Revealed: The IDF unit turning ‘hilltop youth’ settlers into soldiers

An investigation by +972 and Local Call uncovers how Israeli settlers from violent outposts are being inducted into 'Desert Frontier' — a new military unit responsible for severe abuses of Palestinians across the West Bank.

In partnership with

On a wintery night in the northern Judean desert, a doorless Israeli military jeep pulled up to the campfire where Youssef Jalawi, a Palestinian citizen of Israel from the Bedouin city of Rahat, was boiling tea with two Palestinian friends. The soldiers who got out of the jeep were wearing army uniforms, but they looked like members of the “hilltop youth” — the young, religious, violent settlers who regularly come down from their outposts in the occupied West Bank to attack nearby Palestinians.

Whether soldiers or settlers, Jalawi said the men in uniform started to abuse him: they bound him in handcuffs, pushed his head into the gravel with the soles of their shoes, and every time he fell they beat him and demanded he stand back up. They then put a gun to his head, telling him that they would kill him if he dared return to the desert. According to Jalawi, NIS 1,000 disappeared from his car that night — money he had planned to use to buy a gift for his young daughter.

Jalawi’s confusion over the identity of his attackers was well-founded: the young men who detained him were both soldiers and hilltop youth settlers. An investigation by +972 and Local Call reveals that 2.5 years ago, the Israeli military established a unit called “Desert Frontier” specifically for hilltop youth settlers, who make up the vast majority of the unit’s soldiers.

The investigation, based on the testimony of dozens of witnesses, reveals that what happened to Jalawi is not an isolated incident. +972 obtained evidence pointing to at least 11 other incidents in which soldiers from the unit allegedly attacked Palestinians. On April 30, a year and a half after submitting a complaint about the attack that occurred in November 2021, Jalawi received notice from the military prosecutor that the case was closed without any action being taken against the perpetrating soldiers.

A security official familiar with the incident told +972 on condition of anonymity that Desert Frontier, which was established in 2020 and is subordinate to the Jordan Valley Brigade, “consists mainly of hilltop youth … the extreme of the extreme, who otherwise would not have enlisted.” The idea, according to the official, is that serving in the unit is a way to rehabilitate them: “This unit is very unique. We take them and turn them into soldiers.”

Soldiers from the Desert Frontier unit. (Guy Hirschfeld)
Soldiers from the Desert Frontier unit. (Guy Hirschfeld)

The official, in addition to another source familiar with the unit, said that a few dozen soldiers serve in Desert Frontier, most of them from so-called shepherding outposts in the northern area of the Judean Desert and the Jordan Valley. According to these officials, many of them have a history of violence. You have to read it again to believe it: the military is enlisting hilltop youth settlers known for their violence toward Palestinians to serve in a unit that acts against Palestinians living in the same area.

According to security officials, hilltop youth settlers seemed like an ideal choice for the job –– they grew up in outposts, have worked as shepherds from a young age, and developed skills in tracking and navigation in the field. In the northern Judean Desert, army officials say, there exists “a security vacuum,” and recruiting these settlers is seen as a suitable way to fill it.

‘I didn’t believe they were soldiers’

According to the Palestinians, soldiers stepped on them while handcuffed, beat them with no justification, forced them to lie in humiliating and painful positions, kicked them, went through private photos on their cell phones, and stole their money, jackets, and traditional Bedouin clothing.

On at least two occasions, victims filed complaints to the police against the soldiers in the unit, but most refrained from doing so out of fear of revenge and losing their work permits, and because they did not believe their complaints would lead to an investigation or punishment. For similar reasons, most of the people interviewed for this article asked that their real names not be published.

Five testimonies from the investigation highlighted a pattern: Palestinians were abandoned in the middle of the desert for hours on end, with no phone and without the keys to their cars, sometimes while handcuffed and blindfolded. Some of the victims, from the Rashaida tribe, were told that they were being punished for entering a nature reserve after evening hours, or for entering a military firing zone, some of which have historically been used by Bedouins for grazing their sheep and most of which are no longer actively used by the military.

