Beyond The Green Line

Beyond The Green Line
Here you’ll find my book, Beyond the Green Line, it’s a work in progress and I’m adding a little bit more every couple of days, enjoy and feel free to comment.

Prologue:

I was sitting in the cramped office of the youth movement in Euston the heart of London, though not many would describe it as such. I was 15 years old and being interviewed for a place on a leadership camp in America. The man interviewing me had made the same trip himself when he was my age and now at the grand old age of 17 he was sitting opposite me interviewing new candidates. “So why do you think we should choose you to go to America?” He asked. He had a light Mancunian accent and his black hair was parted down the centre, as was mine for it was the fashion at the time. I knew I couldn’t answer the question as soon as he asked it. I didn’t want to go to America. My 2 best friends were applying at the same time as me and it was already known that they were shoe-ins for the places but I had no interest. “I don’t want to go to America, I want to go to Israel.” My reply was somewhat unexpected. The America trip was for the hard core members of the movement whereas the Israel tour was something that was offered in order to pay lip service to the fact that all Jewish youth movements sent at least 1 group of kids out their for their 16thsummer.

He looked back at me through black eyes, “if you didn’t want to go on the America trip then why are you here?” I pondered the question for a moment unsure how to proceed. The truth was that I had come on this selection day because I knew that if I admitted that I didn’t want to then I would be badgered to do so during numerous phone calls from various movement officials. After all how elite could a trip to America be if only 5 people applied for the 5 places that were available? It wasn’t my first lesson in the importance of appearances but it was one of the most enduring. I looked into the face of the National President of my youth movement and mumbled some kind of answer about wanting to try for a place anyway.

America was boring. America I had been to before. America was the land of Mickey Mouse and great milkshakes, America was a known entity. But what was Israel? Israel was an unknown, a land that had vague associations with religion, with Jews and with fighting. Israel was the land of the ‘other’ Jews. Jews who did the army, who didn’t wear suits and become lawyers or accountants. Israel was a mystery. Israel is where I chose to spend the summer that ended my 15th year and began my 16th.

My story starts here, it started the instant the 15 year old me stepped out of the aeroplane and smelt the Israeli air and felt the Israeli sun on my face. I toured around the land fertilized by the blood of the Jewish warriors who had fallen before me. I saw Jews wandering around carrying guns and wearing the Star of David. I watched a Jew run for a bus, he was wearing a kippa on his head and the fringes of his TsitTsit were hanging from under his shirt. My instinct was to admire his bravery at exposing his Judaism for all the world to see, then this Jew of the diaspora understood my error. To live in Israel was to live as a normal human being, without labels and without fear.
The trip ended after a month and I resolved to return for a year once I had finished school. I did just that. In that year I felt the army call to me. Not just the army but the Paratroopers, the elite, the toughest of the tough, the heroes of the Mitla Pass and every other war Israel had ever fought. Wearing the red beret and following in the footsteps of the fighters who jumped into the Sinai desert in 1956 and those who stormed into Jerusalem in 1967 was what I wanted to do with my life. In truth a military career had been something that I had wanted to do for some time but it was that summer that I understood Israel was the only place I wanted to serve. But first Manchester Metropolitan University beckoned with the promise of a BA in History and three years to decide if I had it in me to become a normal person, with a normal job, ready and willing to dedicate my life to the pursuit of an ever larger house and an ever larger number of cars. I hoped the allure of the red beret would be just too strong.

Manchester

The usual light drizzle fell contentedly on my black puffer jacket as I stood outside one of the many graduate fairs that were being put on for my graduating class. The brick wall I was leaning against belonged to (what was then) a brand new building called the Geoffrey Manton building. I never learned just who Geoffrey Mantern was in life, but the building that bears his name was a modern, orange brick and glass monstrosity, perfectly illustrating the desire of a Metropolitan University to be regarded as highly as the prestigious Manchester University located a mere 2 minutes’ walk down the road. Inside are hundreds of excited soon to be graduates pondering their futures. At that moment there were excited, chattering students being awestruck by the slick firms who have arrived to make their presentations to the next generation of cogs in a huge capitalist machine. Back then the big buzzwords were ‘management consultancy’ and they were very capable of doling out massive amounts of money to those willing to play the game by the rules. I watched a girl leave the building; she had curly black hair and was wearing woollen gloves and a thick jacket to protect her from the cold, grey Manchester weather. She was clutching a treasure trove of corporate bullshit under her arm while chatting to a friend on her large mobile phone.

I slouched there on this brand new wall of a brand new building, smoking a brand new cigarette trying to urge myself inside. I imagined row upon row of banks, management consultancies and other large corporate entities all selling their wares to the mediocre graduates of the mediocre Manchester Metropolitan university in an attempt to persuade them to try out for their mediocre graduate schemes that promised a life of middle class anonymity. All of them standing there with their best smiles on while handing prospectus after prospectus to bright eyed beaming students who were standing where the corporate employees themselves stood a mere year or two earlier.

They weren’t selling anything I was interested in. I was here at the urging of my mother who had heard from all of the other mothers that their own, graduate age, kids had been babbling about where to apply for the next stage of their lives. The next stage of a life that had for the past three years involved nothing more than waking up at four O’clock in the afternoon and getting stoned as soon as possible. My motivation to devote my life to the big businesses inside turned to ash as quickly as the Marlboro in my hand, if indeed it ever existed at all. I had thought perhaps that my dreams of Israel that had begun when I was a 15 year old away from home for the first time would have turned to smoke after 6 years of life experience, but they had not and I was glad that they hadn’t.

I threw my cigarette butt to the ground where it joined several others and headed for the Oxford road in the direction of my rented home in Fallowfield, the student area. I needed some time to think and the forty five minutes or so that it would take to get back there by foot would do nicely. For three years I had been dreaming about moving to Israel and joining the Israeli army. I knew exactly which unit I wanted to join and how many tests I would have to take in order to get there. My plan hadn’t changed since I was eighteen and perhaps even before that. In fact it had grown in sophistication. Sayeret Tzanhanim was the name of the unit I yearned after. It was the fabled reconnaissance unit of the IDF paratroopers. They had been involved in pretty much every high octane, super cool mission that had made print and I wanted in…badly!

But now the time had come to make it all happen or to let these nonsensical dreams die the death of all adolescent dreams. I had passed off my ambitions as a mere fantasy, an indulgence that could barely be made out through the haze of thick weed that I had smoked for the last 3 years. Now the time had come for a real decision, l knew that going to Israel wasn’t a logical choice, maybe it was running away from something I didn’t like about the UK, maybe it was an attempt to push away becoming a grown up for a few more years. Whatever the reason, the unshakable fact remained that the alternative of working in a corporate empire filled me with dread and the red beret of an Israeli paratrooper was calling me loud and clear.

For 3 years I had felt guilty that an Israeli my age was serving his country in uniform, that he was sitting somewhere in Lebanon killing and being killed for his people and I was sitting in a student flat getting alternatively drunk then stoned, then stoned and then drunk as well as occasionally turning up to lectures. There was the little pantomime of the Union of Jewish students fighting the political fight with their opposite Islamic number. The two organisations went head to head regularly, usually about Israel, or more specifically Zionism. They would argue at the yearly National Union of Students conference every year without fail, I was a part of it too…kind of. I went and I wore the UJS sweatshirt but the whole thing felt farcical. None of it really mattered, none of their arguments made any difference on the ground in Israel. I wanted to be a part of the action, a part of the unfolding story.

Being utterly honest Britain came a low second next to Israel. I hated living in the UK, I hated the BBC, hated the fact that I was a minority. I felt like an outcast in England. I hated walking to synagogue in my suit on a Saturday with thousands of unseen eyes peering at me, wondering who these odd people were. London just happened to be where I was born but Israel is where I belonged. I didn’t know or care whether all Jews should live in Israel, I knew that I should. In a world that didn’t give a shit about Jews Israel was the only place that cared, Israel was the light.

The British student officer training programme had been interesting enough for me to make a couple of inquiries from friends about it. What I heard had cemented my opinions about the British Army. I had never considered myself particularly patriotic and the thought of serving in the British Paratroopers had never filled me with anything other than dread. I wouldn’t have fit in with them, I was a Jew. The British Army was for your average white, Christian who loved drinking, rowing and rugby and who probably thought that Jews had horns on their heads. I declined to join the Officer Cadet School.

I continued on my way deep in thought as to my own future. Israel was calling me in a voice so loud I couldn’t fail to hear and so feminine I couldn’t fail to obey. I would answer, nothing else would do. A career beginning in Sayeret Tzanhanim and ending with me becoming Chief of Staff of the IDF was the way forward. During that 45 minute walk down the Oxford Road, through Manchester’s curry mile I allowed my hopes and dreams for the future to flow through me unrepressed. To join the army was a real possibility, there were Israeli kids in the Paratroopers so why not me too? Once a paratrooper why not officer course? Once an officer why not a military career? Step by step I could see myself rising to the very top of the Israeli military establishment.

When it was broken down into little pieces it seemed possible, just so long as I didn’t think about the ultimate goal of becoming a world famous general on a par with Moshe Dayan and concentrated on the next step I could get anywhere I needed to. Step number 1 was to get myself out to Israel and become a citizen, step 2 to get into the army and every step afterwards could take care of itself. The dawn was upon me and the haze of university life had to clear itself away. University had been the only barrier between me and Israel and University was finished.

All I had to do now was tell my parents.

Telling the Parents

“Hi Mum and Dad as soon as I graduate I am going to live in Israel to join the Israeli army…I’m going to become a general.” A pretty short sentence really, not too complicated an idea either. There wasn’t really a way to couch it in anything softer hitting, after all the army was pretty much the reason I was moving out there. My parents were sitting at the breakfast table in their dressing gowns. My dad had just put his usual bite sized piece of cheddar cheese on his toast and my mother had taken a carefully crafted pink segment of grapefruit onto her spoon. My mum looked at me with a faint smile before looking warily to her left at my dad sitting at the head of the table. He was clearly in shock.

“Where has this come from all of a sudden?” he stuttered, my mum put her hand on his forearm. The poor guy, he grew up in Hampstead Garden Suburb, the son of a not particularly successful furrier. He built up a corporate empire of women’s clothing shops in the 1980’s only to watch it fall victim to the recession of the time. He picked himself up, retrained as a Financial Adviser and started all over again from scratch. I had always admired him for that and I knew that leaving to pursue the army was going to hurt him. He had no connection to the country, no relatives living there and no real interest. My dad is a down to earth guy and the only things that get him really passionate are music and Formula 1.

He started getting flustered in a quiet sort of way, as one might after being unexpectedly slapped in the face. “I have been talking about it for at least 3 years now Dad!” Without the benefit of any particular life experience and utterly unwilling to empathise with any feelings he may have been having I was instantly impatient with him. Hadn’t I prepared him well enough for this? I had been talking about it for a long time, he may not have believed me, I may not have believed it myself but I had definitely been telling anyone who would listen that I was going.

My mum was calmer, she had a faint smile on her face and didn’t say a word against it. “He did say it a few times darling.” She said, I was surprised, my mum was an unlikely ally. We looked alike and had the same fiery temperament; any arguments in the house had usually been between us. Maybe it’s because she was more like me that she understood my need to at least try to live out a dream. She had spent a couple of months living in Israel before I was born and the only reason she hadn’t stayed was because she met my dad while back in London on holiday. With her in my corner I knew that Dad would come around to the idea.

I was impatient with them, I was impatient to leave, with my mind made up all I wanted to do was to get out. The papers were all filled in and the passport stamped, I was turning my back on the UK, turning my back on the pre-planned middle class life. I was opening a chapter that would set me on my path to becoming a Jewish hero. I was going to become a Moshe Dayan or an Ariel Sharon only better, I had given up a life in London to be a Paratrooper what had they given up?

Taking the First Step

The moment the plane landed in Israel a bomb exploded in my chest. Somewhere, something had been building up. I was in Israel, I was far away from friends, family and home, why? Dreams of joining the Paratroopers?Of becoming a general in the army? The absurdity of these fragile hopes hit me full force the instant the captain stopped talking. Now it was too late, I was stranded in this strange place with nothing more than childish notions of becoming a warrior. I had cheated myself, I had made a huge and terrible mistake, committing myself to something I didn’t understand for reasons I couldn’t fathom.

The rest of the day was tough, I had to fill out immigration forms at the airport while my mind was screaming at my body to agree to nothing, to sign nothing to declare that it had all been a terrible mistake, to remain at the airport and jump on the first flight back home, to the place that I knew and understood and where there were people who loved me. My body ignored my mind and went through all of the motions. I put myself on a cab to Jerusalem and the language course that was to be my home for my first 5 months in the Holy Land as an Israeli.

That night I made the call home, I spoke to my parents letting them know that I understood I had made a mistake and would be returning to their loving embrace very soon. I underestimated the powers of my mother. Her soothing voice calmed me down, “the course lasts 5 months, why don’t you give it a chance? You know you can come back whenever you like.” I remained unconvinced; we continued talking until we had decided that I might be able to stand it for a week.

A week was long enough to take it for a month and a month long enough to start thinking that just maybe becoming an IDF Paratrooper wasn’t such a crazy idea.
My nerves had abated in the moments since my file had disappeared among all of the others. After signing and getting it over with I had felt better but now the adrenaline was starting up again. I had put myself on the line and now it was becoming clear that I was on my own. Sean was only doing one year.

Things had changed since that first week, step by little baby step my plan was swinging into action and was certainly too far along for me to let the bombing of a pizza place that I had always considered to be pretty average derail it.

Enlistment

There were two other guys on my language course looking to sign up to the army. Dave was from Canada and Sean was from Miami. Sean and I were room mates, he was an amateur body builder with a law degree and just as motivated to go into the army as I was. He wanted to be in tanks though, much as I tried to convince him of the greatness of the Paratroopers he had his heart set on driving those metal monsters. Dave was a skinny little guy who kept his head buried in a book, when he did peep out of it he usually uttered something about how Israel was besieged on all sides by enemies and it was the duty of Jews everywhere to protect her. He was all fire and brimstone and didn’t much care where he served just as long as it was in a combat unit.

We had our identity cards and temporary passports, the next step was to talk to the army and undergo the preliminary tests that helped to determine which units we were eligible for. Sean wasn’t really in Israel for the army but for his girlfriend who he had met in Miami where she had been working as a nanny. But he had the army in his mind as a goal insisting that you couldn’t be a ‘true’ Israeli unless you had served in the Israel Defence Force.

So after figuring out where the recruitment office was the three of us trotted down there one day. In Jerusalem the central army office was filled with people. The building was in a crowded part of the city, it was dilapidated and guarded by a very bored pair of 19 year old girls wearing battle dress and carrying M-16’s. They glanced at our ID cards and waved us in.

I was exhilarated at the moment of my first meeting with the army, I had the sensation of being officially on my way to achieving the unachievable. The army was before me and they were listening, well I thought they were listening. As it turned out the recruitment office was a misnomer, it was more like a way station. Upon entry I found a bustle of young soldier girls wandering around carrying papers, overcrowded desks with documents falling off the edges and all kinds of people in civilian clothes there for various reasons that none of them looked happy about.

We were shunted onto some hard metal chairs and given various forms to fill out while we waited though no one told us what it was that we were waiting for. The three of us sat there in a row, opposite sat an anaemic looking Hassidic kid, there was nothing to him but pasty white skin and bones, he clutched a book that he swayed into and out of while learning. Occasionally he would survey the room around him with furtive eyes looking out through his almost comically thick glasses. I knew immediately he was there to get out of his army service. After a matter of minutes one of the many anonymous doors opened and an older Hassid walked out smiling with an army non-commissioned officer. The beaming Hassid shook the soldier’s hand, moved over to the anaemic kid patted him on the shoulder and they both left.

The non-commissioned officer then beckoned to the three of us to step into his parlour. The office was in fact a large room with several staff members who were busy filing and generally bustling around. He motioned us past all of them and into a small office at the end of the room where we sat before him. His English was awful and our Hebrew was no better. He took the forms we had filled out and looked over them while we remained silent. This all began to feel very real to me now. He was a bald man with dark skin, I figured him for Moroccan, he was wearing glasses and had a big paunch.

He peered at me through his thick lenses, it was apparently my form he held in his hands. “You want sree munts?” he growled at me. “Er no I want to serve properly” I squeaked. He let out a long sigh, staring at me, he mopped the sweat from his brow. “What you want dis for? Take 6 munts!” It was a surprise that the recruitment sergeant in an official Israeli Defence Forces recruitment office was actually trying to talk me out of going into the army. “No, I want to serve!” I looked upon it as a test, it had to be, there was no way that this guy was really trying to talk me out of joining the army…surely he was merely testing me. “Okay, Okay 2 years”, he typed something into his computer and a moment later a young girl walked in with a form, he put it in front of me and I signed before my nerves or my senses could interfere.

He took the form from me and away and I watched as it disappeared into a manilla folder that itself disappeared into stack of other files just like it on his overflowing desk. I had become just another anonymous folder among thousands of others. The sergeant squinted through his thick glasses into the computer screen, clicked his mouse and a moment later the same girl came back into his office with another sheet of paper. The sergeant, defeated after his attempts to talk me out of serving slid the paper over to Sean. Sean looked at the paper, picked up the pen and signed.

The sergeant reached for the paper at which point Sean pulled it closer to his eyes for another look. “So uh how long am I serving for?” He quizzed. “Two years, you serve two” came the reply. “And urm” he shifted uncomfortably in his seat. I looked at him with a sinking feeling in my stomach, he had turned pale. “What if I want to do one year?” The sergeant looked up, confused, So you can do one year” he says. “hmm yeah, I think one year sounds much better…actually, I’ll just take the form home and think about it.”

Next up was Dave, the holy warrior, sure that in blood and fire did Israel fall, in blood and fire will Israel rise…and be maintained. I looked at him, he was younger than me, meaning that he had to serve three years regardless of whether he wanted to or not. There was no way he could back out. For the third time the soldier girl walked in with the form. For the third time the sergeant handed it over. For the third time someone who could barely speak Hebrew looked green with it in his hands. He looked at the sergeant who was waiting with all the anticipation of a recruitment sergeant who had no idea that his job was to actually get people into the army rather than keep them out.

David signed the form and I sighed a sweet sigh of relief. David’s anonymous file was open and the form had almost arrived in it’s bed ready to be laid to rest when he suddenly blurted out a string of words that I didn’t understand at all in the most perfect Hebrew. The sergeant peered at David through his thick lenses said “ok” picked up the form and ripped it up in front of us. I was on my own, two years of my life signed away in the blink of an eye. I had gotten just what I wanted and now that I had it I was by no means sure that I wanted it. A good lesson in life was there somewhere but damned if I could figure out what it was.

The End of One World the Beginning of a New One

My mum had said to me that she didn’t mind that I was living in a danger zone just as long as I called after each bomb blew up to tell her that I was okay. It was 2001 and the second Intifada had been going on for a while by the time I arrived in July of that year. It was inevitable that a bomb would go off some time in Jerusalem and I didn’t have long to wait. On August 9th, less than a month after my arrival a bomb went off in a pizza parlour in central Jerusalem. I felt very far removed from it, as though it was happening in a different country somehow. Some of the other guys living in the ulpan with me took it really hard though, especially the Americans. A pregnant American woman called Shoshana Greenbaum had been killed in the blast and some those living with me at the ulpan knew her.

I went to one of the 2 payphones in the building to call home and let my family know that I hadn’t been anywhere near the blast. The phone rang and a couple of thousand miles away my mum answered. “Hi mum” I said in an upbeat sort of way. “Hi darling how are you? How are you feeling about everything?” Yeah I’m fine, listen relax, don’t freak out or anything but a bomb has gone off but I’m fine, everything’s fine I don’t know anyone who got hurt and everything’s fine.” I blurted it all out as quickly as I could. There was a pause on the other end, “Marc?” she inquired, “yes mum?” “ I want you get on a plane right now and come home, enough of this, it’s too dangerous!” she took me by surprise, her voice rising as she spoke before almost tailing off to a whimper as she finished. “But Mum what about all that stuff you said about me just calling you and letting you know I was fine? Here I am calling and I’m fine, there’s no problems!”

“That wasn’t the same! Don’t you understand it’s dangerous!” The conversation was getting boring, I had performed my duty as a good son and let her know that a bomb had gone off and that I was fine. It was the last time I did so, if she heard about a bomb she could call me on my brand new cell phone to find out if I was okay. From that moment on the rule was if she didn’t call I figured she just didn’t know that anything had happened and I just stayed quiet.

A month or so later I was rudely awaken by a phone call. I had abandoned my Hebrew studies almost at the very beginning of the course, seduced by the night life that Jerusalem had to offer so it wasn’t unusual for me to sleep at just about any hour of the day. It was my grandfather on the phone, a rare honour. He was telling me that a plane had crashed into the one of the Twin Towers in New York. I shrugged him off with visions of a light aircraft accidentally crashing into the building somehow but he was insistent that something was happening so I got out of bed and went into the TV room downstairs.

People were there crying as I sat on a chair in silence and watched the images of smoke billowing out of what had been up to that point the marvel of the New York skyline. I watched the second plane fly into the second tower and I was no longer in Israel. I wasn’t in Israel and I wasn’t in the 21st century, I was in Sarejevo, it was 1914 and I was watching the Archduke being assassinated. Before my very eyes the world was changing forever and I was witness to it. The stable world I had grown up in crumbled along with the towers as CNN broadcast the event live.

I sat in that chair silently watching the news with my mouth open along with millions of other people all over the world watching those towers fall, hearing about the attack on the Pentagon and listening to the terrified reporters attempt to remain in control enough to report the facts as they understood them.

