I’ve had a couple months already to marinate on the following characters and situation that I encountered one night while on guard duty inside al-Madina al-Muqaddasah. The impact on my understanding of the Israeli-Arab conflict at the time was so deep, and poignant, and time has only served to intensify the troubling perspective. I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea here: I have made no revelations. My preconceived notions of this conflict haven’t so much gone out the window, as they have been placed in a frame on the wall. I knew this age-old struggle before. Now I have simply seen it first-hand, and more importantly, its victims. I only hope that this story serves to share the human side of being a curious soldier in a graying hostility.
At seven forty five in the evening I put down my copy of Dostoevsky’s great Karamazovian classic, grabbed my gun from my bed, and slinked off to my gear. Throwing on my ceramic body armor, then my combat vest full of magazines and grenades, I asked my commander which guard post I was responsible for lazily occupying.
“Eh... Guard Post Mouse. Six hours,” he replied nonchalantly.
“What?! Mouse for six hours? But we were just doing two hours all week, what happened?”
“The backup from the training base left. You complaining?”
“No,” I said, retracting my previous exasperation. “Just wondering what happened...”
I picked up my helmet and headed off in the direction of Mouse. This guard post is really just a paved square surrounded on three sides by apartment buildings five stories tall. The fourth side is a large opening to a side street that cuts from the main city street to a small Muslim and Jewish holy site. Owing to the religious significance, Israeli “settlers” live in the area, overwhelmingly surrounded on all sides by the local Arabs. Hence, my presence.
Whenever I walk to a guard post, especially when starting six straight hours in the same spot without sitting, I greedily study the passing scenery as if I can bring it all with me to my stationary post. Our tiny base is inside the city, just as if it’s any other complex on any other street, with a gate and military sign, and closed shops on either side of us. I passed by the seemingly ancient plumbing stores, and groceries, electricians, clothing shops, and even a Turkish bathhouse, all of which must have closed decades ago. Their signs and posters all remain, faded nearly beyond recognition, but calling out from the grave with their hoary ink. I see the ghosts of the long-passed owner sitting at the counter, sipping black coffee, smoking a water pipe. Young clerks mill about the aisles, pretending to work while dreaming of other young girls who by now must be grandmothers. Who used to live here, I wonder. Whose shop was this, and where’d they go? Sealed green door after sealed green door, padlocked and welded shut. This conflict must be like a spreading foreign insect, jumping from crop to crop across a region, devouring anything in its path. Few tourists come to this part of the city, Jew or Arab, but they should. Whose fault is it? I do not know.
Finally I arrived at Guard Post Mouse, switched my jubilant buddy Ari out, and settled in for a long night. When you take a look at your watch at eight o’clock and know that you’re stuck in one spot until two in the morning, nothing but the dirty walls of long abandoned Turkish-built apartments to watch, buildings that by definition have no activity, no one coming or going, no lights in the windows, nothingness hiding no-one-ness, when you make that realization about the fate of your night, a creeping sense of gloom makes its way over your heart. Even the darkest of surroundings, like my abandoned square, take a turn for the worse.
But all isn’t despair here in Mouse, or in a long guard shift in general. Even if you’re only passively interested in matters of architecture and history, you’ll be forced to examine every single window, noting the detailed carvings in the stone sills and frames, and the inscriptions gracing archways and columns. The Turks, even during the twilight years of their empire, didn’t seem to lack enthusiasm for beautifying their buildings. Of a much later time, though probably a decade-old in the least, Yasser Arafat stares out at me from a discolored, tattered election poster peeling from a barricaded shop door. There is much to keep me busy here.
I heard a child shout from the opening to the main street, and I quickly turned around to assess who was approaching. You see, that part of the street, because it leads directly to the ancient Jewish Quarter, is a Jewish-only path. If you knew how many times, and how recently, there have been massacres along these shared Arab and Jewish streets, you wouldn’t feel so bad about limiting one small side street’s use either. Either way, the child was a young Jewish boy on a bike, his black yarmulke nearly flying off his head as he speed my way. In his hand was a paper plate.
“What’s up,” I ask. “What’ve you got there?”
He came to a skidding stop next to me. Standing on his bike pedals so he’d approach my above-average height, he held out the plate covered in clear wrap. It was full of grilled chicken wings, and even a breast that looked twice as big as anything I’d ever received in the army’s dining halls. I invited him to eat with me, since it was more than I could handle by myself.
“No, that’s ok” he replied. “I just ate. Hey, where’s that French kid? I was talking to him earlier, and he told me that he’d come by and bring me an army wallet he wasn’t using.”
“Oh, Shai? Yeah, I would forget about that. I saw him give it to a kid this morning. You guys are always trying to get stuff off us!”
I expected him to look away in disappointment, but these settler kids are tougher than nails. You can’t walk down the street without them surrounding you, asking for a watch cover, an insignia embroidered wallet, dog tags, or some other army paraphernalia. I slipped off my old watch cover, one I made myself by stitching an old IDF patch onto some black, stretchy fabric, and handed it over. He smiled, stuffed it in his pocket, and watched me start on the delicious, slightly burnt chicken wings. Changing his mind, he also grabbed a piece.
A number of minutes later, while ravenously enjoying the food, I decided to find out more about my unexpected yet welcomed company. “What’s your name” seemed like a good enough start.
“Yosef.” He turned back to his wing.
“Ah, cool name. I’m Danny. Nice to meet you.” He smiled again, and naturally turned back to eating. He had soft features, like a rounded chin and faint cheekbones. A peppering of small brown freckles evoked innocence, and I couldn’t imagine him being anything but. I studied his dark brown, straight hair, which was recently cut and neatly ruffled from the wind. Being that he is an orthodox Jew, he had those strange sidelocks, but like many kids, he tucked them behind his ears. Not shame, just the habit of an active boy. He was still sitting on his bike, but now he had both feet firmly on the ground, rocking back and forth. I wished I was sitting too, but it’s forbidden and you never know who is coming round to check on you.
