‘It’s the Wild West down there’

A soldier on reserve duty speaks about serving on the Sinai border where migrants try to find haven in Israel.

IDF watch over Sudanese migrants R370 (photo credit: Yonathan Weitzman/Reuters)
IDF watch over Sudanese migrants R370
(photo credit: Yonathan Weitzman/Reuters)
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 Humvee.
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 interesting.”
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 said.
“You have [our] soldiers inside Egypt watching with night vision goggles, and usually we can see them [African migrants] coming a few hours in advance.
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 police.
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.
They 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 border.
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 bullshit.
“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 them.
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.”
He admitted that at times dealing with the migrants is a painful and disturbing task.
“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.
“You feel 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.
Beyond the cat-and-mouse chase against illegal migrants there were also the constant terror threats that David said kept the reservists on edge.
“Every day 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.
David added that the security fence at best only presents a false sense of security.
“It’s not an electric fence and it’s too long to patrol all of it.
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.”
Far less impressive or imposing than the fence were the disorganized and poorly equipped Egyptian troops on the other side of the fence, David said.
“It’s just 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.”
David 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.
“Sometimes they [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,” David said.
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 belts over.
It’s a border where we don’t have enough of a presence.
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. border.
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 Lebanon.
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 Strip.
Sayeret Rimon is also famous because of the young paratrooper commander Sharon tasked with forming the unit – former Mossad chief Meir Dagan.
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 border.”
“Construction of the fence is being completed along the border.
In areas where the fence has not been completed, the IDF is working to prevent the entry of infiltrators to Israel,” the spokesman said.