Tracking Down a Future

The place of Bedouin trackers in an increasingly technological army is far from guaranteed, but they still have much to contribute

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

"At the last wedding, my guys didn't dance," says Lt. Col. Majdi Mazarib, the most senior tracker in the Israel Defense Forces Northern Command, "but at the next one, we'll make sure they dance a lot."

Mazarib is referring to the Second Lebanon War, where his trackers did not play a significant enough role, in his opinion. It is clear to him that the place of Bedouin trackers on the battlefield of the future, among the ranks of an increasingly technological and digitalized IDF, is far from guaranteed. At any given moment, dozens of Bedouin whom he trained, and alongside whom he has served during his 27 years in the army, are continuing to fulfill their traditional role: They locate breaches in the border, participate in hot pursuit of infiltrators and terrorists, and accompany IDF patrols in all sectors. But despite this, the Bedouin trackers have to fight for their positions.

It's a little over a week ago, at the Northern Command's training base at Elyakim. In a short while, the first heavy rain will fall. Thirty trackers from the Galilee division are carrying out a routine training exercise. One of its purposes is to improve their qualifications as infantrymen so they will be able to serve as regular combat soldiers with other infantrymen in patrols. In addition, they are practicing a different kind of training that does not involve shooting.

The scenario being played out here is that a band of infiltrators has been sighted near the base's firing range, and now it is up to the trackers to find them, chase after and apprehend them, if possible, and to locate the explosive devices they have hidden in the dense growth.

There is a broad age gap between these men. Some are soldiers in compulsory service, who finished their training just few months beforehand; others are in the permanent army and have served almost 30 years. The unusual component in today's exercise: fighters from the Oketz canine unit with their tracker dogs.

It is obvious that it's not easy for the human trackers to cope with the dogs. A few times during their activities, the force gets separated and one of the trackers complains that "the dog has misled us for no good reason - we can't rely on it."

When the dog breaks away and runs to one of the hidden explosive devices, the trackers are adamant they still must follow the tracks. But Mazarib does not permit them to do so and reminds his people of other actual instances when it was precisely the dogs who were able to track down the terrorists where the force failed.

"Every one has something to contribute from his point of view," he says to the joint forces when summing up the exercise. "We are already aware that Hezbollah will try to entice us in all kinds of ways. They will leave some Kalashnikov bullets or other equipment and the tracker will want to run ahead. Many trackers have paid with their lives during events of that kind, and there are places where it will be the dog that will save you. On the other hand, there are situations when the dog is tired and you can't understand what he wants because he can't talk, and you also have much more experience. What is important is that even when it seems to you that the tracks are clear, you mustn't insist that the dog should keep away and not interfere. His presence doubles the force."

Between the two units with similar duties, there is naturally competition. "In the past, each unit - the trackers and Oketz - kept its cards close to its chest," Mazarib explains. "The first attempt to cooperate was in the Gaza Strip a few years ago, but the trackers weren't ready for it. They felt humiliated that they were not being relied upon. Veteran trackers came to me and said, 'It's either me or the dog.' There was also a cultural element involved."

But today the ability to mix with others is the name of the game in the IDF: That is, a unit that doesn't know how to cooperate with others may become irrelevant.

However, Mazarib adamant rejects the accepted trend in the army today, in one respect: He doesn't want his men to use the many digital devices soldiers are equipped with these days to improve their ability to locate enemy forces in the region and control their movements.

"A tracker has to be light, with only his weapon and magazines, water and if he wishes, cigarettes," he insists. "If you give him all kinds of gadgets, he loses his natural sense and ability to find things. It is precisely when everything depends on cameras and there is a lot of technology that we have to know that sometimes, technology is deceptive if we rely on it too much.

"We have to get inside the head of Hezbollah's forces. They know the Jews have cameras and try to figure out how to confuse them. Even aerial photos [taken by means of a drone in real time - A.P.] only give us part of the picture. It's like looking at the field through a hole in a haystack. And what do you do when the force separates or goes under a bridge or takes some other cover?"

Mazarib also believes that if a tracker were at the head of every armored column that goes into enemy territory, there would be a better chance of identifying ambushes and explosives that can injure the forces in advance. "The tracker utilizes his knowledge of similar kinds of villages. He can identify suspicious movements in the population; we are constantly improving our information about new explosive devices in the arena."

During the Second Lebanon War, the use of trackers was restricted. Now Mazarib hopes the lesson has been learned from that, but admits that sometimes he still has to argue with officers in other units, to persuade them of the value of the trackers in missions that are not merely routine security patrols on the fence.

