It was an early Friday night, a winter evening deep in the Arava desert valley and I was on army reserve duty, patrolling the border. I had a 36-hour on-base break from duty and wandered into the unit’s duty office. Our deputy commander, a tall major with white hair and a pleasant smile, looked up and saw me. “You’re off duty. What are you doing out of bed?”
“I couldn’t sleep and got up to walk around,” I said. “Sometimes you just have to be active.”
He smiled. “I know what you mean. I’m that way too.” He paused for a second. “Do you want to have some activity?”
“Depends what you have in mind,” I said cautiously, not wanting to lose my off-duty status just because I couldn’t sleep.
“We have to send Eid to a base up north. They need a tracker. We’re the closest base with trackers on duty on a Friday night. Would you like to accompany him?”
Eid was a Bedouin warrant officer with whom I was friendly. He was in his early thirties, quiet and religious. Eid and I played checkers often, but I did not dare try his expertise in sheshbesh. It took my best efforts to win a game of checkers against him and I was proud when I did.
Sometimes we talked in his small room during coffee breaks between games. I learned a good deal about his dislike of Bedouins who did not keep religious tradition and his upset over environmental despoliation at Ramat Hovav near his home. Eid was what others in a different world would call an Islamic fundamentalist, praying five times daily, and nonetheless he served quite easily as an IDF officer. Eid had a cold look to him that took awhile to penetrate. His speech was laconic but could become quietly intense. Even when we were social one never got very close to the man.
A road trip with Eid sounded like an entertaining way of spending a Friday evening, so I agreed. When Eid came into the office he did not react one way or another to news that he would have company for the trip. I went off to pick up a heavy coat and joined him at the jeep parking lot.
The night was not too cold but there was moisture in the air. We took a covered jeep with a good heater, since it is bitter cold at night in a jeep moving at high speed. We headed northwards on the Arava highway, running into an occasional squall that beat rain against the windshield for a few moments. Neither Eid nor I felt any occasion to speak to each other. The hour and a half drive passed in silence.
At the route 40 junction we drove westwards out of the valley, heading towards the Telalim junction. There was almost no traffic on the road and we were alone in the dark. We passed the few small villages and army bases sited along the southern stretch of the route. When we reached the armored base we pulled up to the entry gate. The guard heard the Arabic accent on Eid’s voice and was instantly suspicious. What did we want?
“Call your duty officer and tell him to come to the gate.” Eid preferred not to state our business to a curious shin gimelist (entry gate guard).
“And why should he do that? What do you want?” he repeated. The snap on the guard’s voice was unpleasant. He could not see rank insignia under Eid’s winter coat. Eid took the disrespect in stride.
“Not your business. But I can leave now and it will be your problem.”
The guard glowered but preferred to pick up the phone. He explained briefly, then turned and said, “He says to wait here and he’ll come.” The guard directed us to pull our jeep inside the gate and wait. We sat quietly in the dark.
After a quarter of an hour two fresh-as-can-be second lieutenants arrived in a jeep. They had a cosmopolitan tone and appearance; they were as junior as officers come in the army, but projected well-developed arrogance. One leaned into our dark jeep to ask, “Are you the tracker?” Eid nodded. “And you are an escort?” the lieutenant asked me. I nodded wordlessly.
“Follow us,” the lieutenant said. We drove following them through the mostly-deserted armored training camp with its neatly parked Merkava tanks. Nearly all the soldiers had disappeared homewards on weekend leave.
At a wide southern fence gate we halted, got out of the jeeps, and stood with highlights on the gate as the lieutenants explained. When the perimeter patrol had checked the gate earlier in the evening they found that the padlock had been cut and arranged so that it appeared normal. It was a base break-in. Their orders were to remain away from the gate and call the tracker, although they did not see the purpose. Nobody was here anymore.
Eid only listened. He now said “Stay here.” Then he walked up to the gate and pulled the chain free. He looked carefully around the sandy ground, then pushed open the high gates. In the light of the jeep headlamps he kneeled down for a closer look. Taking time and care, he began walking a slow spiral out from the mid-point of the gate and repeated the process another twenty meters down the dirt entry road. He said nothing.
The two lieutenants stood back next to their jeep laughing quietly to each other and mocking the scene in low voices. For them, he was a primitive engaged in some incomprehensible ritual. They did not care if I overheard standing ten meters away.
After about fifteen minutes, Eid returned to the gates, swung them closed, chained and locked them. He turned to the lieutenants, who approached and were looking at him with amused, slightly contemptuous smiles.
Eid looked at them and said, “At about two this afternoon six soldiers drove up on a nagmash (armored personnel carrier). One of them climbed down to open the gate. They did not have a key. So the others jumped off and walked up to the gate. One of them brought a digging tool. He broke the padlock with it. Then they drove through the gate, closed it, wrapped the chain to make it look alright, climbed back on the nagmash and went into camp.”
It was a marvel to watch the lieutenants’ faces as Eid reported. They momentarily went red with rage. Their own soldiers had broken into the base.
“How do you know this?!!” one exploded.
“It’s my job,” Eid replied.
“What were their names?!!” the other lieutenant blared out angrily, apparently thinking this Bedouin tracker could see everything.
It was Eid’s turn finally to give a faint smile.
“That’s your problem,” he answered and walked away without further words.
Several kilometers down the road on the return trip, I turned to Eid and said “That was good.”
“That was easy,” he said. “Following a lost goat in the desert for three days is much harder.”
For the rest of the long trip back to our base we were silent again.
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