About 2 months ago, 18 year old Eliyahu Osheri was kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists. He was driven to Ramallah through Merkam Hayim, a road that connects Ramallah to the Arab villages that surround Northern Jerusalem. A bullet to his head, plus the kidnapping of 3 soldiers in a period of a week, would force Ehud Olmert's government into war (I'll leave the disastrous handling of the war for now) on our Northern front with Hezbollah and on the Southwestern front with Hamas militants in (G)Aza. Due to the large call up of reservists during the war and the movement of the sadirnikim (soldiers still in mandatory service) to the Northern front, my battalion was called up for 23 days of service in the region between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Although it meant disengaging from our lives, 90% of our battalion arrived on the 29th of August for 2 days of training before our movement up to the outskirts of Jerusalem to man the week old Merkam Hayim checkpoint, to do missions in the various Arab villages and to patrol the area with armored hummers.
My first experiences at an IDF checkpoint were definitely eye openers for me. With regards to us soldiers, we were uncomfortable from the start with this assignment. Hurriedly set up, the checkpoint left us with very little ability to truly protect one another; we understood we were basically sitting ducks. We even had Israeli Arabs warning us of how dangerous of a situation we were putting ourselves in. However, after a Channel 10 report on the checkpoint, the army started moving quickly and the ensuing changes gave us a slightly safer feeling as we went on about our business (sadly, there was no protection against the constant kamikaze fly attacks at day or mosquito attacks at night!). 'Our business' entailed being on the lookout for potential terrorists, hence resulting in the checking of all traffic coming from Ramallah while trying to ensure the steady movement of traffic in and out of the checkpoint. I now better understand the harsh objections to checkpoints by Palestinians and worldwide organizations; it makes life incredibly uncomfortable - especially when we have warnings for potential suicide bombers. However, if it's a decision between the Palestinians' comfort or the safety of my people, I will choose my people's safety every time (like any other person would too I feel). I tried being as respectful and friendly as possible with all the Palestinians and Israeli Arabs I was constantly interacting with, however, even I have my limits. As the days progressed, I felt my fuse shortening and with the constant 'prodding' by insolent drivers, our weapons were raised often. It's not something easy for me to do, to point a loaded M-16 into a human being's face. I don't like the idea of being responsible to decide who lives and who dies. That's a job for the Almighty, not me. But sadly this job requires that and while shots were fired by us during the 2 weeks at the checkpoint, no one was injured or killed by our bullets.
The two weeks at the checkpoint definitely had some moments that stick out. When one Israeli Arab didn't stop at the checkpoint, I went to talk to him and tried to explain to him the 'rules of the game'. Before I could even finish my sentence, the man blurted out, "I'm sorry soldier, it's not my fault, it's just that I'm a donkey". As I smiled and assured him that he in fact was not a donkey, I sent him on his way home. The various discussions with Arabs with foreign passports (American, Brazilian, Jordanian etc) were always interesting - with only the discussions with the UN being more 'fun'. Anyone who knows me knows how much I dislike the UN - and my talks with their various representatives only served to strengthen my dislike. Always overtaking the line, these 'law abiding' UN officials seem to always try and take advantage of Israeli soldiers who cannot really communicate in English on their level. I guess this was not their lucky week! Every time a car with the UN logo came up to be checked, I gladly approached and discussed the issues at hand with the shocked officials; it's not as easy to 'control' a situation when your main advantage is nullified! Despite their hypocrisy and reasoning for overtaking (in my opinion, blatant lies), in the end, after rather well-mannered conversations - I admit it, I had to control myself sometimes when they threw out typical UN political arguments - they always went to the back of the line realizing they really weren't going to get anywhere by arguing. After two weeks of check point duty, we started doing armored hummer patrols around the area, which I enjoyed. Once I return to base tomorrow, we will be doing various missions within the neighboring villages before being released G-d willing on the 20th of September, just in time for Rosh Ha'Shanna, the Jewish New Year!
Taking a break from the laughs and 'good times' on base with the lads, a lot of the serious talk revolved around miluim (Reserve Duty) and our thoughts on the matter. People seem to underestimate the difficulty us reservists have when we disengage from our jobs & families (Expecting fathers left their wives to come serve - 3 babies were born within 2 days in our battalion last week, trips abroad were canceled - to the US & China, final exams were missed etc), and drop everything to protect our birthright. With only around 100,000 active reservists in Israel, most of us voiced serious concerns about the direction our society is taking. Unlike the Israel of yest-a-year, only major operations and wars bring about a mass showing of reservists. Nowadays, the youth of our country would rather be on Kochav Nolad (Israel's version of American Idol) or do anything possible to find a way out of a combat position, or the army itself. Gone are the days when names like Raziel, Netanyahu & Barak were the names we honored and looked up to ... Something must be done within our society to re-instill the passion and desire to serve this country after the required tour of duty ends, even when it's not 'good timing'. A few discussed the idea of a 'tax break' for those who serve every year - something that would only improve the high motivation I found within my battalion (soldiers who openly complained about not being in Lebanon). Often times, it feels as if Israeli society looks at us as 'friarim' (Hebrew for suckers) - but if a sucker means someone who eagerly defends his country while others take their freedoms for granted, then so be it ...