Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Misread Motives of a Clan Culture

A mounted patrol; inside an armored Jeep, just rolling around the city, looking for trouble. Tired, as usual. Bored, but waiting for that sudden adrenaline rush, as usual. Making our way down the main road, heading to a volatile intersection. Playing on Facebook, alert, but letting the front-seat commander take the helm. Waiting. As usual.

Commotion up front. "What the hell...," I hear. Pulling over to the side of the road. "ROCKS!" Stopped on the shoulder.

I swung open the rear doors, which I face in the Jeep. BOOOOM! BOOOOM! An enormous crashing sound shocks me; a deeply explosive reverberation causes me to jump in my seat. Sparks fly from hulking pieces of metal, the metal itself sailing into the air no less than five feet. They slam down, throwing more electric white sparks in all directions. An absolutely devestating direct hit.

Just as I opened those doors, two large cars, one a van, and another a truck, hit nothing less than boulders on the main highway. It all was happening less than fifty feet away, directly across from me. Cars whizzed by on one side of the road at 60 miles per hour, and on the other screeching brakes rang through the late autumn night. Time to go to work.

I finally breathe.


For an entire week, someone was placing large rocks, very large rocks, on this main highway which connects al-Madina al-Muqadassah to the rest of Israel. It is an arterial road, and it travels from Israel-proper into the West Bank, and back out again. The route is shared by Jews and Arabs alike, but runs through largely Arab villages around this area. As you would imagine, our first instinct in a case like this is that the Arabs were trying to disrupt Israeli travel, as well as simply being basic vehicular vandalism.

The first instance of this attack came about four days before my aforementioned experience. I was sitting around our base when I heard on the deputy company commander's radio that there was a "road accident." As usual, all types of forces jumped to the scene. When they returned, we had a briefing about the situation, especially since it happened in close proximity to an outlying Arab neighborhood that had quickly become our most troubled and violent zone. The basic assessment was what you'd imagine: crude terrorism.

But night after night, even with our increased security on that road, whoever it was began upping the ante. It started with a couple rocks on the road, ones they obviously could have thrown from the ditch. Then, there were massive rocks, one that even the World's Strongest Man competitors would have sighed before. After that, on the third night, they got really smart. We found that they had covered those boulders, which they must have rolled onto the highway, with cardboard boxes. They figured that cars traveling at night, at high speed, would rather run through cardboard then screech and bang off the side-rails.

It was high time for us to catch them in the act. We sent a squad in at night to sit on the opposite side of the road, night vision goggles (NVG) and thermal and all that, and just wait. The perpetrators were acting in just about the same place every time, so we felt fairly confident that we'd at least see them. And if no one blew it, we could even sneak up on them and bag 'em. Why would this night be any different, after all, since they had already felt emboldened enough to go out three nights in a row?

And sure enough, they appeared. I'll repeat what my friend said to me, who was on that mission. "We were sitting out there and our commander told us to take off our vests. We wanted to be able to run and catch them. I had the NVG, so I was just sitting there staring at the road. Our boy in the security tower behind us was watching with thermal. Man, when I saw them come out I got so excited! I was sitting there not taking my eyes off the road for about two hours!"

"Don't you get kinda too relaxed and discouraged after the first hour," I asked.

"Yeah, but we KNEW they'd be coming. They had to. Why not? So I was watching, and sure enough, there they were. The tower was talking to us, real quietly, whispering, telling us exactly how many there were, what they were doing, you know. It felt like a movie. I thought I was in a movie, man. I was watching them stand in the ditch and toss the rocks up onto the road."

"Were they kids?"

"No! They were big. I was surprised as hell. They were like mid-20's, I'd say. Not kids, and not little guys either. Someone obviously sent big guys so they could throw big rocks. Or at least that's my guess."

"So you busted on down there, right?!"

"Well... My commander told me and one other guy to take off our vests, take a few magazines and put it in the pouch of the bullet proof armor, and start sneaking down to the road. It was me, our sharpshooter, and the commander. We were in a straight line, all of us with NVG, sharpshooter with his magnified night vision scope of course so he was just itching, just crawling down this hill. Man, it was a ******* movie."

"Damn. Why didn't we just let out a warning shot in the air, that'd surely stop all this business."

"What, are you crazy? More than anything, we wanted these bastards in our hands! So we were getting closer, and then through the NVG I saw a car slam into the rocks. It went flying. There were so many sparks, the NVG flared from the light. I just saw the explosion of light, and then white. I had to put down the goggles for a second and let them readjust. It was that powerful. Man, my heart skipped a beat there. I mean, I thought they were going to run, but most of all, it was like a bomb went off under that car. It flew. It was unreal, bro."


"After the car hit the rocks, we started running. We were down there, we were about to cross the street, and they still didn't see us. They just kept tossing rocks. Even after one car hit, they kept on tossing. We couldn't believe it, but everything was happening so fast that no one was talking at all. Besides the chatter on the radio, especially the thermal-equipped guy in the tower freaking out, everything was deathly silent. Anyway, we got to the street, I was about to swing my leg over, and then it all got ruined."

"The patrol Jeep," I guessed.

"The damn patrol Jeep, man. We had yelled at the patrol like two seconds before we were about to go mobile NOT TO APPROACH this area. But when he heard that there was a hit, he couldn't help it. He ruined it. They saw that flashing yellow light, and they took off. We started running too, and I saw them just rounding the corner into a grape field when I crossed the street. Once I rounded the corner, after crossing two railings and checking both sides of the street, I looked with the NVG and saw them so far away. I couldn't believe how quickly they ran. It was basically worthless at that point. There was no way in hell we were going to catch them. That stupid Jeep."

Considering this activity, as well as other problems coming from the nearby neighborhood, upper management decided to do a foot patrol inside an adjacent area that we hadn't operated in for quite some time. It is known as a viciously anti-Israel location, and during the Second Intifada it had sent a few of its own boys to their deaths. We thought that maybe our presence there would let them know that trying to kill people on the road would not be tolerated, or at least that we operated wherever the need arises. If you act cool, we act cool. If you want trouble, we're ready to bust some heads. That's the basic Golani position.

I was on that foot patrol. We had really geared up for this one, since it was a first for the company. Having heard all the reports on previous terrorism coming from this neighborhood, I think we all were even more alert than usual. The M203 grenadiers had their smoke-grenades handy. I was ordered to unwrap my quick-ties if an arrest was needed. It went so far as selecting the larger guys in the platoon, just in case. Sure, we were with our 'slightly' deranged sergeant, but nothing seemed too extreme considering.

And it was a strange patrol. All through you could just tell that no one expected to see us coming. The kids were mesmerized. The old men gave us knowing looks - knowing why we were there, knowing that they hadn't seen us in forever, and knowing that we could almost reach out and touch their hatred for us. The women stared from third-floor windows, which seems to be a positive commandment for them. The teens and early 20 year olds, our main suspects, ducked away into their houses. We had spent a few hours establishing our presence, but nothing solid came from it.

Until the very end, after we had actually exited the neighborhood and were making our way along a dirt road in a shortcut back to base. Our sergeant decided to stop some cars, just to ask questions about the rocks. He figured that since Arab cars as well as Jewish ones had hit those same rocks, they also had an incentive to see the end of this week. It was their road too.

After a few false smiles and feigned ignorance, we stopped a guy on a Vesper. My crazy sergeant seemed to want to ride the thing, though his professionalism kept him from requesting. The driver, however, jumped right off and all but demanded that he at least sit on it. We all watched on, wondering what this eccentric NCO would do, but he politely refused. Starting with what seemed to be genuine niceties, and thinking that maybe this guy would be honest, I turned to the driver and asked him what he knew about the situation.

"Those bastards!," he shouted in Hebrew.
We all smiled at each other.

"Well," I started, "who is it? Don't they realize that Arabs also drive on the road? You know that about half the cars they've hit are Arab?"

"You don't know why? It is a feud."

"What? Between who?"

"An Arab family here is pissed at an Arab family down there," and he pointed over the hill southwards along the main highway. "I don't remember why, but they've been doing stuff to each other for years. I think one of the kids was supposed to marry a daughter, but then.. ah you know, he probably saw her and realized she was a dog and wasn't worth the dowry!"

At this point, we were all in hysterics. This guy had a foul mouth, and I'm softening it up a lot, but you get the point. For soldiers exhausted after a long and stressful foot patrol, a little bit of cursing goes a long way. We were all in shock, however. All along we had thought that this was obviously some case of terrorism, or vandalism, or call it whatever you want, but it seemed to be violent activity from Arabs against Jews, with innocent Arabs thrown in collateraly. However, it was totally backwards! Arab clan versus Arab clan, with Jews thrown in either from indifference, or as an added incentive.

