Defensive posturing

Typical finger-pointing lead to the utter disrepair and inefficiency of Israel's porous southern border.

border soldiers 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
border soldiers 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Project Schmerling isn't working. All along Route 10 signs bearing the name of the project, an initiative of the army's Division 80 which is responsible for security in the area, use decidedly undiplomatic language in calling on drivers to exercise extreme caution. The so-called Philadelphi Route, running the length of the southern border, was not built for high speeds, they warn. "If you exceed the recommended speeds," one particularly ominous sign reads, "you will end up either crippled for life, or dead and buried. Be especially cautious in the curves, and even more so at night. Don't say I didn't warn you!" Yet soldiers keep on getting killed or injured here, spilling over the sides of a narrow road that twists through the rocky brown cliffs that mark the intersection of the Negev and Sinai deserts. Recently, a female soldier became the latest casualty when the jeep she was driving flipped near Mount Harif. "It happens all the time, man," said Laurend, a Hummer driver in his compulsory military service who has been patrolling the same stretch of road for more than a year now. "I've seen soldiers get killed, soldiers get hurt. In one incident some months ago, an officer was crippled when his Hummer flipped over and crushed his abdomen. "There are some nasty stories here, man," Laurend said, dragging on a cigarette as he waited to head out on patrol. "You don't want to know." Cautioning his troops on the dangers of the road, one battalion commander put it this way: "It's very difficult to flip a Hummer. But in this area, we've done it several times. When you travel on this highway, realize that this is no joke." In truth, the term "highway" is an exaggeration for the road, which was built in 1982, as Israel completed its withdrawal from the Sinai. Although it is ostensibly two lanes wide, with vehicles traversing its length in both directions, the pale gray, unlit path is barely broad enough for the Hummers and semitrailers that make up most of its traffic. The pavement is cracked and scarred from the stress it endures, from the stretching in the heat of the day and the contracting during the chill of the night, as well as from the weight of the massive military vehicles that continuously travel the highway. There are gashes running through the middle of the road, and chunks of asphalt lie at its side like so many cookie crumbs. One gets the impression that if this road were an animal, it would be put down to end its suffering. Success has many fathers, as the saying goes, but failure is an orphan. And so it is with Route 10. The Israel National Road Company claims it is and always has been the responsibility of the military. The Defense Ministry, in turn, claims the highway, like any other, is the responsibility of the company. So a road that was paved 26 years ago slowly disintegrates into the desert, with no plans for its upkeep or improvement, as soldiers who fail to heed the warning of Project Schmerling end up, as promised, either crippled for life or dead and buried. THE POOR STATE of the highway has other costs, however, that combine with a series of failures to make the Egyptian border the worst guarded in the country. Take the drug smugglers, for example. "At night," said a soldier standing guard outside the Shikma outpost near the Sayarim junction, "we see the Egyptian smugglers flashing their lights, signaling to the smugglers on our side of the border to come meet them. And we see the Israelis in their jeeps, waiting for an opening. "If they see that we're alert and on patrol, they slink away. If not… well, the next morning, we see their tracks in the tishtush" - the smoothed-over path running parallel to the border, making tracks and footprints of infiltrators apparent. Twice in the past month, smugglers sneaked past the Shikma outpost, undetected until after they were long gone. Even had they been spotted in the middle of their crime, though, there is no guarantee they would have been caught. "We are helpless against the smugglers," complained Dror, a reserve officer recently stationed at the nearby Carmit outpost. "There's no lighting, so we have to fire off a hundred flares any time we want to see 100 meters in front of us. And even when we can see them coming, we can't stop them. It takes forever because you can't drive fast enough, safely enough, to get there in time." There are hardly any police in this part of the Negev, which is made up almost entirely of seldom visited nature reserves and live ammunition firing zones for the army and the air force. So, once they have eluded the IDF patrols, smugglers are basically home free. "In that whole area, I have only 300 men," a police captain explained to the Knesset Committee for the War on Drugs in 2006. "You can drive for kilometers and not see a single security agent." The Egyptian border "is the No. 1 smuggling pipeline of drugs and prostitutes in all of Israel," Moshe Karadi, then head of the Southern Police District, said in 2003, when police estimated that tons of marijuana and hashish, together with as many as 1,000 prostitutes and hundreds of illegal workers were