Turning to crime-fighting, IDF steps up efforts against drug running from Sinai

Military cracks down on marijuana smuggling, but core economic issues pushing Bedouin Israelis to crime remain, and campaign seems to have little effect on overall drug trade

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

On the Egyptian border, the Israeli military is fighting a conflict it almost definitely cannot win and that it possibly shouldn’t even be part of: a war on drugs and drug smuggling.

The Israel Defense Forces has succeeded in thwarting a number of smuggling attempts along the border in recent months, including two earlier this month in a joint operation with police, dubbed “Golden Prevention,” in which over 160 kilograms (350 pounds) of marijuana were seized, along with three cars, and three suspected smugglers were arrested.

According to the IDF, this has brought down the amount of smuggling attempts in recent weeks — temporarily at least — but even military officials trumpeting the IDF’s successes on this front recognize that the large amounts money at stake for the drug cartels and the lack of significant initiatives to address the underlying reasons why Bedouin youths get into the smuggling trade mean that these efforts are unlikely to end drug running on the border.

Moreover, Israel’s growing domestic production of marijuana — legally and illegally — has limited the matter’s significance.

It is also a legally thorny area for the IDF, requiring its troops to focus on law enforcement — not the military’s normal forte — rather than on unquestionable national security, sometimes putting their lives at risk to do so. Indeed, until relatively recently, the military largely did not intervene in most smuggling attempts.

The IDF did act in some cases — what looks like a smuggling attempt could just as easily be an attack on the border — but generally viewed this issue as a criminal problem for the police to resolve.

“I don’t want a soldier to die for drugs,” a team commander serving on the border pointedly told The Times of Israel in 2016.

The military began to change its position on the matter in 2019, which saw over 350 smuggling attempts — roughly one every day — a figure that was far higher than in the preceding years. This dropped somewhat in 2020, to just under 300, and 2021 was on track to have similar numbers, reaching roughly 100 smuggling attempts by April.

In May, the military launched joint operations with the Israel Police — known as Shield of Nitzana, after an Israeli community near the border — to address this smuggling issue. Since then, the IDF has marked a major decrease in the number of smuggling attempts on the border, by roughly 80 percent, according to Lt. Col. Erez Shabtai, who until recently commanded the Caracal Battalion, which guards the border.

Soldiers from the Caracal Battalion guard the Egyptian border in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

The military’s reasoning for taking on drug smuggling is two-fold: allowing such criminal behavior on the border sends a message to terrorist organizations, such as Islamic State’s Sinai Province, that the IDF does not maintain full control over the area, which could encourage them to carry out attacks along the frontier; and more generally that this is a border security issue as a significant percentage of smuggling attempts include gunfire, which can and have hit Israeli communities.

To fight the smuggling rings, the IDF has devoted additional resources to the matter. The Golden Prevention operations, for example, included the use of helicopters, drones and other advanced capabilities.

In addition to these one-off investments, the military has also created an intelligence-sharing mechanism with the police. Though advanced intelligence collection is not always needed, as the military found that many Egyptian smugglers post videos of their exploits on the popular TikTok social media application.

As part of this joint intelligence venture, the IDF’s Unit 8200 signals intelligence detachment provides information on Egyptian smugglers, while the police offer information on Israeli nationals. (Military officials maintain that this division of labor is preserved, preventing the IDF from gathering intelligence on Israeli citizens, which would potentially be a major civil rights issue.)

This is not the only legal issue that the military needed to address as it took on this new role. In a number of cases, IDF soldiers have accidentally contaminated crime scenes, smudging fingerprints or blurring tracks, which have caused suspected smugglers to be released from custody without a conviction. In recent months, IDF officers have been trained on proper crime scene protocol to prevent such situations in the future.

The military, which cannot conduct arrests within Israel, has also worked to improve its ability to use cars and ATVs to direct fleeing smugglers to chokepoints where they can be arrested by police officers. To that end, the IDF recently received a number of these souped-up dune buggies, which were gifted to Israel by foreign philanthropists, and has trained troops to use them over the Negev’s rocky terrain.

Israeli soldiers drive all-terrain vehicles as part of an exercise near the Egyptian border in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

In general, these smuggling attempts look like this: A group of smugglers carrying either large sacks of marijuana or smaller parcels of hashish — a compressed cake containing the active ingredients in marijuana — approach the border from the Egyptian side. With the larger bags of marijuana, they typically use ladders to climb to the top of the steel border fence and throw the contraband over, while smaller bundles of hashish can be thrown over the barrier. At the same time, a truck, specially rigged for travel through the desert, or an all-terrain vehicle approaches from the Israeli side and smugglers inside rush out to collect the packages before speeding away.