Desert Frontier soldiers train with those from the Haredi Netzah Yehuda unit. Afterward, they come to the unit’s own post, which is near the Dead Sea. About a year ago, the army decided to transfer the bulk of the unit’s operations from the Judean Desert to the Jordan Valley. The decision was made after military officials received numerous complaints of violent incidents and abuse against Palestinians, some of which were filed by Israeli citizens who heard about the incidents from Palestinians. Palestinians living in the desert say that soldiers from the unit still patrol the area, though much less than before.

Religious soldiers attend a swearing-in ceremony as they enter the Orthodox Netzah Yehuda battalion of the Israeli army, May 31, 2012. (Noam Moskowitz/FLASH90)
Religious soldiers attend a swearing-in ceremony as they enter the Orthodox Netzah Yehuda battalion of the Israeli army, May 31, 2012. (Noam Moskowitz/FLASH90)

Military officials claim that since shifting their focus to the Jordan Valley, they have successfully thwarted weapon smuggling across the border. But Palestinians who live in the area report that the soldiers accompany hilltop youth settlers from nearby shepherding outposts, and kick out Palestinians from their grazing lands. According to testimonies, in at least one instance soldiers entered a Palestinian village in the Jordan Valley with a hilltop youth settler dressed in civilian clothing.

Palestinian residents told +972 that they struggle to distinguish between settlers and soldiers in the unit, because, they say, the same people come to the area, first as civilians and later as soldiers in uniform. “At first I didn’t believe they were soldiers, I thought they were settlers dressed up as soldiers,” said Ayman Ghraib, a farmer from the Jordan Valley. “Sometimes they come here, half soldiers and half civilians.”

‘The desert is the only place we can breathe fresh air’

The Bedouin village of ‘Arab al-Rashaida in the northern Judean Desert is home to about 5,000 people, most of whom work as shepherds. The oldest members of the tribe remember two experiences of expulsion: in 1948, from land next to Ein Gedi, and in 1984, from land next to the village of Kisan and the settlements Ma’aleh Amos and Ibei HaNahal, southeast of Bethlehem.

“We can’t easily travel outside Palestine or go to the sea, like you can,” one of the village residents, a father of three, told me. “The desert is our only place of recreation without any checkpoints, the only place where we can breathe fresh air.” But the multiple violent attacks perpetrated by Desert Frontier since its establishment in 2020 have forced the residents to reduce their presence in the desert; some of them speak of it as a third expulsion.

At the end of March of this year, the night before Ramadan began, Firas and a good friend of his went to build a campfire in the desert, not far from the Hatzatzon stream. Then they arrived: what he calls “the unit of open jeeps.”

“They approached quietly, with no lights: two Jeep Rubicons with no doors and eight soldiers inside. Right away I knew it was them,” he said. “They said to us: ‘What are you doing here? Why did you come here?’ One of them kicked over the barbecue, tossing all the meat onto the ground. They shouted: ‘Where is your gun?’ I told them we didn’t have a weapon, we were just there to hang out. They forced us to kneel. You have to do exactly what they say, or they beat you.”

Firas said that the soldiers took his and his friend’s possessions before abandoning the pair in the desert. “A soldier took my phone to make sure I hadn’t taken any photos of them, then threw it on the ground and broke it,” Firas said, pointing to its shattered screen. “He also took my ID card and my car keys and said we had to wait until he came back. Then they left. We stayed there like that, with nothing, for three hours, until they eventually came back.”

A Palestinian Bedouin man from the 'Arab A-Rashaida tribe. (Yuval Avraham)
A Palestinian Bedouin man from the ‘Arab A-Rashaida tribe. (Yuval Avraham)

A year or so earlier, at the start of 2022, soldiers from the unit attacked Firas at the same location. As he described what they did to him, his face turned red in embarrassment. “It was a Friday, and a lot of people had come to hang out,” he said. “They came up to me, searched my car as if there were a hidden bomb, shouting. Then they told me to sit like this.” He sat on his knees with his hands behind his back, as if handcuffed.