We both finished a wing at the same time, and being that there was only one left, I offered it to him. He refused, but I made him eat it. “If you want to grow up to be big like me, you better eat that wing. Lots of protein.” It didn’t take much encouragement after he sized me up, probably imagining being 15 and my height. Yosef ate the final piece of chicken just as quickly as the first one, only as growing boys can. As soon as he finished, he wiped his hands together, trying to get the grease off. Realizing that that wouldn’t work, he turned on his bike and said he’d be back.
I watched him peddle furiously off around the corner, the strings of his tzitzit from his shirt flying in the wind behind him. Wondering where he ran off to, I returned my attention to the square. Between two of the buildings in the northwest corner there is a turnstile gate leading from the Arab souk (market). Only one specific Arab family is allowed to enter this square from that corner, or from any direction at all, and I even had a laminated list of about twenty permitted individuals. I wondered if any of them would come, and to what degree of sternness I should present to unidentified visitors. My feet led me to the dark corner, with its recessed gate and alley underneath a domed roof. I entered the nook and rested my hands on the cold iron. Spying through the entrance, all I could see were more dark corners of another tiny alley, with a dingy bend only fifty feet ahead. Not a soul in sight.
“Danny! Hey!” Yosef called me again out of my pondering mind as he bore down on me from the far street. “What are you doing?”
I stepped away from the turnstile and walked across the small square to where he stopped. He had brought us wet wipes to clean the chicken grease from our hands, as well as a large bottle of Coca-Cola and plastic cups. I smiled at my young friend. He didn’t even notice my appreciation, and just started drinking, but only after he poured me a cup and placed it on my cement guard block.
“Where do you live,” I asked.
He simply lifted his hand and pointed over my shoulder in the general direction of the Jewish residences near our base. Though he was a good kid, he certainly didn’t speak much. I was determined to hear his opinion on life here in al-Madina al-Muqaddasah, so I kept pushing to start a conversation. Eventually he would open up, I assured myself. I took another sip of soda and went straight in.
“So, what is it like living so close to the Arabs? Do you guys ever have problems?”
“Yeah, we get in fights sometimes.”
“Who starts them?”
“You start them, don’t you,” I teased him.
“No! I only finish them.” He looked at me straight in the eyes, and something about that led me to believe that he wasn’t just acting tough.
“OK. I hope you don’t get into trouble doing that. Seriously though,” changing the tone, “is it ever like you guys are minding your own business and the Arab kids just start attacking you all?”
“Not really.” He had begun pacing the area, with his hands in his pocket. He scraped the heel of his shoe on a loose brick in the wall, getting some imagined dirt off. Maybe a nervous habit. “If there’s a fight,” he continued without lifting his eyes from his shoes, “you know it’s coming. It always happens when we’re in their part of town, or right along the roads where they walk.”
“You know why it doesn’t happen in your neighborhood, right?”
“What about them?”
“We guard your neighborhood.”
“Oh, yeah. I guess.” I knew that he already realized this, but I was just interested at this point to see just how much they notice our presence. Really, to see if they appreciate the protection that we give, no questions asked. Twenty-four hours a day, three hundred sixty five days a year. He didn’t seem interested.
“What are you up to right now? Why aren’t you at home? Aren’t your parents worried about you, out in this city biking the streets at night?” I thought about the numerous plaques along the streets, saying this family was shot here, or this kid was beaten to death there.
“What do you mean? No one stays at home at night. My friends are at your base right now giving out doughnuts and bags of candy. Tonight is a party at my school for my class, so I’m going to that in a few minutes. There’s gonna be cake and soda and all types of stuff. I’ll bring you more if you want?”
“No, no thanks. I’m full. What grade are you in?”
“Obviously a religious school, right?”
“Let me guess... your dad is a rabbi?”
“Yeah!” Animated, he asked how I knew.
“Just a feeling.”
Though I got him to open up, I wasn’t sure I was really getting that unique picture into the life of a 14-year-old Jewish kid living in the midst of a hostile Arab population. One versus a few hundred thousand. Shouldn’t there be some great perspective, some revealing aspect of his life that would allow me to understand just what he goes through on a daily basis in his struggle for normality? Is it all just chicken wings, soda, religious parents, and fun school parties on a Wednesday night? What is the impact of the conflict on this still innocent young participant?
But before I could get to the bottom of it all, before I really learned anything at all, Yosef jumped on his bike and told me that he had to get to his party. I wished him well, thanked him for the food again, and watched as he zoomed as fast as his lanky legs could peddle. I dropped my head and studied the pavement, wondering when it was paved last. Probably before the Second Intifadah. I bet people lived in these buildings before then. That big rock next to the Mouse post, you think an Arab youth threw that at the guard standing here ten years ago?
I don’t know how many hours I passed letting my mind go in these directions. Left. Right. Downwards and skywards. Architecture, history, religion. War. I hear Thailand is great in December. This Yosef kid, he seemed happy. Am I happy? When did it get so cold? I should have brought my gloves. Stupid. Facebook. How is it that I finished college three and a half years ago? I wish I could shoot that flickering streetlamp. What a terrible sign to have at a guard post. In Memory Of Corporal ---, Murdered In Action Here In 2003.
The turnstile’s clicking snapped me out of my stream of consciousness. I instinctively pulled my hand out of my warm pocket and squeezed the grip of my Tavor rifle, placing it and myself in the low and ready. Only one family is allowed through that gate in the northwest corner, and it’s dark as hell over there. Who or what was going to come out was left to my imagination, and it seemed that hours passed before anything emerged. The moon shifted positions above, illuminating the gray, wispy clouds rolling in the raven sky too quickly for reality. I was looking through the looking glass. Silence. Black, billowing silence.
Out of the shadows emerged a small, imperceptible figure. I waited a second for the streetlamp to illuminate the subject. As he entered the light, I instantly scanned for anything at all suspicious. He was small in stature, but his face was that of a young teen. Fifteen, maybe. Dark jeans and a dark shirt with Hebrew writing, black, greasy hair, and the complexion of the Middle East. Arab. Forbidden.
“STOP,” I yelled in Arabic. He froze in place, with his hands open to the side. “Lift your shirt.” He did, and I saw that he wasn’t armed, at least in the most common spot. “Come here.”
