Back in the West Bank (part I)

Posted: August 10th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: this is personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments »

As I write this, I still have 10 days until the end of my reserve service in the West Bank. It is my first service in the Palestinian territories in nine years. Until then I was a platoon commander in an infantry unit, and served on a regular basis in the West Bank and on Gaza strip, both during mandatory duty and on reserve. Seven years ago I decided I will not take part in the occupation anymore, and refused to enlist to my yearly service. I was sentenced to 28 days in army prison no. 6, and later removed from my commanding post. When the next call came, I was transferred to a civil defense unit (again, as platoon commander), which usually doesn’t carry out such missions. But lately the army changed its policy, and my unit was called for a 26 days service in the Jordan Vally area. Not “hardcore occupation” like the things I used to do in Hebron or Ramallah, but still, inside the West Bank.

What do I do here? That’s what I’ve been asking myself in the last two weeks. I don’t think I have the best answers yet, but I will try to share some of my thoughts on the matter here.

My first conclusion is that I just got weak. Nine years ago, after serving in South Mount Hebron, I understood there are no more excuses for taking part in what’s going on there. I explained this to my commanding officers, and when they insisted on calling me to serve, I was willing to do what I though was right. Military prison itself wasn’t that bad, but the whole process was emotionally demanding in a way that none-Israelis might find hard to understand. Explaining my actions to the people I worked with and to my family – repeating the same arguments over and over again – was extremely exhausting. Then, when an officer in my unit was killed in Jenin, confronting the rest of my friends in the army became almost impossible. The truth is I just didn’t want to go through all of this again.

I can give here some other excuses against refusing: for example, that since my unit would have gone there anyway, it’s best that I will do the Job, since I might be more sensitive to the Palestinians. But I never liked this kind of rationalization. I believe that the way people behave on uniform has more to do with their character than with their political affiliation. I’ve seen right wing guys who were decent and polite with the Palestinians and so called leftists who were cruel and indifferent. The problem is not with the soldiers themselves, but with the whole situation.

I can argue that refusing doesn’t carry the same political impact as it used to have. Nobody cares much what the diminished left does or say, and there are enough people willing to do the job. Dov Weisglass, PM Ariel Sharon’s consultant, once said Sharon initiated the withdrawal from Gaza because of the Geneva Accord and the refuzniks movement. Such momentum doesn’t exist now. On the other hand, do we choose to engage in political action just because we have a chance to succeed, or because it is the moral thing to do?

I don’t oppose the army service as a rule, though I am aware of the problematic role the IDF plays in the Israeli society. I like the people I serve with, and I think the service, like paying taxes, is just something you do as a citizen here. I don’t like the idea that someone else will do this for me. The fact that I feel extremely alienated with the current political leadership in Israel – to degree I don’t consider myself a patriot, and I don’t even like the sound of this word anymore – doesn’t change much.

As I said, what I do now is not “hardcore occupation”. We are on the edge of the Palestinian territory, in a very quiet area. Up until the last minute, I was hoping I would be stationed on the Jordanian border and wouldn’t have to deal with the Palestinians myself, but they ended up sending a different company there. No easy way out this time.

So here I am, in the West Bank. Again. It’s been 16 years since my first visit in uniform to the Palestinian territories. Ironically, on the same week I got there, in the summer of 1993, the Oslo accord was signed. We were 18 years old, and we thought the end of the conflict was coming. Some guys on my unit were actually sorry that they wouldn’t get a piece of the action. Well, we certainly got our share since. I’ve been to Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Hebron, Gaza and some places in between. I took part in the evacuation of Hebron and a few years later, refused to re-enter the West Bank, I protested and even sat in prison, and now I am back at the starting point, patrolling and doing checkpoints as if nothing ever happened. It’s a strange feeling.

(In the next post, I will share some of the things I’ve seen and learned during this service)


16 Comments on “Back in the West Bank (part I)”

  1. 1 israelimom said at 9:59 am on August 10th, 2009:

    It is a very delicate situation. I am always torn when it comes to my husband doing his reserve duties.
    On the one hand, I cannot blame those who refuse. To some extent, I admire the commitment even.
    On the other hand, when Israeli withdrew from Gaza, I know that right-wingers were facing the same dilemmas when it came to evacuating the settlers by force. I was proud of them and the IDF, for carrying out the mission with so few objectors. Is it really fair to demand that of them and not do our share? Tough questions… I don’t have a good answer, I’m afraid.

