Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Checking the Point

Ah, an IDF checkpoint. This is the only chance many of us get to interact with our neighbors, the Palestinians. For all the news we hear about life at the checkpoints, no one really stresses the fact that no soldier is taught the 'proper way' to act with the pedestrians and/or drivers - you learn by being there. The only tips we get are how to lessen the chances of any Palestinian attack being successful (for example, where to stand and how to approach a vehicle). Oh, and the oft repeated saying, "Respect and suspect," (כבדהו וחשדהו). Now why am I bothering with this brief introduction? As I mentioned in my last post, I struggle at times when I'm at the checkpoints. I am fully aware of the positives and negatives of checkpoints, and try to approach each Palestinian with the same respect I'd approach any human being. And so, I'd like to share one event which I think highlights the tough situation we face as soldiers.

It was panning out to be a typical relaxing (just don't tell my wife I said that!) day in miluim when word got out that a soldier had been kidnapped. With this, every checkpoint in the West Bank was essentially shut down as each car that passed was thoroughly checked, passengers included. Until this moment, the checkpoint my battalion was manning was a quick one for those using it - But now, due to the searches, there were two to three hour delays for everyone. By the time some of us got down there as back-up, the current checkpoint crew had been there for almost 8 hours. Most of the shift had been in the boiling hot sun and one could see the wear & tear on the lads. Add this to the agitated and frustrated Palestinians, something was bound to happen eventually.

After checking one taxi, T. motioned him to proceed. The driver, unaware T. spoke fluent Arabic, proceed to mutter something derogatory as he drove by. As soon as he heard it, T. quickly motioned the taxi to pull over. All the occupants were asked to exit the car, and T. started an even more thorough check than the previous one. Each passenger was frisked and all the IDs were taken for a check with the base. The taxi driver started getting angry, "Where is the officer? I want to speak to an officer." "I am the officer," T. muttered and motioned him to go back to where he was previously standing. The taxi driver refused and as he got closer to T., T. pushed him back. I watched on, finger on the trigger, and told one of the passengers to calm him down, "Tell him to shut up so you guys can go home. The more he talks, the longer he'll keep you here." Two of them nodded, and pulled the taxi cab driver back. He was still fuming and as T. turned his back, he screamed, "Give me the IDs, I am only a taxi driver. Where is your officer?" T. ignored the driver and proceeded to pass the ID information through the walkie talkie. As he waited for an answer, he asked the driver and his passengers to get back into the car and wait. The driver refused to move, "No, I'm staying here - I want the IDs." T. was getting angry, "Get into the car now." The driver approached him, and T. pushed him back, and as he stumbled backwards, T. kicked the driver on his side.

As the driver retreated to the car with his passengers, I approahced T., "You can't do that man. There's no need for that. Just let him sit outside if he continues being an idiot, there's no need to kick him." Another soldier came up to him, and reprimanded him, "That's totally unnecessary," and stormed off. The taxi driver started banging the side of his door, "I am just a taxi driver." He was furious, and I realized the situation needed defusing and quick. I approached the taxi and spoke to the passenger, "Tell him to shut up. Seriously, he needs to be quiet and you will all go home. I'll see to it." The passengers, who had not spoken or made any aggressive movements throughout the ordeal, again tried to calm him down. But he continued to slam the car's side through the open window. Ten minutes later, T. came over with the IDs and passed them over to one of the passengers. The taxi sped off. "He was being a maniak and got too close to me," T. explained to me. "I know, I saw, but there was no need for that," I said realizing we both had to get back to the 'job'.

As I discussed the episode with a friend a day later, he asked, "Why didn't you report him?" I had no answer, I thought my reproach was enough. Later that day, I asked the soldier who had also reprimanded him if we were wrong to not complain about the unnecessary use of force in this instance. He replied, "You saw his reaction after he had calmed down. He sat down on the side the rest of the shift and didn't move. He knows he screwed up. I also don't believe that's the mentality of our soldiers in this battalion. We don't 'work' that way and this was a one off." As I listened, I realized he was right. In the heat of the moment, T. made an error in judgment - he took advantage of his power in in the wrong way and unnecessarily hit a man, in the process embarrassing him in front of his clients (This is why I think he got so angry afterward).

As I look back on the incident, I think it could obviously have been handled far better - T. should have just let them sit in the taxi for a longer time than intended after the driver's behavior. We have a difficult job, but we must always try and keep our calm and cool, even in trying times. There are some instances when physical contact is unavoidable and even necessary, but with T. this was definitely not the case. Throughout this reserve stint, this was the only incident of its kind in 3 weeks at this checkpoint. That I highlight it is due to the fact it bothered me greatly - and I hope those involved learned enough from it to ensure it's not repeated again.

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