The IDF’s Beduin trackers: Guarding against intrusion from the South

A day with the IDF’s Beduin trackers finds the "people of the field" putting their lives on the line to secure Israel's southern border and the mounting threat of al-Qaida-affiliated terror cells in Egypt's Sinai.

Maj. Waleed Swaled 370 (photo credit: Yaakov Lappin)
Maj. Waleed Swaled 370
(photo credit: Yaakov Lappin)
The silver border fence shone in the Eilat winter sun as it snaked its way along steep desert cliffs, just outside of the Red Sea resort city.
A green IDF jeep, containing Maj. Waleed Swaled, the deputy commander of the IDF Beduin Tracker’s Unit in the Southern Command, drove down a road straddling the fence.
We’re at the start of a 250-km. border between southern Israel and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
South of here, al-Qaida-affiliated terror cells gather arms and plot their next move, while smugglers of contraband, from weapons to narcotics, try to figure out how to get into Israel.
Even if these potential intruders manage to get past the new security barrier, they would still have to overcome another formidable obstacle: the highly experienced IDF Beduin trackers, who can be expected to quickly pick up on the fact that someone is here who should not be, and get on their trail.
The Trackers Unit is a part of the Edom Territorial Division, itself made up of three brigades, the most recently formed of which is the Eilat Regional Brigade.
The need for the additional brigade, and the fence, became apparent in 2011, when a jihadi cell from Sinai killed eight Israelis after opening fire on a passenger bus and civilian vehicles on Route 12.
In these wild desert tracks, Swaled and his men work every day – and night – using their finely tuned natural sensors to see if unwelcome and dangerous “visitors” have entered the country.
Back at his office, over sweet Beduin tea, Swaled told The Jerusalem Post about his community and its involvement in the IDF.
“Our religion is Islam. We are characterized by our hospitality and respect; this is true of Beduin from southern and northern Israel,” he said.
“Druse soldiers act as trackers, too,” he noted, describing them as “a minority inside a minority. These are serious people. They do their job honorably. What unites us is our mission to safeguard the flag. We discover intrusions and thwart terrorist incidents. That is what we’re trained to do.”
Officially, training takes six months to complete at the IDF’s tracking school in the South, but as Swaled later revealed, the greatest teacher for trackers is the wilderness itself, and training never really ends.
“We’re not subject to a mandatory draft. This is voluntary. There’s also a need to encourage volunteers,” he said.
“What characterizes us is our field craft; we’re people of the field, with the ability to spend long periods on the ground. We analyze the territory, and figure out where the next surprise will come from,” Swaled continued.
“We must be stubborn, and stand our ground. If one of us identifies an intrusion, he must ascertain this independently, on the basis of precise work. We must be patient in our work. It would be a mistake to try and rush the tracker. He must provide answers to questions like: Is there an intrusion? How many intruders are there? All of the military systems converge on the tracker’s decision, waiting for his response,” Swaled explained.
“Like a pilot, one mistake can lead to a disaster,” he added.
The tracker’s own life also depends on his good judgment, which is needed to discover threats like roadside bombs that might be hidden along the border in ambushes.
“Everyone waits on him. This causes pressure. The trackers are the eyes of the country. There’s no 50-50 assessment here. Every decision is fateful. We must be 100-percent right, every time. And the clock is ticking,” Swaled added.
Later, during the jeep drive, narrow desert hill paths that looked almost impossible for humans to walk down wound over rocky plains.
“We’re in a very complex environment. It’s rocky and steep. One fall can be fatal. We’re fighting not only against the enemy, but with the ground. At nights, you can’t see your own finger,” the deputy commander stated. “These are difficult paths for both intruders and trackers.”
Describing past pursuits, Swaled said, “We walk all night after intruders. If we lose their tracks, we have to be stubborn enough to locate them again. We’ll see every sign that hints someone was here. Where animals go, humans can walk too.”
In an era of unprecedented hi-tech surveillance and intelligence capabilities, the trackers continue to play a key role in border security. “Field units aren’t giving up on the trackers,” Swaled said.
The new technology makes Israel more powerful, he stated, but added, “There’s no replacement for these primitive techniques. We need it, and the next generation will too. In the South, North, everywhere.”
One name that arose frequently during conversations with Swaled was Col. Yossi Hadad, commander of Beduin Unit in the Southern Command, and a pioneer in integrating members of the Beduin community into the IDF. Swaled spoke of him with admiration.
