In the silent footsteps of the Israeli army’s sharp-eyed Bedouin trackers

They spend their waking hours on the front line, protecting sovereign Israel and West Bank settlements from terrorist infiltrators. And then some go home to unrecognized villages, slated for destruction

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Lt. Col. Hassan, left, teaching a young tracker the ropes (Photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)
Lt. Col. Hassan, left, teaching a young tracker the ropes (Photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)

Lt. Col. Hassan, chief tracker for the Israeli army’s Central Command, lives “outside Dimona” — off the grid, without electricity, in one of the tin and rubber Bedouin settlements in the Negev. And that, he feels, is what makes him a great tracker.

“You live in the field. You grow up in the field. You spend all of your time outdoors with the sheep. You know the difference between a left [footprint] and a right,” he said, during a recent drill.

Lt. Col. Hassan, an Arab Muslim officer willing to identified only by his first name, stood near a vulnerable spot alongside the West Bank security fence, a low point where surveillance is faulty — a corridor for infiltrators, both criminal and enemy. Beside him was his deputy, Maj. Salah, a Bedouin officer from a village in the Galilee. Salah overheard the conversation and produced an iPhone from his pocket. Holding it aloft and bemoaning the ignorance of many of the young trackers, particularly thosewho are, like him, Bedouin from the more comfortable north, he said: “This is the problem. Technology.”

Israel’s borders are marked, observed and patrolled. There are concrete walls and concertina wires, mines and “smart” fences, cameras and thermal devices, and yet each and every violation of Israel’s sovereignty — whether in order to sell drugs, deliver weapons or lay ambushes — is first investigated by the very definition of the low-tech soldier: a tracker.

Nearly all of the IDF’s trackers are Bedouin. They daily patrol Israel’s borders with Jordan, Egypt, Gaza, Syria, Lebanon and parts of the Palestinian Authority. They investigate break-ins along the border fences, interpreting the narrative of the infiltration, and arrive first at the scene of terrorist crimes, unraveling the chain of events.

But the encroachment of modernity is not the only obstacle facing the trackers. There are roughly a quarter of a million Bedouin citizens of Israel. Some 160,000 of them live in the Negev. Of those, half live in unrecognized villages — ramshackle settlements carpeting the open spaces between Dimona, Arad and Beersheba. To some they are indigenous peoples scattered by Israel’s War of Independence, displaced by Jewish settlement and army construction and denied the basic rights of accessible education, medicine and water. To others, they are a threat, a human bridge linking the West Bank to the Gaza Strip, both in action and in ideology.

An unrecognized Bedouin village in the northern Negev (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/ Flash 90)
An unrecognized Bedouin village in the northern Negev (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash 90)

The truth winds like river water between the two positions. But in a Bedouin society with a 5.5 percent growth rate, one of the highest in the world, and an entrenched conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, something had to give. The Prime Minister’s Office commissioned the Prawer Plan, which was approved by the cabinet in September 2011, although hearings and dialogue with the community are still ongoing. The plan calls for recognizing some of the villages, compensating those who relocate and destroying dozens of villages, uprooting an estimated 30,000 citizens.

“The government of Israel today declared war against the Bedouin of the Negev,” said Thabet Abu-Ras, the director of Negev project for the Arab minority rights group Adalah, at the time. Ibrahim al-Wakili, then head of the Council of Unrecognized Villages, proclaimed that “we will continue to struggle, by protests and by other means, whatever is necessary, so that this plan is not enacted.”

On the other side of the divide, five Likud ministers found the plan overly conciliatory and voted against it. Not coincidentally, those hawks — Gideon Sa’ar, Gilad Erdan, Silvan Shalom, Limor Livnat and Yisrael Katz — all placed in the top 10 of the Likud list for Knesset. Benny Begin, the minister coordinating the plan with the Bedouin and considered by many of them to be a trustworthy source, was shown the door by Likud party members; he did not make it to a realistic position on the Likud list in last week’s primaries. “The signs on the ground are definitely a cause for pessimism,” said a source within the government’s Bedouin Authority.

In mid-October, police troops entered the unrecognized village of Bir Hadaj and tried to post demolition orders for several homes. In the melee that ensued, the police used tear gas, rubber bullets, undercover officers dressed as Arabs and, according to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, live fire.

