First Published in The Guardian, 1989
Most Israelis are ready enough to defend their country against invasion, but soldiers are increasingly torn over suppressing a popular uprising. David Langsam, himself Jewish, took the unusual (and dangerous) step of living among Palestinians in the villages of the occupied West Bank while his nephew, Jerome ben Shlomo, was patrolling the same area with the Israeli army. Jerome, who first visited Israel on holiday after leaving Westminster School, now lives in the country as a new immigrant, an "oleh chadash". Last year he completed his full 30-month term in the Israeli army as a first sergeant in the tank corps serving in the "security zone" and on the Golan Heights. He had had no experience of the Palestinian villages on the West Bank until called up for 28 days "miluim", annual military service this summer, around Kabatiya. It provided an unusual opportunity for David Langsam to compare the two sides of the first Intifada. This is his report.
KABATIYA, a village of about 18,000 people, 45 miles north of Jerusalem, was one of the first places in which a collaborator was executed, earning a 42-day curfew as a result. It is in hilly country, on a main road linking many Arab towns and villages and Israeli settlements.
Soldiers watch Kabatiya from rooftop posts above the main street and from the house highest on the hill looking down on the village. Jeeps and troop carriers, bristling with M-16s, Galil automatic rifles, tear gas and rubber bullet launchers and machine guns, patrol the streets. Children throw stones and are sometimes fired on by soldiers.
At night the village is silent except for the braying of donkeys, the occasional barking dog, the pitter patter of little feet hanging Palestinian flags on electric wires and intermittent hisses, as masked youths spray political graffiti on the walls. It is a "normal" Palestinian village participating in the intifada, resisting Israeli occupation.
So far, 11 youths have been "martyred" - as the Palestinians describe intifada-related deaths - in Kabatiya. I stayed in the nearby village of Kufr Rai, where six children have been killed. Both villages are dependent on agriculture: stone fruits, olives and olive oil, figs, poultry and goats. The villages are poor and most food is locally produced.
About 50 soldiers are permanently in Kabatiya and when disturbances occur several hundred can be brought from the army base nearby.
Jerome and I had very different experiences, but, like most Palestinians and Israelis, we shared a common denominator of fear. Jerome faced two fears. His first was that he or a comrade would be physically hurt (and one was) and the second fear was that he might do something to a Palestinian civilian that he would later regret (he didn't).
My fear was similar to the Palestinians, that of being caught in the wrong place by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), guilty or not. I arrived in Kufr Rai. just over seven miles from Kabatiya, hot, dusty and thirsty after travelling for several hours. A tray of refreshing mint tea was brought and the shabab (literally "youths", but since the intifada, a second meaning of "activists" has evolved) explained that I had arrived at "an interesting time" - the previous night a collaborator had been killed, the first in Kufr Rai, and an Israeli raid was imminent. Asked when the Israelis were likely to raid, the shabab said "any time". As I raised the much desired glass of tea to my lips we heard a call that soldiers were coming. Twenty Jeeps were approaching.
The boys threw my bags at me and we ran, literally, for the hills. I stopped one of the shabab and told him I couldn't risk being caught with them. Shaking in panic, as boys whistled and women called out warnings directing the shabab away from the soldiers, he gave me the name of a man I could stay with. I sprinted through olive groves, hurdling prickly pear and barbed wire fences as I ran, trying to remember the name and begging confused villagers for directions. I found the house and was led to a room from where we could watch the road and the village. As I took photographs I realised my racing pulse was due as much to fear as the run through the fields. Israeli vehicles cruised through the village, stopping at several doors to ask boys to come out.
But the shabab - all 1,000 of them - had fled. Curfew was imposed and the village watched and waited in silence as Israeli soldiers searched some of the houses, confiscated microphones from the mosques (used to warn of the approaching Israelis) and shut down the village generators.
The sun setting in the haze and dust cast a tourism brochure rose tinge over the stone houses nestling in the hill, a surreal contrast to the harsh tension. It was the longest sleepless night of my life. I wondered whether Jerome was in the raiding party.
Curiously, the Israelis - bristling with weapons - fear the unarmed Palestinians far more than vice versa. The tension in the West Bank and Gaza is much greater than 12 months ago despite (or because of) the massive IDF presence and it is clear that Israel does not occupy the territories. Israel occupies small settlements on some of the hills and for moments in time holds the roads between the settlements and the highways as convoys of workers' buses led by Jeeps speed through Arab villages. The Occupied Territories are already Palestine and every soldier I spoke to who has served there, regardless of political affiliation, agrees.
The Palestinian resolve and the poor training for the occupying forces is a dangerous combination. Soldiers overreact because they don't know what to expect. Instead of being taught to stay calm under pressure, Jerome says his unit was "taught to be Rambo: how to kill someone using the butt of your weapon; how to rip their face open with your magazine; wonderful things that you are not normally taught as a soldier." His unit was divided into two groups to throw stones at each other to prove they don't really hurt, yet it is the danger of stones that Israelis use to justify killing Palestinian children. Soldiers are allowed to open fire when their lives are threatened. One soldier said that being spat at by a Palestinian was life-threatening "because the Arab might have Aids".
