An enemy is an enemy, even if he speaks Arabic like I do
24 November 2010 , 11:07
Soldiers from the Bedouin Desert Reconnaissance Battalion raid the abandoned communication facility simulating a weaponry warehouse in Gaza. . Photo:

The Bedouin Desert Reconnaissance Battalion is made up of Bedouin, Jewish, and Christian soldiers from all over Israel who are united in their expertise, dedication, and sense of duty to their country.   

Rotem Caro Weizman

The moonless desert night is cool and the stars are twinkling above. A grayish cigarette ash falls on the golden sand next to a soldiers red boots. In a few moments, the quiet will cease and the true nature of the surroundings will appear. The vapor of sweet tea spreading in the tents will give way to clouds of dust as the soldiers' march towards the target destination will begin. Among the briefings delivered in Hebrew, a few words in Arabic are thrown in here and there; but this does not represent the enemy because Arabic is the mother tongue of most of the men dressed in uniform.

Soldiers from the Bedouin Desert Reconnaissance Battalion raid the abandoned communication facility simulating a weaponry warehouse in Gaza. If any infantry battalion knows how to do this, it is this battalion: its soldiers know the area to perfection, every fold and stone on its ground. The battalion knows the line, its fighters understand the field and know how to survive in it. They are excellent fieldsmen, notes the Battalion Commander, Meir Almalam. In fact, they are trackers without being trackers.

The battalion, which took an active part in all major conflicts in the Gaza Strip, was founded in 1987 and is entirely composed of volunteers, mostly Bedouins and some non-Bedouin Arab-Israelis. In recent years, a considerable increase in the enlistment to the Battalion has been recorded, and for good reason: the battalion explains that for the Bedouin communitys members, it represents a ticket to the very heart of the Israeli society, and also a solution to economic distress.

The battalion provides its soldiers with a warm home, a livelihood, a possibility for extended academic opportunities and the camaraderie of fellow company soldiers. They are doing something altruistic. They are volunteers and do a great job, and invest themselves, Almalam, the Battalion Commander says. They show tremendous motivation to succeed and cope through their actions. At the end of the day, it is a great battalion. Company Commander Capt. Yussef Suwad adds that We know our job, we know ourselves.

An enemy is an enemy, even if he speaks Arabic like I do

Some of the soldiers who enlist in the battalion come from villages where enlistment in the IDF is still a relatively sensitive topicsome may have to take their uniform off before they arrive at their neighborhoods, and some may even walk on the sands of the Negev Desert for miles to return to their families on weekends in order to avoid being discovered. I am from the Sheikh Danun village located in Western Galilee. There are only Muslim farmers there," explains First Sergeant Haani Kalib. Haani, who serves in the Command and Control Center, is an Arab Muslim who chose a path different than those of the rest of the residents of his village. This path he calls the crucial decision.

Before I was drafted I worked in Kibbutz Gesher Haziv and I saw teenagers my age who enlisted. I also have uncles from another village who enlisted and therefore decided I would also do it, he recalls. It was in 1993 and I didnt know exactly what would happen. In the village it was difficult for me in the beginning because not everybody accepted the fact that I was proud of what I was doing. I explained to people that we live in a country which provides for us and therefore we have to give something in return. Your religion or your mother tongue dont matter, you must contribute. There were also people who stopped being my friends but I understood these werent real friends and that I needed to understand that they have a different world view than mine. In spite of that, I am proud to wear this uniform and to protect the country."

Haani explains that Dilemmas disappear with time, and you learn to love the land and the society. Before all else, I look at my country. An enemy is an enemy and it doesnt matter whether he speaks Arabic like I do and therefore in my opinion the military service should be mandatory for everybody. For this reason, I identify myself with the flag and the national anthem Hatikva although they are Jewish symbols because I live in this country and that will not change. As long as I live well and feel that I am respected, then I am satisfied. He insists that In the battalion there are people from everywhere. During dinner, people from every part of the country, Jews, Christians, Bedouins and farmers sit together. Its amazing. Each one of us can spread the word throughout the society about this battalions uniqueness and beauty. According to him, the IDF can contribute a lot to the Arab and Bedouin communities but the awareness is not yet sufficient: People are not aware of the possibilities offered by the army. For instance, I completed a degree with the help of the army but even the personal knowledge I gained and the fact that I got to travel in Israel through the army is enough for me."

Arab, Bedouin, Muslim Zionist

Near the tent encampment sits Corporal Mamdouh Dahir. He is smoking a cigarette and the moment he opens his mouth I am surprised by his accent. Mamdouh is a Bedouin Arab-Muslim, but unlike the rest of the battalions soldiers, he grew up among Jews his whole life and at one time did not even know Arabic fluently. He did not join the Desert Reconnaissance Battalion in order to be integrated into the Israeli society, but rather the opposite: I wanted to join the Givati or Golani Brigade like the rest of my classmates; I was dying to get in just like them. Because of my ethnic origin, I passed by the offices of the Bedouin Desert Reconnaissance Battalion during recruitment where they briefed me and I was very impressed. I decided it was an opportunity for me to learn a bit about my religion and learn how to speak Arabic. At first, people here thought I was showing off with my accent in Hebrew and then they realized that this is what I know.

Today, Mamdouh talks about his unit to his friends at home: I explain to them that we are infantry in everything we do and also that we deal with the most challenging missions. I tell them about the experience and growth soldiers gain in the Battalion and the way in which the Battalion improves the abilities of the Bedouin community within society. He surprisingly declares: I am a Zionist and clarifies that, All my life, I felt part of the Jewish society, except for the religious part. Therefore the definition of Israel and its army doesnt bother me as long as I am granted my freedom of religion. I believe that the Jews deserve a state and that they went through very difficult events. When I am in the army I dont fight against Muslims, I fight against bad people who do not care about Muslims, innocent children or civilians. The Palestinians are suffering from extremists no less than we are.

Some may think that the creation of a battalion designed for minorities differentiates it from other units, but in the reality of the military, it seems that this distinction not only helps in terms of receiving service benefits, but also in terms of the harmony that exists between battalion members. Capt. Adam Rahal, the operational Company Commander, explains that when he served in the Golani Brigade he faced difficulties adapting to the mentality, culture and language of the army. Today, my Hebrew has improved because we have an obligation to speak Hebrew in the Battalion since there are Jews who serve with us, he says. For Adam, the military service is a family affair. In my family, everybody served and therefore the path to follow them was very clear to me, he explains. Although I am volunteering, in my eyes it is an obligation. The IDF is the peoples army and I belong to the people. We understand that the Bedouin community tied their fate with that of the Jewish people since the establishment of the State of Israel. If there is a war, nobody will tell me You are a Bedouin so sit on the side.

The unique and multi-cultural atmosphere prevailing in this special battalion also applies to the Jews who serve in it. I prepare home-cooked food that suits the Battalion, explains Sergeant Major Adir Lugasy, the kitchen's commander. Once I even cooked Bedouin food for an IDF competition and we won. Adir had much time to learn the traditional cooking, since he has been serving in the battalion for 17 years already. Every recruitment cycle I see how Bedouins change to become more a more integrated of the society, he says, The Battalion has become more professional. It has a very different population sector than in other units of the IDF and it carries out difficult and exhausting work.