“Every time I hunched over [from exhaustion], they hit me, punching me in the body. Later, they told me to do this.” Firas lowered himself into a push-up. “They told me to lay my hands on rocks, and every time I couldn’t stay in this position, a soldier would kick me. There were eight of them, but only two of them beat me.” The abuse continued, he said, for two hours, until the soldiers left.

Mohammed, 25, said that he stopped working in construction because of the beatings he took from soldiers in the unit. Though he is unsure of the exact date, the attack occurred sometime in 2022.

“I went to the desert with a friend, and we went for a hike. We wanted to see the Dead Sea and have a barbecue,” he recalled. “Soldiers in a jeep without doors stopped us and told me to turn off the car. I didn’t want to, because the car was going uphill and I was worried it wouldn’t start back up again if I did. One of them punched me in the arm and dragged me out.

“They had us lie down with our faces in the dirt, and they stepped on us,” he said. “They told us we couldn’t speak. The whole time they kept shouting: ‘Quiet!’ They took our phones away, cuffed our hands behind our backs, and kicked us every time we said something. They asked: ‘Why do you come here?’ They told us not to come back to the desert. Finally, I pretended I was sick, that I was having a heart attack, and I started to cough. It scared them, and they left.”

At the hospital, Mohammed was told he had a herniated disc as a result of the beating. Despite being forced to stop working in construction, he didn’t submit a complaint out of fear of retaliation from the soldiers. “My leg, ever since the beating, hasn’t been functioning normally. Sometimes, when I stand up, my whole leg falls asleep, all the way up to my back.”

Mohammed said he recognized the car and knew it belonged to the Desert Frontier unit. He recognized the soldiers as well, two of whom had payot, the long sideburns worn by observant Jewish men. “They were settlers dressed in soldiers’ clothing,” he said.

‘Their goal is to instill terror’

In February or March 2022, near the old mosque in Nabi Musa southeast of Jericho, soldiers in the unit beat two Bedouin visitors, according to the victims. “Four soldiers came up to us in a Jeep Rubicon,” one of them said. “They took our phones, our IDs, and our car keys. They yelled at us: ‘What are you doing here?’ There was no way to respond to them. They forced us to be silent. One of them put his leg on my neck. They started beating us, punching us in the ribs, hitting us with their guns.

“We were in a standard place,” he continued, “somewhere we were allowed to be, and we didn’t do anything to them. Before they left they poured out our water bottles so we couldn’t stay in the desert. We had to go back home.”

The first time Amr, a father of five and a member of the Rashaida tribe, saw the doorless Jeep Rubicons, he was having a barbeue in the desert with his wife and children. Like many other Bedouins, he knows the unit as “the unit of open jeeps” or “the settler unit,” and recognizes them by their doorless cars, the familiar faces of the soldiers, and the distinct pattern of their violent interactions with Palestinians.

“The kids haven’t wanted to come with me to the desert since then,” Amr said. “The soldier kicked our tea kettle, spilling it, without even bending over.” Amr said he tried to take a picture but a soldier snatched his phone, reformatted it, and told his family not to come back to the desert. All of the photos on the device were erased.

The Desert Frontier army base.
The Desert Frontier army base.

Seven eyewitnesses told +972 that soldiers in Desert Frontier prevented them from documenting their encounters with the unit, confiscating their phones so they were unable to photograph them. In a few instances, according to their testimonies, soldiers went through Palestinians’ private photos and erased them from their devices.

Another resident and member of the Rashaida tribe said that soldiers from the unit beat his father, a 60-year-old shepherd. In his car they found a shibriya, a traditional curved dagger, which shepherds frequently carry with them.

“My father has diabetes,” the tribe member said. “They cuffed him with plastic ties for two hours. Whenever he tried to speak, they kicked and punched him. I remember the red marks on his hands. There were bruises all over his body. That’s how they always are, the soldiers in the Rubicons. You can’t speak when they’re there. The soldier tells you to be quiet. And when you cry out from pain, they say you’re not allowed to talk. Their goal is to be threatening. To instill terror in us, to scare us into leaving the desert. And people really are afraid.”

