sinai - Tomer Appelbaum - April 22 2011
An Israeli soldier with Sudanese refugees, just after they crossed the border from Egypt last month. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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Soldiers and officers in a reserve battalion that served on the Egyptian border in recent weeks have told their commanders they will not take part in "immediate return" - the sending back to Egypt of Africans sneaking into Israel. The brigade commander, meanwhile, has confirmed that the battalion will not carry out "immediate return."

The Negev Brigade's elite reconnaissance battalion completed a three-week deployment on the border. Nearly every night, Africans crossed the frontier, mostly Sudanese and Eritreans, and at least one time, Libyans.

Early in the deployment, a family of Eritreans was stopped. A company commander was ordered to send the transients back toward an Egyptian checkpoint.

The soldiers and officers had heard descriptions from colleagues who regularly serve in the area about abuse of the Africans by Egyptian border policemen - violence, rape and murder - and refused to carry out the order. The commander contacted the battalion commander, Lt. Col. (res. ) Avi Friedman.

Friedman supported his men and contacted the brigade commander, Col. Yair Barkat, who then agreed that the troops would not carry out "immediate return."

During the deployment, Africans received medical treatment, food, drink and were taken to a holding area on the Israeli side of the border.

An officer said this week that "this decision received the battalion's full support .... In no way was this a refusal to execute an order, but rather a respectable understanding between the battalion commander and the brigade commander, who was intelligent enough not to get into a conflict over this issue."

The battalion commander, Friedman, declined to comment other than to say he was "very proud of the battalion and fully supportive of the soldiers and officers."

The Israel Defense Forces said: "In recent years the phenomenon of interlopers into Israel from the western border has been on the rise .... In the IDF there are clear instructions on the circumstances in which interlopers can be sent back to Egypt. These commands have been presented before the High Court of Justice, and they are in line with Israel's obligations to international law in general, especially the Convention on the Status of Refugees."

The Negev Brigade's reconnaissance battalion is considered one of the best reserve units in the south; it was called up three times in the past decade to take part in Operation Defensive Shield, the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead.

"This entire order seemed to us to be questionable," a senior officer in the battalion said this week. "If they were sending them back in coordination between brigades, at the level of state to state, that would be one thing. But the minute you tell a company they need to send them over to policemen in the field, it sounds very bad. They tell you everything will be fine, but there are many stories about how they are treated on the other side."

Soldiers and officers from the battalion who spoke to Haaretz asked to remain anonymous. "We're proud of what we did, but we don't want to make a big deal out of it," one said. "What we had to say we said internally, to the battalion and brigade commanders. Israel has a problem, and they don't know what to do, so they fob it off on the army."

The battalion was replaced recently by the regular unit. "They do 'immediate returns' all the time," said a soldier. "We should ask what's happening in the area when there are no reservists. Some soldiers saw some of the very terrible things they do to the interlopers on the other side."

According to a soldier in the Nahal Brigade who served in the northern part of the Egyptian border two years ago, "There were times we needed to take cover in the outpost because the Egyptians fired at Africans who tried to cross the border, without discriminating."