After checking his story out with other passing motorists, who would never volunteer something on their own but are always ready to confirm a presented story (cash payout, they might be hoping for?), we headed back to base feeling pretty good. It didn't take the General Security Services (Shin Bet) to crack this one, just one goofy American-Israeli kid and a bug-eyed sergeant aching to ride a scooter.

My initial happiness gave way to anger. I mean, don't they realize that a car hitting a rock at highway speeds can kill people? Innocent people! Out of the hundreds of cars that pass on that road, how many could really be from the rival clan? From my experience, these clans are huge. Just about every ID I check has this one family name, but when it comes to a main road, so many random people are thrown in that I doubt that the one or two cars that have an impact are really the desired targets. Don't they realize the stupidity in this?

Having uncovered the truth doesn't really change our operations, but it certainly gives you a different perspective on the whole matter. My own tactical coldness gave way to frustrated disbelief at the backwardness and ignorance of this clan-culture. The boys in Iraq see this kind of stuff every day, according to Iraqi War blogs I've read. And I certainly felt that same vexation - the irritation of trying to keep the sensible peace when everyone else is deliberately upsetting it for nothing.

A day later, after yet another attack, my squad was sent in for yet another ambush. This time, however, I had a feeling that the rock-emplacements had stopped. I just knew it, for some reason, and I can't explain why. Maybe it was because of the massive amounts of forces that responded to the most recent incident. Maybe it was because we now knew the story, and once we find something out, their well-hidden secret is known to everyone. News in those closed-communities spreads like wildfire. Either way, we were ready for anything, and I especially, being the designated marksman, was specially briefed on rules of engagement.

I was set up right along the road, hoping to eliminate the distance between the seating position and the road that the first ambush had to deal with. Snaking along the grape field with my commander at the front of our force, I spotted exactly where I figured the perpetrators had emerged from and escaped to. Following my advice, he set up most of the force along a rock wall, just next to the foot path between rows of vines. He took my back, and I sat in the ditch from where they were previously spotted.

I spent two hours scanning, vigilantly but pessimistically, with my night vision scope. Every time I spotted someone along the other side of the road, usually making their way up to a small group of houses on the hill, I informed the commander and stayed locked in on the suspect. Nothing happening, however. I knew no one was coming, and when I heard helicopters overhead, my heart sank. What idiot would come out to do the same attack five nights in a row, knowing what kind of force has previously responded, and hearing choppers buzzing the sky?

Well, they never did come. These people might be confusing in their disruption of civility, but no one should ever say that they are stupid. I certainly wouldn't have made another appearance that night, and they obviously felt the same way. And who ever knows what happened to their feud, because with that night the rock attacks stopped. That was over two months ago, and it hasn't happened even once since.

As quickly and abruptly as it all started, the end was anti-climatic and immediate. That seems to be the nature of this conflict. Out of nowhere there is an attack, and into the cold and anonymous night they disappear. No trace, no warning, no news. If the incident stops, that's it for us. Maybe Shin Bet or some other FBI-style group has their eyes and ears on it, but as far as we're concerned, it's almost as if nothing ever happened.

I wonder when we'll start moving forward, sometimes. Both sides. Let peace reign, resolve old disputes, and take that step in the right direction. I don't know what that step is, and from this soldier's perspective I can only be a reactive element - reacting to these types of incidents - but someone out there has to be brave enough to be civilized. And putting boulders on a highway certainly doesn't seem to me to be courage, but rather cowardice. If this is the natural way for them to deal with a dispute, I'm not sure there is any hope for a broader development.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Time Passes Like A Demon In The Night

(I'm really putting myself out there on this one, in terms of one of the pictures. And I've had a hard time writing, so I'm gonna be experimental. So, you better enjoy it.)


Nearly a year ago, in the beginning of advanced training, I had a conversation with one of our new commanders about what it's like to have finished the first year in the army. We were pulling guard duty together in the middle of the night, at the front gate of the training base. I was super-green in the army, only about four months in, and he was a brand new commander. I wondered who this guy was, and what he could tell me about earning the coveted Warrior's Pin.

In the Israeli Army, you have what is called a maslul. That's your training path, and "path" is the literal translation of that word. Every unit differs in their training cycle. For some jobnikim, they only have basic training for a month or so, and then a month and a half course, and that's it. Within a few months, they're "full soldiers." Short and sweet.

For us combat soldiers, however, we have to suffer a little longer. The infantry maslul is about a year. For the brigade-level special forces guys, it's just a few more months, and the elite SF have much longer. It all depends on the unit. But whether or not you're suffering for a year, like us, or two years, like Sayeret Matkal (Delta Force/SAS), you're suffering all the same. In terms of the niceties of life, a soldier in "training" will soon forget that they even exist. Breaks for free time are rare. When you eat, and who you eat with, is strictly dictated to you before each meal. Privileges are hard to come by, and easily retracted. Essentially, the comfort level is minimal, as you can imagine.

That's your first year. Or it's supposed to be. My platoon, because we were sent to a special company and are qualified for a unique and complicated weapon, got to basically skip the final four months of our maslul because that weapon comes with a long training course. We call that "Danny-Luck" where I come from. But either way, when you're a rookie, you're a rookie, and that's been the essence of this introduction.


I was standing in the middle of the night with that fresh out of commanders' course kid, just a 19-year-old, and wondering out loud what it's like to finish the training cycle. Having just started advanced training, and knowing that it was going to be the hardest, most physically and emotionally demanding months of my life, not a small amount of worry and stress drove me to explore his reality. I asked him what it "felt like" to finish the cycle.

"Wow. You don't know yet, but advanced training is BAD. Lots of guys aren't going to make it. You've never ran so much or carried so much heavy gear in your life. It's almost impossible. And then the four months after that, when you leave the training base but are still "in training," you're just itching to finish. It's amazing. And you know what? When I go home after a hard few weeks, and listen, we were in the commanders' course for 35 days or so when Operation Cast Lead broke out, so we were going a little crazy... I go home after a couple weeks on base, missing mommy and girlfriend, and take off my dress uniform. I hang my shirt up, and just admire the pin. It takes a while for it to set in and seem real, but that pin..."

He trailed off mid-sentence as the late February winds whistled mist off the walls of our stucco guard shack. I couldn't help but stare at this kid and marvel at his innocence. On the one hand, as far as I knew, he had suffered through a nearly unbearable advanced training course, and that was commendable. At the time, I was amazed at anyone who had finished what I had heard was hell. But really, on the other hand, the right hand, the hand of my own experiences in life, I knew that he had only really lasted for a year in a strictly-controlled environment. A year, to me, is nothing. It's a wink of the eye. A year in the army is slightly different, but time passes no matter where you find yourself.

And so, while I kept his positive perspective and motivation in the back of my head during the worst hours of the War/Hell Weeks, I also remembered how I felt standing next to him. He was no more important than anyone in the army, certainly no more experienced, and he had simply survived for a year longer than me. For what? A pin? Trust me, I wanted that pin just as badly as anyone: To walk through the Tel Aviv train station on a Friday morning with an "I Am A Real Golanchik" sign on your chest... You can sense that desire in this post from January 2009. But still, at the time I was too far away from getting that pin to really feel some sort of yearning. It was just too far.

Father Time had only just flipped his hourglass.


By October of 2009, however, our turn had come to become Israel's newest full-Golani infantrymen. I, like that new commander I had months before, had survived the first year. There were no fireworks in my heart, and no great wave of emotion swept over me. I lasted. We had our Pin and End of Maslul Ceremony, where my roommate and two good friends were present, and went home. I hung up my dress shirt, and stared at my newest, and final accruement to my uniform. It just was.

Don't get me wrong. When my commander stuck those sharp pins into my skin, as is customary for most combat units, I was ecstatic. I'm not sure that I was so happy for the pin, as much as I was for the ability to strut like a peacock in public. It all seems so silly, and I know I'm way too old for it, but you can't help showing off when you've worked your butt off for a little piece of metal on your chest. This form of motivation lends itself to vanity.


I almost forgot where I was going with this! Ah, what a difference Time makes! That fact of life seems to be a constant theme of mine, like Doestoyevsky's redemptive suffering, or Thoreau's solitude and nature. I've grown so much in the army, from an inexperienced foreigner to a front line 'warrior.' Just look at this picture taken the first week of the army:

And now, after exposing a picture that I promised myself would stay locked and hidden away from any eyes besides mine, feast your eyes on what a real soldier looks like. This one was taken right around October, when I received my pin:

Those two snapshots in time, one taken for novelty, the other taken for prosperity, reveal pure and raw growth. When I had that first picture taken, I thought it would turn out like the latter. I was sadly mistaken, and quickly realized that once viewing it on the full computer screen. The second, however, was taken by a friend after a foot patrol that left us all feeling like dogs, totally exhausted, but alert for our next mission. It was not planned or choreographed. It simply was.