I stayed there until the evening and then went for a run I attempted to puzzle out what had happened. The feeling of being around to witness the end of the world I had known and the beginning of a new one never left me. I was on my way into the Israeli army with the object of becoming a Paratrooper. If I succeeded I would fight those who hated me because of my mere existence. There was no room in this world for Jews they said. Those who attacked America agreed with them. I felt like I was in the right place at the right time doing the right thing. I decided that in light of the day’s events all I needed to do was exactly what I was already doing. With that thought in mind I resolved to put myself forward for the tests to get into the Paratroopers the very next day.

Gibush

As the end of Ulpan approached my longing to escape from Jerusalem grew. Tel Aviv was still a mystery to me and I looked forward to exploring the sin city of the Holy Land. Around December Sean and I made the move forty five minutes West to the city that has a beach as a back yard and some semblance of life on the day of rest. The move went smoothly as Sean’s girlfriend did most of the work involved in finding us an apartment and I didn’t have much stuff to bring with me making the trip easy. We lived in a small apartment in the centre of the city, it wouldn’t be long before the army came knocking to inform me that I had been assigned a date to take the gibush, or selection, to the Tzanhanim.

I was a long way from the panic attack that had so startled me when my plane touched down at Ben Gurion airport several months before. I had worked hard to pass these tests but was by no means confident that I would be accepted. Instead of attending the language courses I had gone out drinking every night and slept in late. I worried that my language skills just wouldn’t be up to the tasks involved, I had relied on the army to act as the melting pot that would ensure my Hebrew learning would take care of itself without me having to do any work. Exactly how this plan was going to come into effect I wasn’t sure but it seemed to make sense at the time.

I asked a neighbour to translate the letter telling me where to report for the gibush. The date, time and everything I needed were on there. It took place in the central administrative base of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). I had read about the tests for years, dreaming of becoming a paratrooper but only recently had the prospect of actually earning the red beret become a possibility. My hands were shaking when I took the letter back from my neighbour, I had taken deliberate steps to get to this position but it had never seemed possible before, as though it was a dream that someone would soon shake me awake from.

The bus journey to the sprawling Tel HaShomer base was short, I still don’t know how I found my way to the right area inside. I was amazed by the sheer size of it, there were restaurants, a cab stand, a bus station and many other things that made the place seem like a town rather than a military facility. There were roads inside the base with soldiers wandering around wearing all kinds of different uniforms with different coloured berets, insignia and rank badges. I just looked out for the red berets and followed them to eventually get to the right place. With only soldiers all around me I felt uncomfortable in my civilian clothes. It was a feeling I wouldn’t experience for much longer.

I found a line of other guys all waiting to get into a fenced off section of the base and it was clear that I had found the right place. The first thing that I was put through was a medical examination followed by lots and lots of form filling and the two standard army fitness tests. The first is a 2 kilometre run and the second how many push ups and sit ups you can do within a specific time frame. Neither of these test proved problematic for me as I had trained very hard for almost a year in order to arrive at that point. The soldiers responsible for the gibush used the results to divide up the potential paratroopers into various groups based on their level of fitness. It turned out that my scores were high enough to be placed into the group with the highest fitness, though I wasn’t told that until later. Then suddenly, that was the day over with. I had expected 2 days fraught with physical challenges but it turned out that the actual test for the paratroopers was only several hours long. It was to begin before dawn the next day and until it did we were left to our own devices.

There were plenty of first experiences for me that day, it was my first exposure to the smell of canvas that was to dominate my tent dwelling army service, the first time I had worn the green khaki fatigues of a soldier and the first time I tasted evil army food. Eventually that night I fell asleep, it was cold lying on that cot in the open tent. I was incredibly aware of how alone I was, watching the other kids talking to each other made me feel even more alone, utterly unable to join in the conversations. Everything was a surprise to me especially after it dawned on me that my fellow candidates knew exactly what was going to happen minute by minute. They had friends, brothers, fathers and all manner of other family members and acquaintances to school them as to what to do and how to behave. I only had myself and the willpower that had gotten me this far.

The gibush began when it was still dark, we were divided into groups of about 20 and spent several hours running around doing all kinds of physical activities. The moment had come and the longer it went on the more I relished it. Months of exercise had all been for this, the knowledge that I had already committed 2 years of my life to the army combined with the fear that I would have to serve in some other unit if I didn’t perform propelled me forward.
The gibush itself was surprisingly easy, plenty of running around, sometimes with weight on my back and a stretcher run to finish it all off. Maybe one or 2 people quit my group but that was the maximum. I surprised myself by feeling glad to watch them go, each time someone quit gave me more confidence to carry on. ‘They may have failed but I never would’ became my motto throughout. After a few hours of physical testing it was all over and I was on my way home, hi as a kite having conquered the dreaded paratroopers test in style.

A few weeks later I received a letter from the army, with no idea how to read it I left my apartment and stopped a stranger in the street to ask her to translate it to me. “Mazal tov you past the gibush for the Tzanhanim” she said in heavily accented English. From the first easy step of getting on the plane until this moment my plan had worked, now the army just needed to draft me in and the red beret was as good as mine. My thoughts turned to officer school and the long career that awaited me. I knew that there was one more test before I had really begun on my path to success, the next gibush to the famed Sayeret Tzanhanim. This was the real test, I wanted Special Forces and the next gibush was the obstacle to overcome in order to get there. Another letter arrived in the post not long later, it was my official draft to the army.

My date was set for late July 2002, I was finally going in!

The shriek of the alarm somehow managed to pierce through the alcohol induced fog that clouded my mind. My hand soon discovered the source of the unwanted siren in the form of my mobile phone and I shut it off only to pass out once again. Several hours later I awoke with a start, something was wrong, it was my stomach…I was going to be sick. In a fit of athleticism I ran to the toilet, silently praying that I would make it in time. I didn’t, I did however make it to the balcony where I threw up in to the overgrowth four stories below. Unfortunately my downstairs neighbour happened to be watering the plants on her own balcony at just that moment, she was less than impressed. After my stomach had stopped contracting, my brain attempted to focus on something other than the fact that the room was spinning. There was something going on in there, something I was supposed to be doing…the lightning bolt hit with all of the power of, well, a lightning bolt hitting a person.

I moved back to my room and picked up my phone. It had done its job and woken me up at the correct time I just hadn’t been listening. I was now precisely 4 hours late for my first day in the army. Was it possible that after everything I had done to get this far I had sabotaged myself with a night of drunken debauchery? The next hour was a blur of getting myself together, grabbing the bag I had already packed and setting off once again to the main administrative base outside of Tel Aviv.

On the way I feared the worst, what did they do to recruits who showed up late? That had never been in any of the books I read or stories of the army that I had heard. I arrived at the gate clutching my draft papers in my hand and waving them around as though they were a magic parchment that would open all doors. As it turned out they did, which makes sense as that’s exactly why they were given to me. At the time in my simultaneously hung over and adrenaline filled state it hadn’t occurred to me that getting through the door would be so easy. Endless scenes of security checks and interrogations flashed through my mind on the journey to the base. After such a panic my arrival was something of a let-down as a bored, fat guard simply waved me in, barely looking at my papers.

After what felt like a lifetime of frantically running around the sprawling base I made it to the area that I had been ordered to arrive at in my letter. Standing in that office I was sure that a pair of handcuffs would be clapped on me and I would be carted off to jail. Instead a very bored looking girl looked quizzically at me when I apologised for being late before waving me in the direction of a bunch of very bored looking young men who were sitting down in a courtyard. It turned out that those guys had been waiting there for hours and no one had even noticed that I hadn’t turned up. So far my experience of army life was that everyone was bored and the meagre work they did do served only to make their boredom stronger rather than relieving it.

I wasn’t going into the Paratroopers, at least not straight away, it turned out that there was a course especially designed for new soldiers who had a limited use of the language and/or of Israel herself. Alongside a bunch of other new immigrants I was being sent to a course called Yahash in a base in the North of Israel. I looked at the faces around me and heard a babble of different languages. French and Russian were the most distinguishable, there were some occasional bursts of English to be heard also.

I hadn’t known it then but I was on my way to one of the most dreaded bases in the whole of the IDF. It was where any problematic soldier was sent. Those who didn’t want to serve in the army, those with learning disabilities and most of all those with extreme problems with authority were sent there. It was under the command of the Education Corps and morale on the base was low, even compared to what I had seen at the main base which was really, really saying something.

On my first day there I met a South African soldier, his name was Ken, he had cropped hair, white skin burnt red and the strongest South African accent I had ever heard. We sat on the steps of our shared barracks and I listened as he told me about the base I had been sent to. He had already been there for three months, sent there because his Hebrew wasn’t strong enough. Many of his comrades on the base were immigrants from the former Soviet Union who had been exposed to little Hebrew. Ken had arrived in the army with thoughts of becoming a fighter but after a single month had abandoned the idea as the weight of the enforced discipline and lack of anything else crushed his spirit. He refused to go to a combat unit and had his heart set on returning to South Africa. “I came here to serve and all the army did was spit on my dreams!” He said this with eyes looking down at the ground, he looked up at me and grinned. “But you are only here for a few weeks and then they will send you on to combat, and I my friend will be back in South Africa!”

This moment was the beginning of an utterly pointless three weeks of my army service. We were given mainly classroom lessons on the IDF, did some running, fired a rifle and generally were marched around. The discipline was strict and the activities mainly without any objective other than to keep us busy. At one point recruits were asked whether they wanted to take the gibush to the Tzanhanim. I figured that since it wasn’t particularly problematic the first time around I would take it again to make doubly sure of my entry to the Tzanhanim only to be denied the opportunity. The corporal in charge of me told me that I wasn’t eligible, which sent my mind spinning as to whether I was going to be able to make it to the paratroopers after all.

I met several people from English speaking countries while I was there. There was one American guy called Josh who struck me as being the perfect soldier. He was very quiet, when he did speak he was direct and to the point. He was eligible to take the gibush to the Tzanhanim and I was under no doubt that this tough American would find it an easy test to pass. We were in the same squad and though the conversation wasn’t great it was good to know that there was at least one English speaker there with me.

It was difficult to meet any of the others, there was a mixture of so many languages and everyone knew we would only be together for a short time only. It was frustrating, I felt as though I had moved from one version of limbo to another as I continued my wait to make it to the Tzanhanim The days passed slowly but they passed nevertheless, eventually they took us back (again) to the central administrative base of the IDF. There I sat in a prefabricated hut before a shaven headed 21 year old officer who likely as not had never held a rifle in his life.

He chewed a pencil as he leaned back in his chair, eyes transfixed by the contents of the file he held in his hands. The contents of that file were all of the data that the army held on me, it consisted of a single page. Finally he looked from the file to me and, still leaning back in his chair said to me “your scores are easily high enough to make it to the Tzanhanim but you’re not going. There’s no more room.”

I sat there, mouth slightly open, palms dripping with sweat, “but, but, but, I came from London to be in the Tzanhanim” I croaked using a tongue that seemed to stick whenever it hit a part of my mouth. “Yeah well there is no room so I am going to give you a bunch of other options,” “No! I don’t want to hear any other options! I’m not interested in any other options!” My throat constricted and my eyes hurt with tears being held back in. His eyes narrowed, I cleared my throat, whoops, it looked like I might have made an enemy. I tried another tack. “Please…if there’s no room I need your help, we have to figure out a way to make sure that there is room, can’t they just throw another bunk in a room or in a tent somewhere? You see I don’t just want to be in TzanhanimI want to be in Sayeret Tzanhanim!” If I had thought that my revelation would make a difference to this man I was mistaken. He clearly hadn’t noticed that the future Chief of Staff was sitting before him. I had been firm and I had begged, surely one of those two must have helped.

He sent me outside and told me that I would be called back at the appropriate time. He sent me away but I never left his side. When he left his office I was waiting there to remind him that I was the English guy who he was helping into the Tzanhanim and not to forget about me. When he went to eat I was there sitting opposite him reminding him that I was the English guy who passed the gibush and was now waiting to go into the Tzanhanim and could he please help? I waited outside his office until the shadows became long enough to merge into one another and the lights around the base came on. I was in limbo.

He left me there in limbo, waiting outside his office, watching other new soldiers go in and come out, each time wondering if I would be called in next to be told that I was going to be a paratrooper after all. I was seriously scared that the two years I had given up for the army were going to be a complete waste of time. I waited and I waited and the sun sank towards its Western resting place and still I hadn’t been called back in. The officer stepped out of his office and saw me sitting there in the same chair that I had been allocated hours before. “Oh, are you still here?” He said, I looked at him utterly dejected, he turned to his assistant, “send him to Camp C” he told his clerk.

I strained my ears but it didn’t seem to me that Camp C sounded anything like Tzanhanim. In fact Camp C was where all of the soldiers that the army hadn’t been able to place were sent. I was stuck with the various odds and sods who hadn’t been assigned. I could hear music and see lights coming from the other side of the base, I was told that it was a show being put on for the new recruits to the Paratroopers. With that comforting knowledge I crawled into a sleeping bag, surrounded by people I didn’t know and fell asleep.

The next day I was once again called into the prefabricated hut of the same officer who had attempted to shunt me into a unit that certainly was not called the Tzanhanim. When I sat down he had a smarmy look on his face and was biting the end of a brand new pencil. Sat next to him was an officer with three bars on his shoulder denoting the rank of Captain and more importantly he had the red beret of the paratroopers tucked into the right epaullete of his olive coloured shirt. The officer said to me, “tell him what you told me yesterday”, and so I began my pleas to be able to fulfil my journey towards the vaunted paratroopers of my dreams.

When it was over the two men opposite me looked at one another and then an aide asked me to leave. I was none the wiser as to how well my pleas carried with the two men. I was put in a line with a bunch of the guys who had been in Camp C at the end of the line people were assigned to their various units, the army clearly having decided where they were going to send them. “I hope they send me to a unit where I can go home every weekend.” The voice was high pitched, nasal and I knew the face to which it belonged. It was someone from course yachash and I attempted to avoid him.

I reached the end of the line to find a soldier sitting at a table. Without looking up at me he simply asked for my army number, I gave it to him. “Goldberg?” He asked. “Yes” I said in a voice already shaking with emotion, fatigue and stress, was the plan already shattered into pieces? “Tzanhanim” he said and pointed to a group of soldiers standing next to an old bus. Although anyone looking at me would have seen me walk towards the bus there was a party going on inside my head and everyone was invited! I was going to be a Paratrooper, I was going to join the ranks of the men who jumped in the Mitla Pass in 1956, of the men who liberated the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967 and the veterans of countless other battles.

I had done it! I had done it! I had done it!

So there I was sitting on a bus bound for the Paratrooper’s training base somewhere in the occupied territories. There was a babble of nervous chatter going on all around me, looking to my left and to my right I was sure that all of these guys had known each other for years from the way they were all so sociable. I couldn’t understand anything that they were saying and even if I could have I was much too nervous to speak. Now it was all real, I was actually on my way to becoming a Paratrooper and it was definitely too late to turn back. The finality of my commitment really dawned on me during that journey. As the bus moved East past Jerusalem from the green fields of the coastal plain to the desolation of the Judean desert I knew that I was utterly committed. Other than that nothing was certain any more, I thought of home, of my brothers and what they were doing at that moment. Nick was about to start University, he was having fun messing around with his friends smoking weed and getting wasted. I thought of my youngest brother Joel and how I hadn’t lived in the same house as him since he was 11 and how I didn’t know the man he was becoming and all the while the bus continued on its journey, transporting a whole new batch of fodder for the Israel Defence Forces to turn into fighting men.

It was a long drive, I don’t know how long but at a certain point in the journey I had come to dread our arrival at the other end. The bus was a safe place, I could sit there in my seat where no one knew that I didn’t understand the language, where no one wanted anything from me and where nothing was expected of me. At the end of that journey lay the full force of the army and my two years of service. My dreams were gone, they were being replaced with reality and I wasn’t sure that that was a good thing. As long as I was on the bus I was safe, once it stopped I had no idea what lay on the other side waiting for me.

Inevitably my bus and the several others that were also carrying new soldiers arrived at the base. I sat in my seat riveted to the spot, sweating. I had images of a US Marine Corps drill sergeant, running onto the bus and shouting at us I needed have worried. A paratrooper who had been on the bus with us simply stood up and said in a voice so quiet it was almost a whisper; “this is Nebi Mussa, grab your stuff and get off the bus”. I followed the others off the bus and into what can only be described as a boiling bowl of dust. The base was a far cry from what I had seen of the IDF thus far, it consisted more of canvas tents than it did of anything more solid, there was a sheet iron barrier around the perimeter of the base and some guard towers overlooking the desert outside. There were some prefabricated huts and two permanent structures, one was the kitchen and another a large briefing room and this was the sum total of where I was to spend the next three months of my life. I would later learn that Nebi Musa was Arabic for Moses’ Grave.

The buses left through a rusting red gate that had been opened for them by the soldiers from the intake before mine. They were in the transition between the end of the boot camp, the joys of which were waiting for me, and the start of their advanced training. So there we all were the newest recruits to the Paratroopers, all hyped and ready to go! Only no one seemed to care. We had gotten off the buses and watched them retreat back from whence they had come while we were greeted by a resounding nothing.

Eventually some shabby looking guys turned up and sorted us into large groups of a hundred or so. My group was led about 30 metres or so away from the entrance to the base and then we were lined up in rows once again only to be left alone once again. After a few minutes chatter began to seep out of the line. The talking became louder until everyone was talking as though they were amongst people they had known all their lives, everyone except me. I was just standing there wishing I spoke enough Hebrew to talk to someone while the sweat dripped down me. After a while the dusty soldiers turned up once again and wandered down the line telling everyone to be quiet.

They weren’t angry, they just told everyone to be quiet. Then they left and then everyone started talking again. This rhythm continued for longer than I care to remember, it was my first introduction to Israeli army discipline. Someone would give an order and no one would obey it, then the person who gave the order would see no one was obeying and rather than get mad would simply repeat it. It seemed incomprehensible at the time and that feeling never quite went away.

I would later learn to call the area I was standing in the ‘plugah’ this is the Hebrew word for a company of soldiers which consists of about 100 men and that was about the number of us standing there. The word is also used to refer to the area that the plugah is based in, the areas would be called plugah A,plugah B and so on. The plugah consisted of nine canvas tents that were set out in a three sided square shape with 3 tents on each side of the open square and a flag pole in the middle. We were all lined up in rows three deep facing one of the rows of tents with the flag pole in front of us and the open end of theplugah to our right.

Eventually someone who looked like he had some authority turned up and once again silenced the chattering. This time something was happening, one after the other the guys were lead into one of the tents, they would walk in a civilian and leave wearing green army fatigues and carrying a kit bag. When my turn came.I was shown into a tent that smelled of canvas and sweat, there were 10 metal cots in two neat lines with every piece of equipment a soldier needed laid out on each cot save for a rifle.

A couple of pairs of uniforms, two water bottles, one water bottle holder, a rolled up two man tent, a gas mask, an army belt were waiting for me. I put the uniform on, it was too big, I tucked the shirt into the oversized trousers and tightened the belt. There were two rubber bands on the bed that I placed around my ankles and tucked the end of the ridiculously over sized trousers up into. In the Israeli Army one size really does fit all. I gathered up the equipment laid out on the bed into the kitbag that had been provided and walked out. The man who had shown me in was waiting, he walked me back to the line and tapped the next guy on the shoulder. No one spoke, my heart was beating so hard that I thought it was going to beat its way out of my body. I stood there and waited in silence for the ritual to end.

Trom Tyranut

As it turned out Boot camp hadn’t started yet, I was in what they call Trom Tyrannot. This is a couple of weeks of pre boot camp army adjustment. In essence it’s a soft landing to give new recruits the chance to get used to wearing a uniform, receive their most basic pieces of equipment and most importantly of all be assigned to their specific units. This is the part that I was really interested in, in fact it was probably the most important part of my army experience. Despite all of my fear of the unknown and the pounding in my chest I still wanted to get to the Special Forces and it was during this period of faux boot camp that I would have the chance to do it. Everyone in the camp had already had to pass one gibush to begin training with the Paratroopers but there was another one, a tougher one for the really serious units.

I had heard of all the units that were recruiting from the gibush but there was only one that I had any interest in, SayeretTzanhanim. I had been dreaming of making into the reconnaissance unit of the Paratroopers for a long time and now my chance had come. The gibush was close and I dreaded it as much as I awaited its arrival with expectation, I simply couldn’t fail and refused even to countenance it as an option. I was determined that my time in the army was to be spent there and nowhere else. I had read stories about the unit in the history books, about how they had conducted the commando raids into enemy territory since the 1950’s and it was the unit that I was determined to make it into.

My plugah was only established to last for the duration of TromTyranut and everything about it was temporary. I was split into a temporary platoon and given a temporary sergeant who was to provide me with anything I didn’t have and generally worry about me and the other guys in our platoon. His job was to babysit us and to make sure that we all turned up at the various things on the schedule for the two weeks. These included lectures from the doctor, lectures from officers about what would happen to us over the course of our training and a whole range of other irrelevancies which I forgot about as soon as I had passed through them. For me all of this was a waste of time, I understood nothing and barely communicated with anyone. When someone wanted something from me they resorted to hand signals or attempted English which, by and large, not many people spoke.

My first meal was in a large tent that served as a makeshift dining room. When I saw the food spread before me I wondered how I was going to be able to eat during my army service. In army terms it constituted a feast but my English digestive system had rarely considered hard boiled eggs, cream cheese, rice and very hard bread to be a meal. This was all available in abundance along with some tuna. I sat there on a folding bench watching everyone around me tuck in while I slowly spread some butter on a slice of bread trying to figure out how I was expected to exist on this…food.

