Meet the Bedouin unit protecting Israel's border, advancing the community

The battalion is much more than a combatting unit – it is also a device for non-Jewish Israelis and gain tools that will prepare for civilian life after their military service.

A soldier in the IDF's Unit 585 is seen holding a gun facing the desert. (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
A soldier in the IDF's Unit 585 is seen holding a gun facing the desert.
As if it existed in a different universe, away from the scenes in Nazareth and the battle between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Joint List over the Arab vote, Unit 585 – The Desert Reconnaissance Unit, is both a military unit that protects the Israel-Gaza border and a ticket for Israeli-Arabs to enter Israeli society.
The unit, better known as the Bedouin Reconnaissance Battalion, is a home for Israeli Arabs who want to join the IDF, but for some reason can’t or won’t join the regular infantry divisions, such as the Golani, Givati or the Paratroopers.
The unit’s base is located in Kerem Shalom, near where the Israeli, Egyptian and Gazan borders meet. Their day-to-day mission is to protect the area and defend the adjacent Jewish settlements.
The reason that the battalion was dubbed as the Bedouin one is because it consisted mainly of Bedouin soldiers. But not only – some 40% of the battalion are non-Bedouin Muslim Arabs, Christians and Circassians.
While most of the Bedouins in the battalion come from northern Israel, the rest of the soldiers come from different places, including those who do not sympathize with joining the IDF, such as east Jerusalem and Umm el-Fahm.
While there is a variety of reasons for Arab soldiers to drop out of regular IDF battalions, the primary one reason is the language barrier. Many Israeli-Arabs get to the age of 18 without speaking Hebrew at a sufficient level and fear to be alienated among Hebrew speaking Israelis.
And this is why the battalion is much more than a combatting unit – it is also a device for non-Jewish Israelis and gain tools that will prepare for civilian life after their military service
Lt.-Col. David Ron, the commander of the battalion, told The Jerusalem Post that others, he dedicates time to be in contact with Arab community leaders and with Arab youth in order to encourage them to join the IDF.
“I see it as a mission – to give my soldiers tools that will help them in the future,” he said.
“Yes, on the one hand, my battalion is more of a ‘comfort zone’ for them: They speak Arabic here and hang around with people who are more like them. But on the other hand, we are also a home for those who tried to join other units in the IDF, but it didn’t work out. So instead of leaving completely, they can come here.”
Despite being able to speak their own language in the unit, Ron stressed that whenever it comes to operational actions, speaking in Hebrew is mandatory.
“In this sensitive area, we don’t have the option not knowing Hebrew perfectly,” he said. “We work with field observers and with the tank forces around us. When something happens, and we need to declare it on the radio - and we need that all will speak the same language,” he said.
But beyond the operational aspect, Ron acknowledges his educational role in the lives of his subordinates.
“My role, unlike other battalion commanders is to do anything in my power to help them with the day after their service.
“I want them to be able to go through an entire job interview, or open a bank account without help from others,” he said.
In order to give the soldier these tools, there is an entire educational and economic apparatus operating within the battalion that follows the soldiers from the day they enter to the day they leave.
The educational platoon runs five types of courses that are being held throughout the year, and soldiers are taking them alongside their military duties.
Cpl. Zohar told the Post that in these courses, they study Hebrew at different levels; life skills; preparation courses for intra-IDF commanding courses; and driving theory classes for those who wish to specialize in advanced driving skills.
“Within the IDF commanders course, the soldiers are required to have basic knowledge of the history of the state,” she said. “They often have to memorize who were Israel’s prime ministers and presidents. Our soldiers often come without that knowledge and usually with a lower level of Hebrew, and that could lead them to drop out of the course. Here in the unit, we teach them everything they need to know so that they will feel equal in the course,” she added.
But the soldiers face not only cultural problems but also welfare and economic problems.
Bedouin and Arab villages in Israel are usually poorer than the rest of the country and often suffer from discrimination when it comes to planning and infrastructures.
Lt. Shiran, the battalion's welfare officer, told the Post that her platoon is working around the clock to help soldiers get their rights, and improve the financial situation.
“A regular battalion usually does not have an officer within it to deal with welfare issues. We have an officer and three soldiers,” she said.
“We understand that there are differences between the Arab sector and the Jewish sector – whether it is their attitude toward money, savings, and asking for help or their financial background.
“We try to provide not only direct help to the soldiers and their families, but also we help them understand how to manage financially after they receive help,” she added.
One of the major issues the welfare platoon faces is soldiers who live in a hostile area or soldiers who come from families who are against the IDF. Shiran said that all of those who ask can receive a permit to leave the base without a military uniform.
“We recently had a case of a soldier whose father denounced him for joining the army. We helped find this solder a new home, and helped him build himself financially,” she said.
In 2017, the unit’s status was changed from a battalion to unit – which practically means that it will have fewer companies and fewer soldiers.
Lt.-Co. Ron said that the idea behind was to encourage Arab-Israelis to join other units. During this time, the Druze “Cherev” (sword) battalion was dismantled for the same purposes.
However, there are more and more people that want to join the unit, and the senior command is now assessing an option to reopen another company.
This fits the trend among Arab-Israelis.
Maj. Naif Nujeidat, an HR officer in charge of getting Arabs from the northern district to join the IDF, told the Post that in the past four years, the recruitment rate had doubled.
“We are using a variety of tools to encourage youth to join the IDF,” he said.
“We have pre-military programs that are meant to give the youth an idea about what they are expected to face.
“Recently we launched an ‘ambassadors program,’ in which people with academic degrees, teachers, educators, and local-authorities officials join the IDF and go through a two-week program. After that, they have the tools to encourage recruitments in their communities,” he said.