And so, Time, that demon in the night, the passage between then, here, and another then, unravels itself before us at the most unexpected moments. We have to grasp it, the moment, and hold it however long we can. Like a man clutching a loved one hanging from a cliff for dear life, we have no option but to last as long as possible, to not let go, to savor this exact point in time.

"Defer no time, delays have dangerous ends." As true as Shakespeare says, there is no more important heartbeat than the one that beats now. I look at these photos, and I look at my pin fastened onto my dress shirt, and know that I have captured a moment to the best of my ability. I shy away from giving imperatives, but I know this now to a degree that I never expected from simply being a soldier, just a number, another helmet:

If you wait, and if you do not chase the present with an eye to the future, you'll never move forward.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

What It Means To Be A Workaholic

"I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality." Martin Luther King, JR.

Having almost a week off from the army sounds like some great, wonderful vacation. A whole week off from waking up early after getting just a couple hours of sleep. No 80 pounds of bulletproof armor, heavy night vision gear, and bulky combat vests. That constant companion, your assault rifle, finally finds its spot in your closet. Instead of a sweatshirt over your gun, you actually get to sleep with a pillow! And of course, the best bit of being away from the army: doing whatever the hell you want.

For weeks I was salivating over what I'd do during the 6 days we were to receive. Maybe I'd go out to Tel Aviv and call up some friends. Or I'd even go somewhere like Tiberias, and the Sea of Galilee (Kinneret), rent a nice hotel room, and spend my time looking out at that enchanting blue lake. There were many options, but the best one I could think of was the easiest. Just do nothing. Relax. Let that angry shoulder heal up. Catch up on sleep. Knock out some needed blog posts. You get the picture.

But here I am, sitting on my laptop at midnight, the night before I go back to the army. I wrote none of those blog posts I meant to. I slept crazy hours, like 5am to 7, woke up and played on the computer for 30 minutes, and finally went back to sleep 'til 12. I ran three times on the crazy Jerusalem hills, essentially making myself feel asthmatic and out of shape. And my shoulder still kills.

I realized last night, while explaining my frustration to a friend, that I am addicted to the army. A year and two months have passed, and it's still the only thing I get excited about. I get excited about the stupidest stuff, like shooting a machine gun. I love getting to a guard post, placing my helmet to the side, and radioing in to HQ for a sound check. The crackle of the incoming reception, radio waves bouncing all through my head and vibrating my bones, followed by an unexpectedly loud, muffled voice coming from a mouth too close to the receiver...

Crackle. Hiss. Buzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. "Guard Post, this is HQ. Copy that sound check."

I am addicted to that positive confirmation. I am addicted to the code words we have to use. I feel like a little kid when I hear one of my friends on the radio, talking to someone important or HQ. With my index finger on the transmit button, I'm just waiting, tapping my boot toes all the while, for my chance to ask my buddy how it's going.

"Guard Post Ari, this is Guard Post Danny."

"Danny, what's up?"

"Hey man! It's cool out here, just hanging out, you know?"

And more than all the silliness on the radio, which inevitably evokes the anger of some officer, and is just a stupid little example, I am addicted to the army life. Even if we're doing nothing but guard posts on base, which is fairly worthless and extremely boring, I am always excited to start my day. No matter how many hours of sleep I may or may not have gotten, I pop right out of bed when that magic minute comes (7:45, not 7:46). I sit up, jump out of my bed, get dressed, put my shoes on the same way every time, grab my toiletries bag, and head to the bathroom. Toilet; wash hands; brush teeth; shave; wash face; flex in the mirror while hoping no one notices.

Every single damn morning. No different. No less and no more. A routine, fixed and set, just as you'd expect from the army. I start the day feeling like a grownup, and more importantly, like a responsible one. An adult with a real purpose in life. Clean shaven and uniformed, I am Superman.

And so, trying to get back to the point, which I feel I lost a long time ago - or maybe never even had in the first place - I am addicted to the army. Being in the civilian world for so many days and feeling the way I do at the end of it all, I am fully able to realize just how much I enjoy that other world. Let me try to explain with one example, as I am becoming increasingly frustrated at how difficult it is to articulate these thoughts.

Earlier today I was standing next to my bed, gazing out the window towards the east. Sprouting up through the maze of apartment and hotel towers were construction cranes lowering metal beams and stacks of Jerusalem stones onto skeletal buildings. Palestinian migrant workers were laboring diligently, building towers for rich Jews from all over the world. An Arab man was welding some metal, throwing sparks in the sky.

And far in the distance, deep in the background of this cozy civilian existence, I could clearly make out the "separation barrier" between the West Bank and Israel proper. From my expensive apartment in one of Jerusalem's best neighborhoods, from my private room with my Winnie the Pooh blanket wrapped around my shoulders, I studied the barricade between here and there.

With my forehead resting against the glass pane, I felt a craving for the other side. I need to be back in the operating area. Maybe I'm addicted to the adrenaline of popping out of an armored Jeep. Do you know how ******* intense it is on the ride over to a terror operative's house before you arrest him? Or a foot patrol with one hand on the charging handle of your gun, and your eyes moving like a Meth freak's from window to window? I don't know which drugs give you a rush like any of the regular activities of the army, but I wouldn't be surprised to hear that some soldiers turn to them after the army.

Staring out at the separation barrier didn't simply elicit a hunger for action. What it really made me think of was how nice and pleasant our life is here on the good side. And how much work there is to be done on the other side. That work, the daily patrols and guard posts and checkpoints, all of that is what I am addicted to. I am an army workaholic. Coming 7,000 miles in order to "protect Israel" certainly doesn't sound very realistic, but even after a decent amount of time in the service, I still wake up every day thinking that I have a chance to help that day.

Each and every morning I feel this extreme sense of meaning, a certain voice in my head that tells me to continue despite the exhaustion, the aches and pains, and the annoyance of being controlled like a dog. When I look in the mirror in the army, I see a man who knows what he wants, and who knows what he does for a living. I see a man who is proud, who never feels awkward or shy. I see pride and strength. And most importantly, I feel content. Fulfilled.

I've never felt like that outside of the army. In college I was nervous and agitated, unsure of myself, and very shy. Awkwardness became a part of my daily experience. I covered all of that with being talkative, and learning how to make others laugh. And from that falsity I lost self-respect, and pride. In the civilian world, worst of all, I never felt satisfaction and meaning in my endeavors. I simply survived. A man? Ha! I never felt like a man before.

But now that I do something that I believe in to the bottom of my soul, something that I have given my entire life to, made peace with myself and my mortality, and long ago left the gates of comfort, security, and peace, I naturally and genuinely call myself a man. Boys do not stand up and give themselves over to a cause greater than their own lives.

As much as I enjoyed seeing friends, and eating pizza, Ben & Jerry's ice cream, juicy hamburgers, Mac & Cheese, massive delicatessen sandwiches, and my flatmate's unreal homemade pastries, I'm ready to start my day with the hope that it will be even more meaningful than the day that proceeded it. I don't mind eating the same army crap every day, as long as they let me serve my country - and my people. This domestic, civilian world is beautiful, and it is meant to be lived. Unfortunately, however, there are those of us that have to protect it daily.

All my life I've been told that I am idealistic, and that that ideology is wonderful, but it is the domain of the youth. I am now 25, and I have never been more driven, severe, and single-minded in my life. I see no end to it, though the army will end for me soon enough. When will this ideology wear down? I have seen the good and the bad, moral and immoral, scary and scarier - I am not naive. When will I relax and accept the simple life, that of working and moving along in a quiet life like everyone else? Why does that sound terrifying to me, when entering Gaza and seeing Hamas' hideous face seem only necessary and natural?

I am addicted to the soldier's life, and I would not have it any other way.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Spam Comments

Just a note to my readers:

Spam comments started appearing a while ago in my older posts. They are gibberish with a link. The comments were only appearing in really old posts though, and the same few posts were affected.

But this morning, I just received one of these spam comments on a very new post. I'm just warning all that you might see obnoxious junk in the comment section, but your real comments are always appreciated! You just have to pass a little test before your comment goes through. Most of you are familiar with the text verification system used on the Internet. Just type the word that appears in that box near the enter comment box, and that's it.

Sorry for the hurdle.

