Bedouin Trackers: the IDF’s sharpest eyes

Bedouin trackers training this week, Photo: IDF (Zahal) Spokesperson

Using as little as a gun, a flashlight, and skills passed down for generations, Bedouin trackers uncover explosives, terrorists and other infiltrators along Israel’s borders

Date: 27/03/2012, 5:17 PM     Author: Adam May

Recent headlines have been filled with stories of thwarted terror attacks from the Sinai region and the discovery of explosive devices planted along Israel’s southern borders. The once quiet Egyptian border has been transformed into a tense area of heightened security.

Over the years the IDF (Zahal) has come to rely upon the innate skills of a unique unit: the Bedouin trackers, who held their annual series of training exercises this week.

Although exempt from serving in the military, many Bedouin teens living in Israel volunteer to enlist, even staying in the army as career soldiers, where they employ their unique and vital knowledge of the Israeli terrain and their tracking skills. The IDF (Zahal) takes into consideration these soldiers’ unique living conditions and lifestyles, accommodating their needs.

Bedouin Trackers: the IDF’s sharpest eyes

Using as little as a gun and a flashlight, the Bedouin Tracking Unit has been responsible for thwarting many of the terror attacks targeting Israel from the Sinai desert. These trackers have been able to identify hidden explosives, discover the trails of terrorists who have infiltrated Israel’s border, and track and catch these terrorists, in some cases even identifying the tunnels from which they came.

Reading the trails

While the trackers spend most of their time separated into small groups and attached to infantry battalions along the border, the Bedouin Tracking Unit came together this week for a series of training exercises. “This is a good opportunity to test their skills and teach them skills they can take back to their units,” said Maj. Ravia’a Suwad, an officer in the unit.

In the deserts of the Israeli Negev, trackers spread out across the rolling dunes. They carefully track their quarry, searching through dirt and webs of dried riverbeds for the tiniest signs of a trail. To their razor-sharp eyes, the daunting sea of open fields is simply a book to be read. One scout points out a series of slight indents in the ground, but these are not the tracks of a terrorist.

“Just someone out for a run,” the tracker said with a smile. “The shape is that of a sneaker. They are about twelve hours old, you can tell from the wind erosion. The direction the dirt piles up tells you which way he was headed. They are just far enough apart to be a runner’s gait, and right over there should be his track back. If we were here a few hours earlier I could tell you the brand of his shoe.”

Bedouin Trackers: the IDF’s sharpest eyes

But not all trails are so benign and easily read. “Sometimes a chase can last days, we’ve had people do some really sneaky things to throw us off,” said Maj. Suwad. “They will cover their tracks with plants, hide in holes under ground, climb into trees, but we never give up. Even if there is only the slightest hint of a trail we will find them.” These drills are a good chance for them familiarize with these tricks, exchange stories, and figure out ways to get around them.

Knowledge passed down through the generations

Even in the modern age of UAV’s, constant air support, and satellite surveillance, the ancient science of tracking is still essential. While Israel’s border surveillance equipment is unparalleled, there are still things thermal cameras cannot see. The scout’s eyes can see in between the cracks, providing an essential line of defense along the border.

While the scouts receive training in tracking, most of their knowledge comes from an older source. “The knowledge passes from father to son. Most of the tools that they use they learn as children living out in the fields,” says Maj. Suwad. “The Bedouins can spend their whole life in the field, herding animals and using their skills to track ones that wander away. Commanders in the south constantly depend on the trackers for advice. Beyond their knowledge of tracking, they also have an unparalleled knowledge of the terrain.”

“The tracker is essential, without him the battalion is blind. There isn’t a single piece of technology that can replace a scout who knows how to track,” said Maj. Suwad.