Muslim Arab Bedouins serve as Jewish state’s gatekeepers

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The army jeep rolls to a halt and Lieutenant Colonel Magdi Mazarib hops off the back to take a closer look at the dirt path running along Israel’s border fence with Lebanon.

He kneels, his sharp eyes scouring an unassuming constellation of pebbles, possible proof of an unwanted entry into Israel, and satisfied with what he sees, he jumps back onto the jeep and trundles away down the track.

Mazarib is a Bedouin, a Muslim Arab who grew up in northern Israel, intimate with its green, hilly landscape from an early age.

He is also the Israeli army’s highest-ranking tracker and commands a small unit of Bedouin soldiers who use their field craft skills to serve as the Jewish state’s gatekeepers.

As part of a minority within the Arab Israeli community, itself a minority among the Jews of Israel, Mazarib is at ease protecting his country’s borders from other Arabs, fellow Muslims.

“This is our country,” he states simply in perfect Hebrew with a light Arabic accent. And its Jewish symbols, such as the Star of David or the theme of the national anthem, do not perturb Mazarib.

“The flag of England also has a cross on it, and the Jews there are fine with it,” he says during a tour of the Bedouin Heritage Centre which houses a memorial to the 182 Bedouin killed fighting for Israel.

The amiable and composed officer, who with a shaved head, Hermes cologne and long, delicate fingers could pass for a business executive, believes that his fellow Bedouin across the Middle East are even envious of the way those in Israel live.

“The state of Bedouin in Israel is better, as far as the respect we get, our progress, education,” he says. “It’s a different league.”

Bedouin are not the only native Arabic speakers in the Israeli military, with members of Israel’s Druze and Circassian minorities enlisting, but they dominate the small, elite tracker units guarding the country’s northern and southern borders.

“I was born a tracker, a Bedouin, and followed the flock,” says Mazarib, whose father was also a tracker.

Being a tracker is about “connecting to nature, living in the field,” he says. “If you want to be a tracker on the northern border, you can’t be from northern Tel Aviv.”

Although the tech-savvy Israeli army has an array of advanced means to detect infiltrators, “there is no replacement for the tracker, the soldiers, the warrior, who touches the ground, who also speaks its language and can say -- here two infiltrated, here three,” he says, gesturing at the ground.

“Members of terror groups don’t leave marks, they know what abilities the Bedouin trackers have,” he says. “Over time they create a range of decoys and means to cover their tracks. Our job is to uncover them.”

Another threat is drugs smuggled from Lebanon by carriers operated by the Shiite militia Hezbollah.

“The axis of drugs, crime and espionage is the same axis,” he says. “There is almost no drug smuggling that is not related to Hezbollah.”

Cooperation between the Jewish people and Bedouin tribes began before Israel became a state in 1948, when the northern tribes sided with the Jews, whom they believed would win the war against the Arabs.

In the south, some Bedouin took part in the fighting against the Jews in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war while others fought with them. Still others fled the Negev to the Hebron hills in the southern West Bank.

Israel kept the Negev Bedouin under military rule until 1966, with the Bedouin leader there accepting Israeli sovereignty in the mid-1950s and agreeing to enlist in its military.

Today, the army says the number of Bedouin in active service is 1,655 -- a tiny fraction of the 176,500 troops who make up the entire corpus of the active military, according to Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies.

Unlike their male, Jewish peers, young Bedouin do not have to do military service.

There are approximately 260,000 Bedouin in Israel, official statistics show, with around 193,000 in Negev, 15,000 in central Israel and another 52,000 in the north.

But Ziad Saady, who manages the Bedouin Heritage Centre, says two-thirds of the Bedouin that serve in the military come from the north.

The difference, he explains, is that those from the arid south suffer from a “low social status”, with more than half of them living in unrecognized villages, and others living in extreme poverty.

There, the Bedouin are locked in a major struggle with the state over land ownership rights, with the government pushing a plan which would move them en masse into towns.

The Bedouin of the north, meanwhile, enjoy a better standard of living, with most in permanent homes although some still have traditional tents in their backyards.

In Israel, where the military enjoys an almost untouchable status, a man’s army service can be a central component in evaluating his worth.

And trackers get plenty of respect, says Amar Khilf, a 19-year-old Bedouin who serves in Mazarib’s unit.

Khilf was among dozens of Bedouin trackers participating in a day of drills led by Mazarib at the Lebanese border, in which the younger soldiers honed their skills and found fake bombs camouflaged as part of the scenery.

Mazarib briefs the Bedouin soldiers in curt, military Hebrew. But between exercises, they chat in Arabic.

“A patrol can’t go out without a tracker, you can’t clear the border without trackers,” Khilf says after an exercise, still out of breath from the effort.

“Nothing can happen without trackers. You get more respect than regular combat soldiers,” he says.

For Khilf, only the Bedouin are capable of detecting cross-border infiltrations.

“Hezbollah are Arabs, we are Arabs,” he says. “An Arab understands an Arab’s thinking better than a Jew can. We can think like them, we have the same style, more or less.”

Although Mazarib is following in the footsteps of his father, his uncle and his brother who also served as military trackers, he doesn’t see the same future for his eldest son, who is currently in school.

Mazarib envisions that his son --the only Bedouin in his class -- will serve in one of the army’s top elite units before taking up a senior role in Israeli society.

To him, the Bedouin integration in Israel’s army and society could be evidence of the possibility of Jewish-Muslim coexistence, which “could serve as an example of how to solve the entire Jewish-Arab conflict,” he says.

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