Tracking Terrorists and Smugglers Just Like the Bedouin Do

Well, actually it’s just a new tourism venture in Israel’s Upper Galilee, where vacationers can learn the secret to every footprint.

Tal Shofman-Schejter

SALAMEH, Upper Galilee – Ziad Sawaid, a Bedouin tracker, bends down and draws a circle in the earth with his stick. After a brief examination, he rules: “It’s not the footprint of a goat. Not a human footprint either. This one belongs to a wild boar.”

The Bedouin’s legendary skills at sighting and deciphering imprints on the ground, often indiscernible to the average eye, are put to use in the Israeli army, where many Bedouin volunteers dominate the ranks of trackers patrolling the borders. Passed down from generation to generation and honed through years in the outdoors, this sixth sense has helped foil many attempts by terrorists and smugglers to infiltrate into Israel over the years.

But Sawaid hasn’t been summoned this hot Sukkot holiday morning to investigate a possible breach. Rather, he’s launching a new enterprise he hopes will take his talents in a new direction: a crash course in tracking not for customers with military and security needs, but for curiosity seekers and nature lovers, little ones as well.

The graduates of this two-hour workshop may not become adept at sighting signs of danger in the ground, but Sawaid is confident that at minimum they’ll emerge a with greater awareness of their natural surroundings.

“Since I began to crawl, I’ve lived my life out in nature,” the 51-year-old father of three says, explaining how he developed his acute sense of sight, sound and smell. “In fact, my mother gave birth to me in nature, right under a carob tree.”

As a young shepherd in charge of 300 goats, Sawaid was forced to teach himself basic tracking skills. “Whenever some of the goats would go missing, I had to figure out where to go looking,” he says.

But much of his education as a tracker came during the downtime. “As a shepherd, you spend lots of time sitting on a hill while the animals graze,” he notes. “That’s when I’d look at the ground a lot, at the ants, at the other insects, and it’s how I learned many things about the earth and about nature.”

Sleep in a tent, of course

For the first 20 years of his life, Sawaid, a member of the largest Bedouin tribe in the Galilee, lived a nomadic life. But in 1985, like many Bedouin in Israel, he and his family moved to a permanent home in this relatively new village in northern Israel, with a population of 6,000 today.

A Hebrew and history teacher by training, Sawaid changed career paths about 25 years ago, when he and his wife began running a Bedouin hospitality center out of their home. Aside from home-cooked meals and food-foraging workshops, the center gives visitors keen to learn about Bedouin life the chance to spend the night sleeping in an authentic tent on-site.

The Bedouin aren’t required to serve in the Israeli military, but according to Sawaid, about 90 percent of army-age boys in Salameh volunteer, most of them as trackers. Many stay on beyond the required three years for men. One example is Sawaid’s cousin Mohanad, who spent 11 years as an ace military tracker and is now helping out with the new family venture.

In this inaugural workshop, it’s a small group of families with children on holiday. Their meeting point is an olive orchard on the outskirts of Salamehh, about a five-minute drive from Sawaid’s home.

Tal Shofman-Schejter

“The best time to take a lesson in tracking is after it rains, so these aren’t optimal conditions,” warns Sawaid as he points his stick at the scorched earth. The workshop begins with three basic pointers.

1) How do you tell the direction an infiltrator is moving in?

No, not from the direction the foot is facing. Clever border infiltrators have already figured that one out. To avoid detection and confuse possible captors, they often cross the border walking backwards.

The best way to figure out their direction, as Sawaid reveals, is to examine which side of the footprint is more sunken into the earth. That more-sunken side indicates the direction they’re headed, since they will be putting more weight on that part of the foot.

2) How do you distinguish between a terrorist and a plain old thief?

A thief tends to hover around a certain radius for a while, stalking the premises before making his move. The telltale signs of a thief, as Sawaid points out, will be footprints that span out horizontally.

3) Goats and wild boars, believe it or not, have similar footprints. How do you tell the difference?

A goat’s footprint tends to be smaller, and goats tend to hang out in much larger groups. So before making a final call, Sawaid suggests surveying the area to see if there are many other similar footprints around.

Listening to grandma

Once the participants are equipped with some basic knowledge, they’re broken down into two teams, one led by Sawaid and the other by his cousin, for a game of hide-and-seek. As he crouches with his “infiltrators” for a break under an olive tree, Sawaid regales them with tales of Bedouin life. He points to a dry, thorny plant on the ground and recalls how his grandmother would make tea from its roots to ward off migraines.

From another plant out in the distance, she would pull yellow petals in the spring and soak them in a bottle of olive oil hidden in the dark for 21 days. “She would then splash the fragrant scent all over her body,” he recounts.

It takes his cousin’s group nearly half an hour to track down Sawaid’s team, and now it’s time for the two groups to switch roles. As he tracks the barely discernible human footprints of the opposing team, Sawaid points to a gray mass of matter.

“Does anybody know what this is?” he asks. “Cement,” replies an eager young boy. Sawaid laughs. “If you were a Bedouin, you would know this isn’t cement,” he says. “Any little Bedouin boy would know that this is cow pooh.”

One tracker-in-training steps on what appears to be a piece of plastic wrap. “Do you know what you just stepped on?” Sawaid asks, visibly astonished that this clueless woman is oblivious to the treasure lying under her feet. “That’s skin shed by a poisonous snake.” He lifts it off the ground, invoking his famous grandmother again. “You want to know what she would do with this dead skin?” She’d rub it on her face to smoothen her skin. It really worked.”

An adventure with Sawaid isn’t complete without some famous Bedouin hospitality. Back at his home, the newly minted trackers are treated to a “light” meal prepared by his wife of three main dishes and an assortment of salads, all washed down with fresh-squeezed lemonade.

“Don’t worry,” Sawaid reassures a participant expressing frustration over her clear lack of talent for tracking. “This isn’t the sort of skill you learn in an hour.”