He approached my position, and I walked sideways as to steer him under the dim yellow light from above. He looked like a normal kid, but I could distinguish some sense of sadness on his face. The typical nervousness, anger, or discomfort was missing, and I could tell that he was familiar with soldiers. I suppose more than one had stopped him before.
“You’re new here, aren’t you,” he asked in Hebrew.
“Give me your ID, please.” He handed over the green Palestinian Authority plastic cardholder, and looked me in the eyes while I checked his name against the laminated list of permissible Arab residents. Yusuf. Fifteen years old. Son of the owner. “Have a nice night,” I said as I gestured for him to pass.
“Thank you. You’re new here? I know all the soldiers that guard around us. Where is that French guy? He spoke a little bit of Arabic.”
“Yeah, I’m just filling in for another group. I don’t know where he is.”
“Oh, what’s his name?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“OK.” I thought he would leave then, noticing my distance with him. He just stared around though, inspecting the same buildings and litter on the street that I was just minutes before. I watched him closely, wondering what he was thinking about. I’ve often experienced chatty locals, but something about him was different. Usually the chatty ones are overly friendly, buttering you up for various reasons – nefarious at times, unclear at others.
“Which apartment do you live in,” I asked. I pointed to the windows of the complex to my left, noticing that only one had its light on. He lifted his finger up in a vague direction, but either way I noted that there were no lights on in that area. He smiled at me.
“Did you learn Hebrew in school? It’s pretty good,” I said, offering a compliment.
“No. I learned on the street, just talking to you guys.”
“Yes. Just chatting. What unit are you in?”
“I can’t tell you that,” I replied. I didn’t suspect that he was gathering intel for some enemy, but I continued to keep him at a safe distance. Everyone knows that we’re Golani, and everyone knows our reputation, but my new face must have been a point of curiosity for him. He asked several other questions that I wouldn’t answer, but my silence didn’t discourage him.
“What are you doing walking around at night?”
“I dunno,” Yusuf replied. He looked at the ground, not shifting positions or moving at all, simply fastened in place like an invisible stake was pinning him to the ground.
“Don’t you have school in the morning?”
“I don’t go to school.”
“I dunno.” Yusuf raised his eyes to mine. He asked if I’d be around in an hour, and I evaded the question with a “maybe.” I watched as he turned around, a dark figure in the night exuding a sadness that echoed the gloomy, long-forgotten old walls surrounding him. As he dragged himself slowly back towards that abysmal corner, hands in his pockets and head slightly downwards, I called out to him and asked where he was going.
“To find my brother. If you see a small boy named Aswad, tell him Yusuf is looking for him.”
And with that he was gone, and I was left wondering if he was even real or if an apparition visited me on my long night in the dark. I had to check the list again to see if there really was a Yusuf that lived in that apartment. If it weren’t for a name printed and laminated in my hands, I truly would have thought I had met a ghost. His presence was so heavy and full of dejection, an unidentified melancholy, and the air was left stale and sour in his wake.
I watched diligently for the next person to cross from the dark side, but no one came. As the minutes passed, I found myself longing for Yusuf’s little brother to appear, this Aswad. What a name, I thought. Why isn’t a child at home late at night in the middle of the week? Yusuf seemed friendly, but what was that sense of desperation I noticed in him? What’s wrong with him? All the Arab versus Jews, Palestinians versus Israelis crap went out the door for me right then. I saw a boy that did not seem ok, and I wanted to help.
Remembering his question of whether or not I’d still be guarding in an hour, I began hoping for Yusuf’s return. An hour passed, but I was still alone in this yellow square. Leaning against the concrete barricade of my guard post, my eyes were glued to the gate in the far corner. An hour and fifteen minutes. I heard the crunching of a sheet of aluminum siding that was on the ground next to the turnstile, and with that I stood upright and waited for a dark horse.
Yusuf materialized from the mysterious pall. With his hands in his pockets he approached me. I told him to show me his hands, trying not to let down my guard with this unknown person. After I was confident that he was unarmed, I let my inquisitiveness get the better of me.
“What’s going on, man?” I was itching with the need to figure out this shadow of a child, so unlike the other fifteen-year-old I had met earlier.
“What do you mean?”
He shrugged his shoulders, and let out a sigh while looking to his right. “Nothing.”
“Why don’t you just go home?”
He sighed again, obviously hiding something. “How much does it cost to get pizza delivered to here?”
“Why,” I asked naively. He was so elusive and indeterminable that I felt like a lost boy myself.
“Can you order it for me? They won’t deliver it to me.”
“I can’t do that,” I replied regretfully. “Where are your parents? Tell them to feed you.”
“My dad is in the hospital,” he let go in a wave of anguish. “No one is at home.”
“Well,” reaching for ways to help, “isn’t there something in your fridge at home? Just make a sandwich at least.”
“I don’t have a key, and besides, there’s nothing inside the house.”
I remembered something interesting that I saw on the list of residents for the apartment. At the top of the sheet was the name of the father, with “master of the house” as his status. Below his name were there female names, all of which were given the status of “wife.” I was unsure what that meant, but my speculation was about to be confirmed.
“Where’s your mom?”
“I don’t know, somewhere in town.”
“And the two other women... who are they?”
“My dad’s other wives. We all live together.”
At this point I became angry, not at the fact that his father was a polygamist. That, as a matter of fact, is more than normal in this area. Just about every man I’ve met seems to have multiple wives, and who knows how many children. Rather, my anger was directed against the fact that this boy had so many people to care for him, and yet he had absolutely no one. He was all-alone in a crowded life.
“You’re telling me,” I started indignantly, “that no one has fed you or taken care of you and it’s already almost midnight? You should go to your neighbors,” and I pointed at the lit window on the first floor.
“And why don’t you go to the international aid organization and tell them to help you?”
“They’re weird too. And pathetic. They treat you like you’ve got cancer or something.”
I had no way to help this boy, nothing at all that I could do for him, and yet with all my soul I just wanted to feed him and give him a safe place to sleep. If I was in his shoes, alone at fifteen and in a sinister city full of wanna-be terrorists and religious fanatics, I think I would just want to cry. What other option would you have? And yet, Yusuf, this doe-eyed, soft-spoken child seemed strong and resolute, despite his obvious frustration and grief. My guess is that this is not the first night he’s been locked out with no where to turn.
