newsIsrael at War

Desert Frontier: The IDF unit recruiting hilltop youth

The tracker unit was established as one of the lessons learned from the 2014 kidnapping and murder of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah.

IDF soldiers operating in Judea and Samaria. Credit: IDF
IDF soldiers operating in Judea and Samaria. Credit: IDF

On Independence Day 2022, two Palestinian terrorists infiltrated the ultra-Orthodox city of Elad near Rosh Ha’ayin and went on a rampage, murdering and wounding passersby with axes and a firearm, and then fled the scene. Elite units were called in to hunt them down—the Israel Security Agency, the Israel Defense Forces’ Egoz, Maglan and 888 units, but they failed to find the terrorists. There was concern that they were on their way to commit another massacre.

Then the Desert Frontier unit, which specializes in tracking, was called in. “They were amazing,” recalled one of the officers involved in the operation. “They didn’t stop searching for the terrorists for even a moment.” While most of the units involved in the search stopped to rest, the Desert Frontier fighters, who are trained to stay in the field for long periods, were indefatigable.

“They found blood-stained bills, a zipper and the remains of a dead pigeon that the terrorists had eaten,” the officer said. After 62 hours, the terrorists were apprehended near that find, just shy of a mile from the site of the attack in Elad.

Work on this article required several months. Not everyone was eager to cooperate. Our approaches to the IDF were refused, and inquiries with sources well acquainted with the Desert Frontier soldiers and their commanders were met with raised eyebrows at best, while in other cases they simply turned us down or cut off all contact. 

The unit, whose name has come up briefly in some of the worst attacks of recent years due to its phenomenal capabilities, has mainly received negative coverage in the left-wing media.

“Desert Frontier is like a modern Unit 101 [a commando unit founded by Ariel Sharon in the 1950s], with all its merits and disadvantages.” That is how the unit was described to us by all the sources interviewed for this article. Desert Frontier is one of the most unique and controversial units in the IDF.

It has registered incredible successes, including the apprehension of terrorists, murderers with blood on their hands, but it has also been embroiled in an unusual number of complaints and allegations of problematic conduct, to put it mildly, vis-à-vis Bedouins and Palestinians.

Desert Frontier was established a few years ago as one of the lessons learned from the 2014 kidnapping and murder of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah. The IDF and Israel Police searched for the three teens, who were abducted in Gush Etzion and buried in the Halhul area, for an entire month.

In the end, they were found by members of the Kfar Etzion field school who specialize in tracking. The IDF realized that it had to strengthen its tracking capabilities and not rely solely on the capabilities of the Bedouin trackers who serve in the infantry brigades. At first, they established Mar’ol, a special unit made up of reservists, which specializes in fieldwork, and later also Desert Fronter—a tiny regular army unit whose sole expertise is an unprecedented understanding of the local terrain.

Staying in the field for weeks

The idea to establish the unit came from Yuval Gaez, commander of the Maglan commando unit at the time of the abduction of the three youths. The unit’s first cohort consisted of only 12 soldiers, carefully selected by officers well acquainted with the farms of Judea and Samaria. Left-wing organizations claim that these soldiers were “the most extreme settlers,” those the army could not recruit because of criminal cases against them or because of their extremist views.

The left views Desert Frontier as a controversial rehabilitation project, but the sources we spoke to while working on this article deny that this is the case. They say that most of those enlisted to the unit would have enlisted anyway and were handpicked for the unit because of their knowledge of the terrain.

“The percentage of hilltop youth [from illegal settlements] in the unit is relatively low, and most of them come from the farms,” a source said.

Desert Frontier remains a tight-knit unit, with about 50 people in total. All of them are highly professional; most of them live on farms and can stay out in the field for very long periods in rough conditions with minimal supplies. Unlike other elite reconnaissance or special forces unit, there are no field tests through which conscripts can join Desert Frontier; its soldiers are recruited through recommendation, or ask to join after hearing about the unit.