The gibush drew ever closer. It was slated to take place at the very end of Trom Tyranut, none of the potential paratroopers yet had been earmarked to either the Special Forces or one of the regular Paratrooper battalions. None could be until the gibush had taken place and the cream of the crop plucked away to begin training with their units. The day of the gibush was a day of activity, thegibush itself wasn’t due to start until nightfall. Everyone around me started working on their equipment to make it more comfortable, they added tape and various pieces of material to the straps of bags and were busily doing all manner of things to the kit that I had no conception of. The other guys in my tent looked at me with quizzical expressions on their faces as I lay stretched out on my bed resting in the run up to the most important test I had ever taken. The truth was that those other guys already knew exactly what was waiting for them on the gibush they had relatives and friends who had already been through it and were fully in tune with what would be required of them whereas I was utterly ignorant of what was waiting for me. All I could do was lie there waiting for the test that would determine whether I reached my goal of the famed Sayeret Tzanhanim.

The Path to the Sayeret

I had thought about the gibush a great deal and expected the worst, it was with the worst in mind that I had trained, running everyday followed by pushups and situps. I wasn’t sure whether it would be enough but that was what I had done. The only solid fact I had about the gibush was that it lasted three days and nights. I expected to be deprived of sleep, beaten and starved, in the year between my arrival in Israel and the second gibush my imagination had run wild with thoughts of all different kinds of torture and I was determined to survive everything and anything in my quest to make it into the Sayeret.

The allotted time came; those of us who had requested the gibush were taken away from the plugah to the edge of the base. We had been instructed to bring an army issued bag with various items; a shovel, a one man tent and two army issue water canteens. There were a couple of hundred of us and we were spilt into groups of about 15 to 20 people. We all stood there as our names were read out and one by one we were given a group number and sent in the direction of the soldiers who would be directing our individual groups. I moved silently over to the knot of fighters who were standing next to a number 19 that had been written on a piece of cardboard and attached to the chain link fence on the edge of the base. I stood there waiting as one by one the other wannabe Special Forces fighters arrived at my group.

The men who were running my gibush seemed to be in the most part reservists. The man in charge was around 40 and was short and chunky. One of the others was a massive hulk of a man who stood at over 6” and seemed to consist of pure muscle, he seemed to be around the same age as the smaller guy. He was someone that I wanted to impress. Later I would understand that with the exception of the smaller man everyone there representative a different special unit and that later they would sit down and argue over who got to have who. Altogether there were 5 members of staff helping to run my particular gibush.

Once we were all assembled the first thing that happened was that the little guy passed around a hat and told us all to put our watches in it. That small action would had a massive affect, there would be no way to know how much time remained except by the setting and rising sun. With that small action completed the instructors marched us out of the base and into the Judean Desert, it was August and summer was at its height. Even the desert nights were stiflingly hot. Once we were away from the base the gibush began. The little guy lined us up in three rows facing him. He gave us 30 seconds to run to a rock a couple of hundred meters away and run back again and to stand in precisely the same formation that we had stood in before we started. We were all chomping at the bit to get going, we were all dying to impress the men standing before us. Looking left and right all I saw were competition for the limited number of places available for my dream unit. I wanted the others to fail, I wanted them to fall so that I could rise.

He counted us down and then I heard him reach “one!” I was off like lightening, made it to the allocated point and was one of the first ones back. I tool care to make sure that the same people were standing to my left and right. It took more than 40 seconds before everyone was back in position, I know because he showed each of us his stopwatch. “Not very good…again!” And we were off again to the rock, I reached it and ran back again as fast as I could. The man at my left was already there and I simply slotted in next to him, waiting for the guy to make it to my right. Everyone arrived to their allocated point and he clicked his stopwatch and shook his head. “38 seconds…again!” Once again we were off, each step kicked up dust that the man behind inhaled my throat was soon dry as we continued on and on in the same way never quite hitting 30 seconds.

Over and over again we ran to the rock and back, I don’t know how many times we ran or how much time had passed before he stopped us, “What’s the problem?” he asked, “is it too hard? Why can’t you do it?” A couple of excuses would come from the assembled wannabe warriors, I didn’t dare speak afraid that my poor knowledge of Hebrew would badly influence my chances of getting through.

Again we ran and again we failed, he sent us back to that rock over and over and then it began. “Who wants to sit this one out?” The big man said as he ate a chocolate brownie. “It won’t mean anything bad. There were no takers and off we all went once again, soon the offers were more subtle; “who wants to do pushups by the side while the others run to the rock and back?” Off we went again though this time, on the way back I saw that two of our group were doing pushups while waiting for us to return. I knew that they were already finished. They hadn’t been thrown out of the gibush but these guys were already taking the easy option and the inctructors were watching. “Fill up your water bottles and drink!” barked the little man. “This time you are going to make it in 30 seconds believe me” he said as we thirstily consumed the lukewarm water in our bottles. It was as much a relief for the break as it was to get rid of the dust that had turned the inside of my mouth into a bleak desert.

He lined us back into the original three lines and allowed the two fighters to sit by the side and continue their pushups. He ordered us out again and as one we ran, hit the rock and came back in our original positions. He clicked down on the stopwatch and showed to all of us in turn as we stood there. “See you can do it!” He said, the timer said 29.87 seconds. It was counter intuitive, we were more tired than before but we had become more and more organised. we had, silently, almost subconsciously marked out a specific route to take and a way to get back into formation without bumping into each other.

The two doing pushups never re-joined our group and sat at the side as we stood in our three lines. The big man took out a plastic bag and began handing out numbered tags. Seeing them made my heart sink, it meant that all I had been trying to do in terms of impressing these older warriors had been pointless up to this point. They hadn’t even been writing down scores for any of us. The tag was placed on my shoulder, it was number 12 and that was what I would be called for the rest of the three day trial. That was when the instructors pulled out their notebooks and started paying close attention to who we were and how we behaved.

The gibush continued through the rest of the night with small tasks on a strict time limit always different but always very similar. I wasn’t touched, no one ever shouted at me, it was simply a case of do as you’re told or sit out, and spend the rest of your life contemplating your own weakness. I was too motivated to consider sitting out, for me this wasn’t about finishing but about excelling. All my life I had been an under achiever, all my life I had to suffer the humiliation of staring at an exam paper and not knowing the answers to any of the questions, but here, in the gibush I felt I had the answers. All I had to do was keep pushing through, be the first, be the most motivated.

At one point we were taken to a stretch of the desert with empty sandbags lying in a heap on the ground. The little man told us to fill them up with as much sand as was “comfortable”, I could see them making notes as we filled the bags up. I filled mine up and stood in a line with the others holding it on my shoulder. We all stood in a row with these sandbags on our shoulders, just waiting. Then he told us to start running and start running we did. I ran with the sandbag on my shoulder for what felt like hours, monotonously running back and forth along a stretch of desert.

At some point the sun rose from her slumber and I carried my sandbag around and around watching the sun come up over a mountain in the distance, I had survived the first night. I wished the sun would come up faster, I wished time would go faster and this whole thing could be done with. It hadn’t taken long before they had gotten every one of us to the point of exhaustion. To my surprise we were to be fed during the course of the gibush, once the sun came up, bringing intense heat along with it we were sat down in a circle and a ration pack consisting of tinned food was tossed into the middle. I knew it was going to be a problem as people scrambled for food all around me and I was unable to communicate effectively. Though this may well have worked to my advantage as I unnervingly noticed that the staff stood over us with their notebooks grading us on how we interacted with one another over the food. Somehow I managed to eat though there is nothing as destructive to your appetite as having someone watching you and making notes on how you go about doing it.

The August heat ensured that during certain hours the physical aspect of the gibush was put on hold. This came as another nice surprise for someone who was convinced that he was going to spend three days essentially getting beaten up. We were allowed to sleep in shaded areas for what I imagine was a couple of hours and also spent time playing certain mind games. At one point the big instructor could see I was having difficulty so he took me aside and explained the rules to me in English, for which I was eternally grateful. It interested me that more people seemed to quit during the downtime than during the heavy exercise period. I remember lying down and watching as a blonde kid very deliberately stood up, looked around and then simply walked away. It made me happy to see him go, one person less vying for my place in the Sayeret.

My attitude towards the gibush changed after a conversation with one of the guys in my group. He was number 8. We spoke in whispers and he told me all about the mind-set behind the gibush he told me about how the instructors weren’t looking for the fittest people but for those who helped out the most. He told me that the instructors were standing over us while we ate to see who made food for others and who just made it for themselves. He told me that they knew we would all become fit through the training that we had before us but what they were looking for is who can still think even when they are exhausted. These were the words that I had needed to hear. The guys around me, the ones I was competing against already knew what they had to do in order to be accepted, some of them had already taken other gibushim for different Special Forces units.

I lay on my back reflecting in the moments before sleep took me. These were the relevant hours, this was the time that would be the difference between success of failure. I was on the very last stretch now, telling my parents that I was coming to Israel felt like something that had happened in another world. My world now was canvas tents, desert and dust and hornets, meals consisting of hard boiled eggs and cream cheese. My world was this one now, my time in the army had already been given up to a fat sergeant in Jerusalem who looked at me as if I was a lunatic for doing it, now I was here and I owed it to myself to make sure I got to the finish line.

I changed my strategy, now I was the helper guy, now I wasn’t running in front of the pack but helping out someone slower than me. Now it made more sense why we had been running to make it back in 30 seconds, the fact that I had made it back in time hadn’t been relevant, the fact that I hadn’t helped the slower guys was the relevant fact. From that moment I was encouraging the others on, I was the helper, I was doing all that I could to propel others forward, I was doing all that I could to get to the Sayeret.

On the second day we were formed into a circle, two of us were called into the middle and tasked with forcing the other out of the circle. I refused to lose, I refused to be knocked out of the ring. When my turn came I rushed into the centre ready to taken on anyone, another recruit was called. He was roughly my height, we rushed at one another, the intensity of knowing that everything rested on victory made me heart pound with anticipation. The fight or flight reflex was at its zenith as I went all out for the fight. The rules were no hitting, it was a wrestling match and for a while we tussled there in the centre of the ring of people watching us. A confidence pervaded my body, I never doubted that this recruit was going out of the ring and I took a perverse enjoyment forcing him further and further back towards the edge of the ring. I put in a burst of power that sent him sprawling out of the ring. I remained in the ring while another, bigger recruit was pitched against me, he soon found himself on the ground with my knee in his back. I was on top of the world, I felt the exhilaration of domination. After the gibush the first recruit I had defeated would find himself in the Sayeret, the second in another Special Forces unit called Maglan and I had beaten them both.

The rest of the gibush passed in a blur of demanding physical exercise and mind games. To my surprise we slept at night and during the heat of the day. They put us to sleep in the small tents that we were ordered to take with us, they put us down early and got us up at what I thought was around 4 in the morning, well before daybreak to work us some more. I slept in a tent with number 8 who would school me a little bit more each night in English before we both passed out.

There were no bestial soldiers and there were no beatings, I slept and I ate during the three day gibush. This had been the big exam and I had pushed all of the way through, I hadn’t let up, not once and the whole way through I had been thinking of the Sayeret imagining how awful the taste of failure would have felt as it made it’s way through me

After an easy gibush I proceeded to fuck up the interview completely.

The Interview

The mere fact that I was having an interview came as a surprise to me. As far as I had known the gibush was over the moment we were told that we could stop working and had made it to the end. Once it was all over the men who had been instructing us and making notes on us shared a little about themselves and dropped the barriers that had existed between us over the past 3 days. Most importantly for me they told us what units they had been in and when they had served. I knew that they were impressed with me and that my lack of Hebrew hadn’t harmed my chancs but had enhanced them as they knew it added an extra element of difficulty to my gibush but the prospect of an interview scared me far more, I wasn’t preapred, I didn’t know what kinds of questions they were going to ask or what it was they wanted to hear.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to impress a bunch of hardened soldiers sitting across a table from me since I could barely speak, I didn’t even know the Hebrew words for knife and fork, how on earth was I going to be able to explain to them that feeling of emptiness I had felt back in Manchester when I found myself unable even to enter the recruitment fair? Would they even care? I didn’t know the answers to these and the other questions that kept popping into my head, my eyes kept closing of their own free will and I dreamed of the metal cot I had left three days ago and rest. When my turn came to be interviewed I was led away from the other guys I had been with for the past three days and told to sit on a bench in front of yet another canvas tent. There was a dark skinned kid with bushy eyebrows already there waiting and we sat there next to each other. There was enough time for him to tell me that his name was Avi before he was called into the tent and I was left to wait on my own.

The only other interview I could remember sitting through was to work in Sony selling TV’s, for a summer job, I doubted that experience would be of much use here. I sat there on that bench watching the sun drop ever further down towards its Mediterranean resting place reminding myself that I had almost achieved my life’s dream of arriving at the Sayeret. “You’re almost there Marc”, I told myself, “just this one last hurdle and you’re there” the adrenaline was storming it’s merry way through me while I sat on a bench, watching the sun frop ever closer to the desert floor waiting to be called into an anonymous green tent where my fate would be decided. The gesticulations of a reservist shook me from my reverie, it was my turn to enter into the dreaded tent.

Waiting for me inside were five reservists, a representative of each of the units looking at the new recruits. One of them had been running my team on the gibush. He was the very big, very bald man who now for some reason was wearing a ridiculous cowboy hat. The others all looked a lot younger. They were tough though and good looking. Some of them wore T-shirts with their unit insignia on them, though I didn’t recognise which units they were at the time. The interview began when the cowboy leaned forward and said “Marc what can we do with you? You don’t even speak Hebrew?”

I have to admit that a part of me had been expecting them to bow down in admiration at the fact that I had come all the way from London to put my life on the line for their country. Unfortunately with that first question I had become quite aware of the fact that may not have been the case, it appeared that they might consider me more of a burden than a solution. I was unprepared for the line of questioning and simply blurted out“within a couple of months of army service I’ll be fluent”. I instantly regretted the outburst though before I could dwell on it someone else leaned in with another question. “But why are you here at all?” This clearly wasn’t going well. Surely it was obvious that I had arrived to serve in the army, that much they knew but was I really going to have to search my soul and start talking about England and my feelings of teenage angst? I answered that it had been my dream to serve in Sayeret Tzanhanim. He dismissed this with a flick of his rather large wrist, “Why is that your dream, Marc?” He asked quietly. They were all looking at me, I didn’t know what to say.

I knew I was in trouble, every soldier I had spoken to since arriving in the country had told me about how he couldn’t wait to get out of the army, how could I tell these guys that I had come to Israel with visions of glory and to become the ultimate Jewish warrior? I had to say something that made sense to them. The problem was I had been so focused on getting into the army that I had never really asked myself why it had become such a big deal. With suicide bombers blowing themselves up in Israel’s heartland I hadn’t expected anyone to wonder what I was doing there, certainly not anyone in the army. “This is the best army in the world, the only one that is willing to look after Jews”. Was the line I came up with, I looked at their faces and I could see that they were unimpressed with me; I shifted uncomfortably on my seat once again. “So do you just want to kill an Arab or something?” said a wiry, thin soldier. He was wearing a cap with one of the unfamiliar unit insignia on it. “No” I blurted out, painfully aware that the very people I wanted to impress were starting to wonder if I was a psycho. “If I’m going to spend 2 years in the army I just want to make sure that I serve in the best unit that I can,” I said with as much confidence and authority as I could muster. The mood relaxed somewhat and the big guy gave a small grin and looked at the soldier to his left who gave one too. Perhaps they were smiling at my naivet?. Perhaps they felt awkward too, perhaps they just thought that a young man who had no idea what he was getting into had just walked into their tent.

Then they started with questions about my choice of unit. “Why Sayeret Tzanhanim Marc? You know there are other units too, would you consider going to a unit other than the Sayeret?” I told them this was the unit I wanted, the best unit in the army and the reason I had come to Israel. But inside I wasn’t so sure any more. If I answered in the wrong way they might not send me to any of the units, “Sayeret Tzanhanim is of course my first choice but you guys are the ones who know most about the army and I will go where I am sent.” I said. Heads around the table nodded and I felt pleased that I had finally said something that provoked a relatively positive response.

After a couple more questions they released me, I walked out of the interview with a sick feeling in my stomach. Their questions had caught me off guard, especially the one about just wanting to kill an Arab. I hadn’t even considered that I might actually have to kill someone before. The interview marked the end of the gibush the adrenaline in my system was gone and my eyes attempted to close themselves despite my brain telling them to remain open. I was in the hands of the army now and they would decide my fate.

Boot Camp Begins

I had rolled the dice and I had lost, the Sayeret had been denied to me and this other unit, this… Orev was to be my home. I had exercised the last of my options when I had volunteered for the Gibush, now the army owned me and I was going to have to figure out how to live with the consequences of the decision they made. Thankfully there wasn’t much time to contemplate my utter failure. Myself and the 17 other guys I had been thrown together with were directed to two large, 10 man tents with ten metal cots apiece and a small locker next to each cot. There were 6 tents in total to house all of the new soldiers being trained up and facing those tents were 3 more for the training staff. In between their tents and ours was a rectangular parade ground measuring about 20 by 40 meters and at the end of that stood a big tent that served as a dining room, next to it stood a portable showering unit with the three showers and two toilets that over 100 of us would be sharing.

There were a few people sitting on their cots chatting to one another at the far end of the tent but even if I did have the communication skills to chat to them I had no interest in being friendly. I walked out of the tent fingering the mobile phone in my pocket, considering calling home and figuring out a way out of the army. Instead I just sat down in an obscure part of the plugah feeling sorry for myself. I wasn’t left to my own devices for very long. Above the cacophony of foreign voices I heard the distinctly familiar sound of my name being called. I looked around for the source and saw a swarthy, dark skinned,soldier wearing a red beret calling me.

I slowly got to my feet and went to find out whether there had been a mistake and I was supposed to be in the Sayeret after all. “Marc Goldberg?” was all he said as I approached him, I nodded and he motioned for me to follow him. He moved around the back of the staff tents to where several tables and chairs were waiting. He introduced himself as my new commander his name was Ran and he introduced himself with a smile. His English was non-existent and my Hebrew was awful but we managed to struggle through a few of the basics.

He wanted to know if I was happy that I had been placed into the Orev and I nodded in the affirmative, worried that if I said no they would simply throw me out of the Paratroopers. He explained that he was one of four staff members who would be training my team during boot camp. He was responsible for half the soldiers in the team and another commander bore responsibility for the other nine. Above him was my Sergeant and above him my officer, beyond the officer I didn’t need to worry. The interview was mercifully brief and at the end he patted me on the shoulder and told me not to worry so much and that it would be ok. I wondered how he had been able to read my mind without it dawning on me for a second that a mere year and a half before he had been sitting in my seat and remembered exactly how it felt to be in a new place and not know anyone.

My officer also interviewed me that day, Ran came to find me and led me to the same table that the two of us had sat at earlier. My officer was a hulk of a man at over 6” tall and rippling with muscles, this was clearly not a person to be taken lightly. He motioned for me to sit down and introduced himself as my officer without giving me his name. “You’re not to talk English anymore” he said and then he went on to tell me to work hard and that he was happy to have me in his team, then he simply stopped talking. The short interview was over. Unlike Ran he never smiled, in fact he didn’t betray a single iota of emotion at all. After an awkward silence I walked away from my interview only for him to call me back and tell me to salute him, after saluting…my officer I made my way back to the hustle and bustle of my new plugah. So far boot camp wasn’t anything like I thought it would be, I had expected a drill sergeant of the kind I had seen in Full Metal Jacket to be shouting at me all the way through instead all I had were Ran’s smiles and my officer’s distance.

The following days were more like a summer camp than the army. Sleeping in tents and running from lecture to lecture, none of which I understood. I didn’t talk to anyone very much at first, it was difficult because of the language barrier but it wasn’t just that. Everyday I watched the new recruits to my beloved Sayeret wander around the plugah with their chins out and heads held high and every day it made me feel like I had failed. They would say things to me like “don’t worry the Orev is good too” and I would despise them for it. If the Orev was so good how come none of them had requested it as their first choice?

There was lots to do in those first days, we didn’t have rifles yet and we were only slowly receiving the tools that we would need in order to fight. Our rifle magazines and equipment were signed for and we spent hours being instructed how to work on them to bring them up to standard, we would have to tape them up and put pieces of parachute cord on them to make it easier to pull them out of the equipment pouches on our battle dress. This was when I began to meet the guys I had been put with and as I met them I slowly forgot my need to belong to the Sayeret and believe in the Orev.

Training in boot camp was mostly divided into a series of 1 and 2 minute missions. We would all sit in a tent with Ran holding a stopwatch. He would give an order saying, “within 1 minute you have all taped up one magazine…go!” There would be a rush around the tent as we all lunged for the tape to get the mission accomplished in the time available. There isn’t any time for shyness in this situation and I became adept at sign language in order to get what I wanted. At the end of each minute we would all be sitting precisely where we had been at the start. If the mission wasn’t complete we could request more time but we all had to be back where we started and sitting in silence at the end of the prescribed time, if not a punishment would follow. At first the punishments were nothing, Ran would simply tell everyone very clearly how important it was to be ready, it was later, once the Sergeant got involved that the punishments would really begin in earnest.

All Alone in the Wrong Unit

The Sergeant scared me, he wandered around the plugah with an expression that said he was looking for a fight and a swagger that told you he could win it. He knew the effect he had and relished in it. I’ll never forget when he saw me sitting on the side of the parade ground, the moment we made eye contact I knew I was in trouble he skulked right up to me; “Marc” he barked, “What the hell are you doing?!!” I looked at him while trying to formulate the words I needed to say though none came to mind, in the end I feebly said “just sitting here” I eeked out. He looked me up and down before breaking out in a grin, “great have fun with that” he said before skulking away leaving me wondering what had just happened.

