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Look Who's Policing Israel's Borders
Defenders of Israel's Borders
by Judy Lash Balint
October 2, 2003

Somewhere in Samaria--In a field just north of Jenin, a dozen Israeli Border Patrol (BP) soldiers practise their "capture the terrorist" techniques.

As two of the soldiers impersonate terrorists and sneak into the field on foot wearing white T-shirts, their buddies use high tech sensors to pinpoint the exact location of the security breach before sending a radio signal to three colleagues. The three, dressed in brownish camouflage gear have been cooling their heels for hours in foxholes dug deep into the agricultural land.

Suddenly, they spring out of their hiding places and sprint across the field--scattering in different directions to surround their prey. Simultaneously, sirens blare and a jeep appears from nowhere and races toward the action. The "terrorists" don't have a chance. They're quickly surrounded, but kept at a safe distance because of the likelihood they'll set off their explosive belts. The BP's bark out orders in Arabic and the two slowly strip off their T-shirts and pants before being cuffed and hauled into the jeep.

After carrying out another two variations on the terrorist capture theme, one involving attack dogs, the other using snappy All Terrain Vehicles, the BP's gather with their commander to evaluate the exercise. Three of them are women--young, attractive women who have chosen to complete their army service in the rigorous, dangerous BP. "Next time we'll have new tricks," promises Oshrat, 19, pushing long blond hair out of her eyes.

The BP has come in for harsh criticism in recent months over allegations of brutality and investigations are ongoing into several alleged incidents of mishandling of Arab detainees. Given their mission--to patrol Israel's border and seam-line areas and prevent terrorist infiltrations, as well as to augment police work in criminal and anti-riot activity--it's perhaps not surprising that they would come in for criticism.

A large percentage of the nine thousand BP's come from Israel's Druse community. Druse also serve in Israel's regular army, but they predominate in the BP. People like Fero Ziad, commander of the training camp near Jenin, who proudly reels off statistics about terrorists his soldiers have recently apprehended along the 76 kilometers of borders in his area. "Our main objective is to protect the security of the citizens," Ziad explains. The imposing forty-something officer adds drily: "We reduce the entry of unauthorized people."

One of the greatest challenges in keeping terrorists out of his area, says Ziad, is combating the tendency among some Israeli Arabs to harbor such people. "We've found houses where twenty terror suspects are being sheltered," he alleges. BPs must obtain a search warrant for every location they wish to search--by the time they have the warrant, the suspects have moved to another safe house. Besides, there's not enough prison space to confine all the Arabs who are in his area without papers, Ziad complains. Meantime, there's a booming business in forged ID cards, which are going for 1500 shekel ($340) a piece.

Back in June, according to Ziad, a female terrorist using such a card, got to the Israeli Arab settlement of Mukbileh, where she was provided with food and shelter and sent on her way to the nearby Israeli town of Afula, inside the Green Line, where she blew herself up taking eight Israeli civilians with her.

While Ziad and his highly-trained crew patrol the hot area around Jenin that's frequently in the news, BP volunteers like Avi N. give up a few nights a week out of the limelight to protect their own neighborhoods. Avi, 34, is a marketing writer and father of three small children who lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh. An American immigrant married to an Israeli, Avi is concerned about Arab infiltration into the small Jewish communities surrounding his suburban town. Less than 10 miles to the south east of Beit Shemesh are a few Arab villages which have produced homicide bombers.

Avi and his volunteer team known as MATMID (volunteers in uniform) are supposed to augment the duties of the over-worked regular BP and IDF. All the men of Avi's team have completed army duty and take time off work for around 30 days per year to serve in the reserves.

Avi points out that the emphasis in BP training is on working in civilian populations. "We're trained to sniff out suspicious behavior in local populations," he says. Their high accuracy shooting training is second to none, he maintains.

Patrolling the seam line areas in a 4 wheel drive jeep, the lads generally pull down two six hour shifts per month. All Avi's team keep their M-16, unforms and bullet-proof vests locked up at home, ready to go. Their area borders on some well-known terrorist hideouts--Beit Jalla, Bethlehem and Hebron, so there are often emergency situations where the team will be called out to augment the regular BP units.

"All of us are in our 30s and 40s," Avi says. "We're all parents and we all work in demanding jobs and commute to work." Despite their civilian demands, the team recently underwent additional training and they're now on call 24/7. In the last three years since the start of the current war, Avi's unit has doubled in size. "I guess you could say we all share a deep desire to do something about our current security situation," Avi says.

"After you're in it for a while, you see how perilous the situation really is and how strapped our security apparatus has become," he continues. "We know it's sometimes only us who stand between our enemies and a catastrophe close to home."