Within hours of arriving at his base near Kabatiya, Jerome was volunteered for patrol and had his first dose of fear. "The first patrol was very scary. You have no idea what you are supposed to be doing there, what's expected of you. For me, to be an occupier, to see little three and four year olds bursting into tears and running to their mothers absolutely hysterical, just because you are there, was very depressing. These kids are going to be traumatised for the rest of their lives.
"It's a horrible feeling to be the oppressor - for someone who's been taught the IDF is the wonderful thinking army, the people's army - no less than the Germans were anywhere in Europe.
"The fear of a suspect being arrested at night is unbelievable. I was shocked at how scared they were. I felt as if I was with some South American death squad and that's certainly how they felt. The fear ... they talk immediately. One of them was hardly out of his house and he had already started giving us names, addresses, everything. They are sure they are going to die or be disappeared."
The Israelis' fear in the territories is partly justified, but quite disproportionate. They face children with stones, not soldiers with guns. The numbers of Israelis killed and injured during the intifada is still relatively low and nearly as many have been hurt by their own side as by the Palestinians.
"Every day I've been hit by stones," says Jerome. "It's not a big deal. It hurts a bit. It's nothing to get angry about or worth killing or injuring some poor kid who is doing what he thinks is right.
"I'm not scared of stones. I'm scared of more organised things and luckily they're not very well organised, whereas we are. The one time they were organised, we were ambushed and my driver was injured. They knew we would be passing a crossroads late at night and we'd have to slow down.
"They hit us with a volley of rocks from an orange grove. We stopped and then they hit us with another volley and a rock hit my driver on the side of his face, smashed his glasses and glass went into his eye and cut his cheek. There was a lot of blood.
"We reacted automatically. We opened fire on the orange grove, with intent to kill ... that was automatic. Later we went back and no bodies or any blood was found, so we don't think anyone was injured.
"I'm very thankful that no-one got hurt from our fire, but being there ... we were very scared. The Jeep was hit by a lot of rocks. Our lives were definitely in danger."
There was only one other time when Jerome says he saw the justified use of live ammunition. Surrounded by stone throwing youths, an officer said he would shoot at one of the leaders rather than call for reinforcements. "He very calmly said 'I'm going to injure him in the arm and they will stop.' And they did.
"It was minimal use of force to stop what could have been a very ugly situation. If we'd called for backup, I'm sure there would have been a pitched battle.
"This place is like the Wild West. It's like playing a part in a western movie and we're the bad guys. It's unbelievable. You are the law. You have the gun and the law is the gun. And we're not that kind of people. Most soldiers are not. Unfortunately there are those who enjoy it."
Another reservist, Ami Dar, wrote in the Jerusalem Post earlier this year that in 20 days on patrol in the "hot" Nablus Casbah his squad arrested a score of Palestinians, wounding several in the leg according to IDF instructions, but didn't kill anyone.
Jerome says his unit was able to catch 17 stone-throwers without one injury. Ami Dar asks whether the fatal injuries are caused because "our troops don't know how to shoot - or is it that some of them can shoot all too well?"
The humanitarian soldiers probably do act as a brake on their less caring comrades. But from the Palestinian point of view, Israeli soldiers are unpredictably violent. They don't see differences between IDF units, most of which have both hotheads and humanitarians. Soldiers all wear the same uniform.
While Jerome had several positive encounters in Kabatiya, from an impromptu half-hour soccer match played in an alleyway (Palestine 6, Israel 0) to using a rubber bullet canister to shoot sweets to a group of four year olds, the Palestinians discount the events entirely. They only notice the continued and unwanted occupation.
"Here in the village we have no relations with the soldiers," said one Kabatiya villager. "There are no soldiers considered as decent soldiers. Whenever we leave the house we have no feeling of security, because at any time a soldier might ask to check our identity card or [order us to] wipe the walls or [to] spend two days in the detention tent or be beaten. "At the beginning of the intifada we were afraid of the soldiers, but now we know we have to resist... to do something against the occupation. We are used to it.
"Rabin is wrong that the large number of soldiers keeps the intifada down. The soldiers provoke the people and cause the clashes."
But Jerome's encounters with Palestinians are important. A lowly sergeant, he won a stand up argument with a lieutenant-colonel who was arresting the wrong person (an argument Jerome says could only occur in the IDF) and an entire squad walked away from an officer who was victimising an intellectually impaired youth, forcing the officer to come running after his men.
Even when asking Palestinians to remove flags Jerome says he was polite about it and in one case ended up having coffee and baklava with his "helper". He says that as he left Kabatiya, after feeling relief that it was over, his first thoughts were that he had achieved his aim of not hurting anyone.
"Afterwards, on the way home, I thought that I'd helped. I had stopped several beatings that might have happened, stopped people shooting live ammunition - one or two guys that were hot-heads said 'Let's shoot, this is getting dangerous' and I said 'No way. You're not going to while I'm here.' And it stopped them. It was enough to just calm them down and think about what they were doing, rather than go off the handle just because they'd been hit by a couple of stones."
He says he made the right decision to go rather than to refuse to serve. "I'm a soldier. I don't have any choice and also I am sure I stopped several Palestinians being injured and possibly even being killed. And even if I stop one being injured, it's enough."
While Jerome was on duty in the West Bank, 32 Palestinians were killed by the IDF and one by a settler- one of the highest monthly death tolls since the beginning of the intifada.
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