In a bid to crack down on rampant criminal activity in southern Israel, the military is spearheading an effort to foil near-daily drug smuggling attempts in the region, and at the same time to better connect with local Bedouin communities that appear to be suffering the most from lawlessness.
The operation, dubbed Negev Shield, is wrapping up its first year, and has seen major accomplishments, the commander of the 80th Division, Brig. Gen. Itzik Cohen, told reporters.
The IDF says the operation has two main goals: disrupting organized crime, and helping Bedouin communities integrate into society through educational programs that steer young men away from criminal activity.
Each week, IDF officers travel to schools in various Bedouin communities to teach children Hebrew, help them learn about the country and touch on other subjects to help them better integrate into Israeli society.
Arab communities in general have seen a surge in violence in recent years, driven mainly by organized crime.
In the south, there have been longstanding complaints from local officials and residents about crime, much of which they say originates in Bedouin communities. Hebrew-language media has repeatedly broadcast footage of wild driving — including car races and road stunts — as well as incidents of gunfire.
Leaders and community members blame police, who they say have failed to crack down on powerful criminal organizations and largely ignore the violence, which includes family feuds, mafia turf wars and violence against women.
Many bystanders in Bedouin towns have also been hurt by the rampant crime.
Government officials and civil society experts say the violence in the Arab community is the fruit of decades of state neglect.
Over half of Arab Israelis live under the poverty line. Their towns and cities often have crumbling infrastructure, poor public services and few job prospects, leading some young people to collaborate with organized crime.
This is where the second part of the operation — dubbed The Way of the Negev — comes into play, according to the military.
The soldiers and officers giving classes in the Negev are stationed in the area for other purposes that bring them into regular contact with the Bedouin community.
Some of the officers are Bedouins themselves, mostly part of the so-called trackers unit, which is part of the Border Defense Corps in the IDF Southern Command.
The Bedouin community generally sees a far lower percentage of high school graduates — some 53% in 2017 — compared to the general Arab community’s 63%, which is far lower than the Jewish community’s 70%, according to government data.
The army says it views the educational program, which is run in cooperation with local authorities and community leaders, as the most important aspect of the operation, in part because it is seen as a way to encourage Bedouin youth, who don’t usually join the military, to enlist.
Cohen said the program “enables the strengthening of the relationship between the IDF and Bedouin society in the region, and increases the connection between the populations in the region.”
When it comes to stopping crime, the IDF says it has ramped up its operations along the Egyptian border, seizing hundreds of kilograms of drugs being smuggled into the country that are worth millions of shekels.
Egyptian smugglers operate by tossing contraband over the border to Israeli Bedouin criminals, who then sell the drugs in Israel. The smugglers mostly traffic in marijuana from grow houses in the Sinai Peninsula, but sometimes harder drugs like heroin and cocaine are smuggled in as well.
The army says that in the past year almost 450 smuggling attempts were “disrupted” by the army — meaning soldiers were dispatched to the scene causing the smugglers to back away; and another 60 were fully foiled, with the drugs, and sometimes suspects, captured and handed over to police.
The military assesses that some 125 smuggling attempts on the Egyptian border this year were successful.
In comparison, last year the army disrupted 180 and foiled 60 smuggling attempts, but more than 200 were successful.
The IDF says the value of some 3,000 kilograms of drugs seized on the border this year is around NIS 135 million ($40 million).
The army believes disrupting smuggling attempts is no less effective than properly foiling them.
Though the IDF is tasked with preventing smuggling along the Israeli-Egyptian border, the military typically strives to avoid direct confrontation with Israeli drug smugglers, leaving that to the police. Several deadly encounters between Israeli troops and drug smugglers occurred last year.
As the IDF has increased its efforts on the border in recent years, criminals in southern Israel have also turned to growing marijuana in military training zones in the Negev desert. While these attempts are not new, IDF officials say they have seen them increasing. The vast open spaces are largely unprotected by security forces.
The IDF, alongside police and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, locate and destroy dozens of makeshift marijuana grow houses in army training grounds each week.
Tens of thousands of marijuana plants have been destroyed by authorities in the past year, and the damage to criminal organizations is estimated in the millions of shekels.
Meanwhile, defenses have been bolstered and intelligence efforts ramped up to protect army bases in the south from break-ins.
IDF armories are frequently burgled, especially in southern Israel. Last month, some 30,000 bullets were stolen from a base northwest of Beersheba.
Stolen weapons and ammunition are thought to mostly end up in use by criminal gangs within the Arab community, as well as for terrorism.