Monday, December 7, 2009

IDF's Twitter Account... Kinda Scary

I was alerted recently to the greatest thing ever. If you don't know what Twitter is, you're obviously either living under a rock, or you have a real life and don't read 150 characters of text at a time. I have a Twitter account for this blog, but I never check it and don't use it. There is an automatic updater that just makes a little note for my "followers" every time I post a blog here. Hassle free.

Anyway, I don't particularly care about or even like Twitter. Until I saw the IDF's account. Holy crap. In the army, you hear about stuff happening here or there, but it just kinda goes in one ear and out the other. Knife found at checkpoint? OK. Riots in Jenin? Ok. Mortar launched from Gaza? What's new.

But the IDF Twitter Account puts it all in perspective. By seeing about 10 single sentence posts in one page, you get a pretty good picture of what it's like to be infantry in the IDF. And here I was thinking that it was a relatively quiet period over here in the West Bank! Honestly it is, especially if you look at the Second Intifadah, but this IDF Twitter thing is unsettling. Mom, don't look.

I like it though. Let's get the word out about exactly who is creating the violence. I can't say anything at this point, but a blog post is in the works about the IDF's recent move towards embracing the bloggosphere, and the Internet's radically freeform information network. This post is just a little hint of what they're up to! Sorry for being vague, but it's in my own interest for now.

Follow me on Twitter! Click here to see my profile there. I winced as I typed those last two sentences.

Friday, December 4, 2009

IDF-Golani Terrorist!

I met this wonderful Hamas operative while on a patrol in al-Madina al-Muqaddasah. Call him a terrorist if you will, but he was a swell fellow. Hey, if you can't have a sense of humor during an 8 hour recon mission, you're bound to go crazy.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Mosque Is Burning

While on guard duty on top of a roof a while back, I stood against a railing and enjoyed the sunset. The 12 Horses pulling Khaga quietly crept down the hill a few kilometers away, disappearing behind a mosque's minaret, making way for Brother Moon. I stood at my post, feeling the winds of late fall whipping away the stale summer heat. Fall's crisp, fresh oxygen energized my soul, and my eyes looked beyond the dying day towards the great Tomorrow of Hope. A new way, a new faith. Faith in something more than the old, failed history.

Electric Sun was illuminating the minaret so vividly that I experimentally put my camera's lens behind my binoculars. Beyond telephone polls and roping electricity cables, I captured what remained of that day. I hope to get an even fuller, brighter, more orange picture in the future. But I know that the way I felt that day on my post - peaceful, quiet, hopeful, excited for life and its full range of experiences - that was a special and spiritual episode.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Property - That's Your Status

(I wrote this on Monday of this week - for reference to what 'today' means)

I've been chewing on this post for hours now, raving, like a smack fiend whose last fix was unimaginably long ago. Shortly you'll understand, but when I found out the news that prompted my desire to write this, I was determined to rush home and bang out a blog post filled with disbelief, frustration, and boiling, fiery, acidic rage. Red burning lava, black smoke curling from my ears, dripping fire from my eyes - full of fury and indignation. A post to capture a moment. The real life.

I did not rush home and write that story, however, or at least this story with that tone. I ate a big breakfast, took my time coming home, changed into comfortable civilian clothes, and played around on the computer. Watched a movie, even. It wasn't very good the first time I saw it, and the second time it was only mildly better. No problem, a movie is gold to a stressed soldier. After lounging like a king, but still feeling anxious and upset, I went for a 5k run. Jerusalem is tough, since it's all hills. Even an exhausting exercise hasn't helped, and I can't help but sigh and marvel at my luck. But the anger has subsided and ebbed into the cool numbness so familiar to those whose personal life is controlled by a removed, faceless, and immutable entity.

This morning we woke up at about 6am, and as usual were given half an hour to do our personal hygiene routine, clean the rooms, and have the morning gun check. Halfway through, however, my commander pulled me aside and told me that I was to put on my dress uniform and get ready to go home.

"What?" I asked.

"You're going home now until Wednesday, and then coming back Wednesday night to be on watch at the border," he mysteriously replied.

"What border?"

"I don't know, Egypt or Jordan."

This was highly strange, considering there are other, less intensive units than Golani that watch those two peaceful borders. I inquired if we were expecting a war or something, to which he replied negatively. It turns out that there is always a group there watching for smugglers, which is a huge problem especially on the Egyptian border where the fence is either a joke or non-existent. And why me? Because I'm qualified on a certain weapon system that can shoot flares. Apparently only this weapon system is used, which I think is dumb because there are a hell of a lot more people that can just use a laser to designate the target, and the police, with night vision, will see that beam bright and clear.

But all of that is moot. The army chooses what it chooses, and it probably has better reasons for its choices than some rookie immigrant big mouth.

Instantly after my commander told me that I'd be going home during the week and coming back on Wednesday, I had a terrible realization. You see, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday morning is plenty of time to work in the army. One could potentially imagine having that schedule and still getting to go home for the weekend. But I am infantry, and our life doesn't work out that nicely. No, no, I knew it would happen, and my commander confirmed it: I'll "close Shabbat" on this border base, alone. Everyone else goes home, except me.

Now, you might be thinking "Well, you got to go home for a few days during the week, so it all evens out." That almost is true, I grant you. However, closing this Shabbat will set me up for closing three Shabbats in a row. Just how the schedule works out. Not cool. In the army, and even in infantry, three Shabbats is punishment. If you mess up, you get three Shabbats straight stuck on base while everyone else goes home. I got three Shabbats because I'm weapons-hot.

But even that is not the reason I'm writing this blog. Most importantly, this post is not meant to complain about the army life. As a matter of fact, it's entirely the opposite. Even still, here's the real point of my frustration:

For the past month and a half I have been talking with a great and close friend of mine who currently lives in New York. Sara. She's bright, pretty, a wonderful friend who will do anything to help, always energetic, and she probably has the best sense of humor I've ever encountered in a girl. This friend is coming to the country for a week, and she's actually arriving the very same day I was supposed to get out for the weekend. It was meant to be awesome. Her family has the best meals, and I always get myself invited when she's around. I've been looking forward to her visit for well over a month. The schedule worked out great. I knew exactly which weekends I'd be on base, and which at home, and magically the dates lined up like clock work.

Until the army called on me, simply because of a weapon qualification I'd actually rather have nothing to do with! This incident, in my mind, as I sit here typing it, fresh with the dejection of missing such a close friend's visit, a friend I haven't seen for half a year and now won't see for at least another few months, is set to the backdrop of a speech given the night before, last night, by our battalion commander. In response to two incidents where soldiers from our company used their guns, both correctly I add, the brass wanted to go over our mission in al-Madina al-Muqaddasah. Brass wanted to make sure we knew our Rules of Engagement (ROE), morals and ethics of dealing with the local populations, and what the army and state expected of us in terms of personal and professional conduct.

At the same time, the battalion commander, a high ranking officer of course, took the chance to address recent demonstrations of protests by an infantry brigade in the IDF. Soldiers in the Shimshon and Nachshon Battalions of the Kfir Brigade have openly demonstrated against the army and state by holding up signs at a ceremony and during guard duty where reporters were found. In short, they are decrying suspected Israeli evacuations of settler posts within the West Bank. Just like in August 2005, when Avi Bieber refused orders to evacuate Israelis living in the Gaza Strip, these soldiers protested against the army, and the state, while in active service.

What our battalion commander said rang true for me last night, and this morning it all came around into crystal focus.

"You cannot pick and choose your orders and missions. When you are in active service, you must do as the army and state tell you to, not because you're not a human being, but because you are the army, and you are the arm of the state. When soldiers on the ground begin choosing which large-scale, government planned operations they will execute, that is the moment that the army begins to be torn apart. And more so for our country than any other country in the world, when our army begins to come apart like this, when it is destroyed and disintegrates and bulges from within, that is the moment when the state begins to come apart and disintegrate. When our army falls apart," he repeated, "our state will fall apart."

He went on to address those that really do have ideological objections to certain army decisions concerning Israeli residents in the West Bank. "It doesn't matter if you are an extreme right-winger, or extreme left, or middle-right, or middle-middle. You are soldiers in a mandatory army, and everyone here except for me and a handful of officers in the room are all in their mandatory three-year service. If the army gives you a mission that you disagree with, when the time comes to be released from the army, you can simply choose not to continue here. When you're released, you can say and do whatever you want. You simply don't make a career out of the army if you disagree with it. That's your only option as a soldier.

And moreover, even I as a career infantry officer, I have the same option as you. If our brigade commander were to call me up and say, 'Hey Ari, good morning. How's it going? Listen, by 11pm today you need to evacuate all the Israelis from that settlement next to your base,' well, you know what? That's my commanding officer, and he received that from someone else higher up. It's my job, no matter how much I might disagree with it. If you disagree, you have the right to be released at the end of your service, just like me. But in the meantime, you represent your state and your army, and the people rely on the army and state to be unified."

