African Migrant Workers in Israel: Two Sides of the Same Border

1,200 African migrants have been estimated to cross the border between Israel and Egypt monthly. This statistic raises many critical questions, but all I wish is to tell the story of this miserable border through the eyes of a random IDF reserves regiment in which I happen to serve.

None of us are soldiers by profession. We meet once or twice a year when an uninvited brown envelope appears in the mailbox. The thought of a month-long border patrol in freezing desert nights is seen by those who recall their mandatory military service on similar sand dunes and hummers, as either sweet nostalgia for black coffee and dirty jokes or as a very great nuisance. For me it was probably somewhere in between. What my friends and I were unaware of was that in addition to the regular border patrols, we will also be the first suppliers of humanitarian aid to helpless victims of criminal acts by Egyptian guards.

The Egyptian side of this border has been described by Human Rights Watch as a "death zone for migrants". The Egyptian border police follow the commonly used warning procedure before commencing their 'shoot-to-stop" policy. Indeed, this is an acceptable procedure. Yet in situations of law enforcement, guards may use lethal force only in self defense, and even then, as a last resort, in restraint and in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. Trust me. When women and children in rags or even a group of men in bare feet limp towards a barbed wire fence, it is clearer then the desert sky that they pose no threat to the life of any armed Egyptian soldier. Yet these guards open fire and in many cases kill or injure migrant perpetrators.

Ido Shacham, who on regular days works at the Ministry of Finance, was the Regiment Commander's field driver when gun shots from the border were heard. "We rushed out of the jeep and one of the medics saw four dead migrants, two on the Egyptian side, and two that were shot as they were crossing, and fell dead on Israeli soil. One man was shot and lay still until the guards left the area, and then crawled over to Israel with a broken leg. Our medic gave him first aid and we sent him to the hospital." Ido didn't want to see the bodies. "Our medic said that she expected dead people to look different, but they didn't. They were just lying on the ground and there was nothing to do. There are images that if I can help it, I don't need to see".

Chris Makre is a shift manager in a bakery and was called up for reserves just before Hanukkah, a holiday synonymous with one word: donuts. It was the worst time for him to miss work. Chris was asked to accompany a wounded migrant woman who was found alone, after the two men she was with were shot to death by Egyptian guards. Chris accompanied the woman who was shot in her right arm to Yoseftal hospital in Eilat and sat by her side until three a.m. "she was relatively calm and since the first people to tend to her wounds were our medics, she saw me in uniform and identified me with the 'good guys'. I think she felt safe when she saw me there".

Usually, groups of migrants sit at the side of the road, waiting for our troops to pick them up. But more than once, in their frantic flight from Egyptian guards migrants were frightened by the sight of more soldiers, not sure if they've already crossed the border. We would yell "Israel! Israel!" and only then would they stop running and we would begin the regular search procedure to make sure they are unarmed. We make a grave effort that female soldiers will conduct the searches on women. Orit Katz, an Environmental Science student was called upon to conduct a search on a group of women. "There were ten migrant women, some had no shoes. The rumor is that they give their shoes as ransom to the Egyptian guards. I conducted the search behind the hummer, in order to respect their privacy as much as I could."

We are the Israeli soldiers. We miss home, we don't particularly like patrolling for twelve hours in cold weather and we would at times kill for a strong cup of cappuccino. But that's just an idiom. We don't shoot at migrants. We don't rape their women. We don't take their shoes for fun. I'd like to say that more than the battered migrants, I pity any Egyptian guard who is unable to feel mercy when looking in the eyes of a helpless man. But that would be a lie. I pity the migrants more.

Meital Nir-Tal is a Graduate law and philosophy student at the University of Haifa and a female combat reserves soldier in the IDF.