now stands to face
a few years imprisonment on a reckless driving charge.
Still, it could be
foolish to expect such high-profile busts to put an end to a pre-modern trade
that has only become more and more lucrative.
“Someone always steps up to
fill the space when an arrest is made, there’s never a vacuum left. There’s too
much money to be made, and this is the life they know,” Kaiser said.