"We are there to protect Israel’s border communities and deal with any threats that may arise,” says Lt.-Col. Nader Eyada, commander of a unique IDF unit that is composed of Muslims and Christians from Arab communities across the country. He is overseeing an exercise before the men return to the Gaza border near Kerem Shalom, a crucial position along the fence that Hamas has been threatening in the last year.
We are sitting on a concrete slab in the middle of a football-field sized desert lot in Tze’elim in southern Israel. On each side are berms and in the distance are white signs indicating distance; 50, 150, the signs read. The more distant ones have faded in the beating sun that burns the soil of the Negev. Luckily it is still not really spring here, or it would be too hot. One of Eyada’s soldiers brings coffee in a disposable cup.
Eyada was born in Beit Zarzir, west of Nazareth in the Galilee. He has served in this unit for years and been with it as it guarded the border of Gaza.
“This unit is special in bringing together different groups. No other unit is like it. It has a very high quality of personnel.”
Founded in 1986, Unit 585 was one of several units that included members of Israeli minority communities. While Jews, Druze and Circassians are conscripted to the IDF, Muslims and Christians are not. However, some volunteer for the army, particularly among historic Bedouin villages in Israel. This includes Bedouins from the North and South.
“This unit gives its members an opportunity.” He says there has been an increased number of volunteers, many of whom remain for several years.
IN EARLY April, the unit took time off the front line with Gaza to conduct exercises in the field, practicing in the desert and in mock-urban environments for the kinds of threats they might have to deal with along the border. They also spent time traveling the country to bond and get in touch with the heritage of the Land of Israel. This included a trip to Jerusalem and Bedouin towns in the North and South. Eyada says it helped deepen the connection of the men to each other and to guarding the homeland. They also talked about the different religions in the country and different religious traditions, such as Christmas and Hanukkah.
Arriving in Tze’elim, one drives past old tanks and gates guarding Israel’s large desert army bases. On one base, a series of live-fire exercise areas are situated one next to the other. This is where soldiers can train with their weapons and practice various tactics.
Capt. Rohey Dabas says that the unit has been preparing for specific issues they will likely face near Kerem Shalom. Being in the southern Gaza Strip near the Egyptian border is challenging. A site of weekly protests by Gazans, there have been frequent clashes with protesters and frequent threats of infiltration attempts.
“Most of our soldiers are Muslims, including Bedouin, with some Christians. They volunteer due to family tradition and ideology,” says Lt. Jaber Eyad.
Flanked by several of his soldiers, Eyad says that one of the important things the unit provides its volunteers is support for a broad range of needs. For instance, the men may come from villages where limited education in Hebrew left them needing to strengthen their language skills. In addition, they might need to get a driver’s license. Helping soldiers obtain these essentials, along with other educational activities that the unit does, gives the men high motivation.
“We have very good conditions in this service,” says Jaber. A veteran of operation in Jenin in past years, he says that the Arabic background of the unit’s members is a benefit. These benefits are clear from the number of soldiers who say they’ve been in the unit for extended terms. One served for 13 years in total.
SGT.-MAJ. HOSEN SEADY wears wrap-around sunglasses. He holds his Tavor rifle with his left hand, a pair of large binoculars dangling across his chest. A radio and ammo patches hug him tightly under the binoculars. He’s a walking combat unit. Smiling, he speaks proudly of his service. Born in Yafia near Nazareth, he joined the army in 2013. He took time off to do a first degree at the Open University.
“We are now at the end of weeks of an exercise that was excellent,” he says.
Like the other soldiers, he speaks of having a high motivation to serve. But the unit also trains hard.
“We accomplished a lot in this training. I think we barely slept six hours a night for days on end. It made us stronger.”
Now they will be heading back for 17 weeks on the border.
Seady and seven of his comrades walk out onto the football pitch live-fire range. In a circle, they receive a briefing from Dabas. He describes the exercise: The men will practice exiting a vehicle to confront an ambush. They are expected to exit quickly but also safely. This is the kind of situation the men might face while patrolling the Gaza border. In all, 13 people are on the field, but only eight will take part in the exercise itself. A jet plane can be heard overhead.
At first, the team enters a large white van. The van drives up and one man exits the back while two jump out of the side door. Then two others rush out. The commander Dabas directs the men to run forward and spread out in a line laying on the ground to be able to fire on the source of the threat. One of the soldiers carries a Negev machine gun, the others use their rifles. After completing the exercise without live fire, the men return to the van for another try, this time with ammunition. I put in earplugs to observe.
The GMC Sanava van plods forward again. The men jump out, taking their positions, this time with the racket of gunfire. After laying down the suppressing fire, several men advance from the 50-meter line to the 150. They bound forward, first one while others cover him, then another and another. Dabas runs with them. Bullets pock-mark the sandy terrain, kicking up dust.
The unit is one of Israel’s most uncommon. Providing soldiers with the ability to take time off for university and to strengthen their language helps integrate them. Each soldier says that he is proud to protect Israel. They shatter many stereotypes and illustrate that despite the sometimes rancorous debates in Israeli society, an army with citizens from diverse backgrounds is stronger for it.
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