Miluim on the Egyptian border

A night of caring for African migrants and avoiding Egyptian bullets.

Eritrean 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Eritrean 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I recently returned from two weeks of reserve duty with a combat unit on the Egyptian border. There is a certain amount of cognitive dissonance writing this now, from the comfort of my cubicle in the hi-tech park where I work as an electrical engineer. That being said, I want you to be aware of some of the troubling, ridiculous and inspiring things I witnessed.
My unit was tasked with securing a section of the border. Our main goals were to prevent drug and weapon/bomb smuggling, deal with illegal African immigrants, and prevent terror cells from crossing.

Now for a little background. Ever since the return of Sinai to Egypt, this border has been extremely porous.
Only barbed wire has been separating the two countries for the past couple of decades. Due to this, in 2008, a terror cell from Gaza was able to cross and successfully detonate in Dimona, murdering one person and seriously wounding another. Additionally, drug smuggling by Beduin tribes has continued unabated, and in the past couple of years, they have branched out to human smuggling.
As noted in other places, these people have no regard for human life, and prey on the weak. They have been known to rape, torture and even kill their human cargo.
That cargo comprises mainly African migrants seeking economic opportunities (many gave this as their reason without prodding when asked by our lieutenant), and a small number of genuine refugees making the journey from Sudan or Eritrea. When they reach the border with Egypt, they pay $2,500 to the Beduin, who ferry them in trucks to approximately 2 km. from the Israeli border. Under cover of darkness, they drop off their passengers and point to where they will need to cross. They do not walk with them to the finish line, of course, because they know how perilous it can be if the trigger-happy Egyptian soldiers catch them.
On average, 30 people would cross every night in our section. Saying that we are facing an invasion is an understatement when you realize there are other sections where people are crossing as well. In general, we would find them sitting huddled in the freezing desert night, waiting for us to find them. If you ever wanted to know what Emma Lazarus meant when she wrote her famous poem “The New Colossus,” there is no better illustration than what I saw.
After checking that none were carrying weapons, we would give them water, cookies and crackers. They are also offered cigarettes, but most usually politely declined. Soon after, a bus would come to pick them up.
They would then be checked by the medics and given first aid. After that, they would be transferred to a holding facility to be processed, and then, since our government has no real policy, they are given a choice as to which city they would like to go to.
Most know exactly where they are going, since friends who have already made the trek have lodgings and work waiting for them in South Tel Aviv, Eilat, Arad, and so on. Some, of course, choose to stay close to the border, because the government is building a giant fence there. Only in Israel could there be the ridiculous situation where the same people who jumped over the old fence could now be employed in building a new one.
BUT LEST you think this is all Alice in Wonderland, I’d like to tell you what happened a few nights ago. A group was spotted by Egyptian soldiers crossing the border. The Egyptians started shooting to kill. Three Africans, not knowing their way, and being in complete darkness, ran straight into the barbed-wire fence to escape. They were found dangling on the wire, lacerations all over their bodies.
The Israeli medics, putting themselves in great danger, had to navigate around the barbed wire, remove the injured, and move them on stretchers, all the while hoping the Egyptians would stop shooting. Sadly one of the Africans took a bullet to the brain, and the army doctor on the scene could do nothing to save him. My friend the medic just kept repeating how much blood there was. The other two were taken by helicopter to an Israeli hospital and, as far as I know, were saved.
Now, I can only speculate why the Egyptians’ first instinct is to shoot unarmed people. It might be because they don’t want to have to arrest people, so they save themselves the time and expense. Whatever the reason, murder is happening at the hands of Egyptians at our border.
Whether it means jailing the people who hire the illegal immigrants, or having the Beduin leadership killed, the status quo cannot go on.
THERE IS much to be depressed about in this situation. Most of the blame lies, of course, with the national leadership. However, one thing that should give us all hope is how ethically, professionally and humanely our IDF operates.
When it comes to securing our borders, we give no quarter to those who would harm Israel. We work tirelessly, 24/7, patrolling, chasing drug smugglers and so on. But those who, due to dire economic circumstances, have chosen to make this perilous journey, we treat as fellow human beings. They will, of course, need to be repatriated, and Israel cannot absorb them (this has nothing to do with race; the most vocal about sending the illegal immigrants home were the Mizrahim and Ethiopians in my unit), but until the political leadership deals with this in a serious manner, the IDF will continue to act ethically and humanely.
From the medics putting themselves in danger by rescuing those shot by Egyptian soldiers, to those refusing to shoot flares lest the Africans’ position be revealed to the Egyptians, to the small acts of kindness, you can be proud of your army.
The writer is 30, living in Haifa with his beautiful wife and son. He was a former combat infantryman in Nahal, holds BS and MS degrees from Caltech, works in hi-tech and proudly does reserve duty in a combat unit.