“This is our country,” Lieutenant Colonel Magdi Mazarib tells an AFP reporter in a recent profile.
“The flag of England also has a cross on it, and the Jews there are fine with it,” he says, noting that the country’s Jewish symbols, such as the Star of David or the theme of the national anthem, do not perturb him.
Mazarib is a Bedouin, a Muslim Arab who grew up in northern Israel, and is also the Israeli army’s highest-ranking tracker. The amiable and composed officer, as his profiler described him, “who with a shaved head, Hermes cologne and long, delicate fingers could pass for a business executive,” believes that Bedouin in the region aspire to the quality of life Israel affords its own.
“The state of Bedouin in Israel is better, as far as the respect we get, our progress, education,” he says. “It’s a different league.”
Bedouin dominate the small, elite tracker units guarding the country’s northern and southern borders.
“I was born a tracker, a Bedouin, and followed the flock,” says Mazarib, whose father was also a tracker.
Being a tracker is about “connecting to nature, living in the field,” he says. “If you want to be a tracker on the northern border, you can’t be from northern Tel Aviv.”
Although the tech-savvy Israeli army has an array of advanced means to detect infiltrators, “there is no replacement for the tracker, the soldiers, the warrior, who touches the ground, who also speaks its language and can say – here two infiltrated, here three,” he says.
“Members of terror groups don’t leave marks, they know what abilities the Bedouin trackers have,” he says. “Over time they create a range of decoys and means to cover their tracks. Our job is to uncover them.”
Today, the army says the number of Bedouin in active service is 1,655 – a tiny fraction of the 176,500 troops who make up the entire corpus of the active military, according to Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies.
There are approximately 260,000 Bedouin in Israel, official statistics show, with around 193,000 in Negev, 15,000 in central Israel and another 52,000 in the north.
There is a stark contrast between the Bedouin of the north and those who live in the south, Ziad Saady, who manages the Bedouin Heritage Centre, tells AFP.
Those in the south suffer from a “low social status,” with many living in poverty. Yet, the Bedouin of the north flourish and continue to remain an integral part of Israeli society. Two-thirds of the Bedouin in the army hail from the north.
To Mazarib, the Bedouin integration in Israel’s army and society could be evidence of the possibility of Jewish-Muslim coexistence, which “could serve as an example of how to solve the entire Jewish-Arab conflict,” he says.