being smuggled across the border each year. Smugglers wouldn't be able to make a living, though, were it not for the ease with which they obtain their goods. That is due to a border fence that, for the better part of its 240-kilometer stretch, poses no significant obstacle. Even at its most formidable, the fence stands little more than a meter high, and is comprised of looping coils of barbed wire stretched between thin metal poles. In many places the barbed wire has been folded to the ground; in others, the poles have fallen over. No great effort is required to pass drugs, weapons or other contraband over the fence. "The problem with the smugglers is that the fence is very low... so they come with their camels and their sacks and they can pass their stuff right over the fence, with no effort," said Dror. "So if in effect there's no border, then our tishtush is the border. And that's just not enough." OF LATE, THOUGH, the group exploiting the porous border the most is the mass of Africans seeking a decent life in Israel. The migration began slowly, in 2005, after Egyptian riot police fired indiscriminately into a crowd of Sudanese refugees demonstrating outside the Cairo office of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. At first, compelled by the moral weight of the Jewish people's past suffering, Israel accepted the presence of a few hundred asylum seekers from Darfur. But that number has since multiplied many times, as close to 8,000 people from Sudan, Ghana, Eritrea and other African nations have entered the country via Sinai since the beginning of 2007. Few, if any, have felt it necessary to cut the barbed wire fence. They simply climb over it and wander eastward until they are discovered by the IDF. At a small lookout point near Mount Dela'at one recent morning, four reservists awoke to find seven gangling black men walking toward them from the early morning haze. One, who spoke a decent English, introduced himself and promptly asked if the soldiers could help him find work. "Tell me," said one of the soldiers, "Where are you from?" "From Eritrea," he answered. "Wow, that's a long way!" replied the soldier. "Who told you to come all the way to Israel?" "My friend in Tel Aviv!" the Eritrean said excitedly. "He said there is plenty of work here." Such incidents are repeated every few days. Once they are searched by soldiers, the Africans are driven to a military court at Mount Harif and then taken to large detention centers in the South - where they wait, either to be given jobs and shelter somewhere in the country, or to be deported to their home countries. Israel does not wish to return them to Egypt, where tens of thousands of Sudanese refugees are often abused, but their numbers are beginning to overwhelm the government. "Wake up!" Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared at a February meeting to discuss the issue. "We can no longer continue in this way, not stopping the border infiltrations." Olmert, who a year ago suggested allowing soldiers to fire on refugees trying to enter, is demanding that the army step up its efforts on the border. Without a more robust barrier, however, there isn't much it can do. Following a handful of attacks and attempted attacks on soldiers along the border, the defense establishment has repeatedly asked for a bigger, better fence to be built. "We are trying to prevent infiltrations and smuggling," an officer involved in Division 80's reinforcement plan for the border said at the end of 2006. "We would prefer a fence - but the government needs to decide to build one." Noting that the West Bank barrier and the fence surrounding the Gaza Strip have both been highly effective in frustrating terror activity, while the southern border is breached routinely, a Defense Ministry spokesman confirmed the ministry's continued desire for a more formidable obstacle. "It's like what happens when a thief is looking for a car to steal," he said. "If he has to choose between a car that has an alarm system and a car that doesn't have an alarm system, he's going to choose the one that doesn't." The ministry has received preliminary approval for a more robust fence along the border, the spokesman said, but it would take "at least two years" to complete and would cost up to NIS 200 million. That money has not been allocated by the government, however - so the ministry is only in the planning stages of the project, and it will still need to win final approval for its plan to proceed. Along Route 10, the soldiers who struggle to keep up with the pace of the smuggling and the infiltrations know not to expect a change any time soon. "Everyone in this company has had something to say about the poor state of the border," said Dror. "People who have been serving here for a year and more have said they've tried to bring it to the attention of the higher-ups. They told us, 'Don't even bother talking to us about the sorry state of affairs here. We've already complained about it a thousand times, to no avail.' "The scary thing is, if smugglers, or terrorists, used their heads a little bit - just a little bit - no one here would even know they had infiltrated. Just the smallest bit of effort is all it takes, because our border consists of a pathetic fence for cattle and sheep." Shaking his head, he asked, "Can't we at least make it a little more difficult for them?"