  2. 2 Ingrid said at 1:03 pm on August 10th, 2009:

    Being a non-conformist requires a great deal of mental and emotional energy investment, just to keep oneself standing up to one’s principals. Sometimes, as you said, we get tired. Than we think that we have let down or lied to ourselves and to our friends. You didn’t.

  3. 3 tamar said at 1:07 pm on August 10th, 2009:

    Noam, it is a relief to hear from you. Your last post got me thinking a lot about “realities,” such as reserve duty, for a guy like you with sensitivities and sensibilities decidedly not aligned with goals and strategies of an occupying army. I’m glad that you are OK, and understand some of the catch-22 dilemmas of doing one’s civic duty. Stay well and keep telling your story and truth about and to the near-dying soul of a nation.

  4. 4 Richard Silverstein said at 12:34 am on August 11th, 2009:

    There are no easy answers. You’re in a somewhat similar situation to Norman Finkelstein and the Gaza resisters who were imprisoned. Finkelstein chose to agree to leave Israel w/o putting up a fight because he just didn’t want to sit in an Israeli prison indefinitely. The Free Gaza resisters chose to sit in an Israeli prison till they won their freedom.

    How can you tell a person they should do something like that when the moral benefit, if any, is so questionable? Of course, if there were real benefits you could make a stronger argument in favor of resistance.

    But I think things in Israel are so fucked up right now that resistance is of very limited utility. I still admire the courage of those who do & promote this in my blog but…

  5. 5 tamar said at 3:44 am on August 11th, 2009:

    I can’t possibly put Noam in the same equation with any outsider such as Finkelstein or former congresswoman (run out of office) Cynthia McKinney and others who are not Israelis, as is Noam — carrying out civic orders and grappling with these orders. The meddlers of the world, outside agitators, attention seekers, and people with no responsibility for their words and actions are decidedly not “in a somewhat similar situation” to Noam.

  6. 6 Ingrid said at 11:53 am on August 11th, 2009:

    To Richard: if resistance was measred only by utility and positive result, there were very few people to join and act. Resistance has to do with the heart and with hope. I think that deeply inside you know it, but you took the easy way.

  7. 7 Mo-ha-med said at 2:59 pm on August 11th, 2009:

    I don’t think you’re back at the ‘starting point’. You obviously have been through a long, difficult and painful thought process which you describe with what I may only describe as disarming honesty.

  8. 8 Mo-ha-med said at 3:25 pm on August 11th, 2009:

    I don’t think you’re back at the ‘starting point’. You obviously have been through a long, difficult and painful thought process which you describe with what I may only describe as disarming honesty.

    Allow me to be a tad dramatic here, but having been on the wrong end of that rifle you’re holding, I am tempted to find that going back on your position to serve in the Territories because you “did not want to go through the process of explaining your position all over again” is a, hmm, rather lame excuse.

    My respect for you isn’t lessened of course, but to put it bluntly, for the next 10 days, you have chosen to be the enemy, and have given in to what you once fought against.

    I wish you safety. Apologies if I am being harsh.

  9. 9 Ami Kaufman said at 11:13 am on August 13th, 2009:

    Mohamed,

    First let me say that you were indeed harsh – but you managed to be so with the utmost respect, while voicing a very legitimate opinion and I think you should be commended for that. Other talkbackers on the conflict usually go down an ugly route. We see it on all the blogs. So, props! :-)

    As for you saying that Noam’s excuse is “lame”, I think we must look exactly at what he wrote. I don’t think he was talking only about the “explaining” part of the issue, as you wrote in your response. To me it seems (and forgive me if I’m putting words in Noam’s mouth), it was about the whole emotional process, which I think he was right to say that not many non-Israeli can understand. Almost as if it would be hard for me (in fact, impossible) to understand how you felt “at the other end of the rifle”. I can only imagine. I mean, let’s face it: at the end of the day, this whole thing is about not understanding each other’s emotions. Not understanding a connection to a piece of land, to a holy site, not understanding the fear of a terror attack, or an f-16 over your refugee camp.

    As for your last sentence (boy, do I go into detail!), first, I don’t think Noam chose to be the enemy again. In a way, he always was – it doesn’t really matter if he’s in uniform or not. At the end of the day, we are all occupiers, whether we vote for the left or the right.

    And lastly, you say he has “given in”. Harsh words. And they may be true, I’m not saying they’re not. I can’t speak for Noam on this one, but as for myself, I think that on many fronts, yes, I have given in. I wonder sometime, is it an age thing? Becoming the family man? Where did that feisty guy in his twenties go? I used to go to all the demos, sign all the petitions, argue at any chance… And now? Now I’m more like “Ah, f-ck ‘em. Let ‘em kill each other”. Is this the usual “getting old” syndrome? Like all those Woodstock hippies who became doctors and lawyers and cared about nothing else but status and money?