“He is a famous figure, who once commanded the Beduin battalion [a unit that now patrols the Gaza border]. He influenced the community and played a key role in enlisting the youths. He’s a cornerstone of the community, and of the unit. This is our father. We value him,” Swaled said.
Later reached by phone, Hadad said he was honored by such talk, but signaling he was too humble to bask in the praise, quickly switched to talking business.
“There’s no replacement for people on the ground. The trackers are key in all continuous security missions. No technological or intelligence equipment can replace what they do,” Hadad argued.
“Beyond their qualifications, they live on the land,” he added. “They’re the ones who know how to identify a tunnel or a breach and an intrusion. Not the camera, the plane or the intelligence capability. It’s solely the trackers, on all of the borders.”
Responsible for building up the trackers unit, Hadad said he “lives and breathes the Beduin people 24 hours a day.” “I think we as a state must do a lot to safeguard this population. This is a very good, loyal population,” Hadad said.
Some 1,400 Beduin volunteers are in the IDF, over half of which serve in the Southern Command, Hadad noted. “Our connection with the Beduin population is important. This tradition goes back to the founding of the state.”
He stressed that just as members of the community assist the IDF, so too the military assists them in higher education and employment opportunities after their release, also aiding bereaved families and the considerable number of trackers who suffer from disabilities caused by injuries on the frontlines.
“We ensure most of the soldiers complete 12 years of education, and offer them academic degrees in engineering or management,” he said.
“It’s vital for me to enlist them. I go from home to home to do this.”
Addressing the recent, controversial Prawer-Begin Plan to resettle sections of the Negev Beduin community, and the protests that erupted as a result, Hadad said most of the Beduin civilians he spoke with have distanced themselves from the demonstrations, which featured activists waving Palestinian flags.
“Most of the Beduin are against this phenomenon. I’m sitting here with two Beduin civilians who say that most of the protesters were not even Beduin,” Hadad added, referring to extremist outside elements that are exploiting the situation.
“The Beduin are loyal to the state. I think we must do more for them in the civilian sphere,” he added. “The military is doing a lot already.”
Back in his office at division headquarters near Eilat, Swaled, whose father served in the Trackers Unit as well, echoed the sentiments. “There is absolute loyalty,” he said. “We’ve been through events that are more difficult [than the recent protests]. Parents support their kids joining the IDF. We’re a strong community. We’ve been living in the country for a long time.”
Soon enough, the conversation returned to professional matters. Asked what working tools the trackers have (other than their highly developed senses), Swaled reaches for a simple flashlight and binoculars. “This is pretty much it,” he said.
In the jeep, Swaled also had access to the Digital Ground Army system, which generates a computer map showing the location of friendly and hostile forces in real time.
But ultimately, he explained, “you need the sense, and the maneuverability to get to places that only wild animals, like ibexes and foxes, get to.”
The environment provides tools that keep the trackers sharp, and able to see what others can’t.
The fact that the Beduin come from quiet rural settings is an advantage.
Additionally, the Arabic-speaking Beduin community “has almost the same mentality as those on the other side; almost the same pattern of action. These things can give the tracker an advantage,” said Swaled.
Next week, the unit begins a two-week drill, at the end of which trackers will seek to learn lessons and improve, just as those on the other side of the border are doing.
“The enemy is looking to improve. There is a battle of wits here,” Swaled said. Intruders have become adept at covering their tracks.
Swaled refused to provide further details on how trackers deal with this challenge, citing security issues. He would say, however, that most of the learning takes place by “being on the ground, not theories in the office. In past years, intruders have learned much and developed. And we too are learning as we go.”
“Think of it as a puzzle. We’re assembling the pieces to provide a full picture,” he said. “We collect all sorts of small leads. We never arrive alone; at least two to three trackers always work together. That gives you a range of views and perspectives. We’re always joined by an officer from the Operations Branch.”
To a certain extent, “we work with the intelligence world,” Swaled said, before qualifying that “we don’t have to know everything.”
Shortly after our conversation, the trackers were alerted to a possible intrusion in the Eilat region.
Some were immediately dispatched to the area to investigate. The alert was later called off.
With pursuits lasting up to three to four days, the trackers are always on call and ready to head out to the desert at a moment’s notice.
Standing on a mound overlooking Eilat and the crystal clear blue waters of the Red Sea, Swaled said visitors to the resorts aren’t fully aware of “how much the army invests to protect this city.”
“It’s a city I have come to love.”