The second time Amr had a run-in with the soldiers, in 2022, it was a rainy day, and he was hiking with seven friends. “Five soldiers got out of the jeep and told us to get out of our cars,” he recalled. “They had payot like settlers. They took all our phones and told us we couldn’t take photos. They forced us to the ground, and every time you speak they tell you in Arabic: ‘Uskoot! [Quiet!].’ If you keep talking, they beat you.

“A soldier said to me: ‘You need to give us your coat,’” Amr continued. “I said no. Two of them held me and ripped the coat off me. They stole it. Then they took the mandils (Bedouin headscarves) from my five friends, and used them to cover their own heads. These soldiers have an old Subaru, and they drive around the desert in it with these mandils, like they are going undercover as Palestinians.”

‘People don’t complain because they’re so scared’

Stealing Palestinians’ clothes and abandoning them in the desert is a clear pattern for the unit. According to one testimony, soldiers blindfolded a shepherd, forced him into their jeep, and dropped him off at an isolated spot in the desert with no cell reception.

“I didn’t know what to do,” the shepherd said. “I walked in the direction the jeep came from, guessing that maybe someone would be there. It was terrifying. After walking for two hours, I found a place with cell reception and called my brother.” According to him, the soldiers were driving a “Rubicon car” with no doors. “Some of them wore kippot, and some wore Arab keffiyehs, like Yasser Arafat’s.”

“People don’t want to complain because they’re so scared,” said another resident who was attacked — one of the few to have submitted a complaint with the police against the unit. According to him, the relationship between the tribe and the army used to be positive. “I told the police: ‘This is not the army’s usual way of doing things.’ I told them that soldiers used to help us and us them. This unit has been in the area for two years, and since they got here, everything has changed.” Several other residents echoed this claim that the relationship between the Rashaida tribe and the army had been pleasant until the formation of this Desert Frontier.

He explained that he was attacked in November 2021 and needed medical treatment after two soldiers slammed his car door on his leg multiple times and kicked him. “A soldier told me to get out of the car. I asked why, and then he and another soldier started forcibly pulling me out and beating me, with no explanation. Only when I started to scream from the pain did they leave me alone. I was treated in a hospital and I couldn’t walk for three days.”

Settlers and soldiers from the Desert Frontier unit seen at Rujum al-Naqa. (Dror Etkes)
Settlers and soldiers from the Desert Frontier unit seen at Rujum al-Naqa. (Dror Etkes)

Raoud, a young man, recounted an instance of theft and violence from a year ago. “In the evening, I went out to smoke hookah with two friends from Jerusalem, next to the old Hatzatzon army base,” he recalled. “Soldiers from the unit approached us in open jeeps with no lights. I was surprised to see them surrounding us. Around 12 people. They took our phones, cuffed our hands behind our backs, forced us to lie down, and said we weren’t allowed to talk.

“You try to ask who they are, if they’re even soldiers, and they tell you to shut up,” Raoud continued. According to him, the soldiers arrived at around 8 p.m. and kept them handcuffed there until 2 a.m.

“I had a green jacket and a hat like a fez, the Bedouin kind. They stripped me of them and stole my clothes,” he said. “They take a lot of people’s coats, if they are green or look like army jackets. I was cold the whole night without my coat. My two friends who were with me, from Jerusalem, were taken to the army base and were released there. They uncuffed me where I was and told me to go back to my village by foot.”

Accompanying settlers into Palestinian villages

Residents reported that the worst part is the humiliation and the feeling of helplessness. Jalawi, the Israeli citizen from Rahat who said he was attacked and his case closed with no charges or punishment for the perpetrating soldiers, told +972 that he hasn’t recovered from the incident. Though some of his family members serve in Israeli security forces, every time he sees soldiers, his heart starts pounding from fear.

“They told me to get on my knees. There was so much gravel,” Jalawi recounted. “They ordered us to sit like that for a long time, and every time I fell, they beat me. Eventually one of them told me to get up, but when I did, I couldn’t stand on my own legs.

“The soldier sat me down in another spot, then lifted and lowered my head with his shoe, and blinded me with his flashlight,” Jalawi continued. “He said: ‘Why do you bring people here from the [occupied] territories –– the whole desert is mine, don’t come here any more.”