In November 2022, soldiers from the unit were called in to search for a terrorist who murdered Israelis with homemade bombs at the entrance to Jerusalem. The terrorist, a resident of eastern Jerusalem, planted the bombs and then hid in a cave in the Judean Desert. While fleeing, the scooter he was riding broke down and he left it behind, taking his helmet, weapons and clothes with him and scattering them in the field. The unit identified the unusual pattern and found the terrorist five days after the attack.

When the unit was established, there was a debate about where to place its personnel. At first, they were under the IDF Border Protection Corps, which stationed them in the Judean Desert. This area, where the IDF has almost no presence, is a sort of Wild West, where everyone does almost as they please. It is home to a wide range of criminal activities, from human trafficking to drug and weapons smuggling.

Bedouin in the Judean Desert began to complain about the unit. The left-wing Local Call news website published an investigative report claiming that it had dozens of testimonies according to which “soldiers from this unit allegedly attacked and abused Palestinians.”

According to those close to the unit, Bedouin criminals understood that the only way to get rid of the soldiers, who know how to blend into the terrain and know how to track them down, was to file complaints—a lot of complaints.

If the claims of the unit’s soldiers are true, then the complaints achieved their goal. At around the same time, Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fox took over as head of IDF Central Command and decided to transfer the unit to the Jordan Valley, where smuggling of weapons from Jordan to terrorist organizations in northern Samaria was rampant.

Desert Frontier operatives began to carry out ambushes on the Jordanian border to catch the smugglers. Hundreds of weapons were seized by the fighters during this period.

Then left-wing activists and Palestinians in the Jordan Valley started filing complaints about the unit.

In the first week of the Gaza war, three terrorists armed with knives and an axe infiltrated Meko Farm in Binyamin, in the area of Wadi Siq village. The terrorists were apprehended by regional defense soldiers who were present at the farm and Desert Frontier fighters who were dispatched to the area. The soldiers found weapons and a walkie-talkie on the suspects. During their interrogation, the suspects claimed that they had been beaten during the incident. According to them, the soldiers stripped them, beat them and put out cigarettes on them. A photo was circulated online of the of the three naked.

Following the incident, the military police launched an investigation. A few days later, the army, in an unusual step, decided to remove the Desert Frontier commander who was there at the time of the incident, as well as five other soldiers. This caused consternation within the unit that was reflected in statements made by the parents of soldiers in the unit following the dismissal of the commander:

“What happened here is a knife in the back of our children. Since the start of the war, we have hardly seen them. Day and night they are busy with defensive and offensive operations, but as far as the IDF command is concerned, a complaint by despicable terrorists just after the Simchat Torah massacre is worth more than fighters who risk their lives every day.”

The incident raised many questions. First, how is it that soldiers were dismissed based on the claims of armed suspects who infiltrated an Israeli farm a few days after the Oct. 7 massacre? Second, was it indeed the Desert Frontier soldiers who carried out the alleged acts?

Sources connected to the unit say other people at the scene placed the blame on the soldiers, calculating that a military force would not be held to account. Either way, the damage to the unit, whose name had already been tarnished, was enormous.

In December, various media outlets reported that the Desert Frontier unit would be disbanded. I spoke with an officer from Central Command who said that the debate over closing the unit was not down to any specific incident, however serious, but to a backlog of events, including disciplinary ones.

It should be noted that alongside the incident in the Jordan Valley, it also turned out that Aviad Frija, a reservist who mistakenly identified and shot dead Yuval Castleman, an armed civilian, during a terrorist attack at the entrance to Jerusalem in November 2023, had previously served as a soldier in Desert Frontier.

“The main problem was disciplinary. There were quite a few abnormal incidents in the unit, including poor values and an absence of norms. Something there wasn’t working. There was no military routine; there were lots of drugs and alcohol. There was also a serious car accident that involved the unit,” said a source at Central Command. “The dismissal of the soldiers was not just because of the incident on the farm—there was a need for change.”

Israel Hayom has learned however that the threat to close the unit has been lifted. Among other things, a new commander has been appointed to lead the unit, which has been moved out of Judea and Samaria.

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

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