On the prowl with Israel's desert patrol

More than a decade after it was founded as the first coed combat unit, the Caracal patrols the border with Egypt to keep up with ISIS threats

May 27, 2017 10:47
Israel Egypt border

Caracal patrols the border with Egypt to keep up with ISIS threats. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)

Orna Weinstein’s routine stretches from dawn to dusk. She gets up at 4:30 a.m., has some tea and goes out on patrol for up to four hours. Then it’s back to base to fix and check on equipment. When sunset comes, around seven in the evening, she picks up her heavy tactical vest with its radio pack and goes back in the jeep for another two hours. It’s a day in the life of the Caracal Battalion, which patrols Israel’s southern border with Sinai.

The Israel Defense Forces IDFblog calls the creation of the coed unit in 2004 one of the “eight miraculous moments in IDF history.” Throughout IDF history, women have always taken part in protecting Israel and filled key positions,” the blog says. It was a “milestone on the way to true gender equality in Israel and around the world.”

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In a 2013 research paper at the Institute for National Security Studies, Pnina Sharvit-Baruch noted that in recent years women have accounted for 30% of those serving in the IDF and that 92% of positions in the army are open to women. One place women have not been represented, besides tanks and submarines, is in combat units. With Caracal and its three new sister battalions (Bardelas [Cheetah], Arayot Hayarden [Lions of the Jordan] and Lavi [Lion]), that has changed. An Army Radio report in November 2016 revealed there was a 400% increase in women joining combat units.

The Caracal, the oldest of these units, has been given one of the toughest border assignments, opposite a Sinai Peninsula increasingly racked with almost weekly acts of terrorism by ISIS against the Egyptian army. Earlier this month, ISIS fired a rocket at Eilat from Sinai. The unit repelled an attack in September 2012 that left three terrorists and one soldier dead.

The main Caracal base, like so many other IDF bases, looks like it was built decades ago. It is located at Ketziot, close to the border crossing of Nitzana, near the ancient Nabatean city at Nitzana and the Byzantine ruins of Shivta.

The unit takes its name from the caracal, or desert cat, that is native to this area. At the base’s entrance are two old armored personnel carriers. There are posters emphasizing a healthy diet and forbidding sexual harassment. A birthday party for a soldier is taking place, and she wears a white crown – a bizarre scene against her fatigues. The mess hall food is amicable. It’s a day before Passover, so there is no hametz. Matza is already making its appearance, alongside a soggy salad, boiled eggs, mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, sweet-potato stew and potatoes with tuna. An army marches on its stomach, Napoleon thought, but the IDF seems poised to go out on patrol mostly with potatoes in the belly.

Orna Weinstein and Jason Sneag, members of the Caracal unit, near the border with Egypt (credit: Seth J. Frantzman)

Weinstein, who was a counselor at a Jewish camp in the United States before being drafted into the army in 2016, says she went through a tough six months of training before being deployed.

“I didn’t want to make aliya initially, but decided to stay here and then I realized I wanted combat. This is the oldest coed unit and has the most interaction,” she says. It was the best known and most accommodating, and she admired its pioneering history.

“It was challenging training in a good way; it built me up and was an intense experience,” Weinstein recalls now.

“Training built my character, mentally and physically, and [made me] capable of doing more than I thought I could. It’s a long training; at many points I felt I couldn’t continue. People push you and demand a lot of you.”

As her comrades enjoy a cigarette and some downtime at a wooden table around an ammo box that doubles as an ashtray, she discusses her expertise. As a communications officer, Weinstein deals with the company-level communications, such as radios, computers and antennas of the vehicles that form the basis for the unit’s patrols.

“I’m constantly with the commander, always in the center of the action.”

Much of the media attention on Caracal focuses on the coed aspect of the unit.

“I would say it’s half girls and half boys,” Weinstein says. For her, the mixing of genders makes the unit stronger.

“It is because of that, we work together and it helps you feel like we can do whatever the boys can. You realize those obstacles don’t matter.”

What about sexual tensions and relationships?

She says such questions are not relevant – that the issue doesn’t impact the service. “There are restrictions and clear boundaries. We have separate living quarters. It’s made clear it is separate.”

For outsiders, the idea of women in combat seems exotic and it attracts much media coverage.

“Girls and Guns,” is the title of one recent IDF blog post. In a November 2016 article, Arutz Sheva alleges that “women are integrated into IDF despite scientific evidence that male soldiers were adversely affected by the lowered standards of the Caracal units.”

Other media outlets, such as The New York Times and Public Radio International, say the world can look to Israel as a model for women in combat, and the unit has been the subject of research studies. However, the role of women in combat in the Caracal or its sister units remains more minor than that envisioned for traditional brigades such as Givati or Golani. For the moment, rather than integrate those units, the IDF is building on the model of the Caracal so that Israel’s borders will be ringed by similar units – such as The Lions of Jordan in the Jordan Valley and Bardelas in the southern Negev.

