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.