This is the reality in which many of the trackers operate, commuting between these towns and villages and their army posts. Complicating matters further, the Islamic Movement, one tracker from the south said, always tries to fill the gap between the state and the Bedouin of the Negev. “My neighbor flies a 15-foot Islamic Movement flag from his roof,” he said. “If the police destroy a shed and five minutes later they build it back up, people notice.”

The basics

On a recent rainy Tuesday, Lt. Col. Hassan drove me to the security fence in the Judea region of the West Bank. “These are the main tools of the tracker,” he said, pointing to the fence and the manicured, pale, 10-foot-long path curling around it.

He stepped backward across the path, taking care not to dig his heels in as he walked, leaving tracks that seemed to be pointing toward the fence and the West Bank. A few feet farther on, he crossed the path again, walking west, deeper into Israel, and then smoothed his tracks over with a branch.

A tracker helping to mop up the tracks along the West Bank security fence (Photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)
A tracker helping to mop up the tracks along the West Bank security fence (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/Times of Israel)

“They should be able to read this,” he said of the Central Command’s trackers, who’d soon be participating in a drill. “The branch leaves bits behind. They should see that.”

Several dozen trackers were bused to the spot. They got off, lit cigarettes, and swung their battle vests onto their shoulders. Many were middle-aged. All spoke Arabic among themselves. But both Hassan and Salah, the commanding officers, addressed them in army-tinged Hebrew.

“We’re going to focus on the basics.” Hassan said. “Left and right [feet]. Number of people. The fence is the dominant feature. How many people crossed and where did they go.”

He told them to split into pairs and don their gear.

The task and difficulty of the tracker’s job varies on the location and topography. Near Gaza, the sands are easy to read though Israeli residential areas are situated almost adjacent to the fence, said Hassan, who lost a tracker under his command and several mates during a 10-year stint in the Southern Command. Tracks found on the Israeli side, in that region, mean an immediate, region-wide alarm and a manhunt for terrorist infiltrators, as in the November 26 attack in which a woman fought off a terrorist from Gaza in her Sde Avraham home.

The Gilboa region, near Jordan, he said, is easy to work, too, because of all the fields, where trampled wheat and other grains are easily detected. His current command, in Judea and Samaria, is topographically challenging. The rocks make it hard to follow footprints and the rain and the puddles tend to swallow up the tracks.

The first two pairs of trackers find the prints and bracket them with strips of white plastic, pulling the marking tape from the fence to the Israeli side so that soldiers do not trample the evidence.

“Here they split up,” said one tracker, after following the tracks for a few strides.

Hassan divided the group onto either side of the shallow valley and instructed them to work in pairs and rotate leading the pack.

As the two groups moved along, Hassan’s deputy explained that a skilled tracker should be able to say immediately how many people crossed into Israeli territory and then, as he progresses, to note whether they are moving together, fast or slow, with or without packs; the trackers should also be able to tell the commanding officer in the field if the pursued are bleeding, what their footwear says about who they are, whether they sit and rest and if so, in what sort of formation and whether there’s the tell-tale indentation of a weapon beside them.

Lt. Col. Hassan, center, instructing the trackers (Photo credit: Courtesy: IDF Spokesperson's Office)
Lt. Col. Hassan, center, instructing the trackers (photo credit: Courtesy IDF Spokesperson’s Office)

The soldiers walked with their heads down but seemed not to be straining to read the moon-like indentations of heels in mud and unnaturally bent grass. Occasionally, Hassan asked them which foot they saw and instructed them to take their time and concentrate.

“It’s very easy to say the tracks have disappeared and that he must have gotten into a car,” Hassan said.

Instead a tracker needs to have an ingrained tenacity, he said, and an ability to focus despite the weather and the weight of the troops at their backs.

The next level

After the initial interpretation of the event, the strain on the tracker is increased. Officers want answers immediately and the people they are chasing can be waiting around a bend.

Salah recalled an incident from 2005. The Shin Bet had informed his regional commander that mines had been placed somewhere on a long stretch of hardened dirt road. “That’s all they knew,” he said. “That they existed.”