With his words ringing in my head, I sucked up my anger and disbelief after hearing that I'd miss Sara's visit and close Shabbat on some strange base, alone. A year ago I swore allegiance to the State of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces. I repeated, with electric adrenaline shooting through my veins, every inch of my body tingling:

I swear and commit to maintain loyalty to the State of Israel, to her laws, and authorities. To take upon myself without conditions and without reservations the responsibilities of the IDF. To obey all the commands and instructions given by the commanders and to dedicate all my strength and even to sacrifice my life for the defence of the homeland and the freedom of Israel.

The gods chose to give me, as we say in the army, כל הזין. Essentially, I'm being hosed. But I accept it! If it wasn't me, it'd be someone else getting the raw end of the deal, and I'd never want to pass on my own crap situation to someone else. I have given myself without reservation or qualification, and sometimes that oath isn't just pretty words repeated in important speeches. Sometimes it means you actually give without receiving, sacrifice without recognition; your word is occasionally tested. No matter how unhappy my lot, I will always strive to be the exemplar and paragon of that all-meaningful avowal.

And besides, there's always a silver lining - maybe I'll stop some smugglers bringing in poison targeting Israel's youth. But still, it would have been nice to have Thanksgiving with some Americans! Enjoy your weekend... I'm working.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"Israel's Economic Miracle"

This post may not be directly army related, but I began this blog on a very different standing than its current theme. Without getting into it, I'll just say that I started writing Israeli by Day in order to clear up misconceptions about this country. When I first started getting into Israel, as in when I first came here and became involved, I was shocked to find out what my peers in my hometown thought of Israel. People just had no idea.

Not uncommon questions asked were if Israel has electricity, are there streets and cars, and if people speak Jewish. One girl even asked me, and she was dead serious, "do they sleep in tents in the desert?" Apparently someone's pre-school Bible lessons about Abraham still apply to modern-day Israel. The level of ignorance was so terribly high - what? Israel is on the Mediterranean Sea?! - that I just had to do my part to show that it is in fact a modern, sophisticated, and first-world nation.

And so with that, I want to share this video clip from CNBC that my great friend Debbie sent me. I really encourage you to watch it, especially if you root for Israel. If you chant "Death to Israel," watch it and weep. Enjoy.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Palestinian Brit

During a routine mounted patrol, my commander and I jumped out at a street deep inside the city to stop cars. We wanted to only stop the ones with yellow, Israeli citizen license plates. There are many Arabs that live inside Israel proper and go to the West Bank for family visits, or even to work. It's not suspicious or a big deal to see an Arab driving a car with these Israeli plates. However, many times a car is stolen inside Israel, it tends to find its way into the West Bank - far away from regular police detectives and searches.

With our boots on the ground, we stood behind the patrol Jeep and waited for some yellow plates to drive in our direction. It didn't take long to get our first stop, only a few minutes really. The procedure that the residents know so well is quite simple: pull over here, turn the car off, step out of the vehicle please, show me your ID and driver's license and car registration, open the trunk, what's in the bag? Pretty tame stuff, obnoxious to them probably, but nothing so demeaning or humiliating as Reuters and the Associated Press (AP) report.

After a good while of checking the north-bound traffic, we moved to the other side of the street to check the opposite direction. There turned out to be so many cars coming in that direction, which leaves the city, that my commander and I were each checking cars on our own. Nothing too interesting. Every single one of them seemed to be a Jerusalem Old City resident visiting family. No stolen cars, so far. Nothing suspicious, besides no one having their driver's license or super-mandatory ID (dealing with those are always fun).

And then I saw the jackpot. A young guy driving a nice, dark Volkswagen turned off a side-street and came my way. I glanced at the plates only to notice that he had none. No license plates at all, yellow, white, or green. This was my guy.

I made it abundantly clear that I needed him to pull over exactly where I directed him. He slowed down and came to a stop, turned the engine off, and got out of the car. I informed him in my extremely basic vocabulary of Arabic what I wanted from him, and he complied silently. Driver's license and ID all in order, thank you very much. After instructing him to do so, in Arabic, he opened the back trunk. Empty. Good. Now, with all the preliminaries out of the way, it was time to question him about the missing plates.

I asked him in Hebrew what the story was. "I'm sorry, I don't speak Hebrew" he replied in broken tongue. "Great," I thought. I was going to have to go through the whole pointing and grunting routine, ending it with sternly growled Arabic words like "JEESH, lo auto!" Army, no car! They figure out pretty quickly what you want from them, because really they knew in the first place that you can't drive a car without license plates, but it's a major pain in the ass. I took a deep breath, and began to point at the bumper... "Nu?"

"I'm sorry," he asked. "Do you speak English?" This was something of a rarity, as the people we stop generally never try to speak anything other than Arabic with us. I never ask if they know English, as you really don't have to speak very much at all. The grunting and pointing usually works quite well, as does the ID database you punch their personal number into. But in this case, and since I was alone and could handle it how I wanted, I decided I would speak English with him - though I suspected that he actually didn't know very much of my native tongue anyway.

He had a strange accent, even from that first sentence. It sounded like something I had heard before. He certainly didn't have a Palestinian accent, but I couldn't put my finger on it. I ignored this, however, and finally after a long pause I responded.

"Yes, I speak English. Where are your license plates?"

"Well, you see, I just returned to al-Madina al-Muqaddasah and this is a new car. I just got it yesterday, and they haven't given me the number plates yet." He stood there with his identification card in his hand, nervously looking at me, obviously unsure just how much trouble he was going to be in. He was tall, about six feet three inches or so, just shorter than me. He had a solid frame, if not a little chubby, but of that constitution where you expect he is hiding respectable strength under a small layer of fat. His hair was dark black and curly, and his skin tone was similarly shaded. Black clothes and black shoes completed the theme. Everything was dark, but he seemed well off. This was not the poor Palestinian you pitied living in the slums.

"I already applied for the number plates, I'm just waiting for them," he repeated.

Number plates? I've heard that before, but where? And that weird, out of place accent? I looked around at the screamingly West Bank setting around me, subconsciously absorbing some unknown dissonance in this man, between being an Arab in this city, and speaking this brand of English quite well. Something was so familiar about his behavior, and his voice, and I felt that the atmosphere of our surroundings were throwing me off. And so I asked.

"What is your accent?"

With that question he nearly jumped out of his shoes. The man seemed either agitated or excited, but he showed nothing in his facial expressions to reveal just what he was thinking. He shifted back and forth on his feet, with his arms stiffly extended at his sides. Finally he broke into a wide smile, and nearly shouted, "But it's Briiii-teeesh!"

Now it was my turn to jump out of my shoes, rock back and forth, and show the greatest amount of confusion seen since I joined the ever fascinating IDF. Honestly, if a shooting were to have occurred one street over, I would have been upset to leave this unexpected, curious case. I had to get to the bottom of how this man, in this city, being Arab, could have such a strong, thick British accent. I live with a British person, and many of my friends are British, and I was rightly astounded.

"What do you mean?" I asked like some dim-wit. "How?" I stood in front of him, fully squaring my shoulders towards him, though not aggressively, but rather entirely engrossed in hearing what he had to say. This was totally going to be the highlight of my day.

Laughingly, he went on to explain just where he picked it up. "You see, I was born and raised here, but I moved to London about 7 years ago. I have family that lives there, and I lived with them. I got a visa to go study there, which I did, but I was a bad student. So, I worked for my uncle. We own a bakery in London. I guess I just picked up the accent!"

"Really? So, why did you come back? You're crazy, huh? I suspect that London is a lot nicer than this place." Our relationship had totally changed from one of me in total authority, a semi-police like figure, to one of actual, real openness and familiarity. Not that I didn't have my hand on my gun's grip, or that there wasn't a magazine loaded, but he had been checked and clearly wasn't a threat. Just obviously daft, was all.

"Well, my father demanded me to come back. Over there I didn't do well in school and didn't finish. But really he was pissed off because of girls."

"Girls? What does that mean? You got caught with girls?"

"Yes! Well..."

"Well what? They're religious and it's forbidden to be with girls unless they're your wife?"

"No." He chuckled out loud a little and leaned against his car. I could tell he wasn't quite up for telling me something, but I figured he'd let it slip. I wasn't going to let it go, at least.

"If you don't tell me I'll have to impound your car," I joked.