Jalawi said that the soldiers left him there, bleeding and handcuffed, and drove away in their doorless cars. “I was afraid to move. Darkness, threats, guns. I waited until someone came and released me,” he said. “They stole NIS 1,000 shekels from my car that I had brought in order to buy a gift for my young daughter, who just started her national service.”

After Jalawi submitted his complaint, the Military Police Criminal Investigation Division opened an investigation, and he was invited to testify and confront the soldiers from the unit who were present at the event. For a year and a half no decision was made on the case, but after +972 made a request to the army, Jalawi was informed by the prosecutor’s office that they were closing the case. “The soldiers denied beating you, threatening you, or taking money from your car,” Major Segev Rom, of the military prosecutor’s office, wrote in his decision. “No evidence was found that would favor your narrative over the narrative of the soldiers.”

In two cases, soldiers from Desert Frontier were photographed accompanying hilltop youth settlers who didn’t belong to the unit. According to eyewitness testimony, in January of this year, they entered the Palestinian village Al-Muarajat in the Jordan Valley together with an outpost resident who was not a soldier. In photographic documentation from a different day, soldiers can be seen preparing tea with the same resident, who was armed with an M16.

“They had a Jeep Rubicon with no doors, and a settler was waiting there for them. I recognize him because he kicked my father off his own grazing land,” said Aliyah, a resident of the village. “They knocked on our door and asked for our IDs. I didn’t believe they were soldiers. When I told them I was going to call the police, they left.”

The soldiers prevented Aliyah from photographing them, but she was able to take a short video, and to record the license plate number of the doorless army jeep that had entered the village in a note on her phone. +972 confirmed that the license plate number of the jeep matches that of the Desert Frontier unit.

‘Whoever controls the desert controls the entire region’

In the 2000s, there was another unit in the Israeli army with the name “Desert Frontier” which had a similar mandate: it would drive around military firing zones as a policing force, mainly in order to thwart weapon smuggling. The unit was closed in April 2007 by order of the head of the army’s Central Command, after soldiers shot dead without justification a 30-year-old Palestinian man, Aziz Hamed Matour, while he was traveling through a firing zone next to the Nabi Musa army base on his way from Bethlehem to Jericho.

An Israeli military "firing zone" warning sign near the West Bank village of Jinba, located in the South Hebron Hills, September 6, 2012. (Anne Paq/Activestills)
An Israeli military “firing zone” warning sign near the West Bank village of Jinba, located in the South Hebron Hills, September 6, 2012. (Anne Paq/Activestills)

Reestablishing Desert Frontier as a unit of hilltop youth settlers can be viewed against the backdrop of the Israeli right’s pursuit of meshilut (literally “governance,” a euphemism for Jewish-Israeli dominance) in the Judean Desert in particular and the West Bank in general, as part of its effort to strengthen the presence of settlers in Area C and to block Palestinians from accessing their land.

Moshe Kublantz, a 30-year-old resident of the settlement of Efrat, used to ride around the desert by bike as a teenager and fell in love with it. As an adult, he founded “The Judean Desert Organization,” whose mission is to work to “guarantee the development and preservation of the desert’s Israeli character for generations to come.”

Kublantz is familiar with the actions of Desert Frontier, and he told +972 that he has heard of violent incidents against Bedouins from the Rashaida tribe. According to him, these were “extreme incidents, in which individual soldiers had a rush of blood to the head and perhaps exceeded their authority.”

And yet, according to him, Desert Frontier has a very important role in policing the northern Judean Desert. “The need for establishing the unit is meshilut and protecting firing zones,” Kublantz said. “An army that doesn’t put a unit in the desert is a failed army. Whoever controls the desert controls the entire region.

“The army did a test run here,” Kublantz continued. “Very specific people came into a very specific area. No other unit could do what they do. These are people who grew up in the desert, who grew up on farms, who know the region. They are connected to the desert. They aren’t imported from far away. But this comes with some side effects.”