There are differences of opinion in the IDF over whether the old approach to technology is suitable for trackers in the 21st century. "If they wish to continue being relevant, they have to become aware also of the subject of computerization," says one of the commanders of the regional forces, who uses trackers a great deal in his zone. "And they shouldn't tell me that they're all shepherds. Today almost all of them come from homes made of stone."

This commander has even introduced a plan for developing "a technical tracker," in which the forces in question would undergo extensive training in the sophisticated equipment now in use during day-to-day security activities.

Preserving group memory

There is another issue, however, about which almost everyone in the IDF seems to agree: The great advantage of the tracker does not merely lie in his ability to identify tracks in the field, but in his intimate familiarity with every rock and bush in a certain area. Therefore, the tendency is to keep the trackers in the same limited area of activity on the borders for years. The tracker thus serves to preserve the collective or organizational "memory" of a particular arena: If there were no incursions or attacks in a certain zone for years and all the commanders and officers have since changed, the tracker will be the only one who knows the weak points inside and out. However, remaining in one restricted zone for a prolonged period, in which the tracker may be constantly exposed to various elements operating there, also has risks: Mazarib admits there have been cases in which trackers received bribes from drug smugglers, and were able to keep the IDF patrols away to allow the illicit activity to continue.

It is not easy for Mazarib, scion of a family from the village of Beit Zarzir with a proud tradition of military service, to speak about the problem of corruption, but he is aware of it. He is the son of a fighter from the elite Shaked reconnaissance unit and a relative of the mythical commander of that commando unit, Amos Yarkoni (whose original name was Abd el-Majid Hidr, of the famous Mazarib tribe), the most famous tracker in the history of the IDF.

"The tracker is a Bedouin and the smuggler is a Bedouin," he notes. "It's possible that they are even from the same tribe, although you must remember that we are talking about huge tribes. There were instances where one or two trackers have 'sinned,' but it is absolutely wrong to talk about this on a comprehensive scale."

Mazarib also knows of cases also where trackers who were released from the IDF went to work with smugglers. He is aware that in some of the units on the Egyptian border, especially reserve units, there are officers who tell their soldiers not to tell the trackers on the base about planned ambushes for fear that the information will get to the smugglers.

"It is a mistake to compartmentalize the tracker," he states. "There is a great deal of information that he can give the army - he can assist them in deciding where to launch the ambush in the most effective way. Anyway, so what if there is someone from the al-Azzama tribe who is a smuggler? To say that the tracker who is also from that tribe is cooperating with him is like saying that the commander of a company in the Nahal [paramilitary Brigade] whose name is Abutbul is connected to the [underworld figure] Assi Abutbul from Netanya."

Mazarib says he does not hesitate to deal with any case where there is a suspicion of corruption or collaboration, but says one has to be careful about making accusations.

"There are rumors and derogatory remarks about me, too," he explains. "It may be enough that you thwarted smuggling efforts a few times for certain elements connected with the intelligence people to say something against you. If a senior tracker comes to me and says he suspects one of the other trackers, or that something is wrong because there were no events in his area and so maybe someone threatened or bribed him - I will quietly move him over to another place and watch what happens. If there is a serious suspicion, then whoever needs to be informed will be informed."

The number of Bedouin who do not have to enlist but opt to join the IDF anyway changes drastically from year to year. However, in the past two years, it has been on the increase - especially due to economic factors and because of the widespread information campaign the army has carried out in Bedouin settlements, in which military service is presented as a means of being accepted into Israeli society. About one-third of the Bedouin who enlist serve as trackers, another one third go to the desert reconnaissance unit that is posted in the area near the Gaza Strip, and the remainder go to other units of the army. Even though the reconnaissance and the trackers units mentioned here consist solely of Bedouin, the soldiers speak only Hebrew among themselves. This seems to be a status symbol for someone who has enlisted and feels he has succeeded. Many of the Bedouin choose to serve in the permanent army and consider this the key to economic stability.

The tendency in the army is to assign Bedouin who enlist and have a high-school education to the regular units, while those who come from a less financially stable backgrounds are generally assigned to the trackers' units. The best tracker is someone who went out with the flock every day," says Mazarib.

There have been attempts in the past to assign Jewish soldiers to the trackers units too, but they all failed, he adds: "A tracker can't be a Jew. You need a special kind of head for it. In addition, even if it was possible to train a Jew to be a tracker, it wouldn't work because we are a small, unified and organic unit that is built on family and tribal traditions. There is a great deal of respect in this job. A tracker is like a pilot - a lone fighter in an area who can, with one quick decision, either upset or calm down the entire General Staff."