"OK OK! Well, I was dating a Jewish girl. My uncle didn't care, but somehow my dad found out. And then as-"

I cut him off with the most genuine, deep, liberating laughter I had released in months. I could barely keep it down, and when I turned around I saw my commander staring at me quizzically. I waved him off, and turned back to this Palestinian-Arab-Muslim-Britain-Resident-Forbidden Casanova. He realized just how comical and ironic the situation was, and joined in my laughter. It was just too much.

"When I got back just a couple months ago," he drawled in his British cadence, "my dad even took my passport away!"

We laughed for a few more minutes, and I asked some more questions, none of which I can unabashedly post here. I wrapped it up eventually, admonished him again seriously that if he didn't get "number plates" (stupid British) immediately, the army would take his car until he put them on. And then as he was moving around to the driver side seat, I looked in and noticed in the cup holder a yellow, citrus themed can that I had seen everyone drinking. It was long and skinny just like a Red Bull.

"Hey," I stopped him. "What is this drink? Is it good?"

Excitedly he held it up to me, pushing it towards my hand. "Take it! I love them! Seriously, enjoy it!"

I declined only because of my professional obligation at the moment, but this interesting English speaker left me feeling pretty good about our work in al-Madina al-Muqaddasah. Maybe what all those angry Hamasnikim out there need is a little vacation outside the country. Let them see the beauties of Western life, and maybe a couple Jewish girls can talk some sense into them! No?

(By the way, I think I found Fizzeh Bubbelech in that yellow citrus drink!)

Monday, November 16, 2009

They Start Young!

A three-year-old girl just playfully threw a rock at me after I waved and stuck out my tongue at her.

How cute.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Golda Speaks

Taking a page my favorite Iraq War blogger, Matt Galagher, I'm gonna post a quote that I like here. It's my blog, and I do what I want!

"The Egyptians could run to Egypt, the Syrians into Syria. The only place we could run was into the sea, and before we did that we might as well fight."

Golda Meir

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Donating To Israeli Charities

I get a lot of emails from this blog. My personal gmail account is posted on my profile, which is actually pretty stupid of me in terms of the chance to get "spam-bombed," but I really like to have feedback. I can't even begin to tell you how many 17-25 year old people write me asking advice about the army, and Israel in general. Some people write simply to express appreciation for the blog, noting especially how little time I have to write it (about a few days a month, literally). I also get emails asking me about my personal opinions on relevant topics and news items. Supposedly my opinion counts?

Bottom line, I get a lot of emails. Recently, however, I had a very cool email from a teacher in America in response to my Foot Patrol post. With her permission, I am reprinting it here:

Shavua tov.
Can't remember how or when I first surfed to your blog, but I've been following it ever since. You always write very well, but this post in particular is magniv. I teach 4th grade religious school. Our new curriculum this year is Israel. I have decided that all of our tzedakah will go to Israeli charities. If you send me the name of your favorite charity, I will send our next $36 to it, in your honor. So far this year, we have raised money for Birthday Angels and Yad L'kashish, and our next project is Warm the Needy. If you don't have a favorite, we will send to PizzaIDF. Please let me know.

I recommended that her class donate their charity (tzedaka) to Friends of the IDF (FIDF), but specifically to the Wounded Soldiers Program. Any soldier who opens his eyes and sees their symbol, and specifically lone soldiers like me (chayal boded), will know that they really generate absurd amounts of money for the IDF and her soldiers. My battalion even had an entire week at an army resort in Ashkelon a couple months ago, replete with amazing food and ammentities - all funded by FIDF donors (actually, Haim Saban himself).

Now, I know I'm no fundraiser. But if you are feeling charitable, I have some ideas for good places to donate. Below is a list of IDF-specific organizations that support Israel's holy warriors (always wanted to say that):

Friends of the IDF (FIDF)

A Package From Home --- Their website is kinda lame, but trust me, I've heard good things about them!

The Libi Fund --- I see their logo everywhere in the army, also.

Yashar LaChayal --- These guys are great. They gave us Camelbak-style hydration packs at that resort I mentioned, and I even did a short video clip with my unit behind me cheering. I was thanking them in English. It was pretty awkward for me! Anyway, if you do donate to them, I personally hope you send money to the injured soldiers department.

One Family Fund --- This is actually a charity to support Israeli victims of terror. So, it's not directly for soldiers, but I suppose it's related. I included it because a good friend of mine is apparently a fan of it, according to the Fund's website. Also, I live really close to one of their buildings. Just another option for you!

In terms of all those pizza for IDF soldiers charities, I'm not going to endorse them. I haven't heard anything bad about them, or anything like that. It's just that I looked at their prices for donation, and it was a little ridiculous. 1 pizza and 1 soda for like $26 dollars? Why? A pizza in Sderot, which would be the place they'd bring Gaza-operating forces, probably costs like 45 shekels ($12). And the same for other operating areas in the West Bank. I just don't have experience with them, and the price is so high, that I can't really say anything! Sorry!

Anyway. If you want to donate, don't think any amount is too small! $10 here and there adds up!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

First Mounted Patrol

The most exciting mission one can get at al-Madina al-Muqaddasah, at least on a daily basis, is a vehicle-mounted patrol (VMP - my creation). In order to increase our visibility and have feet everywhere, without maintaining some unruly presence, is to keep an army truck in constant motion throughout the city. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week (yes, Shabbat too), we are out there, eyes open, ready to prevent, engage, and react. No matter where you are in the sprawling city, various military and police forces are roaming.

My first VMP came quickly after we began operations in al-Madina. My commander, let's call him Ranger since he really should have gone to special forces, came into my room where I was sitting on my bed, whittling away my time on Facebook Mobile. He asked me if I "wanted" to do a VMP. I laughed openly in his face, knowing he was asking me sarcastically. Weeks before we finally got here, I told every single commander, all the way up to my commanding officer, that I didn't want to miss even one assignment. I can guard for 24 hours a day, I told them all. And as a matter of fact, you better try to wear me out or I'll run away to America.

Taking my word seriously, they put me on the platoon's very first patrols. I couldn't have been more excited, just as I was with the previous post's foot patrol. Give me body armor and get me the hell out of the base! Let me loose, I growled. And with that I threw on the ceramic vest, and then my combat vest, chucked my helmet inside the armored Jeep, and told the Russian driver to "hit it already!"

We crossed the wire, Ranger checked the com system, the other soldier with me fiddled with his Camelbak hydration pack, and I stared out at the rolling, house-dotted hills of our operating area. My mind was racing with what could be, what would happen, what it would be like to hear on the radio that Bad Guy X was in Scary Place Y, and was about to carry out Terrorist Act Z. If that call went out, it would be going out to us, and that would mean me. And if-

Obliterating my unrealistic fantasies, the radio blared through the external speaker, echoing off the box interior of the thick metal walled Jeep.

"Patrol, this is HQ."

"HQ, continue."

"We've got a report of rocks being thrown at Fizzeh Junction."

"Copy that. Patrol en route. Over."

Not two minutes in, we had a directive from the radio control room to engage. Rocks being thrown sounds so cliche for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and I thought the same thing at first. But Fizzeh Junction in al-Madina is really the junction of a walkway between two Arab neighborhoods and a high-traffic shared road. Palestinians and Israelis both use the road, and cars travel at about 80 km/h or more. If you hit a windshield with a nice sized rock at 50 mph, you can expect a life-threatening crash.

So off we sped, racing towards Fizzeh. Mere minutes later we were approaching the junction, and amazingly enough we spotted large rocks on the highway. Our driver whipped the back end of the armored truck into the direction of the neighborhood we suspected the rocks came from, and just like a movie I threw the doors open, ducked my oversized frame through the opening, and jumped out of the vehicle ready-to-roll. I glanced left and right, and then up past the barricade blocking the neighborhood from the highway.

As if some CNN production of the Second Intifadah was filming, a conflictual period I watched half-knowledgeably from my cozy high school and college perspective, I spotted the offenders. About seven or eight teenage boys were going crazy nearly 150 meters in front of me, jumping up and down, waving their arms, and yelling unintelligably in Arabic towards my commander, my platoonmate, and myself.

With rocks in their hands. From awkward Virginian Jew to Israeli-American Golanchik, I had transformed into the Intifadah's image: rock thrower versus IDF combat soldier.

Now, you may think that throwing some rocks is just harmless aggression. I hear you. 150 meters for a 16-year-old to throw a rock isn't as dangerous as throwing a Molotov Cocktail. Sure. But let that kid throw that rock, and you dodge it, no big deal. But the next day, and don't think I'm exaggerating here, he'll roll backpack-sized stones on the highway. Give an inch, anyone will take a mile.

