The past month has been full of dozens of blog-posts-worthy of stories, and yet here I am, my first night living in Jerusalem, just beginning to scratch the surface. What happened? Well, I was busy, to put it bluntly. For better or worse, just too busy to have time to sit down and write anything worthwhile. But I haven’t given up — in my mind, I’ve got a running list of stories and adventures that, at some point, I’ll commit to writing down. To name a few: My first Thanksgiving in Israel; an all-night desert rave; a week hiking Makhtesh Ramon; bringing a 3-week-old puppy on a bus across Israel.
But I think The Time I Watched Egyptian Soldiers Illegally Cross Israel’s Border qualifies as the most crucial story to write right now, even though it was the most recent, so here goes.
I recently spent two non-consecutive weeks hiking through some of southern Israel’s most beautiful trails with a crew of 12 students on my trip. The hikes were planned as the conclusion of the semester for my students living on kibbutz; for three weeks, they would hike different sections of Shivil Yisrael (the Israel Trail), which includes over 900 kilometers of interconnected trails spanning from the northern tip of Israel down to Eilat in the south. The first week found the group trekking from the picturesque, tiny town of Mitzpe Ramon through the gaping, 40 km Mahktesh (crator) Ramon and finishing up near the border of Jordan. My second week hiking (the group’s third and final week), we began at Timne Park and shot south for 5 days, ending up in Eilat. But not before we were nearly caught in a military conflict between Israel and Egypt. All in a day’s work.
So the way Israel’s geography works, Eilat is a small, glowing beach town tucked between the impressive Eilat Mountain Range to the immediate north and west, a mountain range in Jordan to the east and the Red Sea to the south. Israel’s southernmost point is not only secluded from the rest of the country (closest major Israeli city: Beersheba, 3 hours away), but it’s also at the crossroads of four different countries.
When my group climbed Har Shelomo (Mount Shlomo), the highest peak in Eilat, the view was breathtaking. Standing in Israel, we could see Jordan, Egypt and, just a few kilometers up the Red Sea, the border of Saudi Arabia. It can be hard to sense it when cruising the beach in Eilat, but the town really is a crossroads of the Middle East.
We woke up a bit late on our fourth day of hiking; the group’s tourguide, Yoash, and I decided we’d let our kids sleep an extra hour that morning, as we’d just wrapped three intense days of mountain climbing and unforgiving terrain, inclines so steep we literally crawled up them, because to stand would mean falling right down the mountain. So at 6, instead of the usual 5am wake up, the group began rolling, still wrapped in sleep, out of their tents. Yoash had given me fair warning: the hike he’d planned for the day had a possibly problematic factor. Winding through a nahal (riverbed) on the Egyptian border, we’d be hiking through an area that was closely monitored by Israeli military, which was especially touchy after a bus exploded on a nearby highway just a few months ago. To access the trail, we’d have to check in with a military outpost stationed on the lip of the nahal.
By 7:30, the group had eaten breakfast, packed all the tents, filled all water bottles and left camp. Only 10 minutes later, we’d reached the outpost. Only 10 minutes after that, we knew there was trouble: first the soldier on guard wasn’t sure if we were approved to hike. Then he got approval from his superior, but needed that of the superior’s superior, which, he said, might take awhile.
So we sat. And sat. And then, yes, sat for a bit longer. All in all, we waited for 3 hours until the proper approval allowed us into the nahal. It was bureaucracy at it’s finest, but all in the name of keeping us safe. Plus, playing a game of frisbee alongside a military outpost hit me with a sense of beautiful irony — the carefree alongside the cautious.
Once inside the nahal, our hike commenced as planned. Yoash pointed out the eclectic mix of rocks, swept in from thousands of years of flash floods from the high peaks surrounding us. We spotted a beautiful, surprisingly calm family of ibexes eating the scratchy, pointed leaves of an acacia tree. The sight was serene, and the whole group fell silent, mystified by the animals, who seemed impossibly unafraid of us.
After a few kilometers, Yoash brought the group together. We were standing in the point of a narrow V. On our right side, a rounded hillside with a border marker on the top; Egypt was only a few minutes away. On our left side, a steep, ragged climb jutting further into Israel, with another Israeli outpost sitting atop as its crown. Naturally, the kids were all intrigued and a bit scared to be so close to Egypt, even if we were only on the border of Sinai, far, far away from the action near the Nile. Unlike our usual conception of a border — a barbed wire fence, at the very least — Israel’s border with Sinai is relatively unmarked. A few signs in Hebrew to alert hikers; a tall, thin marker on the border. That’s it.
One of the kids asked if he could just walk right in. You wouldn’t make it too far before Egyptian border-guard soldiers picked you up, said Yoash.
The kid seemed pacified with that answer.
“My dad made me promise not to start any wars when I came to Israel,” he said.