Yusuf just put his hands in his pockets and looked around, sighed, and told me that he was going to go look for his brother again. I advised him to look at any relative’s houses, or friends of his brother. I wanted to do anything for him, really anything to give him some security, but I was impotent and entirely powerless. With my assault rifle and grenades, bulletproof armor and knowledge of how to use it all, I stood still like a dumb statue. No way to help. Yusuf turned and left, shoulders sagging and head pointed to the ground, and my anger boiled over.
Instead of waiting now hoping to find his brother, with the intention of helping them get home, I waited ready to lash out at one of his “mothers.” I knew that they would come eventually, or so I prayed, and I prepared myself for battle.
Shortly after Yusuf leaving, and luckily before my wrath burned me whole from within, two women, a baby, and a small boy appeared at the gate. It almost seemed like a play, with one character exiting the stage only for another to come striding on, with an entirely different atmosphere radically changing the scene. There they came, these mothers, nonchalant and blithe as if the world was in perfect order. After the routine security check, I began my condemnation.
“You know Yusuf, the 15-year-old that lives with you all?”
“Yes, yes,” the woman holding the baby replied in a heavy accent, smiling, ever smiling.
“Well he’s been looking all over for you guys all night. He’s locked out, and he still hasn’t eaten! It’s midnight!”
“Oh,” she replied thoughtfully, and then resumed her smiling. “Ok! Thank you!” She began to walk away, but I stopped her.
“How could you let this kid live like that? He’s been over here twice searching all over the market and the streets. He doesn’t have a key, did you know that? He doesn’t go to school, and he learned Hebrew on his own. Obviously he’s smart. You know that you’re responsible for him? What’s he going to do next, start robbing people for food money? And then you know what happens? I come knocking on the door, with this gun,” and I showed her my gun, “and we take good Yusuf away in the middle of the night. You want that? I’m serious, make him a sandwich now so when he gets back he’ll finally eat!”
She smiled like an idiot, but I knew good and well that she spoke Hebrew. Her face gave her away during certain parts, like the robbing comment, but nothing could peel away her fake, obsequious grin. I hated her, and would have liked nothing more than to have been that Israeli soldier I read about in the Arab press, the one I’ve never met but at times like this envy.
There was nothing more that I could say to her. She didn’t care, and no sermon from a hated Israeli would change that. I let them go, feeling as dejected and disappointed in humankind as ever. Yusuf didn’t come back that night, even as I left my shift at 2am. I wondered where he went, if he ever ate or went to bed hungry. I wondered if maybe he smoked a bummed cigarette to blunt the hunger. Or maybe he stole from a 24-hour convenience store, if there even is one here. And what about sleep? Did he sleep at all, or maybe he found a dark corner to nap in.
My mind went in all directions, but most of all it went back to Yosef, the normal Jewish boy I met earlier in the night.
I remembered watching him throw a small rock at a road sign twenty yards away, carefree and smiling when he nearly hit the cat he was actually aiming for. I looked down at my clothes, the bulletproof armor, the vest, the gun, the grenade tucked safely away on my chest. I looked at the pillar of glazed rocks that I was leaning on, and the engraved plaque resting on the top. In Memory Of Corporal ---, Killed In Action Here In 2003.
His life, for him, is as normal as anyone else’s in the Western World. For only a handful of families, hundreds of soldiers from all branches of the army patrol his streets. My goal, and the IDF’s stated goal, is to maintain the peace here in this very specific part of a much larger city. For Yosef, the rabbi’s son, that relatively tall, brown-haired 14-year-old with a fast bike, life is defined not by the Arabs living around him, but rather by all the things that define any one of our own lives. Food, family, friends, and hobbies. He just happens to have guys like me all around him. We don't interfere in his life, his comings and goings, the way his peer Yusuf experiences. Jewish Yosef simply lives as he wishes. He probably hardly notices us.
And this is the bottom line. He’s got the good life. Us soldiers, on the other hand, we're the ones putting it on the line. While he enjoys nights with his classmates, we're standing on a lonely street corner next to a plaque talking about the last soldier to die there. But we’re happy to do it. Actually, we ask to do it. Why? We know that Yosef and kids like him are growing up in loving families, families that go about their life in a normal way. They talk about morals and ethics, soccer and the future. They want to live, and they want their children to be safe. You feel good protecting humans like that from harm’s way. You feel like you’re protecting freedom; the freedom of the innocent.
Yusuf, I can’t help but assume, is prime fodder for some terrorist organization. Poor parenting, which I have seen so much of in Arab society, or at least in the Arab cities and towns I have operated in, must be the surefire route to encouraging an otherwise normal kid to do the dumbest things. Let’s imagine that Yusuf didn’t sleep in a dark corner that night, but rather happened across some guys wearing kefiyyas around their necks. That cigarette he bummed? It might sound contrived, but who says he didn’t get it off just another of the types that we have arrested in weekly terrorism-related operations.
Maybe my imagination is getting the better of me. Maybe I’m forgetting all those families out there, even financially comfortable ones, that brainwash their children into a culture of hate. A culture of terrorism and martyrdom. Maybe so, but that’s not what I’m concerned about. As innocent as those kids are, I’m more heartbroken over the mature, independent ones, like Yusuf, who are only really interested in leading normal lives. Like eating regularly, or having a bed. Were I to have a way to fight for his freedom, in the way that I fight for the freedom of his neighbors.
The people that define this conflict are innocents like Yusuf. I don't care about the terrorists, though they are humans and they have their reasons and purpose for existence. I don't care about those that harbor the terrorists, no matter their reasons or justifications. I care about those kids that have nothing at all to do with the fight. The Yusuf that lives in a society that will not help him, a society where a boy can have 3 mothers and not one of them around to feed him.
What I can’t help but come to is how stupid and senseless this conflict is. At the end of the day, I understand why there is a bomb planted on the Gaza fence almost daily. I understand why masked gunmen opened fire on soldiers standing guard next to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. I understand why Gilad Shalit was taken captive, and I know why he still hasn’t been released. None of that is senseless to me.