And with that we could have shot non-lethal rounds at the obvious law-breakers. Tear gas, rubber bullets, flashbangs; any of those things would have been well within our rules of engagement. These kids were throwing rocks at cars passing at high speeds. Deadly, and deserving of a serious response.

But rather than going in full swing, our first days in the deployment, my commander and I instinctively ran towards the group. We're both sort of... hands on. But the teens had their distance, and we had a clear directive at the time to not enter too far in that neighborhood without at least a squad-sized force. And so they mostly dispersed as two six foot four hulking, trained combat soldiers bore down on them. I dropped into kneeling position as we reached the barricade, putting the remaining rock throwers in my magnified reflex scope.

Red jacket. Blue shoes. Black shirt with gold colored chain. White jeans. Green Nike shorts.

Details to remember. For when? Well, you never know. Who says we wouldn't get the word to go door-to-door?

And we walked back to the Jeep, quietly reflecting on our first contact with the most cliche element of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 16-year-old kids in the beginning of October, noon on a weekday, not in the school on the other side of the junction. Yes, that one right there! Another 150 meters away from the street! And yes, soldiers trained for an all-out war with Syria fighting what? Kids that don't realize how deadly their actions can be? That's it?

But it's important, and you know it. It's not battling your way to Damascus, but it's good work. If you don't believe it, you haven't been there. You know why I say that without reservation? Because the majority of the Arabs in these areas just do their job, love their families, and move on. We sat at Fizzeh Junction for another half an hour, with many individuals making their way across the highway to a neighboring area where all the schools and universities (yes those too) and jobs are. And we asked about the kids, and they all rolled their shoulders and shrugged their eyes.

"I don't know. Stupid kids. I just do my job and go home. Morning 'til night."

When you hear that sentiment over and over, you kinda start to believe it. And in a strange way, and as a side note you don't have to believe me, you find yourself thinking about that average individual. You see a kid throwing rocks, and you think about that 25-year-old going to his university class on computer science. You remember and see his face because you checked his ID and quizzed him on it. Those of us that care for peace can't help but feel the disappointment when you respond to one of the troublemakers, so misguided, so myopic. When he throws rocks over and over, we increase our presence. And though it's exciting, you know it's not taking the process forward. Over and over.

Cause and Effect. Action and Reaction. Incident and Response. Cycle and Cycle and Cycle and Cycle.

"Patrol, this is HQ."

"HQ, this is Patrol. Continue."


Saturday, October 31, 2009

First Foot Patrol

Having arrived at al-Madina al-Muqaddasah on a Wednesday, my platoon was informed that we wouldn't be starting operations until Sunday. The rest of the company was going to start right away. It's just us greenhorns (tzairim - youngin's) who were supposed to wait. That wasn't because they wanted us to get settled, or to relax a little in a first deployment, or anything quite as magnanimous as that. Rather, the logistics NCO's needed bitches to set up the company's area. From hanging signs to organizing shipping crates to moving cabinets - stuff that the veterans wouldn't dare raise a finger for.

Just as we started the agony, and it really is terrible to work for the RASAP, my platoon commander called my squad over to the side. I had heard some rumors earlier in the day that a foot patrol would be sent out of the wire, but rumors fly constantly around here. When my entire squad was called over, however, I just knew I had caught yet another lucky-Danny the American break.

"Listen up," he started. "You guys are going to take a foot patrol. Go work on your gear. I want it to be fix. Perfect. Don't let anyone take you to work on anything else. You are in nohel krav - combat procedure. Again, if the RASAP tries to have you work for him, come tell me."

And with that he sent my squad off to the barracks, leaving the rest of the suckers in my platoon to do all the worst initial setting up. As we walked off, I looked back at my buddies heaving a locker full of unbelievably heavy M113 periscopes onto a high shelf. Suckers.

Our personal gear is so important to the IDF, in that it has to be exactly the way the platoon and company commanders want it, that whenever you receive a mission you are sent for hours to work on the stuff. I, however, always make sure that my gear is exactly the way they want it. It's become so rote to me, actually, that even now I want my gear to be the way they want it. Gear tradition is one of the great mysteries of the army that you would only understand if you had to live it. Essentially, in Golani, you have G-d, country, and gear - in no particular order. So, my gear was already perfect, fix, and ready to roll.

I spent the next couple hours helping others with their gear. And hanging out on my bed, of course. I cleaned my gun like a maniacal germ-freak, over and over and over. Finally, we were called to the briefing room. Walking past the still-working platoon, my squad couldn't help but feel real tough. We were chosen above everyone to take the first mission of the entire company. We must be cool. Send me out Rambo style. I'll keep the peace, singlehandedly.

After a long series of briefings from three different NCO's and CO's, replete with satellite maps, quizzes on protocol and patrol structure, rules of engagement, scenario testing, and even a preparatory drill (as if we haven't trained for a year doing this simple movement!), we got the order to move out. I walked up to one of my squadmates and said, like some American army movie, "MOUNT UP!" He looked at me pretty funny. I told him that if he hears me say that, it means put on your gear. Listen, if I'm going to do an army, I want to feel cool. I'd love to say things like Oscar Mike and Stay Frosty, but that's too much explaining to these guys. As you can tell, I was giddy.

FINALLY! Here it is! A year of training, and finally I'm going to get out there. Our mission was simple, just to establish a presence, but in our eyes any mission was a great and wonderful gift. I would have taken a 50km patrol happily at that point! Yes please! More please! Can this last, like, I dunno, 10 hours? When you've been waiting all your life to do something, or at least feel that way, the moment instantly before is no less than euphoric. I didn't feel the extra 60 or so pounds on my body. I didn't feel the ceramic armor digging into my shoulder blades. I didn't feel my uncomfortable, stiff new boots. It was all adrenaline.



And in no less than two minutes there we were, walking in between Arab houses. Now, don't get the idea that I think all Arabs are bad people, the enemy, or suspects. As a matter of fact, in high school I had a good friend that just so happened to be from al-Madina al-Muqaddasah. He even lived here just a few years ago, since they still have all their family in the area. This was a good, good friend of mine. I obviously don't hate Arabs. But when you're geared up like I am, and a scary ass Tavor assault rifle pointed at the low and ready... they probably hate us. And since I'm the pointman in the squad, and therefore the tip of this patrolling spear, they hate me first.

But with all that being said, we were in hostile territory. At least on paper. In reality, my squad made our way through endless grape fields, admiring the clusters as if we were Moses' spies, amazed at the bounty and impossibility of this land. Nearly as endless as those chest-sized clusters were the Arab houses, many built illegally no doubt, and their porches. Sitting on the porches were families, old men playing backgammon, young men smoking hookahs or talking on the phone, and women knitting. Children playing soccer. Life happening. Quiet.

STOP - instantly I dropped down to the kneeling position. We were approaching a turn in the dirt path, and at that moment a 20-some year old guy appeared in front of us. That's the key age for trouble. You never know. I instinctively told him to stop, in Arabic, and eyed his body for any unnatural bulges. Gun. You never know. In this area, word spreads quickly. "There's a patrol coming your way" probably found it's way on at least one phone. Is this guy a hero, I wondered.

Nope. Just a dude walking to some other place. It is his neighborhood - he just happened to get a little close. That's ok. It was unavoidable. Yeah, your ID checks out. Have a nice day. I signaled him to walk to the side, and not in-between the patrol.

First contact. OK, that wasn't so bad. Yeah, I know they're just people. Yeah, that kid was probably on his way to his girlfriend's. You never know, though.

We made our way on, stopping here and there to check an ID, make sure that that car that turned off the path as soon as it saw us just did that because we're scary and not because he's got something planned. Yup, he's cool. Have a nice day. Keep a close eye on that guy that went inside when we neared his porch. Check that corner. Stop. Drink some water, guys. You're sweating a lot more than you realize.

With the sun going down, we took a few minutes break to switch to night vision scopes, rest, rehydrate, and soak up the geographical location. The expectation to learn our operating area is high, and nothing is better than a foot patrol to learn just where that intersection is, or where that typically hostile neighborhood tends to heat up. But as I knelt there, checking my scope, I watched the kids next to me play soccer. Two little girls sat on the side, staring at us, obviously more entertained by the "big bad Zionists" than their little crushes.

And you know what was the most surprising and impacting impression I made from this first patrol? Not tightening my grip because some guy briskly walked inside his house and then came out with a long wooden thing - which from 100 meters looked like a rifle, but really was a cane. Not how much power we had over these people (which we do, and have to respect). But rather, I was absolutely blown away by how much the kids seemed to like us.

