When “David,” a corporal (res.) in the IDF, was sent to reinforce Israel’s
240-km. border with Egypt in June, he expected it to be a vacation of sorts in
the quiet desert.
He was mistaken.
For 22 days the truck driver, a
28-year-old American- Israeli, dealt with constant terror alerts, cat-and-mouse
chases after African migrants and nightly forays into Egyptian territory – all
the while patrolling an extremely tense border in an unarmored
Sitting in Tel Aviv this week, David described at length what he
called “my hardest month in the army.”
“You spend the day on patrol going
up and down your sector for eight hours on, eight hours off and then at night
that’s when the Africans come over and that’s when things are
On most nights the migrants would begin walking the last
stretch of desert before the Israel border around midnight or 1 a.m., while IDF soldiers would
watch from inside Egypt, close to the border with Israel, David
“You have [our] soldiers inside Egypt watching with night vision
goggles, and usually we can see them [African migrants] coming a few hours in
Sometimes you’re watching them for like an hour or two, and you
assume that they’re Africans, but you don’t know who they are, they’re just
people walking and you have to keep an eye on them. Ideally you stop them while
they’re in Egypt because then you can return them.”
NGOs and activists
have criticized “hot returns,” and the handing over of migrants to Egyptian
authorities, who have been known to return them to their home countries, where
many of them could potentially face persecution.
David confirmed that the
return of the migrants is carried out in full cooperation with Egyptian police
and soldiers. He described how IDF soldiers would spend the night guarding
migrants they stopped while still within Egypt, and hand them over to Egyptian
police in the morning.
“The Egyptians are aware of what’s going on. It’s
not like you push them over to the other side and they walk back, we hand them
over directly to the Egyptians. The Egyptians have to agree to take them back.
So it seemed to us that it’s pretty clear that it’s with the blessing of the
Egyptians. We never understood why, why would [they] take them back, they’re in
Israel it’s not [their] problem anymore,” he said.
David said that even
when the migrants are stopped inside Egypt, the IDF will often have to bring
them into Israel to drive them to where they turn them over to the Egyptian
He said that he never witnessed, or heard, about anyone taking
Africans back into Egypt once they had already crossed into Israel and were
stopped in Israel.
When the migrants make it into Israel, IDF Beduin
trackers count the number of foot prints and make sure there is a set of tracks
for each migrant seen caught by soldiers in Israel.
“The Beduin trackers
are insane; they can tell if the tracks are from army boots or not.
find every set of tracks, they find everything. Let’s say there’s a group of 30
migrants that you’ve found in Israel, and you have the Beduin trackers with you
and they have to find 30 peoples’ tracks. If they find 33 then you have to go on
a goose-chase after people in the craziest terrain and you’ll never catch them
and you could be out until 10 or 11 in the morning until they call off the
search,” David said.
“There are people that we don’t catch, we assume
they’re Africans, but we don’t know who they are.”
Typically the migrants
who make it safely into Israel squat on Route 10 along the border, where they
wait until the next patrol picks them up, he added.
“When you catch them,
you have to search each one of them. They’re in a group, you have each person
walk away from the group and then take their clothes off to make sure they have
no weapons or bombs on them and once everyone in the group has done that,
they’re given water, food, and treated, I think, extremely well,” David said,
adding that the searches are not performed on women, who make up a slim minority
of migrants illegally crossing into Israel by way of the Egypt
When asked about reports that IDF soldiers had been given orders
to deny food and give only the barest amount of water to a group of migrants
demanding entry at the border fence last week, David said, “bullshit, that’s
“From what I saw, we were always giving them food and water the
moment we finished checking that no one has any bombs or weapons on
They’re not afraid of us, they know the soldiers aren’t going to
shoot them or hurt them.
The only time it’s a problem is when they find
out you’re going to send them back to Egypt and when you have people trying to
push you around or arguing with you or trying to run back.”
that at times dealing with the migrants is a painful and disturbing
“You feel horrible for them, they’ve walked from Eritrea, probably
been raped by Beduin – or God knows what – you definitely feel for them, but
it’s just too many, and every night it’s 30 or 40 people.
awful, like you’re hunting black people. There’s a racial component to it,
especially if you come from America, and it sucks,” said David.
the cat-and-mouse chase against illegal migrants there were also the constant
terror threats that David said kept the reservists on edge.
there were warnings and intelligence about stuff they [terrorists] were
planning,” David said, especially around the time of the shooting by Sinai-based
gunmen in June that left an Israeli-Arab construction worker dead.
added that the security fence at best only presents a false sense of
“It’s not an electric fence and it’s too long to patrol all of
There are also the flood tunnels below it. Terrorists who are
determined and want to get across will get across. I do think it will make it
much more difficult for Africans who want to get across, though. Unless the
Beduin start building tunnels or taking them to Jordan.”
impressive or imposing than the fence were the disorganized and poorly equipped
Egyptian troops on the other side of the fence, David said.
f***ing madness. The Egyptian soldiers have no vehicles, they have concrete
buildings along the border and they just walk between them, sometimes you see
them riding on camels.
“They have a nicer road along the border than we
do, but nothing to drive on it. The Egyptian soldier presence is a joke. The
Beduin do what they want there, nothing is coordinated there.”
described an absurd situation in which IDF soldiers and IDF Beduin trackers
would be sent to provide security for contractors working on the fence – most of
whom were Israeli Arabs along with African migrants – toiling in the heat to put
up a fence to keep out further migrants like themselves.
[Egyptian soldiers] would shoot at us for fun. They wouldn’t shoot to hit us,
just shoot in our direction, just to piss us off. Then you’d have the IDF Beduin
yelling at the Egyptian police in Arabic, telling them to tell people to stop
shooting. It’s the Wild, Wild West over there, it’s just absolutely nuts there,”
After his 22 days at the border, David’s perception of the
southern frontier was permanently changed.
“People think that the
Egyptian border is quiet and we don’t have to worry about it but it’s just not
the case, they’re always trying to get across, always trying to bring suicide
It’s a border where we don’t have enough of a
People don’t realize that the Egyptian border is just a f***ing
mess. The army knows that it’s a mess, but I don’t think the general population
understands that the Egyptian border is not safe at all.”
In addition to
sending more reservists and regular infantry troops to the Egyptian border to
deal with the worsening security situation, the IDF has recently beefed-up the
elite Sayeret Rimon reconnaissance unit, expanding it from an oversized company
to a battalion-sized unit capable of covering more territory along the 240-km.
Reformed last year to patrol the Sinai border, Sayeret Rimon
serves under the Givati Brigade on a similar model to the Golani Brigade’s Egoz
reconnaissance unit that operates along the northern border with
Though its current incarnation was only born last year, Sayeret
Rimon bears the name of the commando unit formed by then-OC Southern Command
Maj.-Gen. Ariel Sharon in the early 1970s. The unit earned a ruthless reputation
over the following years, as it liquidated militants across the Gaza
Sayeret Rimon is also famous because of the young paratrooper
commander Sharon tasked with forming the unit – former Mossad chief Meir
In response to an inquiry from The Jerusalem Post about whether or
not IDF troops are entering Egyptian territory to stop illegal migrants before
they reach Israel and return them to Egypt, which has been reported by Israeli
NGOs, the IDF Spokeman’s Office said “in keeping with decisions made on the
policy and governmental level, IDF forces are using different means to prevent
illegal infiltration of Israel by way of the western
“Construction of the fence is being completed along the
In areas where the fence has not been completed, the IDF is
working to prevent the entry of infiltrators to Israel,” the spokesman said.