We began our ascent towards the outpost. It was a tough climb, and the sun was hotter than it’d been all week. We passed a couple of Israeli hikers on their way down, back into the nahal. A few minutes later, we stopped for water, and we all gulped it down in between deep gasps for air.
“Who are they?”
One of the kids pointed across the nahal to the Egyptian hillside. Two figures dressed in black were walking along the border, toeing the line. We all stood silently, waiting for Yoash to answer.
“They’re Egyptian soldiers…” he said. “And I think they just crossed the border into Israel.”
The silence pervaded again. We weren’t staring at some border crossing — any foreign soldiers walking into Israel on that hillside were doing so illegally. Yoash stared down to the bottom of the nahal and saw the Israeli hiker couple; they’d just sat down and were beginning to prepare a lunch. We all looked back up towards the soldiers; they were walking downhill, headed to the hikers.
In Hebrew, Yoash yelled to the hikers, his voice bouncing off both hillsides: “Hello! Hello! You need to return! Hello! Look behind you!”
His voice was lost in the air above them; they didn’t hear a word. He turned to look up the Israeli hill and called to the soldiers on lookout, who we could just barely see. Somehow, it seemed, they hadn’t seen the black figures. Yoash began to look panicked. He turned to me, “Take the group to the top of this hill, do not stop,” and grabbed our medic, Aviram. The two of them, the only Israelis in our group, broke into a half-run down the hill to grab the hikers.
It all happened in a second, and suddenly my group of 12 American kids and I were standing on a mountainside watching Egyptian soldiers descend a hill towards two Israelis who had no idea they were coming; our Israelis were gone. We stood there, for a second, a bit dazed.
Then, “You heard him, guys, let’s go,” I yelled. Behind us, we could hear Yoash calling still to the hikers as we continued our climb. We were close to the top when the first Israeli soldiers rushed passed us. Minutes later, we were high atop a ridge leading up to the outpost. We couldn’t see Yoash; we couldn’t see Aviram. We couldn’t see the Israeli outpost. But we could see the two Egyptians soldiers. And then, suddenly, we could see a row of jeeps pulling up on a plateau on the other side of the ridge, and out poured soldiers in full combat gear, running towards us. My group exchanged looks right then, with faces ranging from “This is the coolest thing I have ever seen, ever” to “This is the scariest thing I have ever seen, ever.”
Mine must have been more of a dazed, confused stare. One of my girls asked, “Shouldn’t we go to the top of the mountain, where the outpost is? Isn’t it safer there?” “No, no, I mean, I want to stay out of their way and not risk confusing them or, um, anything…” I said.
“Justin,” she said, “You have no idea what the fuck you are doing right now, do you?”
“Absolutely not,” I said. So at least they knew where I stood.
*(Those black specks = people not supposed to be there)
Just then the soldiers from the jeeps reached the crest of the ridge. One stopped and approached the group.
“How many are in this group?”
“14, but our two Israelis ran back down the hill,” we all answered at once, immediately confusing the soldier.
I stepped forward a bit, hoping the kids would let me do the answering without having to say so.
“Did you see the soldiers cross into Israel?”
“Yeah, we all did. They’re walking down into the nahal,” I said.
“Then they’ve gone too far,” said the soldier, and began running down the mountainside, the other soldiers following suit.
I couldn’t make this up if I tried.
So there we were, standing on top of a ridge with a growing pool of soldiers and jeeps on one side, and a mostly out-of-sight chase on the other, with Yoash and Aviram somewhere mixed in.
“So… my dad is going to be so mad at me.”
We all laughed; we needed it. For a few minutes, we could see nothing. The Egyptian soldiers were somewhere past a different hillside. Then we watched a line of IDF soldiers running towards that hillside. And then, finally, we watched Aviram and Yoash climbing back towards us. The kids gave them heroes welcomes — they’d finally gotten the attention of the hikers and brought them away from the Egyptians. The four of them, hikers and Aviram and Yoash, rejoined us, and we all walked to the outpost.
From the top of the mountain, we had a better view — the Egyptians were back at their border, the Israelis remained on guard in the nahal. For an hour, we sat, waiting — for answers, for an explanation, for the OK to continue our hike. We never got the first two, but we did get the third. And so Yoash led us away from the border, back onto the trail toward Eilat. His guess, he told me, was that the Egyptians were wary of our group — they hadn’t seen hikers in that nahal very often since the bus bombing a few months back — and they wanted to get a closer view of us. That may be true, but it doesn’t explain why they illegally crossed the border. The answer to that question, well, we’ll never, ever know.
We finished our hike that day in a shallow canyon and spent the last night making jokes about starting wars by accident while sitting around a bonfire; the next day, we hiked the final few hours into Eilat. The near-calamity of the day before had already become a surreal memory. None of us were sure it had all really happened. I’m still not entirely sure.
But there it is — that’s the story of the time I watched Egyptian soldiers illegally cross Israel’s border then get chased out by the IDF. Amen.