For Some Israeli Bedouin, Border Smuggling Is a Way of Life

Poor communities in South see illegal trade across Sinai and Gaza borders as integral to struggling economy.

Yoav Stern
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Yoav Stern

Early one morning A., a resident of one of the unrecognized Bedouin villages in the south realized that his older son was not in his bed.

He was upset because this was the first time his son was not at home at that hour. His cell phone was off, and this added to his worry. It was 5 A.M. by the time he went to the home of relatives to look for the boy. There he was told that he had gone out with the "guys."

It was obvious to him where his son had gone: to take part in smuggling activities along the border.

"What does a young man want? He needs money to buy a cell phone, to buy a car. And what are his alternatives here? There is no work for the young here, there is no road here, there is barely a school. The most readily available job, the most lucrative, is in smuggling. But I did not allow him to do this," A. told Haaretz this week.

A., who asked to remain anonymous, says that at some point his son answered his telephone. "He told me: 'Don't worry, we are on our way back,' but I told him to get out of the car immediately, no matter where, that I would come pick him up from any place, just so that he won't be caught because then his life would be ruined," he said.

His son may have stopped working in smuggling but the entire area lives off of it. A relative who is unemployed most of the year recently bought an expensive new car; no one asks where the money came from because the answer is obvious.

There are communities, like Bir Hadaj, where smuggling is central to their livelihood. Some 60 percent of the men in the village - between 300-500 people - are part of the smuggling industry.

Outsiders who enter the community find it strange. There is always a sense that someone is following the guests to evaluate whether they are peaceful or whether they are the law. There are no roads here, not even an access road. The homes are not permanent structures.

Nonetheless, there is big money here. In this and other communities in the area there is trade in drugs, and low priced cigarettes - all part of an economy that is based on the border.

Many of the cars here do not have license plates. This is one of the security measures adopted by the smugglers.

In the language of the local smugglers, the car is a shamud, a word based on the Hebrew word for destruction. "People here work clean and are organized. They know they need to use a shamud vehicle for these [smuggling] purposes," one of the locals told Haaretz.

The types of vehicles normally used are 4x4 pickup trucks or jeeps, with space in the back for loading cargo. There are two areas where the activity takes place.

One is in the area between the border of the Gaza Strip and Sinai, and back through the Strip and the sand dunes of Nitzana. The other is from the same Gaza-Sinai border area, and back through the sands between Nitzana and Eilat.

Army sources say that in recent months there has been an increase in the amount of activity along the southern border, which stems primarily from the difficulty in crossing at the northern edge of the border where security is higher.

In addition to the smuggling the army is concerned about the abduction of soldiers along the border, as well as attacks against patrols or the smuggling of arms and explosives into Israel.

Nonetheless, the various security organizations are finding it difficult to curtail the smuggling, and rarely do so. The estimate is that only 5 percent of the smugglers are caught.

In most of the cases where there is a chase, the smugglers escape. But for the most part no one ever knows anything is going down.

However, even though the IDF does not release data on the number of smugglers caught or the number of pursuits that it has carried out, all indications suggest that there has been a massive drop in recent months in smuggling activity.

All seem to agree that this is the result of intensified activity on the part of Egyptian security forces operating in Sinai, along the border with Israel but also in the wilderness.

Much of the activity stems from the Egyptian concern that Hezbollah and Al-Qaida elements are active in the area, and their sense that they must act or risk losing control.

If in the past the border had been nearly without security patrols on the Egyptian side, now there seems to be a soldier every 100 meters, with orders to open fire against any one trying to cross the border - irrespective of who the intruders might be.

In recent months there have been reports of confrontations between Bedouin residents of Sinai and Egyptian security forces, both along the border but also inside the peninsula. The clashes sometimes resulted in exchanges of gunfire and casualties among the Egyptian forces.

For this story, Haaretz interviewed defense, political and Bedouin sources in Israel. No one agreed to go on record, and the information had to be cross-checked by different sources. The IDF say that the issue is too sensitive to go on record; the police refused to offer any information on the smuggling.

To date there has been an unwritten agreement between the various security agencies and the smugglers, which restricted the smuggling to mostly cigarettes, drugs and African refugees. A few years ago, there had also been the phenomenon of trafficking in women, but this has in great part been curtailed, mostly because of the strong opposition that Muslim religious figures posed.

The statistics, which are in great part estimates, suggest that only three percent of the smuggling activities involves "security" related cargo.

The areas along both sides of the border are divided among various tribes, whose members live on both sides of the border and are involved in the smuggling. Other clans are also involved in the activity. All are familiar with the security weak spots along the border, and methods for bypassing the IDF and Egyptian patrols - whose modus operandi they are familiar with.

The smuggling operation involves a great deal of cooperation and coordination: On the Egyptian side one can find the person who is funding the deal; he needs to make available large sums of cash, often several hundred thousand shekels per deal. Smugglers regularly make NIS 30-50,000 for moving hashish and cigarettes.

When the money is paid and a decision is made on what cargo will be smuggled, the operational stage takes shape: a rear "command center" organizes the crew for the smuggling operation, including "mules" (people to carry the cargo ).

The timing is set by groups from both sides. The communications are based on Israeli cellular telephones. The Bedouin are very familiar with the areas in which certain companies have better reception than others.

A day before the operation, spotters are placed on both sides of the border. At times the spotters are equipped with advanced night vision equipment.

While on the Israeli sides there is usually a single spotter, on the Egyptian side there are more because there is greater danger of running into Egyptian security forces whose orders are to shoot first and ask questions later.

As the cargo approaches the border, the Bedouin on the Israeli side are given a 15 minute warning to get to the spot - approximately 500 meters from the point where Israeli sensors would be tripped, suggesting that the border had been crossed.

The short distance is covered at top speed, and there are vehicles ready with their back ends open to receive the goods. The exchange takes less than two minutes. Goods are in the hands of the Israeli Bedouin - and money in the hands of their Egyptian partners.



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