Strengthening Jewish presence

The reestablishment of Desert Frontier is also connected to the longstanding Israeli effort to create a Jewish presence in the eastern portion of the West Bank. The “Allon Plan,” submitted to the government a month and a half after the occupation of 1967 began, designated the eastern part of the West Bank –– the northern Judean Desert and the Jordan Valley, in which Desert Frontier has been operating for the last two and a half years –– for Israeli annexation.

Five years later, in 1972, most of the eastern strip of the West Bank — 713,000 dunams of precious land stretching from the Uja Valley in the north to the Yatta region on its southern border — was declared a firing zone. In 1979, then-Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon explained that the firing zones were declared not for training but to “preserve the land for [Jewish] settlement.” That land was and continues to be used by Palestinians for dwelling and shepherding.

Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Interior Minister Yosef Burg receive explanations from Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon about the Elon Moreh settlement in the West Bank, February 27, 1981. (Chanania Herman/GPO)
Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Interior Minister Yosef Burg receive explanations from Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon about the Elon Moreh settlement in the West Bank, February 27, 1981. (Chanania Herman/GPO)

Documents obtained by +972 from IDF archives show that already by the 1970s soldiers were removing Bedouins from firing zones. A military document from 1978, for example, titled “Operation Bedouin Expulsion,” details the actions of an army brigade from the Bethlehem subdistrict expelling Bedouins from the firing zone in the northern Judean Desert “by helicopter.”

Dror Etkes, a field researcher from the NGO Kerem Navot, explains that declaring a firing zone or a nature reserve gives Israeli authorities, especially the military, a legal basis for dispossessing Palestinians of their land. This is undertaken frequently, and its goal is to reduce the amount of land Palestinians can use for grazing their sheep, to expel them from the region, and to enable the construction of large Jewish settlements.

Across the region in which Desert Frontier operates, dozens of Israeli shepherding outposts have been established over the past decade, without building permits. In fact, most of the almost 70 shepherding outposts across the West Bank were established in the last decade and in this region. A report written by Etkes shows that a third of the area upon which these farms are built is located inside firing zones.

In addition, Israel is marking out new hiking trails in these areas; the Supreme Court has ordered the expulsion of around 1,000 residents of Masafer Yatta, who live in the southern edge of Firing Zone 918; the Metzuk HaAtakim nature reserve has doubled in size; and the Tourism Ministry is proposing a plan for the construction of seven inns in the Judean Desert. According to Aryeh Cohen, the head of the Megilot Regional Council — which includes the settlements north of the Dead Sea — and an activist in Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, the inns are intended to bring tourists to the area in order to “strengthen our presence in the desert and to prevent Palestinian control over this strategically important land.”

Palestinian residents from the village of Al-Majaz look on as the Israeli army trains in Masafer Yatta, June 21, 2022. (Oren Ziv)
Palestinian residents from the village of Al-Majaz look on as the Israeli army trains in Masafer Yatta, June 21, 2022. (Oren Ziv)

Etkes has been monitoring developments in the West Bank for two decades, but what he saw when he encountered the Desert Frontier soldiers himself surprised even him. In Etkes’ photos you can see three sloppily dressed hilltop youth settlers sitting on the roof of a beat-up car on the side of the road, smoking a cigarette, with three Desert Frontier soldiers dressed in military uniforms standing next to them.

“This unit deliberately blurs the already blurry boundary between civilians and soldiers in the West Bank,” Etkes said. “Palestinians are no longer able to tell them apart. Anyone they encounter, in any situation, can pose a threat.”

In a statement to +972, the IDF Spokesperson emphasized that Desert Frontier is definitively part of the military, subject to the supervision and laws governing the army, and that it is expected to grow in the future and to become more diverse. “Most of the incidents mentioned, with the exception of the Jalawi case, are not known to the IDF,” the statement said. “When complaints are submitted, they will be properly examined.

“The Desert Frontier unit is a combat unit with special capabilities that offers an operational response to challenges arising in the Jordan Valley, and it has had many achievements and operational successes,” it continued. “The unit was established around three years ago and has been developing, learning, and improving ever since.”

A version of this article first appeared in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.