Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The IDF's Bedouin Desert Reconnaissance Battalion

From the IDF website:
The moonless desert night is cool and the stars are twinkling above. A grayish cigarette ash falls on the golden sand next to a soldier’s red boots. In a few moments, the quiet will cease and the true nature of the surroundings will appear. The vapor of sweet tea spreading in the tents will give way to clouds of dust as the soldiers' march towards the target destination will begin. Among the briefings delivered in Hebrew, a few words in Arabic are thrown in here and there; but this does not represent the enemy because Arabic is the mother tongue of most of the men dressed in uniform.

Soldiers from the Bedouin Desert Reconnaissance Battalion raid the abandoned communication facility simulating a weaponry warehouse in Gaza. If any infantry battalion knows how to do this, it is this battalion: its soldiers know the area to perfection, every fold and stone on its ground. “The battalion knows the line, its fighters understand the field and know how to survive in it. They are excellent fieldsmen,” notes the Battalion Commander, Meir Almalam. In fact, they are trackers without being trackers.

The battalion, which took an active part in all major conflicts in the Gaza Strip, was founded in 1987 and is entirely composed of volunteers, mostly Bedouins and some non-Bedouin Arab-Israelis. In recent years, a considerable increase in the enlistment to the Battalion has been recorded, and for good reason: the battalion explains that for the Bedouin community’s members, it represents a ticket to the very heart of the Israeli society, and also a solution to economic distress.

The battalion provides its soldiers with a warm home, a livelihood, a possibility for extended academic opportunities and the camaraderie of fellow company soldiers. “They are doing something altruistic. They are volunteers and do a great job, and invest themselves”, Almalam, the Battalion Commander says. “They show tremendous motivation to succeed and cope through their actions. At the end of the day, it is a great battalion”. Company Commander Capt. Yussef Suwad adds that “We know our job, we know ourselves.”

...Near the tent encampment sits Corporal Mamdouh Dahir. He is smoking a cigarette and the moment he opens his mouth I am surprised by his accent. Mamdouh is a Bedouin Arab-Muslim, but unlike the rest of the battalion’s soldiers, he grew up among Jews his whole life and at one time did not even know Arabic fluently. He did not join the Desert Reconnaissance Battalion in order to be integrated into the Israeli society, but rather the opposite: “I wanted to join the Givati or Golani Brigade like the rest of my classmates; I was dying to get in just like them. Because of my ethnic origin, I passed by the offices of the Bedouin Desert Reconnaissance Battalion during recruitment where they briefed me and I was very impressed. I decided it was an opportunity for me to learn a bit about my religion and learn how to speak Arabic. At first, people here thought I was showing off with my accent in Hebrew and then they realized that this is what I know.”

Today, Mamdouh talks about his unit to his friends at home: “I explain to them that we are infantry in everything we do and also that we deal with the most challenging missions. I tell them about the experience and growth soldiers gain in the Battalion and the way in which the Battalion improves the abilities of the Bedouin community within society”. He surprisingly declares: “I am a Zionist” and clarifies that, “All my life, I felt part of the Jewish society, except for the religious part. Therefore the definition of Israel and its army doesn’t bother me as long as I am granted my freedom of religion. I believe that the Jews deserve a state and that they went through very difficult events. When I am in the army I don’t fight against Muslims, I fight against bad people who do not care about Muslims, innocent children or civilians. The Palestinians are suffering from extremists no less than we are.”