    I gotta tell you, it’s hard being a leftist in Israel. You’re looked at as a traitor, then the concensus accepts the ideas you’ve promoted all along, and you’re still hated. A lot of us are tired. I’m tired. Can you blame me? Maybe you can, but…. ah, f-ck it… :-)

  10. 10 Marilyn said at 10:47 am on August 14th, 2009:

    A true person of morals and ethics would never give in.

    Many in Australia have been waging war against various governments for locking up innocent refugees.

    Not a single one of us will take one step back and say “it’s OK now you can lock up refugees.

    Who the fuck do you people think you are persecuting and tormenting the Palestinians just because you can?

  11. 11 Lisa Goldman said at 11:22 am on August 14th, 2009:

    Marilyn,

    I am assuming that you are not writing your comment from a jail cell.

    Please go away now. You are detracting from an otherwise respectful, intelligent conversation.

  12. 12 Mo-ha-med said at 4:26 pm on August 14th, 2009:

    Ami,
    thanks for the response — I understand your points perfectly. Well, those I can relate to, I understand; those I cannot, I simply respect.

    I may have indeed been harsh but – I wouldn’t have if it wasn’t Noam – who fought so hard! Gave so much! Served prison time for his convictions, for heaven’s sake! And – no longer?

    I can’t say I’m disappointed because – well he owes me nothing at the end of the day :) – but rather, I’m frustrated. Because if a guy like him gives up (a more accurate term than ‘gives in’ which I previously used) then who will stand for the moral ground?

    No, I can’t blame you for being tired. Or maybe I could, but I have a generally decent idea of how hard it is to be an engaged pro-peace activist.
    And there’s a million reasons why we sometimes choose to, or are forced to, take off the boxing gloves. I can understand that. Age, responsibilities, children, general disillusionment, or even the feeling that you’ve done your part and that now it’s up to the next generation to contribute. I don’t know. And I can’t judge.

    But allow me to disagree with your assertion of “he always was (the enemy)– it doesn’t really matter if he’s in uniform or not”.
    Yes, but – no. (how well argumented was that! :) ) While I can only speak for myself, I’m pretty sure most people will think the same way… People are judged on an individual basis. Unfortunately, behind an army uniform, it’s more difficult to see the person inside. (actually, I don’t care much to know who’s inside the uniform. I’m rather keen on getting as far away as possible).
    And the good ones, the Noams, will be lost in the mass of jerks. I would be sad if that happens.

  13. 13 annie said at 4:34 pm on August 14th, 2009:

    Ami, I disagree with you about all of you being the occupier. You aren’t and people do have a choice. It is untrue that every Israeli is the enemy of every Palestinian just as every Palestinian is not the enemy of every Israeli.

    To find peace those people from either side who hold common beliefs of peace must bond together for they will be the hope and strength for a peaceful future.

    It is easy to get lazy for some people, and hard to live by your morals in an environment where the people you love think you are being a traitor. But that is what strong people do. It is not just ‘the age thing’ or becoming a family man because if you were Palestinian you would not lose your will to make a home for your family and a country for your people.

    The fact is there would be no occupation if there were not people willing to be occupiers. For some people it is easier being the enemy for one more day than to endure having your family and acquaintances and the state treat you as a traitor.

    I really hope someday Israelis have the courage and strength it takes to do what is right. And if they don’t, I hope the International Community forces Israel by hook or by crook to comply by Rules of Decency.

  14. 14 Noam W said at 1:22 pm on August 19th, 2009:

    Oy Noam S

    How could you?

    Noam W

  15. 15 daria shualy said at 1:39 pm on August 19th, 2009:

    I think there are other reasons for going back to this kind of service, one of which is the matter of being. Doing the service is being in the problem, it is not letting yourself forget that we are all occupiers. This might just be a starting point for your future actions against the occupation.

  16. 16 Reb Barry said at 2:40 am on August 23rd, 2009:

    I’m a “pragmatic idealist.”

    Would Noam’s sitting in jail contribute to an end to the Occupation? Probably not.

    If Noam serves his miluim in the Territories, will he be a force for good, or a force for evil? I would suggest that since the Occupation is currently a fact of life, we need all the sympathetic caring soldiers there that we can muster, to put the brakes on those who would be abusive.

    Israel cannot actually end the Occupation unilaterally — look at what happened to Gaza. It requires negotiation and coordination with the PA. Until we reach an agreement, let’s at least see that the Occupation is conducted as humanely as possible.