Those first few days were lonely. Our officer had given the team one order so far and that had been that no one was permitted to talk to me in English, which pretty much meant that no one spoke to me at all. I didn’t really want to get to know anyone anyway, they hardly looked like the paratrooper soldiers I had expected, when I looked around instead of seeing tough soldiers I only saw children. I wanted to leave, I wanted to be in the Sayeret, I wanted to be left alone. My mobile phone was in my pocket but I couldn’t bring myself to make a call back to London and admit it to my family. I considered asking to leave the Orev for the regular Tzanhanim battalions, perhaps trying to get out of the army entirely. My body was going through the motions still but my mind was elsewhere, somehow in some way I felt that I had been betrayed but there was no one to blame.

A small corner of the plugah had been set aside for the smokers. It was in the smoking corner that I met people, it was the only place where we could go and not be on the clock for the little missions we were always being given. The only times we were allowed to go there were meal times and in the free hour before we all had to be asleep. It was there that guys from all of the different units gathered to share their stories of torment at the hands of the army. I didn’t understand much of what was being said but people there laughed so hard when I tried to speak Hebrew that they quickly accepted me. It wasn’t great fun sitting there watching people laughing at me but they didn’t seem to mean anything by it. I quickly came to realise that I was the one who had to adjust. When you’re the odd one out you can accept it and go with it or rebel against it and go on your own. I chose to stop trying to do everything alone, to stop sulking over the fact that I wasn’t in the Sayeret and most importantly to let go of all of the preconceptions I had fostered with regards to life in the IDF. I was rewarded by having a place to go and people to talk to.

This was how I met Haim, he had been amongst those laughing in the smoking corner and sought me out while I was wandering around the plugah. “Hey Brity, you’re a funny guy, now we’re friends and you’re coming to my house for Rosh Hashannah!” It wasn’t an invitation so much as a statement. This put me in a bit of a bind, I had been looking forward to our first weekend off and was in no way certain that I wanted to spend it in the company of strangers, certainly not those who were a good 5 years younger than me. I nodded none the less figuring that I could get out of it later.

That same day we were treated to a lecture from our officer. He spoke about the meaning of the word tzevet, a term that was almost holy in the IDF. Myself and the 17 others who composed the August 2002 intake to the Orev were now part of a tzevet and as such we were expected to help one another at every possible moment. We would be spending the rest of our army service together, we would endure all that the training staff would throw at us and then we would endure everything that the enemy would throw at us. Unlike elsewhere in the IDF the members of August 2002 Orev Tzanhanim would remain as one organic unit throughout their service.

That day we were finally issued our rifles and I signed off on a distinctly battered M-16 assault rifle. Before being taken down to the rifle range we had to pass a qualification test, it was all in Hebrew of course. In the wake of a lesson on the weapon tests were distributed. I didn’t have a chance at passing it, I could neither read nor understand anything. I looked at Ran silently pleading with him for help but he ignored me and gave the order to begin. I looked down at the page, there were diagrams of the rifle with multiple choice questions around them. I felt the tension rise within me, if I couldn’t pass this then I couldn’t go to the range with the others.

I barely heard creak of the seat next to me as my Sergeant occupied it. “How’s it going?” he whispered in my ear. I tensed up, not knowing how to answer, I didn’t have to. He put his finger next to one of the answers to the first question. I turned to him and he simply nodded his head back to the page. I circled the answer and his finger instantly moved to another and then another. My Sergeant, who an hour ago had made us all run around the base, stand to attention, then run around the base again because we hadn’t swept the sand out of the tents was sitting next to me giving me the answers to the test.

When I had circled the answers he rose and without another word walked out, Ran tried and failed to suppress a grin, to my left the rest of my tzevet were staring at me. Later, once the tests had been marked the Sergeant read out the results. Everyone had passed the test and I had scored the highest with 100%, he insisted on playing out the charade to the end and started clapping, he glared at the others and they started clapping too. Ran found the whole thing hilarious and had to step out of the room to get rid of his fit of giggles. I was petrified everyone was now going to hate me, instead they were all patting my back as we left the room. We all knew what had happened but no one cared, they surprised me with their warmth, these guys didn’t know me at all but they were happy to accept me. These guys I had been thrown together with were growing on me, despite myself.

The next day target practise began, naturally this being the IDF there were no fully functioning shooting ranges but simply empty areas marked out as shooting ranges. This meant that we had to bring the rifle range with us. At 0600 we were standing outside our tents staring at the mountain of equipment that had been placed in front of us. The majority of it consisted of ammunition though there were also jerrycans full of water, a radio pack, targets and steel stakes to hammer into the ground with the massive sledgehammer that we would be bringing also. To transport the equipment we had an open stretcher and, for some unfathomable reason a large, white, collapsible table.

The Sergeant took out his stopwatch and gave the usual impossible time limit within which we were to have all of the equipment either on our backs or on the stretcher and the table and to have both of those already in the air. The next 2 minutes saw a rush of movement as we clambered all over each other to try to get the job done. “How much time do you have left?” Ran asked us all, we didn’t know, we had forgotten to organise someone to keep time. Then someone piped up and said “1.46” and the collective sigh of relief was palpable as we raced back to our original 3 lines. To be late was acceptable; to go over the time limit was not, once we were reassembled one of the guys made the formal request for more time to complete the task.

We continued in this way until we were standing there with all of the equipment on our backs, the stretcher with equipment on it in the air and the white table also in the air with a corner resting on a shoulder of four soldiers. Wearing my full combat equipment and holding a rifle in my hands I felt like a soldier for the first time since beginning training. I was under the stretcher and carrying a jerrycan on my back. The Sergeant led us to a back gate which was chained closed with a padlock. He pulled the chain off with a loud clang and then led us out of the base, into the empty desert beyond.

Even early in the morning I was sweating in the desert heat, trying not to make too much of a big deal about the fist sized hornets winging their way all over the place. We headed out after our Sergeant who was stomping his way ahead chatting to Ran as if there was no one behind him. I struggled to keep up with him though I could only go as fast as the rest of the guys under the stretcher. There was a rough track through the desert leading to the range and we struggled our way through it but after 10 minutes we were a strung out with the stretchers falling behind and others moving forward, I didn’t even know where the guys trying to balance the table on their shoulders were. We eventually caught up with him because he had mercifully stopped moving.

He turned and looked at us all, seething with resentment, “don’t you understand that you’re a tzevet? You move together at all times and since you can’t seem to understand that we are going to walk back to base!” He turned and walked past us all back in the direction of the base. “Go on follow your Sergeant” Ran said to the raw recruits who were too busy staring at out Sergeant walking in the wrong direction to remember that we were supposed to follow him. With the utmost of care we swivelled in place under the stretcher and followed the Sergeant. The base was in sight when without saying a word he simply turned around and marched back in the direction of the range. Again we swivelled under our load and marched back behind him. He was to keep doing this during the march to the range and it became a regular feature of our morning routine sometimes it took over an hour to reach the range, which should have been 15 minutes away.

By the time we made it to the range I felt like I had already done a day’s work and it was still early morning. Another series of tiny missions followed that ended with the range put into working order, one mission to take the targets to the correct distance, another to hammer stakes into the ground, another to tie targets to the stakes, it was mind numbing and intensive all at once and there was no time to reflect on just how inefficient it was. Once the range was in what the Sergeant considered to be working order a bunch of shooting instructors turned up. For the most part they were girls and everyone seemed to have massive problems with their rifles necessitating the need for continuous personal attention. That day we learnt how to zero the rifles making them accurate for our individual use and spent several hours firing at targets 50 meters away both while lying down, kneeling and standing.

After a couple of hours Alon who along with Ran was in charge of us on a day to day level, called a break and stood us in a three sided square, he stood in the open side facing us all. “Ok take 30 seconds to drink an entire water bottler…go!” All 18 of us drained a water bottle in the time given but he wasn’t finished. “One minute to refill and get back here…go!” We ran and accomplished the task, drank the second water bottle, he sent us back again, we drank a third. He kept going until every one of us was throwing up water, he and Ran found it hilarious. Once we had all been sick we returned to shooting.

We went shooting almost every day of boot camp, almost every day it was the same the tortuous walk to the range in the morning, assembling the range from scratch with every moment of my life accounted for, I was even sent to the toilet on a timer.

This was boot camp and it had begun in earnest.

The funny thing about boot camp was that the more it progressed the less I cared about about being in the Sayeret. The Sergeant worked us hard, far harder than the genial Sergeant in charge of the Sayeret. The tougher the training the more it slowly dawned on me that I had made it to a tough unit, the kind of unit that I had been trying to get into all along. I quickly changed my attitude and determined that if this was to be my home then it was time to work as hard as I could. With my lack of Hebrew I was going to be more of a burden unless I made an extra effort to help out. The only thing that I figured I could do was carry as much on my back as I could.

My first opportunity to do so would come during soon during a forced march, there was one of these each week starting from just a few kilometres and culminating in the 90km march for our red berets.

Marches/Masaot

These marches didn’t scare me, I had run 10km a day while training for the gibush so the idea that a mere 5 km march would be a problem was laughable. The marches took place through the night, the first one saw us loaded down with our weapons, water and ammunition as well as one big radio, one stretcher and a jerrycan filled with 10 litres of water, all three of which were to be carried on every march by a volunteer, later more pieces of equipment would be added but for now it was just those three things. In keeping with my new found ideology I opted to take the jerrycan.

The march began at night with the day simply being too hot to engage in that kind of physical activity. The Sayeret began the march first which was something that I found incredibly irritating, we followed. The Sergeant was up front while Alon and Ran marched behind us, we had been drinking all day in preparation for this and even in the late hours of the night I could feel the sweat trickling down my back. We were in two lines for the march and without much ado the Sergeant began to move.

The pace was a half run half walk which seemed to completely prevent me from falling into a rhythm. My lower back was in anguish after a mere few minutes, the weight of the water sloshing around in the jerrycan was constantly tugging at the straps on my shoulders, ensuring that they were biting into my skin. The dust kicked up by those walking in front of me dried out my mouth bringing upon me an instant urge for water that was made alot worse by the knowledge that I was carrying 10 litres of it on my back and wasn’t allowed to drink it. My watch became my best friend and my worst enemy, I was constantly focussing on it to draw strength from each second that passed and yet I looked at it so often that timed seemed to pass by only with exasperating reluctance. The straps continued to bite into my skin and the weight on my back pulled me down into the soft ground underfoot. Soon the sweat on my face was wet not just with sweat but with tears of exasperation. I didn’t even possess the vocabulary to ask someone to take the load from me.

I wasn’t the only one suffering, through the prism of my own pain I could hear young soldiers crying out to stop for water or to be able to remove their load…just for a moment. I could hear them but they were in another dimension, I was locked inside my own world of pain and discomfort as I placed one foot after the other in a burning desire to continue on this “mere 5km march”. The struggle became one of internal desperation, constantly fighting with my body while failing to shut out the screams coming from within. And then the realisation that if I could just be rid of the weight on my back I would be able to carry on, or rather that without jettisoning the jerrycan I simply wasn’t going to make it.

Before I knew it I was shamelessly begging the new soldiers around me to take the weight from my back. I pounced on them one after the after begging them, using the few words of Hebrew that I knew jumbled up with my English. One after the other they waved me away, too encumbered with their own personal pain to help me with mine. I went from one to the other “pleeeeease I begged, all restraints imposed by self respect and dignity long since forgotten as the pain in my body utterly dominated me. Eventually I fell only to hear someone behind me say, “okay Brity, I’ll take it.” The joy that coursed through me on hearing these few words was one of the most wonderful feelings that I had ever experienced. I shrugged the jerrycan off my back and allowed it to fall to the dust with a thud.

I watched the smiling soldier pick it up, he gave me a playful punch in the arm, took the weight onto his back and moved off. I didn’t yet know his name but he had shown me something that my middle class London life had forever deprived me of, it was my first experience of receiving a helping hand when I was in pain and it came from someone I didn’t even know. The army would teach me what it is to be hungry, to be tired to be in real, indescribable pain. The army would teach me how to balance those needs, to control my mind, even in the midst of suffering and how to simultaneously be mindful of those around me whose need was greater than mine. They did it by making me feel the extremes of horror and the relief that comes from a helping hand. Merely by taking my jerrycan Forrest had forever burned himself into my consciousness, he had relieved my pain when I had most needed it and I would never ever forget it.

Moving on was a joyful experience, I was so light I felt that I could fly. It was a feeling of elation that lasted only a few moments. Now I was aware of pains and straps stamping their authority on my body that I had been too preoccupied to notice earlier. Ran and Alon were having a great time running up and down the columns of their soldiers, showing us just how easy it was. Ever so slowly the burning sun rose over the dunes, our first march ended at the top of a steep hill. We walked up while the Sayeret walked down, having already completed it. I bumped into one of the guys who had been in my group during the gibush he nodded to me on his way down “don’t worry Brity you’ve made it to the end!” I grunted but in my head I was thinking “fuck you Sayeret man I am with the Orev and we should have had the honour of finishing first”. It was a watershed moment.

I made it to the top of the hill unsure of how walking half of what I had run every day had been quite so hard. I had taken weight on my person and on my back and I couldn’t understand why it had proven to be such a challenge. I turned to Forrest who was still carrying the jerrycan on his back and wearing a triumphant smile on his face, he nodded to me and I nodded back. A soldier fell onto his knees and started to throw up into the dust and sand. The sergeant walked up to him and patted his back, at the same time gave him words of encouragement. It was Iddo, he had a first degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do and slept in the bed next to mine. Every night Iddo had given up some of his free time to whisper to me in broken English what we had covered in the lessons that day while we looked over each other’s shoulders to make sure that neither our officer nor commanders were in earshot as he did so.

While he was being sick Ran took me aside, “jerrycan?” he said, I nodded towards Forrest, who was standing off to the side with the offending item. He looked at me, “you finish with the pack you start with Marc, always!” It was somehow worse for the fact that he was saying it with a soft voice, he seemed so disappointed in me when he said it. There was nothing for me to say, I nodded my head and learned the lesson, I had been weak, not physically, everyone had found it tough going, but mentally, in my pain I had given up the equipment I had set out with, the taste of failure mixed with the relief of finishing and the sand that was still in my mouth.

Into the Field

In the IDF soldiers who serve without their families in the country are called lonely soldiers and that status comes with certain extras to allow them to do such things as rent their apartment and organise any administrative things that they have to do. Lonely Soldier is the name of the status and also the way that soldiers like me are etched into the popular consciousness. We are alone in Israel with nowhere to go and no one to talk to, it wasn’t until my team was preparing for field week that I really understood the implications of just how alone I was.

After having every moment of my life accounted for it had been a wonderful feeling to be able to sit down and take time for myself over the weekend without worrying about how long I would be able to relax before it was time to start running around again. But as soon as I was back in the army it was back to business, boot camp had settled into a routine for the first month. The shooting range dominated our days and our sergeant dominated our lives. The training staff never shouted at us, they never raised their voices but they did insist on making our lives difficult. We never walked anywhere on the base, we always ran, constantly on the clock. At the end of each day we stood for inspection in full combat gear while they checked that all of our equipment was connected to our bodies by cord so that if it fell it wouldn’t be lost. Every night we were punished for an infraction and every day our Sergeant would invent a new way to dole out punishments.

I celebrated Yom Kippur on September 16th 2002 on the base with the rest of my team. The majority of soldiers were allowed home but the Orev were left behind to guard. I preferred being on base for the Day of Atonement, I didn’t have anywhere better to be and the title lonely soldier struck home again. Ironically it seemed that the army base was the safest place in the country at the time, two days after Yom Kippur there were 3 separate terror attacks and the day after that was a suicide bombing in Jerusalem. While we were learning the art of war in the safety of the base the second Intifada continued to rage outside.

The marches were getting longer and longer each week, I hadn’t dared to take another piece of equipment on after having felt the agony of the jerrycan on my back. Other soldiers were even worse though. Some found the marches so difficult that they had to be half pulled and half dragged for most of the way the 90km march for the red beret seemed to be an impossible target. Surprisingly the guys who had the most trouble were never the guys who were kicked out, it was the ones who were perfectly able to complete a march but chose not to who eventually found their heads on the chopping block. The routine ground on, morning run, rifle range, working on equipment, punishments of various kind and then sleep. Every day I looked forward to the next day knowing that it meant that I was closer to the end of boot camp.

That routine was coming to an end with the end of our first month of boot camp, Field Week was fast approaching and our officer put us into high gear to prepare for it. Despite our Sergeant telling us that this was no gibush we all feared the onset of our first week in the field. Preparations began with all of our equipment being painted black, and making sure that everything was in perfect order. I didn’t know what to expect from this week but I dreaded it, even worse was that I watched the others prepare for it without having any sense of what I could do to help. Mainly due to the amount of punishments that we had all received on my account the guys had become adept at doing things for me. This was good in theory but it led to times when I felt utterly outcast from the group left watching helplessly while they did everything without saying a word to me.

The day before field week arrived the sergeant appeared and took 4 of us away from the tzevet. He marched us off towards the armoury, I had no idea why until my battered, long M16 was taken away from me and replaced by a shiny new M4 carbine complete with a Trijicon day scope and an Aquila night scope. The four us had been designated for training as marksmen. Our officer had decided that we were the best shots after a month of range work and this was our reward. Everyone in the tzevet was to receive a different piece of equipment and undergo a week long course in how to use it, the course was to take place after field week but someone had ordained that the shooters of the Orev were to receive their marksmen’s tools a week early, much to the chagrin of the soldiers in the Sayeret and that made it even sweeter.

The next day we were on coaches with no idea where they were taking us, I was dreading the whole experience. While I was on the base I knew what was happening and had become comfortable with the routine that had been established there, the week in the field that was coming up was an utterly unknown entity. After several hours the coaches came to a halt, we were somewhere in the Northern West Bank. Once I had alighted from the coach I saw an army base on one side of the road and hills on the other. All I could see of the army base were the concrete fortifications and the small checkpoint at which we had stopped. Instantly the sergeant was banging on at us about getting our equipment off the bus and on our backs and being ready to move. Within a couple of minutes we were already with packs on and well on our way towards the hills.

There were only 16 of the original 18 on our way into field week, 2 of our number had developed “medical complaints” and were doing some kind of guard duty. For the first day we walked through the hills with the weight on our backs. It was tough going but it was nowhere near as bad as that first masa. The pace was slow and we would halt regularly for one reason or another. Our officer led us and I followed, every time he stopped I thought that we had arrived at our destination but all he was doing was allowing the rest of the tzevet to catch up and then we would continue our march.

We walked and we walked, we walked through dry river beds until I was sure that the rocks and stones had penetrated through the soles of my paratrooper’s red boots. The officer walked up the hills and down the other side to more river beds. The more we walked the more frustrated I became, questions swirled around in my head; why we haven’t we stopped yet? where’s our objective? And the absolute killer question; Is this how it’s going to be for the whole week? I hated that the officer would stop, wait for us all to catch up and then simply rise and carry on moving. He never spoke to us, he just glared at us the whole time as if he couldn’t stand the fact that he was in charge of such pathetic people. My feet were in agony, I felt every tiny stone I stepped on up to the point at which I was absolutely positive that the soles of my shoes were torn up and I was stepping directly onto the terrain below. Each time the officer stopped I would check my boots for the tears in the soles that had to be there and every time there was nothing to look at.

After walking for hours we split up into our two squads, Ran taught us how to patrol as a squad, how to turn around, what to do if we noticed that one of the group was missing. We practised until darkness came and then we practised in the dark. The night was cold and the darkness so penetrating that it seemed as though I could reach into the blackness and touch it. Visibility was quickly limited to only a couple of feet, it was so cold that I didn’t want to stop moving in the knowledge that my sweat covered body would start to shiver immediately. The night scared me, I knew that should I have had to so much as tie up my shoe laces I would immediately lose sight of the rest of the group. We were deep in the West Bank and the extent of the fortifications I had seen at the now far away base had brought home to me just how far into harms way we had travelled.

The black night wasn’t about to end anytime soon, we continued to practise our newly acquired tactics as a complete team before our officer marched us around some more. The questions were still swirling around my brain tormenting me, the answers were nowhere in sight. Eventually the time came to go to sleep but we were told that before we could do so we had to dig foxholes to rest in. The Sergeant instructed us very carefully on how to create the foxholes and to what depth they needed to be before we could line the outer rim with rocks and then sleep. We took our shovels from our bags and started to dig, more and more dirt I shovelled that night, my eyes closing of their own accord. I dug until the foxhole was deep enough and then I set off to find the rocks to line it with. Sleep had caught up to me making the effort ten times harder than it should have been. My body was straining to be allowed to stop its work but I couldn’t yet allow myself to descend into the world of slumber there was more to do.

When each foxhole was completed the Sergeant insisted on inspecting them all personally, I was petrified he wouldn’t like mine and would tell me to dig deeper, that night he was merciful and he passed my hole as adequate. He lined us up and told us all we could now go to sleep…after the briefing. There was an uproar inside my head, a briefing now? Really? We all formed a three sided square with our officer standing in the space where the fourth side should have been. He read out the precautions that were to be taken during the night and told us that before we went to sleep we had to create a roster for guard duty and then he was finished but Alon had a speech of his own and so we stood still listening to more and more words I caught one part where he told us that if it became too cold in our foxholes we could always open up our tents and use them as blankets, we hadn’t been allowed to bring sleeping bags with us but, I just wanted to lie down and let the accursed day end.