He walked along the road and saw traces of darker earth on the white path. To the right there was an olive grove with deep brown soil. Why had they crossed here, he wondered. He stopped, looked down — “most dangers are at that level” — and found a tripwire that led to a roadside bomb.

Another officer, who received a commendation for valor from the chief of the General Staff, agreed to speak only on condition that his name be withheld. He lives in an unrecognized village and did not want to attract attention, though he said that ever since he had been promoted to officer rank 10 relatives from his clan had chosen to join the army.

For several weeks a year he teaches pilots and Special Forces teams how to stay alive behind enemy lines — mostly, he said, to slow down, remain calm, and leave the earth unruffled.

IDF Central Command trackers during the drill (Photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)
IDF Central Command trackers during the drill (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/Times of Israel)

In more than 15 years of service he has been involved in combat missions against terrorists, but the bulk of his work is a sort of cross between forensics and sleuthing, he said.

He recalled a morning in April 2002 when he was called to the settlement of Adura, in the Hebron region. Palestinians in Israeli army uniforms had broken into the village and opened fire in two separate homes. The tracker, who lives not far away, arrived and saw a dead five year-old girl in her bed, still under her blankets. Several others had been shot and killed.

Leading the troops out of the settlement and into the field, he was stopped by the settlement’s security officer. “He came running up behind us and told us the terrorists were still in the settlement,” the tracker said.

The tracks in the earth told a different story. A battalion commander and several soldiers waited, torn, unsure of which way to go. “I told them that they [the terrorists] left the settlement, that I was 100 percent sure, and they followed me.”

He led troops down the hill, against the demands of the security officer, and toward the remaining terrorist, who opened fire from 30 yards away and was killed.

In other cases, when the perpetrators manage to escape, the trackers often point the security services in the right direction. In March 2011, when five members of the Fogel family were murdered in their homes in Itamar, trackers were the ones who pieced together the initial narrative of what happened. They explained that two men had entered the settlement, approached a house, stolen something, returned to the fence, and then returned to a different house and committed the murders. They also traced the footprints back to the village of Awarta, which was placed under military closure until the killers were found.

Strained loyalties

Several years ago a brigade commander in the Har Harif region of the Negev, a mountainous area northwest of Eilat, called a group of reserve soldiers into a room at the start of a month of duty and told them to shut the door.

For most of the soldiers in the unit, the tour of duty in the area was a sort of vacation. There was little to no phone reception and, in those days, with president Hosni Mubarak still ruling over Egypt, the Sinai was quiet, the flow of drugs and contraband washing into Israel unnoticed.

You are the only group of soldiers in this region that I can trust, the brigade commander informed the reservists, detailing how the drugs were ferried through the deep ravines and how the drug-smuggling money had tainted all of his personal staff, including, perhaps, some of the trackers.

In fact, quite unusually, he came unaccompanied to the meeting and gave the reconnaissance soldiers two messages: he planned to work them to the bone, laying ambushes every night; and they were all to use a separate radio frequency, allowing the reservists to communicate with him and him alone.

A tracker with whom The Times of Israel spoke recently acknowledged the problem. “It’s not a secret,” he said. “Staying put in the same place for many years creates a mess.”

For Bedouin trackers — and all but a few of the trackers in the IDF are Bedouin — there is also a flip side to the coin. Those serving in the Judea and Samaria regions of the West Bank, for instance, often protect populations that vote for nationalist parties quite uninterested in Arab minority rights in Israel.

One tracker said that he had been the first on the scene after an attack in Bat Ayin, a settlement in the Judea region with a strict policy barring entry to all Arabs, including bus drivers. A terrorist had struck two boys with an ax, wounding them, and then retreated. The tracker, who said he is welcome in all Jewish communities in the West Bank, found the terrorist in a nearby village hiding among a pack of sheep. “They were panting,” he said of the sheep, explaining how his attention was drawn. “I could tell they’d been running.”

The ironies of life as an Arab officer in the region were not lost on him. “I don’t have any other place,” he explained. “This is where I was born and this is where I will die. I can’t go live in Jordan or Egypt. And the army is the only framework in which no one ever calls me an Arab or anything like that.”

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