What I will never understand is the capacity for indifference I’ve witnessed here. At more than a specific level, don’t those attackers realize what their crimes will do to the innocents around them? The children that used to walk the street where the soldier was killed – they have to deal with all manner of heightened security procedures, and endure even greater military interference in their lives. Certainly they don’t play so freely in the street since we now stand there, watching. And what about Hamas’ terrorist rule of Gaza, which has only caused suffocation for the population. How many Yusuf’s live in that God-forsaken strip of land, most of which haven’t even seen a Jew in their life? For what are they suffering? The real question is, for whom are they suffering?
The mistakes and crimes of both sides are unpardonable, but the indifference of the terrorists towards their own children is beyond understanding. I hate to pile blame on the Arab side, but I’ve seen too much wrong in that society. Have you seen pre-teen children smoking like veterans? Or what about 10-year-old boys walking to town with their dad – right past the open school? And a toddler on his family’s porch playing with a toy AK-47, in this city, in this west bank of the Jordan River, during this never-ending conflict.
My heart is heavy with these things I have seen. When I hear people ask if there will ever be a resolution, if the cycle of violence will ever stop, I see those kids. They quickly lose their innocence here, from parents that don’t know how to say “love your neighbor,” and most importantly, they don’t know how to show it. And the Jews that celebrate Baruch Goldstein’s terrorist act, they’re no different. They are the inverse to the converse. What’s my political stance, I’ve been asked. Not this, certainly not any of that.
I believe in innocence. But over here, it’s sometimes hard to find.
אני מסכימה-זה מחזור בלי סוף. כל הילדים (פלסטיני או ישראלי) צריכים אהבה.
But you are only doing your job - I wish you only the best.
I am nearly speechless. Excellent post.
"At more than a specific level, don’t those attackers realize what their crimes will do to the innocents around them?" I ask that question to you, who attacked first in 1948.
You are an occupier. Yes, it must be uncomfortable at times. But never as uncomfortable as it is to be occupied.
I hope you read the Mondoweiss blog sometime.
(Anonymous 1 - I'm curious why you posted that part in Hebrew.
Anonymous 2 - for crying out loud, figure out your history before you come posting here.)
Danny - Amazing, awesome, wonderful post. I am so so glad I come to read your blog. You do so much good to not only stand guard in the dark, but to write. Thank you.
I'm wondering if that rotten woman you lectured on the street went home and yelled at Yusuf for "complaining" to you... seems like the sort of thing she'd do based on your description of her...
but I think you couldn't have done a better thing than you did. He'll remember who cared about him - kids don't forget stuff like that.
Kol hakavod man.
And about indifference, eh, well, that's the beginning and heart of evil, isn't it? That's where it begins, so of course it's there when the worst surfaces.
Danny - Wow!
This is one of the most thoughtful and genuinely meaningful comments I have read on the 'matsav' (and you know I've read a fair bit!).
Amazing mate. It is being posted on my Facebook immediately.
Again, you don't know me, but I've been following for a bit now, and this is by far the best post I've read. Heartbreaking and beautifully written. I have tears in my eyes.
With your permission, I'd like to reblog this--it's brilliant.
I have heard stories like this before from other soldiers and I think it's important for these stories to be told. It's important to point out the shades of gray in the situation because too many times people - especially those who have very little knowledge and no direct experience - feel that the situation is black and white, wrong and right. And is simply isn't.
(p.s. we met at Paul's at a Shabbat dinner, but I was at the other end of the table getting my ear talked off by another guest. Also, do you know Benji Lovitt?)
Certainly, one of the most intense things you've ever posted. I really don't have quite the right words to express how incredibly visceral and important this felt to me, how invested I've suddenly become in the kids of both sides of the conflict. These are the stories that matter, that truly show the beauty and flaws of the matsav. Simply outstanding. Thanks for sharing this with us.
reminds me of an elie wiesel quote: “ The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference."
as always danny, your perspectives are heartrending and inspiring, and your writing is incredible. every post not only makes me feel like i'm there, but like i WANT to be there.
one question -- how good is your Hebrew now? I assume you talked to everyone in Hebrew, so are you basically fluent?
oh, and great picture by the way. where's the gun?
wow..... Iam a Brit living in Nazareth...my husband is a christian Arab.....please don't tar all arabs with the same brush....as i was reading this post i was trying to find something to be outraged by!!!! unfortunately....i could'nt!!!!!!! because sadly you are right.........
your whole blog and experience in the idf has led you up to this point... this is phenomenal.
This post is really something, thanks for sharing it.
I have a question, sorry, but it mays seem dumb. You mentioned an "Israeli soldier I read about in the Arab press, the one I’ve never met but at times like this envy."
What is it about? do you have a lin or something?
Its good to see that you are writing again at your potential.
Probably one of the most powerful of all your posts... Politics is politics, but a true understanding of conflict spurs from the effect upon or deterrence of daily life.
I'm sure there are many Yusuf's who eventually get influenced by terrorism, much in the same way that unloved youth get influenced by street gangs. Perhaps outside of Israel things are different,though statistically alot of Islamic terrorists come from wealth i.e the foiled bomber who attempted to blow up a plane on Christmas 2009.
Dani, that was the best post i've ever read from your blog. Truly.
Danny, I am deeply touched by your post. I felt your helplessness and emotions as if I was with you. Yes, I cried throughout most of the blog. This was the most emotionally connected writing I've read from you. Now I feel like you and I are on the same page regarding this human tragedy. Don't doubt your ability to have an influence on mankind. Love, Mom
I'm glad you took my advice and started writing more interesting and well articulated blog posts. Kudos to you!
Ilana said ‘people…feel that the situation is black and white, wrong and right. And is simply isn't.’
Ilana, you are incorrect when you say that the situation in Israel concerning the Jews and the muslims is not black and white. It is the epitome of black and white.
The God of the Jews tells them to take care of their families and each other. So they do.
The god of the muslims has no interest in families or child-rearing. So they do not take care of each other or their children.
The Jews are not aggressive, the muslims are. The IDF is there to protect everyone. But what are the chances that they will have to protect the muslims against the Jews? Very low. What are the chances they have to protect the Jews against the muslims? Very high.
