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.