My last thoughts before sleep came were of my own personal tent that was filthy from being used for a night in the desert at an earlier point in training and determined that there was no degree of cold that could make me use it but rather than drift off into sleep I found myself shivering in my earthen hole. My uniform was wet from the sweat of my exertions and when you’re only allowed one change of clothes for a week you have to think very hard about when to use them and there was no way I was going to succumb on my first night. Instead I found myself climbing out of my hole and feeling for my filthy tent, which I rolled out and used as a blanket before disappearing into the oblivion of deep sleep. It had taken me around 10 minutes of shivering before I had given in and decided to use it in exactly the manner that Alon had suggested. I was woken up 45 minutes later when it was my turn to stand guard and defend my sleeping comrades from whatever forces inhabited the night in that dreadful place.

The next morning we were woken at dawn by the last one to stand guard. Ran arrived from his own foxhole and took his squad down to yet another dry river bed. After negotiating our way through the scattered rocks at the bottom he told us to open the stretcher, told the heaviest soldier to get on it and then ordered us out of the river bed and up the hill. I didn’t think we were going to make it. The riverbed was incredibly steep and rocky, climbing out of it with a stretcher in the air seemed impossible and we dropped it many times in the attempt. I looked at Ran with pleading eyes and while making a half assed effort as did the other 7 of us. He looked back at us as if we were the most pathetic people he had ever seen. Recruits of such poor calibre that we were unable even to move a stretcher.

After struggling with the stretcher over and over and constantly dropping the unfortunate soldier strapped to it someone stepped up and took charge. It was Asaf, who despite living in Israel practically all his life still spoke with an East European accent.He was the only member of the team to go on to officer’s school, eventually becoming the deputy commander of the unit. He climbed up on to the rocks and dragged another soldier with him, while they pulled everyone else pushed and eventually we were out of the riverbed. Ran looked at us without an expression before simply turning and walk up the hill. We struggled to follow him, he never looked back at us.

The hill was littered with rocks making it impossible to walk in a straight line, the group zigzagged as one under the constantly slipping stretcher, at first we attempted an organised system but minutes later it was a shambles as the weaker fell behind leaving the rest of us to struggle forward through the rocks and thorny shrubbery. The weight of the stretcher pushing down onto my shoulders made taking every step a nightmare. We pressed forward, those at the back unable to see what lay before us, those at the front unable to communicate what lay in front quickly enough to prevent those at the back from pushing them right into it. The heat of the sun was upon us and the forbidding terrain ensured that this march up the hill dragged on and on.

We made it to the top exhausted from the exertion just in time to see the other squad get there before us. Next on the agenda was a camouflage exercise and I was starting to feel like I had had enough. A lecture was given by a member of the unit who had arrived specifically for the purpose but I couldn’t understand even the parts that I was able to stay awake for. It was impossible to concentrate on what he was saying and my eyes seemed to keep closing of their own accord. Whenever anyone fell asleep the Sergeant would order him to stand up and drink and this is how I spent most of the lecture. Unfortunately neither standing nor drinking served to alleviate the misery I was feeling along with the knowledge that I was stuck out in that awful place for several more days, doomed to be blisteringly hot during the day and freezing at night.

After the lecture I found myself hiding in a bush with a soldier called Elad. He was dark skinned and from a moshav in the north of the country, we hadn’t really spoken before, mainly because he didn’t speak English. We were supposed to have fashioned the bush to make it extra thick to disguise the giant hole that had opened up from the two of us struggling inside it but we didn’t bother. I plucked up my courage at that moment to confess to him that I had made a mistake in coming to Israel and the army. The feeling had been growing in me during the week. It was a combination of the difficulty of the exercises, the lack of sleep and the language barrier that had brought me to my end. Sitting there, in that bush, I had decided that enough was enough, it was time to go home. I looked at Elad, attempting to keep the tears that were stinging my eyes from dripping down my face. Months of training remained stretched out before me and it was only going to get progressively harder with each day, the weight of those months sat on my shoulders, even more heavily than the stretcher had.

He waited there patiently while I poured my heart out, for the most part he looked down at the ground and was playing with the earth under where I was sitting. He seemed to absorb it all in his stride before looking at me with blank, uncomprehending eyes. He hadn’t understood a single word I had said. For a moment I just sat there staring at him before bursting into a fit of laughter, it must have been infectious because a moment later he joined me in suppressed hysterics as the two of us sat there in our bush waiting for the soldier to come and find us. We were discovered and the two of us got in trouble for not disguising our bush properly.

Every passing minute brought the end of the my time on field week closer to an end. There was never a moment to rest during field week, even eating times were simply 15 minutes to eat while someone stood guard. Food consisted of a ration pack plus a loaf of bread and ensuring that the whole team was fed in 15 minutes was quite the challenge. Quickly we learnt how to do things most effectively, one would open each of the tins in a ration pack while another would make the sandwiches for the guard, Asaf had his stopwatch five set and would call out the time every five minutes. The tins would be passed from man to man as each one threw as much down his throat as possible. With five minutes to go the guard would be switched so that he could eat while the rest of us cleaned everything up and stored the rubbish in someone’s bag so that we were standing ready to move as soon as Asaf called 15 minutes. Even eating wasn’t a break.

The walks along the riverbeds and up the hills and back down to riverbeds on the other side became more intense as we put our newly learnt patrolling skills into practise during the day and night. I became obsessed with checking the soles of my shoes, it seemed impossible that walking could hurt my feet so much with shoes that were intact. We followed our officer each and every day as he moved on and on with no particular direction in mind. One night instead of sleeping in foxholes we slept in bushes, each of us in the squad in a line just above one of the winding riverbeds that we had been struggling through. We had learned how to camouflage them and all I had been interested in was slipping into one and falling into oblivion. It was forbidden to remove any of our equipment while we slept but that was no longer relevant to me, I was so tired that I knew nothing would keep me from falling into the darkness for which I had been yearning for the whole day.

The next morning I watched the soldiers emerge from their temporary shelters and get ready to move. They were leaving without me, Ran counted them all and, content that everyone was present began to move. They had forgotten me, I tried to call out to them but the words wouldn’t come so I jumped up from my bush to tell them to wait but there was no one there and it wasn’t the next morning it was still that night and I had dreamed the whole thing. It was still dark and there was no movement, I was confused and afraid almost too afraid to return to my slumber lest the dream come true. I lowered myself back down into my temporary home and closed my eyes, I dreamed dreams of abandonment until it was time to wake up for real.

On the final day we ran around practising all that we had learnt about patrolling. The stretcher was an ever present threat and all too often I felt the handle pressing down onto my shoulder with a weight that seemed to be pushing me down into the ground itself. Night emerged and the temperature dropped, we were to perform our techniques in a valley for the commanders to watch through night vision goggles. Our performance turned into a marathon test session that went from the practise to a race against the other teams from whom we had been apart for the duration of the week.

Stations had been set up, at one we would have to do pushups at another race from one place to another while carrying a member of the team in a fireman’s lift in a relay that was passed from team mate to team mate. The test finished with the weekly march which was 10kms long, it should have been harder than usual since it came at the end of such a tough week but actually it was such a relief to know that I was at the end of the ordeal that the march passed by in a flash. At the end of it all we were lined up facing the symbol of the Orev which the sergeant set on fire.

Facing that flaming symbol we were told that we had overcome yet another obstacle on our way to becoming Paratroopers and were given the symbol of the infantryman to be added to our berets. The impromptu ceremony took place in the field near the road where we had originally left the bus. Once the pins had been issued to us we followed our Sergeant towards the cement fortifications of the base. I took in the checkpoint in front of it, the raised pillboxes bearing down on the road and the barbed wire fence running along the side. In we moved, tired, filthy and stinking from our first full week in the field. There was a sense of foreboding about this base, an atmosphere of tension, here the soldiers manned a checkpoint and needed these strong fortifications for their own safety. They lived knowing that the enemy was nearby, this was the Paratrooper’s advanced training base and was to be my home for months 4,5 and 6 of my training.

We were shown to an empty gym which was to be where we slept that night. The showers consisted of taps set high up in a ‘bathroom’ that was so foul smelling entering was itself traumatic. The accumulation of a week’s worth of filth combined with the fact that loads of the other guys were using these ‘facilities’ led to me braving them and getting clean for the first time in too long. It was a good move, the water was hot and washed the week away from me, leaving me only with the cuts, bruises and blisters left over from the constant effort of my first week in the field.
With Field Week behind us it was time for everyone to receive their own particular special weapon and learn how to use it. The team was broken up for a week of training, I was with my marksman’s day and night scopes, Haim was given a big Belgian FN MAG machine gun, Asaf a Russian made RPG and Yaar was utterly disappointed when presented with a radio set and told that he was to become the radioman. Other pieces of equipment included Negev machine guns and the uber cool looking M203 grenade launchers that sit under the barrel of the M16.

For me the week involved classroom lectures about how to use the different scopes especially concentrating on the way that the crosshairs were setup to tell the marksman where to aim for various ranges. We shot day and night at the range shooting at various different distances and different positions. There were four of us there from the Orev, another 4 from the Sayeret and another from the third unit being trained with us in the plugah called the Palhan, this was the unit that dealt with explosives.

So the 12 of us were pitched against each other every time and I was desperate for us to come out on top. Everyone had volunteered for the Sayeret at the start of their service but now that we were in our various places we were all about proving that we were the best despite not being chosen for the most ‘elite’ unit. We started on cardboard targets 50 meters away and worked through to metal targets at 250 meters. There was nothing as satisfying as hearing the loud ping bounce back from such a distance telling me that aiming well above the target had ensured a hit at that distance.

Shooting at night was the most exciting, the walk to the range was nothing like when following the sergeant, for this one week of boot camp we were all treated like normal people. Times were given for tasks but they were actually long enough to get the job done. The punishments never came and for the first time I was actually having fun. At meal times the whole plugah ate together at the base and we swapped stories about the courses we were on. Yuval was particularly excited by his new grenade launcher. Usually me, him and Haim ate together. Yuval was a baby faced soldier who grew up in the same area as Haim and who was desperate to prove that despite his baby face he could make it through the training. He strutted around the plugah with his new M16 and under slung grenade launcher like he was Rambo, he loved his new weapon every bit as much as I loved mine. Later on he would be nicknamed “Baby” not just because he looked liek a newborn but for his habit of whining, he also had a natural talent for finding out information, both during boot camp and throughout our army service. If I wanted to know what was going to happen in the next week I asked Yuval, if I wanted to know how to get hold of something I asked Yuval.

The weapons courses were a good way of getting through another week of boot camp and they were followed by yet another easy week. We were bussed up north to the same base that I had spent 3 weeks in before my service to learn about the concepts of “purity of the rifle”. Ultimately the week was to teach us in what circumstances we were permitted to open fire over and above the rules of engagement. Our officer showed us video clips I clearly remember one from the film Platoon where the soldiers run amok in a Vietnamese village. One of their friends had just been killed and they took out their aggression on nearby civilians. Our officer pointed out the lack of control that commanders exercised over their men, the lack of discipline. It seemed odd to hear him talk of discipline, seeing as how I never so much as had to march in step, or shine my shoes, even saluting had been dropped after a couple of weeks. But he was referring to a different kind of discipline, a discipline that comes into effect when a soldier stands before a civilian and there is only his own sense of morality preventing him from doing wrong.

I had never before considered myself in that position, as holding power over the life of a civilian. My fantasies of war had involved being locked in mortal combat with an enemy who I would ultimately and heroically vanquish, the thought of dealing with civilians hadn’t entered into the equation. There is a written code for the principals of the soldiers in the IDF, a code of conduct that stresses the sanctity of human life and emphasises the responsibility that soldiers have when in the field. We were each given a laminated business card size document that outlined the principals we were being taught to keep with us at all times.

Outside of these lessons the Sergeant was in charge. He delighted in devising innovative ways to keep us awake and alert. One of his methods was to place a plastic bag in a large bin, fill the bin with ice and water and then time how long we were able to hold our breath underwater. I lined up for my turn surprised by how bad the records being set by my friends were. When it came my turn I happily dunked my head into the bin utterly unprepared for the fact that the moment my head entered the water the freezing cold forced the breath from my lungs. I held on for another 10 seconds but had to come up for air only when I tried a hand on the back of my head prevented me from rising, only for a moment, before allowing me to grab the desperately needed air.

That was just one of his in between lesson tools, he had other methods in mind for punishment. When we lost a football match against the Sayeret he lined us up and walked up the line hitting each of us with a tree branch. “My team lost!” he shouted, “utterly unacceptable”. Ran joined in with the action with a branch of his own. The really strange part of this was that it made us love him even more. Instead of cries there were suppressed giggles as he walked past us with his branch, we were all in it together and the Sayeret was watching. There simply wasn’t anything so sweet as knowing that we were having a harded time during training than they were. There at that base our Sergeant made a mockery of the level of discipline imposed on the supposedly ‘better’ Sayeret by physically beating us and he always did it while they were watching.

This was the genius of our Sergeant, he didn’t shout at us nor did he attack us with malice, he simply imposed illegally harsh standards upon us precisely when we, the soldiers who weren’t accepted to their unit of choice, needed it. There was no difference between the man who whispered the answers to me in that first test and the man who ruthlessly punished us for losing a football match, his intent was always to make us better soldiers and he did. Once, when we were in the push up position on our fists and he walked up and down the row of us kicking us in the stomach he simply said “do you think Hezbollah would go easier on you?”

By the end of boot camp he was no longer with us, word had got out to the powers that be what he had been doing to us and he was sent to prison a couple of months for it, I never saw him again during my army service yet he influenced me all of the way through. Alon and Ran also left us behind at the end of boot camp, they went on to officer school. So we were left with our officer and 3 new commanders who were to put us through the horrors of advanced infantry training.

Purity of the Rifle

With Field Week behind us it was time for everyone to receive their own particular special weapon and learn how to use it. The team was broken up for a week of training, I was with my marksman’s day and night scopes, Haim was given a big Belgian FN MAG machine gun, Asaf a Russian made RPG and Yaar was utterly disappointed when presented with a radio set and told that he was to become the radioman. Other pieces of equipment included Negev machine guns and the uber cool looking M203 grenade launchers that sit under the barrel of the M16.

For me the week involved classroom lectures about how to use the different scopes especially concentrating on the way that the crosshairs were setup to tell the marksman where to aim for various ranges. We shot day and night at the range shooting at various different distances and different positions. There were four of us there from the Orev, another 4 from the Sayeret and another from the third unit being trained with us in the plugah called the Palhan, this was the unit that dealt with explosives.

So the 12 of us were pitched against each other every time and I was desperate for us to come out on top. Everyone had volunteered for the Sayeret at the start of their service but now that we were in our various places we were all about proving that we were the best despite not being chosen for the most ‘elite’ unit. We started on cardboard targets 50 meters away and worked through to metal targets at 250 meters. There was nothing as satisfying as hearing the loud ping bounce back from such a distance telling me that aiming well above the target had ensured a hit at that distance.

Shooting at night was the most exciting, the walk to the range was nothing like when following the sergeant, for this one week of boot camp we were all treated like normal people. Times were given for tasks but they were actually long enough to get the job done. The punishments never came and for the first time I was actually having fun. At meal times the whole plugah ate together at the base and we swapped stories about the courses we were on. Yuval was particularly excited by his new grenade launcher. Usually me, him and Haim ate together. Yuval was a baby faced soldier who grew up in the same area as Haim and who was desperate to prove that despite his baby face he could make it through the training. He strutted around the plugah with his new M16 and under slung grenade launcher like he was Rambo, he loved his new weapon every bit as much as I loved mine. Later on he would be nicknamed “Baby” not just because he looked liek a newborn but for his habit of whining, he also had a natural talent for finding out information, both during boot camp and throughout our army service. If I wanted to know what was going to happen in the next week I asked Yuval, if I wanted to know how to get hold of something I asked Yuval.

The weapons courses were a good way of getting through another week of boot camp and they were followed by yet another easy week. We were bussed up north to the same base that I had spent 3 weeks in before my service to learn about the concepts of “purity of the rifle”. Ultimately the week was to teach us in what circumstances we were permitted to open fire over and above the rules of engagement. Our officer showed us video clips I clearly remember one from the film Platoon where the soldiers run amok in a Vietnamese village. One of their friends had just been killed and they took out their aggression on nearby civilians. Our officer pointed out the lack of control that commanders exercised over their men, the lack of discipline. It seemed odd to hear him talk of discipline, seeing as how I never so much as had to march in step, or shine my shoes, even saluting had been dropped after a couple of weeks. But he was referring to a different kind of discipline, a discipline that comes into effect when a soldier stands before a civilian and there is only his own sense of morality preventing him from doing wrong.

I had never before considered myself in that position, as holding power over the life of a civilian. My fantasies of war had involved being locked in mortal combat with an enemy who I would ultimately and heroically vanquish, the thought of dealing with civilians hadn’t entered into the equation. There is a written code for the principals of the soldiers in the IDF, a code of conduct that stresses the sanctity of human life and emphasises the responsibility that soldiers have when in the field. We were each given a laminated business card size document that outlined the principals we were being taught to keep with us at all times.

Outside of these lessons the Sergeant was in charge. He delighted in devising innovative ways to keep us awake and alert. One of his methods was to place a plastic bag in a large bin, fill the bin with ice and water and then time how long we were able to hold our breath underwater. I lined up for my turn surprised by how bad the records being set by my friends were. When it came my turn I happily dunked my head into the bin utterly unprepared for the fact that the moment my head entered the water the freezing cold forced the breath from my lungs. I held on for another 10 seconds but had to come up for air only when I tried a hand on the back of my head prevented me from rising, only for a moment, before allowing me to grab the desperately needed air.

That was just one of his in between lesson tools, he had other methods in mind for punishment. When we lost a football match against the Sayeret he lined us up and walked up the line hitting each of us with a tree branch. “My team lost!” he shouted, “utterly unacceptable”. Ran joined in with the action with a branch of his own. The really strange part of this was that it made us love him even more. Instead of cries there were suppressed giggles as he walked past us with his branch, we were all in it together and the Sayeret was watching. There simply wasn’t anything so sweet as knowing that we were having a harded time during training than they were. There at that base our Sergeant made a mockery of the level of discipline imposed on the supposedly ‘better’ Sayeret by physically beating us and he always did it while they were watching.

This was the genius of our Sergeant, he didn’t shout at us nor did he attack us with malice, he simply imposed illegally harsh standards upon us precisely when we, the soldiers who weren’t accepted to their unit of choice, needed it. There was no difference between the man who whispered the answers to me in that first test and the man who ruthlessly punished us for losing a football match, his intent was always to make us better soldiers and he did. Once, when we were in the push up position on our fists and he walked up and down the row of us kicking us in the stomach he simply said “do you think Hezbollah would go easier on you?”

Within Sight of Advanced Training

Whereas everything before Field Week had been difficult everything afterwards was easy. The second two months flew by, the weekly marches got longer and harder but we quickly fell into the routine of getting through them as best we could. The small missions were also easier as we fell into the rhythm of completing them. It became a known fact that every time Ran or Alon or the Sergeant gave us a time frame Asaf would immediately be in charge of keeping time, there was no question that we wouldn’t be able to be standing back in the same formation that we had been in when the task was handed down.

The culmination of Boot Camp was a 30km march with full equipment which included the dreaded jerrycan the weight of which had so devastated me at the start of training. The day of the march a ritual had emerged, one of the commanders would come to us each hour for several hours and stand with us while we each drank a pint and a half of water. The day would consist of light activities such as preparing equipment or some kind of classroom lesson on radios or weaponry and also we would be given time to work on our equipment. Although it’s easy to say work on equipment was never complete, each and every one of us worked hard to personalise the standard kit that the IDF had issued us with to make it more comfortable for use. Laces were tied to magazines to make them easier to pull out from the pouches, anything that could fall off the combat vests that we were issued was clipped or tied to us in some way so that once we were in combat no one would find any piece of equipment left behind. We even burned away the manufacturer’s logo from the outer soles of our boots.

Once the march was upon us we would all stand around the extra pieces of equipment staring at them waiting for one of our number to be the one to step and take them. It was always an awkward time. Those who had already carried a piece of equipment felt less pressure to carry anything on the next march but as time went by the length of the marches grew and therefore so did the strain of carrying these extras. There was a radio, a 10 litre jerrycan and a stretcher and an uncomfortable silence as the 18 of us looked at them. Awkward, pained expressions and eyes that flitted from face to face of the rest of the team characterised the few minutes it took for the brave ones to step forward.

On the 17km march Yuval had opted to carry the radio on his back, the march was carried out after a week in the field and the terrain wasn’t the flat of the desert but the hills of the North. I remembered the strain he was under as one person took each of his hands and pulled him forward. I could hear him even though he was being pulled and pushed at one end of the group and I was at the other. He wasn’t the only one, once the equipment was on your back it wasn’t coming off, on the first march I had made the mistake of removing the jerrycan but it wasn’t something that ever happened again. It didn’t matter how much pain you were or how much the straps bit into your skin as the equipment slipped and slid around on your back. It didn’t matter that no matter how much you tried to tighten the straps or loosen them you would never find any degree of comfort just hours of pain.

Seeing a soldier being pulled and pushed by one or sometimes more of his comrades was a familiar sight on a march, even when you didn’t have an extra piece of equipment you were expected to help those who did. The marches went on through the night and sometimes they never seemed to end. I would hope and pray for the light of dawn so that I would know our time on the move was coming to a close, but during the darkest moments of the march it felt as though the night would stretch on forever. The pace was unrelenting; 55 minutes of movement, 5 minutes to drink and then on again until the objective was reached. The worst part was that for our commanders it all seemed so easy, they could run from the front of the group to the back, they could talk to any one of us along the way with even breath and a voice that screamed just how free of any real effort this was for them.