There is a high likelihood that Yosef will grow up, serve in the IDF, get a job, get married, have kids, pay taxes and become a highly functioning part of society.
There is also a high likelihood that Yusuf will not serve in the IDF, get a job, pay taxes or be a credit to his country in any way. He will get married, have lots of kids and live on the aid provided by UNRWA. The chances are also great the Yusuf will be contacted by various terrorist’s organizations. He will join one because he has nothing better to do.
Yosef will never consider himself a victim, Yusuf will always consider himself a victim.
Regardless of the black picture painted by Danny regarding Yusuf, it is Yosef and only Yosef that needs our support. Yusuf is a lost cause, Yosef in not.
Ilana, the situation is indeed black and white. Contrary to your opinion, my conclusions are not based on ignorance or lack of knowledge, but on cold hard facts.
It is warm-hearted people such as yourself that want to save everybody, that insists on mudding the waters. We all would like to save everybody, but the hard truth is the muslims do not want to be saved. They are truly their own worse enemies and there is nothing we can do about it except recognize the facts for what they are. Black and white, good verses evil. No gray areas here.
Sincerely - SarahSue
Danny, I am always proud of what you do and who you are, but writings like this one make me even more so. You have grown into an amazing and smart man capable of not only identifying but fighting injustices. You see the bigger picture in the smallest things. I am extremely lucky to call you my cousin.
So how many more years do you have left? And will want to make the next step to the officer?
Also i'm a fan of Krav Maga, to what level do they teach you that stuff and do you have any gruesome stories about combatives training in the IDF? (I heard golani is especially crazy for that kind of stuff)
btw i read that one post already about how u thought he said, "did you flinch?" When he really said, "did you try and hit me?"
Do you have any other stories?
adi - thanks, reblog away, with links of course.
ilana - i do know benji
daniman - thanks, and yeah, i suppose i'm fluent. i am not awesome considering i've only learned hebrew formally for 5 months, but living here and doing the army obviously does a lot. i suppose my vocab is lacking, though i'm pretty conscientious of grammar.
rafael - i was just referring to the image of the israeli soldier: brutal, vicious, violent, etc. i just was angry, and you wish you could sometimes be like that, like the image the world has of soldiers with my role in the army. you just want to be vicious sometimes against those that are so messed up (and you see a lot of messed up stuff in gaza and the west bank).
jordan - thank you! we'll have to grab a drink someday and catch up.
oren - i've got 6 months left, with the option to sign another year on that (no chance i'm doing that though). no officer's course, no thanks!
in terms of krav maga - the intensity is based on the unit. golani special forces, as with all special forces, really get the crap kicked out of them in hand-to-hand training. we had about 6 months of training, nothing so crazy. i don't feel like i can beat up someone who took karate or anything. but we learned how to fight, how to use our bodies as weapons, etc. we certainly got kicked around hard, especially the first month, but i actually wish it was more intense in terms of fighting.
anonymous - i'm supposing you're also oren - nothing as good as that. we get hit a lot, and i could tell some stories about wooden sticks being broken over us, but it's nothing too crazy.
Oh, and thank you to everyone who posted such nice comments! Feel free to argue against the haters for me - אין לי כוח
Good stuff. Stay safe.
thats awesome man. If i stay and commit U.S Army then I'll learn combatives too.
It would be awesome to be taught how to kick the living sh*t out of someone.
I'm sure you Golani guys would love to kick some ass, especially those that deserve it. And hopefully, at the very least, teach 'them' a basic and fundamental lesson not to mess with the IDF because the IDF will tear sh*t up.
Keep on writing man and thanks for the awesome insight.
I'm sure the IDF could use officers like you. So, what are your plans after the IDF, given that you are finished in 6 months? You still have to do reserves though, right?
i reread the story twice and wow inspiring as always. With your permission i will copy and past the link of this blog to my facebook. thank you again for the insight stay safe.
This is warm and all but completely bias. It is all one sided and untrue. You make it seem that Arabs are animals and don't care for their children and are just interested in how many wives they have. I also think Yusuf's mother loves her son as does any parent and was probably just frightened from an israeli solider who is fully equipped with body armor and holding an AK 47. Also, you mention poor parenting? That is complete nonsense in that Arab parents like any other parents want the best for their children, but it is kind of hard to achieve those means when there are check points every couple miles and their lives are always at risk. You also mentioned the 14 year old jewish boy as "normal" and just wanting to live a regular life in contrast with Yusuf who is neglected based on the reasoning he was looking for his brother. What makes you think his mothers weren't at the hospital visiting their husband who was probably tortured by Israeli soldiers? This is a very obvious pro israeli trying to manipulate his audience in thinking Jews are the victims and Arabs are savages. As much as I tried to be inspired by your story Danny, I was just soo drawn back because of how one sided and in accurate your statements were. The entirety of your story consisted of blanket statements and generalizations, which takes a way from your creditability. Maybe, you should try not to put all the blame on the Arab side to give your "story" some validity. Your a good writer which makes your story compelling, but just as smart as you are, your ignorance was displayed. Have a nice day.
Actually it is true. From someone who worked in the region (mainly Arab states), they treat their kids like workhorses (except the elite). And I'm guessing it's worse in this particular area because of the glorification of suicide bombers on every corner. Besides, obviously the kid wasn't scared of him (or the other French IDF soldier). You are clearly brainwashed, thinking IDF soldiers just torture for amusement.
I suggest you look at some of those Hamas shows for kids, or enjoy some of those "heroic suicide bomber" posters of 14 year olds plastered on walls throughout many Arab towns.
Oh, and AK 47? That's the weapon of choice for your Muslim brethren, not the IDF.
ok.....maybe there were some sweeping statements....i would have said the same before my experience of living here.I used to get really angry about the negative things i heard said about muslim arabs from both the christian and jewish sides...being a naive brit i thought some of the things said were absolutely outrageous......but after having lived here in Nazareth for 13 year and experiencing the behaviour of most (NOT ALL!!!!!)muslim arabs i have to agree with Danny....and he did say at the end that jewish extremists were just as bad.I really felt that he was trying to be as impartial as he could...under the circumstances...forgive me for my terrible typing!!!