This isn't Iraq, and the IDF is not the liberators or heros of al-Madina al-Muqaddasah. They are supposed to hate us. According to the world, we are the people that shot these kids' dads in front of them... for fun. But those kids, from 5 year olds to 13 year olds, were all smiles! They giggled and pointed and laughed. I was as serious as it gets for the entire patrol, for obvious reasons, but once we continued on the path and came upon a gaggle of little boys and girls playing in the street I naturally loosened up. They playfully ran to the side, next to a fence, and stared and giggled. Dropping my mission-oriented tone, I winked at one particular chamuda.

Just like any kid, she put her hands up to her face, snickered, and buried herself in her best friend sitting nearby. Just like my friend's nieces, little ultra-orthodox Jewish girls.

What? Aren't we the terrible, oppressing, evil Zionist pigs stealing Arab land? Shouldn't these 10 year olds have heard by now about the Nakba, and about how these black-gun toting devils will break your neck upon the slightest, if any, provocation? Apparently, and this was my impression on the street, the IDF makes a smaller footprint than some would have you believe. I know that there are certain places where the army is more intrusive, even in other areas of al-Madina al-Muqaddasah. But even here, even with an ID-checking, car stopping patrol, we don't seem to be the worst thing in the world.

Last anecdote on that matter: Once we passed a house on our left, and I was busy checking our right because my right-hand pointman was new at that position and I felt he was missing some of his sector. I glanced at him, and he cocked his head upwards and to my left. Towards that house. There were about five people sitting on a second-story porch, just hanging out. Middle-aged people. They interpreted his signal to me to check them as the international head pump, which says "hey, what's up." They waved. What? They freaking waved at us?

I was pretty sure at that moment that the army lied to me and actually sent me to an Israeli-Druze village. That would explain the Arabic text on the walls, at least.

And despite seeing with my own two eyes how friendly these people can be, I know the history. And the commanders remind us of the history, and remind us what happens all the time and doesn't make the news. Most importantly, not everyone that is nice to you on the road while on patrol are representative of the guy sitting in his room, sulking, staring at you through the window. Stoking his anger. Planning. Rocks to start, knives, acid bottles, and so on. The cycle continues. His dad waved. His uncle waved. Even his cloaked aunt raised a finger. He sulked.

So we stay prepared, and hope that the moderates look around and see what could be! Fields of grapes, nice houses, nice cars, businesses - not everything is rubble in the West Bank, and not everyone hates Israel or the IDF. It seems.

Monday, October 26, 2009

My 25th Birthday In The Israeli Army

(If you don't read the post, at least check out the photo comparison at the bottom. I think it's hilarious)

It's pretty damn hard to believe that it has been exactly one year since I had my 24th birthday in the army. I was drafted four days previous, on the 22nd of October, 2008. Still nervous as hell every morning upon waking up, I kept my mouth shut when my birthday came. No one knew about it, and that was the way I wanted it. Despite that, as I said in that post from a year ago, "It was really tough spending your birthday getting yelled at."

Well, days have changed. I am a fully-rated combat soldier, and yelling is reserved for... nevermind. They still yell at us all the time! Not like in the movies, like basic training in Full Metal Jacket, but it is for when we do something wrong. And that happens all the time.

So, I guess I will also spend my day getting yelled at!

But again, as I said in 2008, "I've always wanted to be a soldier, especially for the only army in the world that I think is 100% imperative for the existence of the state it serves. So, ideologically I didn't need cake or toys or songs." The only thing I'd change about that now is that yeah, I'd like cake. And don't you worry, I will eat some cake!

Seriously though, and I know everyone says this at this age, but I am having a hard time understanding how I'm already 25. I remember quite distinctly being about 17 and thinking long and hard about what Danny Brothers of 2009, a 25-year-old man, would be like. This is the age that definitively signals adulthood. This is the age where your profession becomes your life. Where marriage and children become a reality. Where you become, I don't know... grown-up.

But I don't feel like that! Man, I feel like a kid still. I'm pretty sure I'm 18 and just started college. That ridiculously handsome, athletic, muscular body in the mirror? That's not mine, is it? Those rugged good looks on that wise, mature face? Could it really be? And the prophetic eyes staring back at me; where did they come from?

At 16 I thought about myself at 25 as being everything I wasn't at the time: confident in my beliefs, set in my ways, and self-sure. Some of those are good things, others less so. Regardless, at least those things have come with age. For that I am thankful. I don't think I am quite as emotionally stable and mature as I hoped I would be, but over the past few years I have learned that emotional stability is one of the rarest traits. And considering the challenge I've gone through over the past year, I think I'm doing ok coping with difficulties, and stability in general.

I'll stop rambling now. It's just that this is the one forum where I can tell everyone how weird it is to have arrived. I'm sure my 40-year-old readers are rolling their eyes. I don't care. Keep rolling. It's my blog and I'll express amazement when I want to! Honestly, listen to me, I could go on for hours about all types of things I expected with this age, from my body (I used to be a serious weight lifter, and I always dreamed about the "prime of life" 25-year-old body) to my intelligence to knowledge to career to love life, and so on.

Hey, us old people are supposed to ramble, right? And be incoherent? Welcome to senility, I say! I guess I really am the grandpa of the army now.

Here's some photos for comparison to what six years does to a man:

A 19-year-old backpacking young buck, ready to roll

A 25-year-old: give me coffee or don't talk to me

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Finally Deployed

After eight months of training, and then another three or so of brigade-wide retraining that we unluckily stepped right into, my unit has found its place in "combat." I use that word lightly, especially considering that we have found ourselves in the West Bank during one of the quietest periods in Israeli history. Knock on wood and all that, but I simply believe that it's peaceful because we've brought the hammer down hard on the terrorist groups. Operation Cast Lead sure as hell put a beating on Hamas, and I don't think they're ready for round two.

But they will be, eventually. For now, peace.

While the rest of my platoon took a pre-dawn bus to our base in al-Madina al-Muqaddasah, I was chosen to stay at our previous base in order to help put the final touches on cleaning up. Logistics officers, jobniks with big ranks that you couldn't care less about, were roaming the area, just looking for an excuse to yell at the young, arrogant combat soldiers. "You're aren't leaving here until..." was the line of the day. I heard that no less than twenty times.

Suddenly, in the middle of carrying some containers back to the kitchen, the commander watching over us told me to run to the transport truck waiting at the base's front gate. "HURRY," he told me numerous times. It seemed like the truck was waiting for me, specifically. However, upon getting to the gate, there was no one to be found. After waiting nearly two hours, I finally hitched a ride with a transport carrying our shipping crates which we use to store gear.

"Jump on up!" the animated driver told me. For the entire five hour ride I was all alone in a tractor-trailer with a reserve duty soldier who rambled on and on with his wife on the phone. With just three hours of sleep the night before, I fought back my leaden eyelids the entire way. I was told to not let this guy stop at his base for the night, but rather to carry on all the way to our deployment, so I had to stay awake. And as they warned, between calls to his wife, he called just about every officer in the IDF for permission to go sleep at the truck base.

Finally we neared the border crossing into the West Bank. The driver started showing his true colors pretty quickly. He made a call to his dispatcher on the speakerphone. It essentially went like this:

"Uh, so when I cross over, what happens? I only have one soldier with me. Is that enough?"


"OK, are you sure? Because it's just one soldier, and you know, it's at night! How will I know if I'm going into a bad area or not?"

"There's nothing to worry about."

"Well!.. Famous last words, no? OK, I have one soldier, but should he put the magazine in the gun, and a bullet in the chamber? Ready to shoot!"

"No, that's not necessary."

"Is there a signal truck that could guide me to the base?"

As he drove hesitantly toward the border crossing, unarmed Israeli civilian cars zoomed by, headlong into the territory. My jumpy driver and his wide-open eyes rubber necked the entire way to our base, making terrified comments one after another. I giddily seared into memory the crossing, marveling at the towers and guard posts and concrete barriers and mazes of chain-link gates used to check Palestinian pedestrians. All the things the world hates Israel for. What all the protestors were losing their minds over. Every little detail shone brilliantly under the yellow, sodium lights. I was happy to finally be deployed, after so much waiting. The frightened driver was ready to get the hell out.

My favorite line of the night? While driving past an Arab town with a green-lit minaret, he asked seriously, "Do they have rockets?!" And then once we made it to the base, with relief he inquired if we had "finished the Arabs finally?" That's less racism/prejudice than it is excitable cowardice.

After wishing him a good night and laughing at his catharsis upon reaching the safety of a Golani base, I made my way to our barracks. I entered the small, squat building to cheers from my platoon. I had no idea what al-Madina al-Muqaddasah was all about, and at night I had seen nothing, but I had arrived.

Time for patrols and guard duty and checkpoints and guard towers and seated ambushes and arrest operations.