In a different style, known colloquially by the IDF and police as “The ATM,” smugglers rush up to the border with bolt cutters, remove a small section of fencing and then stuff the drugs through the hole to the other side.

However, the entire frontier is studded with sensors or cameras, meaning the military is able to see the smugglers as they approach, so the drug runners are forced to act as quickly as possible in order to flee the scene before troops arrive. The commander of the Faran Brigade, which defends the southern borders with Egypt and Jordan, recently required his troops to respond to a smuggling attempt within five minutes, a previously unthinkable demand that has been made possible by major improvements to the military’s intelligence and detection capabilities.

In some cases, normally when larger quantities of contraband or more valuable drugs like cocaine are being transported, the Egyptian smugglers open fire when approaching the border — firing west toward the Egyptian side — in order to keep local police away. If IDF troops are in the area, however, they too can come under fire, as can Israeli towns near the border.

In the span of a few weeks in April, soldiers from the Armored Corps deployed along the border engaged in at least two firefights on the Egyptian border, killing two Israeli smugglers in the process neither of whom were armed or actively taking part in the exchange. Though their commanders maintain that the troops acted correctly and were not shooting to kill the men, both cases are being investigated by Military Police to determine if the soldiers indeed followed proper procedures.

Though military officials recognize that fighting crime is principally a police prerogative — in this case, a Border Police prerogative — it is also practically easier for the IDF to intervene, as relatively large numbers of troops are anyway deployed along the border.

“In theory, it’s true. The Border Police polices the border. But you’d have to take the Border Police and make it six times bigger,” the former head of the Caracal Battalion Lt. Col. Erez Shabtai told The Times of Israel.

Lt. Col. Erez Shabtai, center, speaks to soldiers from the Caracal Battalion guard the Egyptian border in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

For the government, this border smuggling also feeds into wider issues of lawlessness in the Negev, seen in violence between and within Bedouin families, reckless driving on the highways, thefts from army bases in the area and large-scale marijuana-growing operations on military training grounds.

Too little, too late?

Attorney Rida Jabr, director of the Aman Center for a Safe Society, which works to fight crime and violence in Arab Israeli society, told The Times of Israel that the drug trade acts as a “catalyst” for these problems in the Arab Israeli community, bringing money and prestige to criminal gangs.

Though Jabr said increased enforcement was one of two necessary conditions for fighting the violence and crime in the Arab community, he warned that the second requirement — encouraging Arab youth to seek legitimate, high paid careers — did not yet appear to be addressed by the government.

“And Arab society is bleeding to death because of this,” he said.

According to the IDF’s estimates, a smuggler driving the getaway car can earn more in one night’s work — up to $10,000 — than they would in six months with a full-time job at minimum wage.

Jabr, a long-time advocate, said he hoped that Israel’s new government, which includes an Arab party for the first time, would do more to incentivize young Arab Israelis to eschew crime and violence.

“It’s not only about education. You have to give them a future, give them employment, fair employment,” he said.

Arab society is bleeding to death because of this

“Smuggling always happened and probably always will. It’s a question of how much and of the motivations. If you don’t deal with the motivations, we won’t see a massive treatment of this issue,” Jabr said.

Without “massive investment” in Arab Israeli youth, the issue of drug smuggling and related gun crimes would continue, according to Jabr.

The price of marijuana

The efficacy of this crackdown on marijuana smuggling in terms of its effects on the country’s wider drug trade is also questionable.

According to Ben Hartman, the senior writer for The Cannigma, an Israel-based website that covers cannabis from a scientific perspective, during the past three months as the military and police halted unprecedented numbers of smuggling attempts and captured hundreds of kilograms of drugs, the price for marijuana in Tel Aviv not only didn’t rise, but dropped slightly — a sign that despite these efforts the national stock of marijuana was not significantly affected.

Iluistrative image of a Border Police officer looking at the marijuana plants uncovered in a drug bust in a Bedouin village in the Negev in February 2018. (Israel Police)

For their part, the police acknowledge that they do not have an accurate estimate for how much of the country’s marijuana is smuggled in from Sinai and how much is domestically grown.

“The illicit cannabis market in Israel is vastly different today than it was just five or six years ago. The tastes have evolved and Israeli consumers aren’t looking to buy Egyptian hashish or dirt weed grown in Sinai that’s full of seeds and covered in sand. They prefer high-grade cannabis flower that is grown inside the country and is very easily purchased on all types of smartphone apps and they aren’t ever going back to the old way,” Hartman told The Times of Israel.

“Like in many other countries, the police in Israel are always well behind the popular culture when it comes to cannabis, and when it comes to smuggling and illicit marijuana dealing in Israel they and the IDF are still busy fighting the last war,” he said.

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