Did you consider the fact that maybe that family did not have enough food to have an evening meal?
I dont think so.
You sat and wrote a story based on your preconceived notions about the circumstances of that family.
Put yourself in the shoes of that Palestinian boy and his mothers, can you even begin to imagine how you would have intimidated them.
You have even condemend people like me before we have said anything by calling us haters.
Which says alot about your attitude towards anything and anyone who does not agree with your obviously narrow view on life.
Haha, davinia, your conception of the area is way off. It's not Africa were people starve to death, the area has plenty of food. It may not be a luxurious place where they live, but obtaining food is not a problem. And I gather the Arab family he is talking about is actually doing OK .They basically have their own private entrance, remember the names on the list, thus they are owners of some business/property there. And all this "intimidation" stuff is funny, clearly no one was scared of him, they might have not liked him, but no one feared the 6'4 giant, especially the kid.
Ahem. Locking your child out of the house all day in a "dangerous area" is somehow the Israelis' fault?
How is that anything BUT neglect?
Keep safe my friend! You're in my heart and prayers! May the LORD watch over you always. I'm in america..but I feel my purpose is Israel. One day God willing I will be there to serve my country-ISRAEL. Long live the state of Israel..and much peace and love to my brothers and sisters there! G-d bless you.
so dude, hows the check from google, is it like enough for gas money, food money, or what? (advertisements)
Because im condsidering opening up a blog of my own.
why does is seem like golani 12 is always getting battered up?
(what happened last friday)
Are they basically like the Marines or something, where they are the first to go into the hot spot.
They aren't getting battered up. War happens, and people get hurt. But don't forget that they also killed the terrorists, and in my experience from when I did the army in the 90's, they kill a lot more than the news reports. Trust me on that.
But you guessed it, they are the front line of it all. Of course they're going to be targeted. They always get their man though.
This "He’s got the good life. Us soldiers, on the other hand, we're the ones putting it on the line." is only part of the story. Too many civilians have also been put not only on the line but into the ground, including my neighbor's brother Aaron Gross, no-quite-one year old Shahevet and others. But very good writing.
great piece of writing.. I really loved reading it! Keep on writing more of that good stuff :-)
Now, to all those arguing that the "Yusufs" are a lost cause, but the "Yosefs" are not: Danny never said that all Arabs raise their children in this way. If this is the only message you take with you from this article, you should read it again. And if you haven't gotten it then, read it another time – until you get it.
If at all, both are lost causes. Because Yosef will never fully understand why his arab neighbor Yusuf has to live like a second class citizen. They will never play football together or share the same classroom. If Yosef wants to visit his aunt or uncle in the next village, he will not have to cross three checkpoints – he'll just take the highway. His father might come home angry about bad business due to the economic downturn or the EU not allowing for imports from settlers - but not due to a lockdown of a whole part of the city. His older cousins will tell him about university and the IDF - not about the random arrests and the occasional beatings because of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
He'll never learn to understand his neighbor. And that's partly because he has all the things Danny described so vivantly!
On the other hand: Yusuf. Great, so he and his family are at least allowed to enter their houses after crossing their own personal checkpoint, which only was put there in the first place because some "western looking" squatters came to the house opposite the street claiming it their own. Soccer in front of the house his family has lived in since generations? Forbidden. Security risk. Bigger birthday parties with his buddies at his place? No way. To many unknown faces, says the guy with the gun and the body armor. Finishing Highschool? Sure, says his dad, but only if the business is running fine. University in Ramallah or even Tel-Aviv? Hell, no! Only with special permission! And after traveling three times the amount his neighbor Yosef would for the same distance.
Now, are his parents to blame for the shortcomings in raising and feeding him? Sure, they are as well. It's not excusable! But it has nothing to due with them being muslim. It has something to do with poverty, lack of education and having no future.
So, what's the result of both growing up like this? In the end, ten years later, both Yusuf and Yosef will be adults, both raised without compassion for the other side. Both will be sure they are the victims. Both will think they have any right to think that way. Both will think the other side is totally wrong. And both will instill the same stupid prejudice and hate into their children, handing forth the flame of the middle-east conflict to the next generation...
and both will tell their sons the other one is a lost cause.
Unless, there are more guys like Danny, putting things into perspective for both of them – so that one day, when their dad's tell them the same bullshit they've been told by their dads before, Yusuf and Yosef start to ask them the right questions and seek to find the right answers!
Amazing post, well-written too! Made me feel like I was there, in a way. I've definitely gone through similar trains of thought on the 'conflict' and it's generally left me feeling lost. It reminded me of when I was in my first year of being Israeli and was looking around for all the answers. Thanks for sharing this! I hope the army is going alright for you.
"nothingness hiding no-one-ness"... you're a genius, Danny.
I like your prose. You do an amazing job of describing the soldier life.
"Dark jeans and a dark shirt with Hebrew writing, black, greasy hair, and the complexion of the Middle East. Arab. Forbidden." -beautiful.
"What I will never understand is the capacity for indifference I’ve witnessed here"
Thanks, Israeli Adler. This kid had so much darkness surrounding his life, so I created dark imagery to match. I'm just a simple metaphorical man.
good stuff man.
i wonder what my lonely nights on a post will be like in Givati.
Boring as hell followed by moments of sheer terror - enjoy it!
Powerful stuff man. I just happened across this blog. I am thinking of making aliyah next year and I am reading some of these lone soldier blogs to get a sense of what the army is really like.
Nathan - Thanks for your comment. You found the best lone soldier blog out there, so keep reading!
But honestly, no one can tell you what your experience would be like. Every one is different. You might go into a special forces unit, then you'd have a massively different one than I had. Or you might get stuck being a jobnik or artillery or something, and a massively different experience. Or even the exact same unit I was in could be 100% different based on the guys in the platoon. You know what I mean?
Good luck to you.
I've been making my way through your posts the last few days and have been enjoying them. Your perspective is interesting.