When it came to the final march of Boot Camp we had that uncomfortable moment where everyone looked at the equipment lying on the ground, I was still too scarred by that first march to take anything. Eventually another three stepped forward, took the equipment and we were ready to go. The small hills and dunes of the area surrounding our base made it an easy march, the knowledge that we were getting a week off starting the next day also helped. I remember turning around and seeing that even Yoni, the one who had the greatest difficulties on each march was in a sound state with his head up and was even able to talk normally!

With Boot Camp over I had a week to go back to London and visit my family and friends, but when I came back I knew that I had the horrors of Advanced Infantry training to come and it was going to be during the Winter.

Hell

And so it was that the stinking pile of mud I had briefly visited during Field Week became my home for the next 3 months of my training. It was late October when we arrived and though the days were still warm during the nights one could feel the pinch of an approaching winter. We were assembled in the same gym that we had slept in the night Field Week came to an end so that the the officer in command of the base could come and address us. He was a short man at 5”6 and known to be a strict disciplinarian, his boots were polished until they reflected like mirrors and his red beret sat ramrod straight on his shoulder as if it had been ironed moments before he stepped into the room.

He let us know what we were in for while we were there but Yuval, Haim and I weren’t really listening, we were too excited that we had moved on from boot camp, the three of us whispered all of the way through the briefing about what was really to come next. I reasoned that if there was anything else that I really needed to know I could just ask Yuval. His nickname ‘Baby’ had already stuck to him earlier in boot camp and it was the only name I used for him from that moment on. He leaned over Haim to whisper to me “Parachute course in a month!!” He couldn’t conceal his grin as he whispered to me and I couldn’t conceal my excitement when I heard him. Parachute course meant silver jump wings, it meant that everyone around me would know that they were looking at a paratrooper! When a soldier starts his army service he is presented with an ugly, snot coloured beret that denotes to the rest of the world that he is merely a soldier in training, who hasn’t earned the right to enter into a unit yet. I hated that beret and the 3 more months of training I would have to endure before earning the crimson paratrooper’s beret couldn’t go by fast enough as far as I was concerned.

Our new commanders hovered over us casting an irritated eye in the direction of our whispers but unwilling to interrupt the base commander to tell us to shut up. My new squad leader was also called Marc, his family had made aliyah from Russia as soon as they could and had settled in Haifa. He had begun his army career in Israel’s equivalent of the Navy SEALS but had been kicked out and had chosen to come to the Orev. It was good to have him there and during our one on one interview he told me that when he started his army service he hadn’t spoken a word of Hebrew either. Mine was starting to come along though, once I even found myself singing a song in Hebrew, I promptly stopped when a soldier on my team called Elad noticed and pointed everyone’s attention to it before endlessly begging me to sing the song again and again so that he could laugh at the way it sounded in my English accent.

The base was every bit as bad as my first impressions had told me it would be. This time we were all crammed into one 10 man tent, luxuries such as lockers were a thing of the past as there was barely enough room for all of the metal beds that they gave us and certainly no room for anything else, we put our bags under the beds and endured feeling them sticking into our backs at night. I need not have worried we weren’t to spend much time there. Our first night was spent on the base, the next night we had equipment on our backs, a stretcher loaded with boxes of bullets open and were on our way into the same dried up river beds and rocky hills that had made Field Week such a memorable experience.

The emphasis was no longer on shooting, now it was all about working together as a team, we spent our days and nights planning and executing assaults on various hills and then spending time carrying the stretcher with a ‘wounded’ member of the team around. As a benefit of finishing boot camp we were allowed to call our officer by his name; though he insisted we call him only by his last name; Green.

After week one we were told that the week was going to finish with a squad test, each of the two squads worked alone and we practised all the manoeuvres we had learnt over the week. One by one we demonstrated moving across open ground in the correct way, attacking an objective and moving as small groups of four providing mutual cover all the way. We moved on and on to various stations that were strung a couple of kilometres apart. On the way a gas attack was simulated and various instructors appeared and threw riot gas grenades at us. Our gas masks were securely fitted into our pouches on our backs and we had long since learned that the only way to get at them in time to survive that noxious gas was to run to the person in front of us and take their mask out for them. Over the past weeks we had experienced a lot of these gas grenade attacks at the hands of our commanders and we were well versed in doing it quickly.

The grenades were black balls a little bigger than baseballs and just as heavy. The gas was green and thick it didn’t just make you shed tears but irritated the skin and if it was breathed in it caused instant pain in the lungs. It also stuck to anything that was nearby when it escaped from it’s small, black prison including cans of food, water bottles, weapons just waiting for some unsuspecting soldier to get the irritant on his skin.

The first time we were exposed to it was in a tent during boot camp. We were called in one by one wearing our gas masks, then told to take them off. When it came to my turn I was determined to holdout longer than anyone before me. I had watched each of my friends walk into that tent only to run out coughing and spluttering, their faces red and their hands glued to their eyes. I walked in with my gas mask on to find Green sitting alone in the tiny tent, the hiss of gas escaping from a small machine in the corner was distinctly unnerving. He looked eerie in his mask though I could just about make out his words when he told me to take off my gas mask and I could hardly see him when I did. He told me to count from one to ten, at ten I made the mistake of taking a breath, the instant pain in my lungs came as a shock and I started coughing, “GET OUT!!” he roared and I didn’t need any further encouragement. I could hear my friends laughing at my tear stained face as I escaped, just as I had laughed at their red, teary faces when they had run out. Another IDF rite of passage had been survived.

The gas masks protected you from the gas but only if you had them tightly strapped onto your face which meant that the clips dug themselves into your skull when you put your combat helmet back on. After more than a couple of minutes the pain was so intense that it was difficult to know whether the gas would be preferable to the feeling of clamps pushing into your skin. Mercifully we marched away from the gas towards the next stage of the test and were allowed to remove the masks. We moved from station to station each one about 500m apart, after a while I realised I was quite enjoying this ‘test’, in fact I had quite enjoyed all of our advanced training up to that point. It was much more fun to run at the targets shooting like in the movies than to set up the Sergeant’s shooting range every day. We lived in the field but it wasn’t that cold yet, I was used to going to the bathroom in a bush and quite frankly anything was preferable to the facilities back at the base. By the time we reached 2a.m. my squad was cruising through, we had done all that was asked of us and now we had finished what I assumed was the final test.

“Fall wounded”

The command was directed at Oran, though for a moment no one moved, the test was over why did Oran now have to fall down and pretend to be wounded? He was the biggest and heaviest of the none of us. “Have him on the stretcher in 10 seconds or I’ll tell another person to go down and you’ll have to carry him too” were Mark’s softly spoken words. We scrambled to put him on the stretcher and have it in the air once Mark marched forward and we lumbered on behind him. We were on flat, level ground which makes all the difference when you have the weight of a six foot Moroccan and his machine gun resting on the stretcher you’re carrying.

Oran was the strongest out of the 18 of us, he lugged the machine gun around as though it was nothing, was constantly flouting the rules and wasn’t one to be woken up for guard duty roughly. He was a central part of the tzevet and we were all glad to have him with us I had once seen him take the end of a stretcher on his own, carry both handles and just stomp forward with the rest of the tzevet in tow. Now we were carrying him and it wasn’t easy. The soft ground tended to absorb my feet and threw up the familiar powdery dust while we marched. Thankfully we were starting to learn the proper army way to carry a stretcher which meant four people, one for each handle moving for 30 seconds before then moving forward to the next handle and then, after handing off to the soldier behind running back to the two lines that were faithfully following. The problem is that when there are four people carrying the stretcher you are only really getting a minute’s respite before finding a stretcher handle on your shoulder once again. We struggled on. We moved over the dusty ground after our commander who was walking purposefully towards what appeared to be an increasingly large hulking rock that was somewhere off in the distance.

The rock was in fact a mountain that was twisted and jagged like the rocks that it was composed of, the summit somewhere far off above, from the base I couldn’t see it. Mark stopped at the foot of it and we stopped behind him. As one we stared up at this terror instinctively knowing the task that lay before us. Mark took a drink and he looked at us blankly as we looked at him pleadingly. Begging with our eyes not to lead us up the mountain, begging him to tell us that we had done enough and that the night was over. He gave me the exact same look that Ran had given me during field week when we were trying to get out of the dry river bed with the stretcher. A look of cold, calculated disgust yet simultaneously utterly detached from me, I was mere irritation, a nothing, I didn’t even have a red beret and he wasn’t interested in silent pleas. I had never seen so much conveyed without words. That simple look hammered it home. Being a paratrooper wasn’t going to be easy.

Mark started up the thin trail towards the summit and we followed him. The night had already been tough but now it was going to reach a crescendo of evil. The path was blocked in places by large boulders and the stretcher had to be pushed, pulled, raised and lowered. There were times when we dropped the stretcher, complete with Oran attached, onto the rocks and had to run to pick him up again amidst his cries of pain. The path was barely passable for two people walking side by side but we had to make do as best we could, the higher we climbed the tighter the path became until there were periods where it disappeared altogether.

I suffered all of the way through, I suffered the agony in my limbs as I pulled and pushed, I suffered the agony in my mind from the shock of thinking that the night was over only to be confronted by the evil of the stretcher and the darkness of the mountain. The shock was made worse by the fact that every 10 minutes I was certain that we had struggled our way to the top only to find out that we had only reached a small plateau with the real summit still being far above out of sight.

Eventually I found myself at the front, all thoughts of switching under the stretcher every 30 were seconds long gone, I was screaming at the others to push as I pulled. A mixture of English and Hebrew swear words escaped my lips as did a couple of Arabic ones that I had picked up along the way. I remember hearing Elad chuckle behind me as he pushed at the other end and I asked myself “what people are these with me that they can laugh even as we go through all of this?” I shouted at him even more loudly and everyone started giggling. How were they laughing? How did they have it in them to laugh? I couldn’t understand it and I lacked the energy to try as we lurched onwards and upwards with that accursed stretcher ever higher, over the sharp rocks towards our goal.

Asaf was limping from twisting his leg though he didn’t say a word as he carried his Minimi machine gun and pushed next to Elad. What people are these that they don’t quit even when they are hurt? Eventually the real question hit me like a silver bullet; What kind of man am I that I came all this way to carry a stretcher up a mountain in search of a piece of red material and silver wings? What kind of man am I that I am only now finding out for the first time the power that I have inside, that I can urge these other men on even when I have almost nothing left myself?

And there on the mountain the me that was to earn the Red Beret was born.

It was the same mountain that generations of paratroopers had climbed for years, it was the mountain that built Paratroopers and it was only the first of many times that we would climb it. Each time I climbed over those rocks and made my way over that too small pathway that marked the start of the ascent I remembered the first time, the time that I did something special, the time I found my voice and really my place in the team.

We finished after the sun had come up, the other half of the tzevet arrived just after us, upon reaching the summit we were immediately told that a helicopter was on the way in to pick up our ‘casualties’ and that we had to find cover while we waited for them. I crouched down behind a rock and covered the way we had come. My sweat soaked body shivered in the dawn as I battled my eyes to prevent them from closing in exhaustion. And there I knelt as the time ticked away and my eyelids became heavier and heavier only to be awoken by the words “gas attack!” shouted by Green. The black balls that are gas grenades rattled within range of us thrown by our commanders. We all ran about attempting to find one another in an attempt to free each other’s gas masks. In the confusion we forgot about the casualties still attached to their stretchers only to hear their now familiar cry of pain.

It was Ya’ar who bit the bullet and ran into the gas to give them their masks and untie them from their stretchers. He ran out of the quickly dispersing green haze with eyes streaming tears, he ran to Haim who promptly removed his mask for him from the pouch on his back. Once everything had settled down we were ordered to keep our masks on for the march back to base. We moved down a very gentle slope that was the other side of the mountain towards the base that I had so detested on my first encounter. Now that base was my saviour, it marked the final resting point and the end of all that had gone before. But where was it? With each movement my Kevlar helmet pushed the clips of the mask deeper into my skull but I would never think to loosen the clips without being told. So I plodded on with my skull aching, desperate for water though unable to drink and desperate to get rid of the pain though it wouldn’t abate and desperate for sleep though the base was still out of sight.

The further we walked the greater the pain in my head, a clip to the left of my temple, a clip to the right and one in the centre all forced into me by the tight fitting helmet and only the sound of my breathing echoing around the inside of the mask to keep me going. It was easy to trip over when moving with the mask on as there was no peripheral vision. The more we walked the greater the strain, the exercise was over, the only thing left to do was walk leisurely back to the base wearing a gas mask, yet the tears rolled down my cheeks, thankfully invisible to my comrades around me. Why did they had to add the gas mask? I screamed and shouted and raged within the confines of that Perspex and rubber prison. The pain in my skull only grew in intensity along with my frustration. It just never ended, now with the sun high up in the sky and a night of endurance behind me the army still demanded more from me. It wasn’t fair! How could I be expected to just keep on like this?

Still I put one foot in front of the other while I raged and whined and moaned to myself. The pain continued as did I until the base loomed large before me and we stopped at the road separating the field from the base. Standing there in a group around Mark I wondered what would happen if someone covered the air inlet to my gasmask. As I contemplated being suffocated a hand came from somewhere beyond my vision and did precisely that. Starved of oxygen for only a second I wheeled around on the attacker. The last straw had been placed and my camel’s back broke. I launched my strike on the offender and launched in with a kick that was followed up by punches. I didn’t get very far as once again, the sound of laughter, precisely when I didn’t expect it permeated through my senses. Everyone had removed their gas masks and I had attacked the wrong person.

It had been Elad who had covered the mask, though with the limited vision allowed by the mask I had missed him and dived on Sahar. The look of confusion on Sahar’s face immediately made me aware of my mistake while the laughter coming from Elad left me in no doubt as to who the real culprit had been. Hurt and confused I removed my own mask and stepped quietly back into the fold allowing Mark to once again be the centre of attention. He looked at me though I couldn’t quite decipher what he was thinking, he then shook his head suddenly as if to shrug off my little ‘incident’ and said something like the following; “Nicely done, it was a tough night and you came through it well, now we are going to finish the way Paratroopers always finish, with the stretchers out and on the run!”

I was going to kill him! We had just spent the whole night dragging the bloody thing up a mountain and now we had to open it again just to “finish the way paratroopers always finish”, the dick! He looked back at me and said “Marc, get on the stretcher.” I practically collapsed onto that blessed/cursed thing and felt the thrill of a paratrooper stretcher run from the VIP position.

Both squads re-formed for Green once we were back in the base, I had one eye on him and one eye on a very comfortable looking fold out cot with my sleeping bag on it. He gave us the usual good work routine and then told us to clean our weapons and prepare our equipment for inspection. The others immediately fell out and went to get it done while I just stood there. In shock at the fact that after everything we had just gone through they still couldn’t bring themselves to let us have any rest! Did I really now I had to go clean my bloody gun and sort out my stuff? It wasn’t possible, couldn’t be right and how the hell were the other guys accepting all this? I grabbed a rag, soaked it in the grease that we used to clean our weapon, sat down by my tent and dismantled my beautiful M4 rifle while trying my best not to fall asleep.

It was tough to clean the thing because I kept falling asleep while trying to clean a small pin over and over. While cleaning it I would nod off and drop the thing onto the ground only to jolt awake, see it lying there, pick it up and repeat the process all over again. Eventually the equipment was ready and we were all standing around it watching Green walk around our stuff examining it carefully. We didn’t get off lightly but we did get through it and when we did we were rewarded with a day and a half out of the army for what was left of the weekend.

It hadn’t even occurred to me that it was Friday and that we were due to go home having survived our first 2 weeks of advanced training. All of my first impressions of the base disappeared, I had come to love it since staying there was infinitely preferable to going out in the field and experiencing the constant nightmare of this hellish new phase of training, the hard times really had begun!

The Only Good Arab is a Dead Arab

For the other guys ‘home’ was everything that the word implied but for me it just meant going back to an empty apartment. I didn’t mind and in many ways saw it as an advantage of sorts. While they spent every spare moment talking about what they were going to do when they got home mine never really seemed to be much of a draw. The others were always going on about ema’s cooking and catching up with friends, when I went back to my flat I usually fell asleep straight away only to cart myself off to a bar on Tel Aviv beach where, too shy to actually talk to anyone, I got myself ludicrously drink and passed out on the cool sand. Only to wake up the next day wondering why I had bothered while patting down my pockets to make sure my valuables hadn’t been stolen while I’d been lying there.

That had begun to change with my first weekend out of the army but I still found myself shying away. This weekend Haim had told me that there was already a plan for the weekend and all I had to do was go with the flow. To that end I found myself standing outside my apartment on Ben Yehuda Street right near Tel Aviv beach waiting for him to pick me up on the very day that they let us out. I had passed out on my bed as soon as I made it home though I still felt my limbs aching from the hell of advanced training and didn’t want to be there, but I was the outsider and I needed their friendship a lot more than they needed mine. Someone had told me early on that your tzevet was everything and you had to give them everything. For me that meant when out of the army too. And so I waited outside in the balmy Tel Aviv autumn.

Before long Haim pulled up in his dad’s car and I jumped straight in. First on the list for the evening was Friday night dinner at his aunt and uncle’s house in a Tel Aviv suburb. We entered into the house as the light from the dying sun filtered through the leaves of the trees lining the street. Haim’s parents were sitting in the house talking to their family and two other middle aged couples who I later found out were friends of his aunt and uncle. Everyone seemed to jump up when we walked in, everyone was smiling and warm hugs by way of introduction were plentiful, I was immediately treated like one of the family despite the fact that I had never even met the hosts. The table was already filled with hummus and other delicacies that were once known only in the Middle East. Haim’s aunt ushered me to my seat at the table and his uncle read out the blessings over the wine and the bread before we sat and began to eat.

There was something comforting about hearing those blessings, everywhere around the world families would be standing reciting the same words together. The Hebrew words spoken in Jewish houses the world over every Friday night around sunset are a part of what brought so many of us from the four corners of the world together in Israel. Here in this unfamiliar home amongst strangers I felt a continuity, a kinship with these people who performed the exact same ritual that my own family would be performing that same night all the way over in London. We sat together and broke bread. I was seated opposite one Haim’s aunt’s friends.

Haim had 2 cousins there, one of whom was a combat medic in the Sayeret he had already gone through his training and was on active duty operations in the West Bank, the other was a non-combat soldier. Despite the fact that the atmosphere was light and jovial talk quickly turned to a recent terrorist attack, being in the army I hadn’t heard anything about it. A terrorist had broken into a kibbutz in the centre of the country and gunned down five people, including a mother and her two sons, one was just five years old and the other only four. The woman sitting across from me looked me straight in the eyes and said to me “I’m utterly Right wing, as far as I’m concerned the only good Arab is a dead Arab.”

Proving Myself

By Sunday I was back on the base preparing to spend another week in the field. We wouldn’t be seeing the base again for five days when we would get back in time for Shabbat with the knowledge that on Saturday evening as soon as Shabbat left us behind for another week we would be heading back out into the world beyond and whatever misery awaited us. That evening I stood with a pack on my back and the handle of a stretcher resting on my shoulder along with three others in my team. The stretcher was laden with ammunition and rations all a growing soldier needs for a week in the mud. We stood there not moving and barely talking all of us sensing each other’s fear in front of the back gate of the base.

Adrenaline was coursing through my veins, that evening and every single other evening before our descent into the wilderness I felt that same fear. I only knew that the week to come would be harder than the week before and since the week before had invariably been the hardest of my life the thought of the road not yet trodden was enough to get the adrenaline flowing. It’s funny how I never realised what luxuries I had in the army until they were taken away from me. During boot camp we had two big tents for the 18 of us, with nice lockers in between each bunk and an entire hour at the end of each day of free time, not to mention the rule that we would each get at least 6 hours of sleep every night. That was completely forgotten on advanced infantry training, we lived in the field, our lives were cut down into constant infantry exercises at the end of which two of our number would be told that they had been wounded in the assault and now needed to be carried by stretcher. That was my life, 15 minutes for food and if we were lucky sleeping bags would be brought out to us by jeep at the end of the night so that we could sleep warm for a couple of hours, that was if let us sleep at all. Towards the end of the advanced training even that luxury was denied us and we had to make do with one blanket between two in the Winter Cold.

The shift in the training regimen meant that marches were now fewer and each was much longer than the one before. There was one march per month the first was 45km, the second 60km and the third and final march was from The sea to Jerusalem and was the 90km march where we would be awarded the red beret of the Paratroopers at the end. That was still a long way off, it was November and my fourth month in the army and the 45km march loomed large. The cold had set in and the fields around us had turned into mud, in the mornings mist and fog clung to the ground until what little sun there still was burned it away.

One morning I opened my eyes to the sight of the back of a pair of boots in front of me. It was Green and he was standing in the middle of the team. I instantly knew we had screwed up, whoever was last on watch was supposed to have us all awake and ready at a preset time and yet there Green was and we were still asleep. I did the only thing I could think of and closed my eyes, trying to go back to sleep, pretending it was all a nightmare, that Green wasn’t there and that I still had hours to keep my eyes closed and my body still.

When his voice came it was a mere whisper, “within 30 seconds you have packed everything up and the stretcher is in the air with Oran on it.” I can’t have been the only one feigning sleep because as one we all leapt up, stuffed the sleeping bags away, pulled our packs on and had the stretcher in the air. We had screwed up and now we were going to be punished. Off we went, Green led us up one hill and then back down and then back up and then back down. We struggled on and on, by this time we all were carrying bags on our backs, this was advanced training and we were in the field for a week, everything we would need we carried from the base into the field.

