Elite Beduin trackers guarding Israel's border with Lebanon

After a long history in the IDF, the fear that technology might run them out of a job is real.

December 17, 2016 21:18
Major Fahed Gahder on Israel-Lebanon border

Major Fahed Gahder on Israel-Lebanon border. (photo credit: Courtesy)

It’s a sunny day, the first after a few days of rain. Looking at the dirt path running along the border with Lebanon, Maj. Fahed Gahder scans the ground. There are pebbles, puddles, and what appear to be footprints, at least to the layman.

Across the valley, Gahder points to a shack “that used to be a Hezbollah outpost.”

He kneels, motioning for me to return to the footprint, explaining with a smile that it represented no danger. “It was a cow.”

Ghader, a Beduin from northern Israel who is the tracking officer for the IDF’s Sword Battalion, formerly known as Unit 300 and as the IDF Minorities Unit, is a natural detective of the ground.

He knows that the devil is in the details, able to ascertain if a single footprint in the dirt can lead him to a terrorist infiltration or to a civilian.
Minorities in the IDF: Muslim, Christian, Beduin, Druze, Circassian soldiers (Courtesy: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

Beduin men, who patrol Israel’s borders and act as the first line of defense, are not obliged to serve in the army, meaning that they volunteer to put their lives at risk for their country. Since 1948, more than 110 Beduin have been killed defending Israel.

During Operation Protective Edge against Hamas in 2014, more than a dozen Beduin and an Israeli of Ethiopian descent in the tracking unit were killed.

In the IDF, Beduin are highly respected for their tracking and navigational skills, something they learn in their youth, Gahder told The Jerusalem Post, adding that in his unit there are career soldiers between the ages of 35 and 47, and soldiers as young as 20 years old.

But Gahder is worried that technological advancements will render them obsolete. Israel’s border installations are some of the most advanced in the world, with smart fences, concrete walls, cameras and thermal sensors.

“In the next five, 10 years, I am not sure if we will still be needed,” he said. “It’s my biggest fear.”

But technology is not always the answer and the trackers are always the first called to the scene of a possible infiltration.

On one three-day incident Gahder recounted, it was the trackers who lasted the longest in the field, not the helicopter, not the trucks and not the dogs.

The difficulty of the tracker’s job varies with the location and the topography, Gahder told the Post. Near the Gaza Strip, the trackers are able to easily read the sand, and are able to quickly tell if there is an infiltration toward Israel.

Up in the Northern Galilee, he said, it’s more difficult as the area is full of forested hills; water is also challenging, he said, but trackers identify the possible entry point and scan the banks in both directions for a possible exit point.

According to Kamal, a Beduin from the southern city of Rahat, Beduin “are given the toughest, hardest orders, but are rarely recognized for their work.” He cited the locating of the bodies of teenagers Gil-Ad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrah, who were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas in Judea in June 2014.

According to a May report by State Comptroller Joseph Shapira, a third of Israel’s 200,000 Beduin live in unrecognized villages. The inhabitants of these villages suffer from a lack of infrastructure, rely on solar panels for electricity, lack roads and sewerage, are not connected to Israel’s water supply network, and despite being citizens, are not provided any health and educational services.

And in addition, the government continues to demolish these unrecognized Beduin villages, mainly in the southern part of the country. Many NGOs have criticized Israel’s policy of demolishing unrecognized villages, but according to Gahder, it’s clear: Beduin who build unauthorized villages are breaking the law.

And demolition isn’t the only danger Beduin face living in unrecognized villages.

During Operation Protective Edge two-and-a-half years ago, a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip struck the village of Qasr al-Sir near the southern city of Dimona. Because Beduin villages do not have air raid sirens, lack bomb shelters, and incoming rockets are not intercepted by the Iron Dome, 32-year-old Oudi Lafi al-Waj was killed. Three of his family members, including two children, were wounded.

All the men in his family had been in the army, but even after his death, the High Court of Justice ruled that there was no need for a shelter to be placed in unrecognized Beduin villages. According to the court, while these villages are vulnerable to rockets, “the level of risk did not justify the supply of portable shelters at the expense of areas at higher risk.”

“Will his sons now join the army? If their safety is such a low priority for the state? I don’t think so,” Kamal told the Post over coffee. “When the army says it’s the army of the people, what does that even mean? Are the Beduin not part of the people of Israel? From what I see, what I experience, the Beduin are only important for one or two specific duties for the army. Nothing more.”

There is also pressure from the Islamic Movement in Israel not to serve, Gahder told the Post. “They come and say, ‘Look, your son joined the army and the country destroyed your home. How does that make you feel?’” These pressures have affected enlistment. According to a senior IDF officer, 357 Beduin joined the IDF in 2015, 254 from the North and 103 in the South.

Gahder, who after 12 years in the army still hopes to advance as far as he can, plans to build community centers when he is discharged, where more of his fellow Beduin can connect to Israel and be encouraged to volunteer to enlist in the army.

“I am very proud to serve in the IDF,” he told the Post. “We all have one goal: to protect Israel.”

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