This post is the first that has inspired me to comment though. A few things came to mind as I was reading this:
(1) Your approach with the two kids was completely different. You seemed to be free with the Yosef while pretty stern on Yusuf, who at that point had not given you a reason to suspect him of wrongdoing. You told Yosef your name is Danny, and then casually mentioned the name of the French guy, but told Yusuf you couldn't tell him your name. I get why you can't share names for security reasons, but then you shouldn't have told Yosef either. Your overall interactions (as you portrayed them) were friendlier with Yosef than with Yusuf. You were curious about Yosef and what makes him tick, but just berated Yusuf and probably made him feel like shit about things that are outside of his control.
(2) It is common in cultures where men have multiple wives for there to be competition between the wives and tensions between wives and their co-wives' children. The fact that they live in the same household might not have necessarily meant that the woman you spoke to actually saw Yusuf as a son or someone she should care for. As far as she was probably concerned, he's another drain on the probably limited finances of her husband, and she'll want as many of those resources for her own child(ren) as possible. I'm not condoning or condemning the ideology or behavior, just explaining what may have been part of the divide. He doesn't really have three mothers. His father has three wives, all of whom are mothers to their own children.
(3) This paragraph: "And this is the bottom line. He’s got the good life. Us soldiers, on the other hand, we're the ones putting it on the line. While he enjoys nights with his classmates, we're standing on a lonely street corner next to a plaque talking about the last soldier to die there. But we’re happy to do it. Actually, we ask to do it. Why? We know that Yosef and kids like him are growing up in loving families, families that go about their life in a normal way. They talk about morals and ethics, soccer and the future. They want to live, and they want their children to be safe. You feel good protecting humans like that from harm’s way. You feel like you’re protecting freedom; the freedom of the innocent."
I was disappointed by the contrast here, because I thought the comparison you were going to make is that Yosef gets to grow up in a what is essentially a "normal" existence that includes love, family, and comfort, while Yusuf doesn't, instead of the comparison you made between him and yourselves (which is an interesting contrast, just one that I think would be more appropriately made elsewhere)( * with all due respect that this is your blog and you can say whatever you want wherever you want on it.) You make it sound as if Yosef is innocent, and you're protecting his freedom, in contrast to Yusuf. Is he already guilty, and should his freedom and childhood not also be protected (if not by you, then at least by somebody?) He probably also wants to discuss ethics, morals, and soccer.
Not sure where I'm going with all this, but I just found it somewhat alarming that within the course of this story, as you presented it, you were able to flip so quickly from caring and interested to what almost appears to be callous. Especially because you always seemed so conscientious up to this point. I still think you're a good guy, and I'm sure part of it was army training and the fact that you need to have your guard up in potentially tense situations.
I'm firmly on Israel's side, but it's the human story of the other side of it that still tugs at me. Children everywhere deserve to grow up cared for, loved, sheltered, clothed, fed, and free.
Anyways, sorry for the novel. I love your blog, thanks for sharing your journey.
Thanks for your comment. It was very thoughtful. I always appreciated getting these kinds of comments on my posts.
1) I agree with you on one part of this, and that was that there was a different approach to the two kids. Yes, I was more free with Yosef. He is a Jewish Israeli, a future IDF soldier (maybe), and not a potential threat (generally speaking). Yusuf, on the other hand, was a Palestinian and you have to keep your guard up at all times. I was a soldier in one of the most dangerous zones in the West Bank. While I was there, there were murders, shootings, stabbings, bombs, beatings, terrorist plotting, etc etc. Even a 13-year-old boy must be kept at arm's length. Where I really disagree with you, however, is that I berated him and made him feel like shit. If you read my dialogue with him, you'll see that I wasn't mad at him, I didn't yell at him, I didn't dismiss him, I didn't run him off, and I didn't accuse him of anything. Instead, I was mad at his family and it seems to me at least that I was clear about that. You can see that I tried to offer options to him, none of which were suitable, which revealed my own helplessness in the situation. No, I didn't give him hugs and call in to the base to get him a bed and a hot meal, but what could I do? I might have rubbed his situation in his face a bit by showing exasperation over it all, but I was trying to convey the sense of indignation I felt at the time.
I did try to be courteous, I complimented his Hebrew, and engaged him in conversation. I'm not sure I could have done much more. That is the regrettable part of it all.
2) They certainly aren't his mothers. I don't want to criticize their culture, not in the least, but I find it terrible that these women so obviously didn't care for this child. If that was due to competition, I can understand that. But doesn't the Koran teach above all else to provide for women and children, especially orphans, which seemed to be Yusuf's position at the time? I read it, and that was my lay opinion. It was painful to witness the indifference from those who should care, which was the point of this post.
continued in next post...
3) I appreciate your insight into this. Though I think you read too far into it on two counts. First, this was the journal of a combat soldier. My perspective and story was not that of an unbiased, unaligned third-party observer. I was the tip of the sword in the West Bank. I don't blame any soldier for seeing their mission as the innocent against the guilty, or good versus bad. And that's how I wrote this - I protected against attacks on the Jewish community in this city, and so the Jewish people were the innocents, particularly the children.
The second point here that I don't agree with is that I made Yusuf out to be the guilty one. He was not guilty. I slightly regretted making such a bold statement at the time, but what I claim in the end is that his culture is the guilty party. My entire point is that Yusuf is still innocent, but through the neglect and indifference shown towards him by his own house and people, he may become corrupted and ruined. For instance, I wrote:
"As innocent as those kids are, I’m more heartbroken over the mature, independent ones, like Yusuf, who are only really interested in leading normal lives. Like eating regularly, or having a bed. Were I to have a way to fight for his freedom, in the way that I fight for the freedom of his neighbors.
The people that define this conflict are innocents like Yusuf. I don't care about the terrorists, though they are humans and they have their reasons and purpose for existence. I don't care about those that harbor the terrorists, no matter their reasons or justifications. I care about those kids that have nothing at all to do with the fight. The Yusuf that lives in a society that will not help him, a society where a boy can have 3 mothers and not one of them around to feed him."
It was heartbreaking to see a good kid's life thrown away. I don't see any of that as being calloused.
But again thank you for your comment. It's always interesting to reflect back on that period of my life. I wonder what Yusuf does now...
Such a great post. Keep sharing more.
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