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."
"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."