Preparing to leave for a drive along the border, we got into a jet-black Jeep Wrangler so new that it had the smell of a car fresh off the production line. The normal patrol vehicle for the Caracal is the MDT David, which is based on a Land Rover Defender’s body with the usual up-armored additions of metal panels and mess on the windows. The unit also has Humvees, which they call katlan in Hebrew, that it uses in hilly terrain.

“We have the threat of smugglers, such as drug smugglers, in our area. I’ve only been here a month and a half and haven’t had to deal with that yet. The migrants have become less of an issue, although we are trained to deal with it,” says Weinstein. Just a half decade ago the rate of migrants crossing the unfenced border was a major issue, as some 60,000 crossed between 2001 and 2011. In January 2012 a total of 2,171 people crossed, but those numbers declined to only 10 by 2013, as the border fence was completed along the Egyptian border that year.

Shouldering her Tavor rifle, Weinstein boards the Jeep Wrangler behind Maj. Alem Saad and eases the vehicle out of the base. Passing Be’er Milka, a moshav established in 2006, one spots pleasant cabins looking out over the desert. Nearby, a small base surrounded by concrete walls and barbed wire marks another center of Caracal activities.

Major Alem Saad of the Caracal unit stands next to the border fence (credit: Seth J. Frantzman)

Jason Sneag, an immigrant from South Africa who came to Israel at age 12, greets us at the gate. He’s been in the unit for two years.

“It changes every day – one day guarding here and another in a jeep looking for holes in the fence. In my two years here we’ve had to confront several threats, such as shooting at the jeeps from across the border. There’s less of that now.”

The major threat everyone talks about is ISIS, but for now everything seems quiet.

“We hear about what happens on the other side of the border,” says Sneag. “Drug smuggling is more a problem than people [migrants]. They usually throw the drugs over the fence; if we are there and we can stop them, then we stop them.”

He thinks also the combination of women and men is positive.

“Not everywhere else do you have boys and girls together. It can be challenging in the beginning; you have your doubts, but when you see what they can do, you will see girls pushing men and some of the strongest are women.”

The final march in training for the unit is 25 kilometers, less than the marches done by the paratroops or other all-male combat units.

Creature comforts for the soldiers, besides the beautiful sunrises, are a bit lacking, but the caravans they live in do have air conditioning, essential in the blistering summer heat. Someone on the base years ago made a mural that still greets arrivals, showing caracal cats sitting around a table in a rendition of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper.

Sneag says he has served 16 days on base and six throughout during his service. In the small base, some of the female soldiers are kicking a soccer ball around.

Maj. Saad, who previously served in the Druse Battalion, returned to the army eight months ago and was posted to this unit.

“It’s something different, very combat strong. I wanted to see it up close.”

He says the coed concept should be expanded.

“Should there be a threat here, they are ready for it.”

He says the threats they face change every day and their main job is to protect the civilian communities nearby.

Night has fallen on the Negev and Saad maneuvers his jeep, with troops in it, out of the base. He calls in his coordinates to a radio controller and gives them his plan. This 242-kilometer border from Eilat to the Gaza Strip here is a straight line based on the border the British drew with the Ottomans in 1906. The fence Israel constructed along it over the last half decade has grown in height from six to eight meters today. It is also a “smart” fence, with various sensors and lines of security, some of which are kept secret.

“You can see the Egyptian army towers from here,” Saad says, pointing into the gloomy black at a looming little stockade tower in the distance. While the Israelis patrol in their jeeps, the Egyptians sit in their towers. It’s a totally different system on the other side, using more manpower.

The major points out how close the Israeli community of Kadesh Barnea, home of a famous Negev wine, is – just 20 meters from the fence, he says.

“The most important thing is to defend these communities and the citizens. It’s our primary objective.”

In the darkness, a slow-moving grading machine drives along the fence. If someone crosses it, their prints will show in the dirt and trackers can hunt them down. Much of what the Caracal does here is in partnership with other units: surveillance, intelligence, those who liaise with the Egyptians, and others who monitor the fence’s sensors. Saad says that although the fence looks like a wall to animal life, there are passages for smaller creatures. The Nitzana border crossing also handles small amounts of daily trade with Egypt.

It is fitting that Saad is taking soldiers out on the eve of Passover. He says some of the Jews passed this route when they came out of Egypt. According to the Book of Deuteronomy, Kadesh Barnea was a site of the “wandering” in the “wilderness of Zin” and it was from this site that Moses sent the spies out to scope out Canaan. It also marks a traditional border of the Land of Israel.

These days no one is coming out of Egypt. If anything, Israel has been warning citizens not to enter Sinai because of the danger from ISIS and other terrorists. Saad and his soldiers seem to enjoy the mission.

“I’m not much of an office person. Give me a rifle and a jeep and let me go out in the field,” he says.

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