We walked and we walked and we walked until the strain had me, until the pain in my shoulder was the only thing on my mind and all I yearned for was a couple of minutes to rest and a sip or two of water. We slept in our uniforms, we slept in our boots and with our weapons and we ate food that had been sealed in cans before we were born, this was life on advanced infantry training. I got through it by imagining what everyone back in London would say when I told them about the things I had done, I imagined how their faces would both light up and darken as I told them my various stories, my lips would silently move as I constructed my day dreams and my fairy tales while carrying that god awful stretcher. In all that time I never once considered quitting, my new mantra was “if the red beret was easy to get, I wouldn’t want it!”

As the training worsened the atmosphere lightened, the bond between us grew and magnified as we witnessed each other under the greatest of stress. Those of us who could handle helping the others were in turn helped by the others, those who couldn’t were left by the wayside. And so of the original 18 of us, two were lost by the end of boot camp, one at the start of advanced training and more would be gone by the end.

When the 45km first march of advanced training came around and that awkward moment where we all looked down at the equipment arrived I figured my time had come. I reached down and picked up the stretcher, admittedly the lightest piece of equipment there but I had some serious fears to overcome. More pieces of equipment had been added since boot camp. There was now another jerrycan weighing in at 20 litres and another radio to be taken.

We had 45 km to go and the next day they would be letting us home again, we had survived our first month of advanced training and our reward was this march and then two weeks of jump school. Everyone knew that jump school was easy, that there was a dining room there with a kitchen which would serve us hot food every day and that we could take a shower there every day too and of course that we would be jumping out of an aeroplane five times!

The march began at dusk and at first everything was fine, I was at the front of the group with Green marching merrily along. He didn’t stop or deviate from his route for anything, there was the occasional animal carcass on the ground and he would happily step on it and continue his mission to get us to some unknown place that was an ever diminishing number of kilometers away, though he would never tell us how many. And so we moved for 55 minutes of the hour and drank for the other five. It was around a third of the way in that we started to march up, and up and up. The incline was getting consistently greater and the straps of the stretcher were biting consistently deeper into my skin. It didn’t matter how I adjusted them it was always problematic, too loose and the whole thing swung to the side pulling me off balance, too tight and I cut of the circulation around my shoulders, I was fading fast.

After twenty kilometers I had Omer pulling me by one arm and Elisha by the other, it was standard on a march for this to happen but it hadn’t happened to me and it was what I had always dreaded. All feelings of self respect and dignity left me, I would cry out and shout at the people around me, Elad just laughed, Elisha ignored me while pulling my left hand and Omer constantly told me to give him the stretcher only to hear me shout back “NO!” To which he would shout something unintelligible back at me. Omer had passed the test for the Navy SEALS and they had wanted him badly but although he had passed the test it had also destroyed his motivation to serve with them. He had been so cold that the thought of spending the rest of his military service wet and shivering had sent him in the direction of the Paratroopers. He was tall, thin and bespectacled and an utter nerd more importantly he was half of the reason I was still able to move. The other half of the reason was Elisha, who was also tall, also a nerd and had found the strength to put his hand on my back on the very first march and propel me forwards, now, when I needed him once again he was there to pull me forwards.

So we continued, I sought out Haim at one point only to find him moving forward one foot after the other slogging the machine gun with him and I could hear Yuval jabbering away to Yoni at the back of the group as he tugged him forward. I had long since fallen towards the back of the team but I could still see the long antenna extending from Yaar’s radio at the front of the group as he marched alongside Green as his radioman.

We were a team now and we were all in this together.

I finished that march in a dead man’s state, exactly the state that I remembered Yuval being in when he had carried the radio. I was groaning and my eyes were wandering around in my head but I still had the presence of mind to answer the questions put to me and to respond when someone spoke to me. I could feel an iron inside me, steel in my soul, I reached a point where the body demanded that I quit but my mind refused and ordered the flesh to continue.

Everything was at stake, giving the stretcher up was out of the question, not because I couldn’t do it, Omer would have taken it without saying a word, but everyone would have known. I would have broken the code, it would have been the same as the guys who chose to do push ups instead of run the sprints during the gibush my number would have been marked and the group would forsake me for those of our number, like Yuval, who could carry their load from start to finish even though they thought it might kill them. I didn’t give up the stretcher and at 35kms in I somehow found my strength returning. I had gotten past the point of no return and made it to the other side.

The march had taken us in a massive circle around the base, five kms from the end the evil stretcher came off my back, we put Oran on it and ran the rest of the way carrying him. The pillboxes were soon in view as we ran towards them in the black of night. Cheers came from the soldiers manning those pillboxes, the soldiers within them knowing that their turn at the 45km was the next day, they opened the gates for us while shouting encouragement as we ran through them stretcher still in the air, we ran all the way in and lifted the stretcher three times up and down while cheering our own achievement, month one was over, parachute course was coming and the next step on the path to becoming a paratrooper was upon us!

Jump School (19th of January 2013)

The bus took me all the way up to the gate of the base and with a smile on my face I marched through the drizzle to the guard post and presented my ID, after a cursory check the sergeant on guard let me in. It didn’t take long to bump into Yuval who was jumping about and talking at 6000 words a second as if he was on speed. He couldn’t stop smiling and although I couldn’t understand anything he said I gathered that he was as happy to be there as I was. All the guys were hanging around chatting animatedly amongst themselves. It dawned on me that it was the first time that I had been on an army base that wasn’t located in the West Bank since my induction, it was a nice feeling not to have to feel like being on enemy turf the whole time.

There were loads of different units there for jump training including the Sayeret, Duvduvan and Maglan. It really made me feel as if I was a part of the Special forces community to be going through the course with these guys. They had all come through the same gibush that we had and so we already knew a lot of them anyway and we quickly started swapping stories of our training.

The base was located right next to a large Air Force base which was where we would go to board the aircraft that we would soon be jumping out of. All of the new units were ushered into a briefing room where a solid looking Colonel let us know that the first week of the course was where we would learning how to parachute and the second week was devoted to the five jumps that we would make to qualify as Paratroopers. Each jump was to be in some way more complex than the jump before, though the officer didn’t elaborate exactly how that was to be the case, it seemed to me that a jump was a jump but apparently not.

It was December ensuring grey skies and the constant threat of rain, despite the fact that we were on a ‘real’ base instead of the mud hole of the advanced infantry training we were still sleeping in tents. The ground around the tents quickly turned into mud, it was as if the weather felt an obligation to ensure that even on parachute course we had to feel some level of discomfort, it was still advanced infantry training after all.

We were given a jump instructor to teach us all of the necessities of landing on the ground or more precisely how to hit the ground after jumping from an aeroplane with a static line parachute. A reservist was responsible for the team’s training, his name was Shteelman and he behaved exactly according to his name. I imagined him as the kind of Paratrooper that may have existed in Israel’s past, the kind of man who would look at the mud filled tents we were sleeping in and shake his head at the luxury new recruits were allowed. He stood erect as though unbreakable and barked orders to us constantly, he looked as though a smile would have cracked his face apart.

At first it was easy, we just stood and practised how to fall, or rather how to hit the ground correctly. It wasn’t complicated the trick was to let your knees go absolutely limp but behave as though both knees were connected so that when hitting the ground both legs immediately buckle and then go in the same direction, the rest of the body follows with hands up around my head. I can’t lie it was a pretty civilised way to pass the time and there wasn’t a stretcher in sight.

Once we’d learned how to hit the ground we had to learn how to jump and there were a whole bunch of different harnesses and zip lines for us to use in order to practise parachuting. All of them involved being strapped into a rig that’s exactly the same as a parachute only the straps are attached to a zip line or simply a spring high above giving a very small bouncing, bungee effect when jumping. Of course when it came time to start practising on these rigs it had never occurred to me that I might actually be afraid of heights, when it came time to jump from a height of three meters from the ground in a harness that my brain knew in no uncertain terms ensured I would certainly not hit the ground my body found itself unwilling. This was problematic to say the least, it was also hysterical to the rest of the guys.

And so I found myself standing on a platform above the ground in all my rigging supposed to jump off and yet hesitant. This was an obstacle to be overcome, a paratrooper who can’t jump out of a plane is not a paratrooper. As one by one soldiers in the harness next to mine were strapped in and jumped I stood there gawping. In the end I closed my eyes and forced myself from the platform into the space beyond and was promptly supported by the ‘bungee harness’. From that point on every jump was a problem but something that I was going to overcome or else risk never seeing my red beret.

The toughest obstacle was a ten meter high tower where we’d put on our rigging, jump and be carried along by a zip line. While moving down the zip line we’d have to execute a range of different manoeuvres such as releasing the reserve parachute that sat snugly on my stomach. We’d have to jump from this tower more times than I could count and every time I had a problem doing it. One time I was about to jump only to hear the instructor shout after me “no wait we haven’t attached the harness properly!” It was too late, my centre of gravity had already shifted and I tumbled out of the tower with a scream only to be safely carried along by the zip line as I saw the instructors rolling around laughing in the tower out of the corner of my eye, in fact everyone down below was laughing too. I deployed my reserve parachute while muttering curses under my breath.

Despite the fact that we were in a real base with an actual functioning kitchen the food was awful, every meal seemed to consist of dried rice, hard boiled eggs and cream cheese. Once again I had taken the bed nearest to the tent flaps and so when the rain blew in it blew in on me. At one point we noticed that every time we entered the tent there was the worst smell in there. At first we all blamed Elad but he adamantly insisted it wasn’t him, at which point I saw it on my sleeping bag. The cat that insisted on nesting on my sleeping bag clearly wasn’t a big fan of the food on the base either and was responsible for the smell and another problem for me to have to deal with after he had insistently deposited a present on my sleeping bag time and again.

It rained, it rained often, the sky was grey and the weather gloomy and everyone decided it would be funny to talk to me in gibberish instead of Hebrew knowing that I couldn’t tell the difference. I couldn’t understand why everyone was suddenly shouting at me for not understanding various words, finally Yuval let me know why it was so funny, they found it hilarious but I just felt isolated. To make things even better Mark found me while I was on my way to the vending machine when everyone was supposed to be asleep. He wordlessly bid that I follow him to the tent housing our equipment, he took my M4 carbine from me and handed me a MAG machine gun. “This is your personal weapon now Marc, you take it with you everywhere when you sleep, eat and shit.” That was the end of the conversation, I took my punishment silently and trudged through the mud back to my diarrhoea stained sleeping bag.

There was a plus side to having to carry the MAG around with me, the short British guy carrying around a gun that was as big as him made me a minor celebrity amongst all the other fighters. People would stop me to talk about what a ball breaker of a commander I had for making me carry the weapon around with me everywhere, I got the nickname ‘plus’ because I looked like a plus sign with the weapon on a strap across my waist and the guys stopped their teasing, even promoting me to the others as their friend with the MAG. So this was the first week of jump school, the second beckoned and so did those all important silver jump wings and all I had to do to get them was jump from the sky.

Into the Slipstream 

The last man on guard was Elisha who woke us up at four a.m., in darkness we scurried around getting our stuff together with the knowledge that our first jump into the abyss was upon us. Once dressed we assembled at the hanger where the parachutes packed by the pretty girls were distributed to each and everyone of us. We murmured to one another while we waited, shuffling along as one by one each soon to be paratrooper received their parachute rig.

Buses were waiting for us outside and we loaded everything up before setting off on the short drive to the Air Force base next door. It was my first experience with the Air Force and I hadn’t considered the possibility that they had bases so big that it was actually possible for the bus to drive around inside for about 20 minutes before dropping us off next to the Hercules’ aircraft that were to, in turn drop us over the nearby sand dunes.

We were safely deposited by the side of a runway next to a small corrugated iron shelter, we put on our rigs and then stood there waiting. Dawn had long since broken and the guys were chatting excitedly, for Yaar it was to be his first time ever on a plane and he was positively beaming. After a while a van pulled up and a couple of Air Force guys pulled out a trestle table and loaded it up with bread, cheeses, yoghurt, vegetables and a huge flask of hot, sweet tea. I had heard rumours that the Air force knew how to live and now they had proven it.

The others tucked in but somehow the thought of being dropped out of a big aeroplane from 300 meters up put me off, somehow I was the only one though, I stood aside and watched the others eat while trying to look as happy as they clearly were. Eventually the Hercules’ aircraft lined up and taxied over to the various knots of soldiers waiting for their ride over to the drop zone. One Hercules stopped next to us and we ran on board just as we had been instructed, the hold eventually filled up with us and the Sayeret as well as some extra men sent on the course as a reward for impressive service elsewhere.

The noise was phenomenal while the Hercules taxied and sped towards a take off from the airbase and yet guys were singing, I didn’t join in. Yaar still had that toothy grin on his face, I sat there listening to the huge propeller engines, my friends singing, Yaar smiling (which I could somehow hear) and my own heartbeat which was able to drown out the lot of them. The co pilot of the plane was Haim’s next door neighbour and he stepped out of the cockpit with a camera, everyone leaned in to smile and I put the best of British effort into offering what ended up as a kind of petrified movement on the side of my lips that may have passed for a smile or look of terror depending on how kind the person the viewing the picture decided to be.

All too soon those iconic jump lights clicked on near the doors at the rear of the plane, these light look like mini traffic lights. When amber came on we all stood up and faced the doors at the back. The aircraft were circling the drop zone and I knew my time was coming. The light turned green and I could vaguely see the first soldiers jumping as I shuffled forward for my turn. Then there was a scuffle at the front and suddenly a soldier rushing towards the back of the plane. It was Omer, a soldier in the Sayeret he was rushing away from the open door with a look of pure terror in his eyes. I wasn’t quite sure where it was that he was trying to get to and wherever it was he certainly didn’t get there as no less than five jump instructors jumped on top of him, dragged him to the open door and threw him out.

This actually served to calm me down as at least now I knew that I didn’t have to pluck up the guts to jump out of the plane myself but could rely on someone to kick me out of the door.

My turn came and I was standing at the door looking down on the sand dunes that constituted the drop zone far below. There was no pressure to jump as I stood there looking down, the jump instructor next to me was in his 50s and had a smile on his face. “Just put one hand on each side of the opening and don’t look down!” he roared, don’t look down? Too late for that but otherwise I did as I was told, the tips of my toes resting over the edge of the abyss. “Now push out just like you’ve been taught” and so I did and the slipstream had me, I was out of the aircraft screaming at the top of my lungs; “21, 22, 23” I had brought my knees up to my chest and my hands on my reserve parachute while I counted. With the three second free fall over I looked up to find, to my everlasting joy that the parachute had deployed exactly as it should and I was floating ever so gently towards the sand below me.

The build up had been a nightmare but the floating descent made it all worthwhile, I stared down past my dangling feet at the ground that was lazily coming closer beneath me while marvelling at the fact that I was being given this opportunity by the army. I could hear my friends shouting to one another, some had brought their cameras with them for the ride and were busy taking pictures. This was what it had all been about, all the fear and worry of the morning now exorcised by the ecstasy of floating through the air and the joy of knowing that I was doing so with the aid of a parachute that opened exactly as it was supposed to.

Soon enough the ground was rushing up to meet me, Shteelman had told us that the fall after a parachute jump is equivalent to jumping from a height of about three or four meters. I remembered all that I had been taught and simply allowed my knees to bend at the first impact with the ground, I rolled, hands on my head and my first jump was over successfully, save for the fact that a gust of wind had been caught by my parachute and I was now being dragged across the sandy ground. That wasn’t a problem either, tugging on the release clips, one beneath each shoulder released the parachute leaving me only to fold it up, throw it over my shoulder and join my beaming comrades on the march back towards the road and the waiting vehicles.

The second jump was a different story altogether…

The Bad Jump 

You’d think that after the first jump the worries about parachuting would have disappeared but it didn’t work that way. For some reason the fear grew greater before each and every jump that I made. Perhaps it was the length of the long drawn out process that involved getting up in the early hours before dawn, the wait to get the parachute, the bus ride to the base and the wait to get on the plane followed by the flight and then the shuffle towards the door. All of it together served to cut up my nerves till they were red raw and serve them back up to me. I hated it, all of which served only to make the descent on the parachute that much more enjoyable. The float through the air and the knowledge that I had fought against my fears and overcome them made the trip down a gift I could enjoy from start to finish.

At the start of the course they had told us that each jump would be harder than the one before and that was true. The first jump had been without any equipment, the second had been with a bag containing all of my infantry equipment including my rifle. That bag sits in between the paratrooper’s legs until after the jump, once the parachute has deployed there is a lever on the parachute rig that trooper pulls enabling the bag to drop down three meters. The bag is attached to the parachute harness by three meters of cable ensuring that it simply dangles there and actually serves as a marker for the paratrooper to know when he should brace himself for impact with the ground. Once on the ground he takes his gear out of the bag and is ready for war.

For my second jump I shuffled up to the door of the Hercules aircraft complete with bag between my legs and rather than waiting for me to jump of my own accord the jump instructor pushed me. Out I went screaming “21,22,23” and when I opened my eyes I found once again that the canopy had deployed, unfortunately something had gone wrong. One of the parachute cords had somehow twisted around my leg and I was suspended upside down. This realisation provoked a long moment of panic during which I started screaming at the parachute to “Give my leg back!” There was some fighting during which I pulled on my leg and reached up with my arms to try and get a grip on the offending cable long enough to release my foot. All the time this is happening I had this big bag of equipment pressing down into my nether regions and I was screaming at the parachute rig for being a complete asshole!

After a superhuman feat of exertion I managed to free my leg and immediately fall the right way up. Now all I had to do was pull the lever below my reserve chute and allow the equipment bag to drop down the three meters until the cable connecting it to the parachute rig went taught. This was precisely what my brain ordered my hand to do but my hand had an opinion all of its own. “Are you sure that this lever does actually drop the bag down three meters?” it asked back to my brain, “Yes I am, pull the lever” my brain responded, but still my hand wasn’t so sure, “Are you sure that this isn’t a special release lever for the whole rig and that pulling it won’t simply see us fall out of the harness and to our deaths below?” “Ermmm, yes I am sure, pull the lever” the brain replied,”well you kinda hesitated for a moment there brain, are you sure there’s nothing else you want to tell me?” The argument between arm and brain continued for a couple of moments until I pulled the lever and felt the reassuring drop of the bag from between my legs and the somewhat less reassuring tug on the rig as the cable went taught with the thing dangling beneath me.

I then hit the ground, rolled, released the chute and jumped up ready to fight another day.

The next jump was a night jump and the jump after that another day jump, the fifth jump was cancelled due to bad weather. Apparently four jumps was enough to qualify from the course and I had my silver wings and a ticket back to an evil pile of mud in the North of the West Bank.

Guard Duty

We all returned from the course with smiles on our beaming faces. We had silver jump wings on our uniforms and we were the first on the base to get them, giving us an immense though temporary feeling of superiority over everyone else there. The wings now also had a huge amount of symbolic value, you see soldiers in training are issued with a snot colour beret to wear until they qualify as fighters, it’s also a beret that administrative soldiers wear for their entire service. So wearing it either tells the world that you’ve only been in the army for a very short period of time or that you are as far away from being a combat soldier as it’s possible to be while wearing the colour green. The silver wings on our chests served to say that although we still had to wear these awful berets at the least we were on our way to becoming Paras.

So when we arrived back at the base it was in the spirit of hope, able to see the light at the end of the tunnel that resulted in us gaining the red beret and being treated more like real people than raw recruits. That hope was ripped from us with barely a word spoken. All three units were gathered together simply to hear “we are now going to be guarding the base, I am confident that you will carry out this duty in a way that best represents the traditions of the Paratoopers.” And that was that. The captain had spoken and our immediate future had been set in stone. The Captain was a tall man, about 24 years old he originated in the Orev and once out of officer’s course had originally been in charge of training within the unit. Administrative changes to the way that all three Paratrooper reconnaissance units were trained ensured that he was promoted and assigned to be in charge of the overall training for the August 2002 intake to all three special units. I had barely heard him speak and had almost no contact with him.

When I heard that we had guard duty coming up I was ecstatic, we all were, even Yuval hadn’t heard anything negative about what was coming up, unfortunately he couldn’t predict the lunacy of our Captain who had decided that guard duty would be conducted in two hour rotations. This meant that for 24 hours a day, every day we would spend two hours guarding and two hours resting. Green then made that worse by insisting that it was forbidden to go to sleep between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Day and night the area rang with the sound of small arms fire, it was eerie in the night to hear weapons being fired constantly by one group of soldiers or another. When you’re the one doing the shooting you notice the sounds of gunfire a lot less.

Guarding brought with it its own challenges, it was to be the first time I would have any contact with Palestinians as it included manning the checkpoint outside the base. There were a lot of different positions to be manned and the checkpoint was only one of them albeit the most interesting. Guard duty began with a whimper and continued in that fashion. The weather went from bad to worse which made me glad not to be in the field but since all of our tents seemed to be Korean War vintage and had US Army printed on them they provided little shelter for us, the holes in them ensured that when it rained we all got wet, when the wind blew we got cold and when both were happening at the same time the tents collapsed altogether.

At first I liked guard duty, no one was fucking with me and usually there was someone else in a guard post so nearby that we could chat. Each two hour shift finished quickly and after a quick nap it was off to the next one, no stretchers and climbing up hills or mountains and no assaulting dummy enemies at the top of a hill. After 24 hours of two hours on and two hours off guard duty I felt the pressure. The fact that we weren’t allowed to put our heads down during the day ensured the maximum amount of sleep I could get at any one time was about one hour and forty five minutes. Soon I was counting every minute of my two hours off, weighing up every action on the basis of the amount of sleep I would lose doing it.

It started off with counting the amount of time it took to get from my guard post to my tent and trying to run in order to get there as quickly as possible but as time moved on other things would be entered into the equation. Do I spend the five minutes that it takes to brush my teeth? Do I spend the three minutes that it takes to get my uniform off? Do I spend the one minute that it takes getting my boots off? The longer the week dragged on the more every action simply became an obstacle to sleep, the first thing to go out of the window was showering. There was simply no way that I was going to give up on a massive 10-15 minutes of my sleep time in order to get clean only to stomp out of the filthy showers into the mud and get dirty all over again, it just wasn’t going to happen. The next thing to go out of the window was brushing my teeth and I waited as long as humanly possible before wasting time going to the toilet.

After about three days I wasn’t sure if I was awake or asleep at any given moment in time, entire shifts of guard duty would fly by leaving me unsure as to whether I had been asleep on my feet the entire time or genuinely guarding. Other times guard duty would seem to take hours and hours as I fought a mental battle to force my eyes to remain open. Once I was guarding at a position in the rear of the base along with Netanel the medic. There were two medics in our team and by the end of our service two more of our number would pass through medic’s course and one of the two that started at the beginning would have been kicked out, but whenever anyone needed to call for a medic we always shouted out his name. I guess he simply fit the role. His parents had moved to Jerusalem from Canada and had insisted on speaking to him mostly in Hebrew so despite his heritage his English was halting. He was quiet and reserved but not shy, he earned the nickname Snake when Haim noticed that in some strange way he actually looked like one, the name stuck, I thought it was a much cooler nickname than ‘Brity’ which was what everyone called me.

We arrived at our guard posts covering the rear of the base, they were close enough to each other that we could chat from our positions but after a couple of minutes Netanel stopped answering. I brought my rifle up to bear and crept over to his position. I found him sitting on the concrete floor of his position hugging his legs with his knees up under his chin fast asleep. I tried waking him only to have him open his eyes briefly only to close them again, he was finished. Now it’s utterly unacceptable according to the army for a soldier to fall asleep on guard duty but I could see that he was too exhausted to carry on so I spent the remaining time wandering between my post and his constantly shaking my head and slapping myself in a desperate attempt to keep myself from falling asleep in the same way Netanel had, I got him up a couple of minutes before our replacements arrived and we headed back to the tent to lie down.

Time went on in this way, we were kept awake during the day with various activities like races to field strip our weapons and put them back together again or working on our equipment and then at night we slept as best as we could in between shifts. When it looked like someone was falling asleep during the day time sessions he would have to stand and drink water, sometimes I watched guys fall asleep while standing up, when they did so we’d all stop what we were doing and watch them until someone started laughing and then we all started laughing and the noise woke them up.

The only really interesting place to guard was the checkpoint on the road in front of the base. We would open the road at about 4 a.m. when it was still dark and close it at around 10 p.m. The checkpoint consisted of a concrete barrier narrowing the road into just one lane and a position for a soldier to stand at and provide cover to another soldier who would check the vehicles and question the people in them. Both soldiers outside were covered by more soldiers sitting in bunkers at the entrance to the base giving them a panoramic view over the road, each was able to provide covering fire should it be needed. Next to guarding the checkpoint itself these were the next two most interesting positions to be in as at least there was something going on outside. If the checkpoint were closed they were every bit as boring as every other position.

It was while standing in one of the bunkers overlooking the road that I heard an explosion. I had been standing in there watching the road trying my hardest to stay awake. It wasn’t easy but I had developed a trick, I told myself to look at a fixed object, to tell myself details about it. “look at the rock, how would you describe it?” I asked myself, “well it’s mossy and has plenty of stones around it, there are weeds around it too and it has a whitey grey colour.” Unfortunately at a certain point I would become aware of the fact that my eyes were closed and that I had moved from thinking about the rock to dreaming about it. I blinked my eyes back open again and tried to find something else to stare at.

The scenario played itself out over and over again during the shift until I heard the crash! I opened my eyes and climbed off the floor, rifle at the ready and searched for the source of the explosion. Mark the commander was still on the road checking cars with Netanel backing him up, neither of them seemed to have heard anything. I turned and looked down at the ground that I had just been lying on and understood that the sound of the explosion had been my helmeted head hitting the concrete floor and that I had fallen asleep on my feet and collapsed. I drank some water and tried to focus on the road and on Mark checking the Palestinians and on Netanel covering him.

When my first time manning the checkpoint finally arrived I was backing up Mark who was doing the questioning. I was standing about 20 feet away from him behind a concrete block with a couple of sandbags on it. I was locked and loaded and aiming my weapon at real people for the first time, I aimed my weapon at everyone he spoke to, young men of military age, fat middle aged men, old women, young women, pregnant young women. Who was a real threat and who wasn’t? Was that bump a real pregnant belly or was it a cover for carrying a bomb, was the car going to blow up when Mark stopped it? Questions endlessly went through my mind when I was on guard, circumstances and scenarios endlessly played themselves out while I stood their aiming my rifle at everyone who went past.

The routine was pretty simple, the cars were all lined up in both directions and Mark would work the cars travelling from East to West or vice versa depending which direction had the heaviest traffic. One by one they showed us their orange ID cards and we looked at them pretending that they meant something to us before waving them through the check point. By four in the morning when we opened the checkpoint opened there was already a line of cars waiting to move from East to West and when we closed it at night the road was already deserted.

More often than not the cars were beaten up pieces of rust and metal that somehow seemed to chug their way down the asphalt roads to their destination, more often than not they were filled way beyond capacity. One time Mark summoned me from my post to inspect the rear of a vehicle. He lifted up the boot and exposed no less than seven sheep stuffed into the rear of the car. We looked at each other attempting to stifle our smiles while the moustachioed owner of the car stood awkwardly by.

There were mini buses and regular buses and beaten up cars and even the odd horse and cart and Palestinians, the first Palestinians I had ever met, the only people I had ever pointed a gun at and I pointed it at each and every one of them. Most of the time I saw them through the cross hairs of either my day or my night scope while I waited for one of them to make a move and earn one of my bullets. But no one did, I stood there time after time, concentrating as hard as I could while the boredom and the frustration and fatigue attempted to take me away to neverland.

I loved working the checkpoint it made me feel like I was doing something useful with my time rather than staring at the fields outside the back of the base listening to the snap crackle and pop of small arms fire coming from the units in the field carrying out their infantry drills. The week dragged on and on and on, everything was a battle, by the end of it I wasn’t taking off my uniform or my boots before collapsing onto my cot, every guard shift was a test of will as to whether I would be able to stay awake and it was while guarding that we lost Oran.

The Breaking of a Soldier

In the same way that the triumph of spirit over adversity was a beautiful thing watching someone’s soul shatter into so many pieces when the realisation dawned on them that they didn’t have what it took to carry on was a tragedy. This was what happened to Oran, the strongest member of our team the night he simply couldn’t take it any more, the night he abandoned us and how we in turn abandoned him.

The two of us had the midnight to two a.m. shift in the bunkers overlooking the road. At that time of night the checkpoint was closed and there was nothing to see on the road, the fact that it was raining made being there even more miserable, the wind howled so loudly that we weren’t even able to shout words of encouragement to one another. The rain blew into our bunkers and the chill left us both shivering, there was no way of getting out of the weather and the two of us, separately, had to stand there and suffer through it while waiting for our relief to come and switch us over, but they never did. We stood there waiting in our positions as five minutes passed and then ten minutes, which became twenty and then thirty. The only thing on our minds was that the delay was cutting into our sleep time and that all too soon we would have another shift. We couldn’t abandon our positions to find out what was going on and there was no one on the end of the radio, we had to just stand there hoping it would be okay.

Eventually my relief arrived in the form of a soaking wet member of the Sayeret, he came up to the bunker, “sorry man but it’s the storm all the tents have been blown down!” I didn’t believe him, I figured they had overslept, that there was no way the storm was bad enough to have made all of the tents housing all three of our units collapse and anyway it was a rule never to believe anything that the guys in the Sayeret said. On the way back Oran said “well if they have blown down I’m going to sleep in the toilets.” “yeah me too!” I jokingly agreed as we sloshed through the mud back to our encampment.

The scene was carnage, all of the tents had in fact collapsed just as we had been told my thoughts immediately jumped to my bag of once dry clothes now underneath that big, leaky square of canvas with water running through it. Haim called me over, I ran to our tent and along with the others worked to get it back up. It was no easy task, in order to make sure that the tent stayed up again we needed to fill sand bags with dirt and figure out a way to tie enough of them to the bottom of the tent to make sure that none of the pegs would be tugged out again by the strength of the wind.

Inside the tent there were two large wooden poles, one towards the front, one at the rear which basically served to hold the whole thing up, both of them had fallen because of the strength of the wind and the fact that there wasn’t enough weight supporting the small pegs buried into the ground around the tent. I got to work shovelling dirt into sandbags and tying them to the fringes of the tent along with the others while Elad went under the canvas to lift up the two central beams and slot them back into place and still the rain poured and the wind attacked. We worked together and when the beams were up I knew that we were on our way to winning this tiny victory against nature…but where was Oran?

Someone had shouted out the question and for a moment we all stopped and looked around, in all the commotion I had completely forgotten about him but I soon realised I knew where he was. Several of the guys followed me to the bathroom where we found him fast asleep on a bench. Most of the guys were still outside working while he lay there refusing to move. We shouted at him, tugged him, kicked him and tried everything we could to get him up but he wouldn’t budge…he was finished. Just like on the march when I knew that if I had given up the stretcher I would have been turned into an outsider so it was with Oran now, he had walked away when we had needed him the most. That’s how it happened just that quickly, one minute he was an integral member of the team the next he was a ghost.

It was a shock, Oran was the biggest, toughest guy in the team, the one who had been a core member from the beginning but now he was nothing but a casualty of training. None of us had ever actually spoken about the rules of the group but somehow they were crystal clear and rule number one was always that you don’t abandon your friends. Oran had put himself first, it was the greatest sin a soldier in training could commit and without even speaking of it to each other we all abandoned him. From that moment on no one wanted to be seen with him, to sit next to him, to talk to him. Eventually he was kicked out by Green but that wasn’t for a good couple of months, it was right there in those filthy toilets during that storm that he had opted out, that he had made the decision that this wasn’t for him. And we had decided that he wasn’t for us.

Eli 

The most memorable thing about guard duty had been the loss of Oran. The constant need for sleep and sloshing around in the eternal mud of the base had not been fun and much as I would like to say that the army had done it with some kind of special Jedi training purpose in mind I can safely say that there was nothing behind it other than an indifference to the suffering of soldiers. It was in the wake of our guard duty that we set out on our 60km march, meaning that there was only a month to go before the final 90km march and our red berets.

The 60km was where we lost another of our number, the medic who wasn’t Netanel and who no one ever called for when we simulated a wounded comrade. He arrived a couple of weeks late to boot camp having failed his medic’s exam at the end of the course so he had to stay on and re-take it. He never quite managed to integrate into the team. His inability to complete the 60km surprised no one and made many of us sigh with relief. It was just the inevitable departure of someone who was never one of the us to start with. To Mark’s credit he tried to alternatively cajole and bully him into staying on his feet through the final 15kms but he was wasting his time and his breath and we all knew it. Soon he was sitting on the ambulance that had been following us at a snail’s pace. He and Oran suddenly became fast friends while the rest of us merely waited for them to be officially dropped.

That march was nowhere near as tough for me as the previous one, I felt justified in not taking anything on my back this time and so moved freely. Once it was over we were sent to bed and woke up the next day when Green decided that we all needed to go for a run in full kit, so run we did, very slowly and laughing at each other’s inability to move. We arrived back at the base and changed, we had earned a trip back home but before we did we were called to a briefing. The Captain stood before us and in characteristic fashion said “next week we are going to be guarding settlements, I trust you will carry out this mission in the greatest tradition of the Paratroopers.” And then we were free for a day and a half to do whatever we wanted before “guarding settlements in the best tradition of the Paratroopers” began.

The settlement of Eli was not the settlement that I, along with four others had been tasked with guarding for a week. The bus transporting all of us travelled along a solitary road dropping small groups of soldiers in various lonely looking settlements. Ya’ar had been smiling when we drove through Eli, it reminded him, he said of Tekoa, another settlement further South that he grew up in. The bus dropped him off on a lonely looking hilltop before depositing me, Mark and another three of my team mates on a lonely hilltop of our own. The settlement I had been tasked with guarding didn’t actually have a name, officially it was called Eli outpost B. It was a hilltop next to the settlement of Eli, it consisted of about six caravans and one house. The house had a small area fenced off, within which resided a solitary horse.

It was heaven.

Inside our caravan there was a fully functioning shower complete with shower head and toilet, there was hot water and no human excrement on the floor around it. I was there along with Netanel, Yoni and Elad with Mark in charge of us. The caravan had a kitchen equipped with a small electric stove and a sink. There was an actual roof over our heads, there were two bedrooms, Mark took one of them leaving the four of us to the other one, we had an electric heater. We also had no rain water dripping on me in the night, no worrying about a tent falling down, no more worrying about when we were going to get to sleep.

It was infinitely reasonable.

I took first guard, it was a four hour shift and I spent the first ten minutes wandering around the entire perimeter of the settlement. It comprised entirely of these temporary caravans save for the one structure, I couldn’t fathom anyone choosing to spend their life there but here they were nonetheless and here I was guarding them. At the beginning of January a double suicide bombing in Tel Aviv had killed 23 people and wounded 120, there were attacks almost every day. While I had been trudging through the mud of the base I had been safely insulated from the horrors of the second Intifada by the army, but now I was plonked right into the middle of it in an area likely to be attacked.

I had no particular job other than to be armed and ready and there were no restrictions as to where I was to stand for my time on guard so I just wandered around taking the place in. There was a road that came into the settlement and went in a loop around it. The settlement was on a hilltop and as a result the caravans were on different levels. The house with the horse was on the top and along a short road there were about three or four caravans next to each other. The families there had created small gardens for themselves with little plastic slides for their kids. There was some grass growing but alot of mud too. Continuing my circuit I pulled a right around the final caravan and walked down the hill to another row of caravans which belonged to students at a nearby religious seminary as well as our own home for the week. They consisted of the remainder of the settlement, walking past them along the small road I found myself walking back up the hill to complete my circuit at the house.

Looking around I could see Eli not far away, a much larger settlement which surely would have been more fun to live in. I couldn’t understand why anyone would choose to live there, but then I found it difficult to understand why anyone would ever choose to live outside of Tel Aviv. I was switched by Elad whose big head was visible from a distance and I went back to our caravan to lie down. To my surprise no one prevented me from doing so and I slept, in my clothes, until Netanel woke me up the next morning to guard. My second stint at guard duty passed in a blur and I understood that I could really get used to this way of life. Perhaps that’s why it wasn’t scheduled to last longer than a week.

When I woke up I was told that it’s time to cook lunch and that as the oldest person there I’m the one who’s cooking it. I couldn’t stop smiling, could it really be that there is a side of the army that’s like this? Everyday we cook and relax and pull a few hours of guard duty? After the mud and sleep deprivation there was something to all of this that didn’t sit right, as if all of that luxury was some kind of other test, perhaps to see if we get too used to it. I took the whole thing in my stride, agreeing to cook some pasta with tuna for everyone. I added in some sweet corn and some tomato ketchup and the delicacy was ready.

On Friday night we were invited over to a member of the settlement’s caravan for dinner. We say the prayers and sit down to eat. The caravan belongs to a couple, the husband was in a unit called Sayeret Golani, the sister unit of the Sayeret Tzananim that I was so desperate to join. Funnily enough shortly after failing to be accepted into that unit I had learnt that it was, as a point of fact, nowhere near the standard of Sayeret Golani. That made a lot of sense to me at the time. The man was about 26 and he mentioned that he had spent way too much time in the training camp of the Golani special unit. I had heard that above the entrance to their training area there was a sign that said God can’t hear your prayers and the Chief of staff doesn’t know about them, welcome to Sayeret Golani. Just to let them know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were going to get seriously fucked with. And now even though he was done with his army service he still lived with a short M16 close at hand in a place where there was every likelihood he would need to use it.

The caravan was well equipped, there was an oven, a dishwasher, a washing machine and even a drier. It surprised me to see the place so well equipped since from the outside it looked like such a dump of a portable home. She made us roasted chicken and we sat there and ate, conversation moved in fits and starts. Mark, as our commander, did his best to make the atmosphere jovial though no one could seem to think of anything to say. Elad whispered to me that the woman was a daughter of a famous head of yeshivah there in the territories. She looked about 23 or 24 years old and had long brown hair tied into a pony tail, she was short and had a smile that lit up her face, she smiled often and it was a joy to behold every time she did so.

Sitting there in that caravan I couldn’t help but wonder once again what these two lovely people were doing in a caravan on a hilltop. She chattered away regardless of the awkward silences left by myself and my comrades, or perhaps because of them and we all shovelled the food in our mouths. We put some food aside for Yoni so that there would be something for him after I switched him over.

When it was my turn for guard duty, I thanked our hosts and took the leftovers to Yoni who was waiting near the house where the road enters into the settlement. We exchanged a couple of words before he went to our caravan to tuck in. Darkness was in full effect and Mark was due to join me when he finished dinner. Until he did I wandered around thinking about the man from Sayeret Golani who lives with a short M16 never far from his hands and why he would have chosen to do so.

An hour or so later Mark joined me and we wandered around the settlement together, he told me about his magic eyes that allow him to see in the dark without night vision goggles. I put him to the test while we stood on the hilltop settlement looking into the ravine below, I told him there were specific objects down below and he pointed them out to me. I had to admit he was pretty good. We passed the time talking about my upbringing in London and his in Russia it was difficult to comprehend what it must have been like for him to grow up in a place where being a Jew was essentially illegal. His family had been desperate to get away for years and years before arriving in Haifa. We got on pretty well, he knew what it was to come into the army barely being able to speak the language and he was usually pretty understanding, except for that time he gave me the MAG.

It became obvious to me soon after arriving at the hilltop that my job wasn’t really to stop terrorists myself while on guard duty, it was simply to die loudly should any terrorists actually come. Everyone living there was armed and there were my friends around too, all I had to do was squeeze the trigger before dying. Oddly enough I took some comfort from that thought. It meant that the actual defence of the settlement wasn’t really on my shoulders when I was guarding, it was just about me firing that one shot, then I was allowed to die.

When Netanel and I guarded together we talked about what to do in different scenarios. We would quiz each other on what to do if say we saw a terrorist run into one of the caravans, if we saw someone running away from the settlement, if we see someone trying to break in and so on. I instinctively said that I would go into the caravan after the terrorist and kill him. “What are you crazy?” he asked me, you sound the alarm and prevent anyone else from going in or coming out until the hostage rescue team comes. “But he could have killed everyone by then” I protested, “he’ll easily kill you if you try to go in after him” he retorted, he might have had a point there.

I liked arguing while on guard duty, it made the time pass more quickly. Occasionally an army jeep would turn up at the settlement during the night. Those guys were conducting eight hour patrols and they were just as bored as we were so we would chat for a half hour or so when they arrived to pass the time, it also had a military purpose ensuring that for certain periods of time the number of soldiers in the settlement doubled.

Every time I guarded I wondered if this would be the time when a terrorist attacked, if this was the time that I would be called upon to fire that magic bullet. I envisaged a commando raid, a bunch of guys wearing balaclavas and carrying Kalashnikovs. Sometimes I hoped they would come so that I could be a hero and take them all on.

Some nights each shadow seemed to me to shelter a terrorist, I would hear random noises and think that maybe something was happening, a child’s swing creaking, the wind whistling, a dog crunching gravel as it wandered along the side of the road. Every noise might have been someone coming to kill me but no noise was. I wasn’t overly worried, I had my rifle and the knowledge to use it. The feeling of responsibility on my shoulders to protect the settlement from any intruders came and went during each of my four hour shifts as my mind shifted from one topic to another while I walked around in the dark.

The days passed by one by one, sleeping in a room was something I was just getting used to when Yuval called me up with news that next week was urban warfare training.

Urban Warfare Training

Haim was shooting into the house when he called me over “number two to me!” He shouted and I came running over from my position at the corner of the small building. I immediately shouldered my way to the door and knelt right next to him and opened fire, the next thing I heard was “preparing a grenade!” to which I shouted “Haim’s preparing a grenade!” Then he shouted “Grenade!” to which I responded “GRENAAAAAAAAADDDDDDDDDDDEEEEEEE” then I felt his hand on my collar pulling me away from the opening and we both ran along the wall of the house away from the imminent explosion. We counted together, 31, 32, 33, EXPLOSION!! The grenade exploded and a cloud of acrid, black smoke washed out of the door just as we barged in weapons blazing, him from left to right and me from right to left, anyone in there would have been DEAD.

Green clapped us both on the shoulders, “nice” he said before calling Netanel and Yoni over to take their turn. Haim and I joined the others who were carrying out the same exercise but without using live rounds. We picked one of the many concrete ‘houses’ that filled this purpose built village that generation upon generation of Paratroopers had practised storming. The weather had closed in and a fog obscured the beginning of the village, which was where Oran was standing guard. I could barely hear anything over the cacophony of bullets and the occasional whoomp of a grenade exploding from the guys who were continuing with the exercise.

Over and over again during the course of that week we practise one simple exercise; taking an individual room. I learned where to stand and how to throw a grenade into a room properly, how to storm a room with another person and not accidentally shooting them on the way in. I learnt the things to say and the techniques for killing someone who was holed up in a room without getting myself or my friends killed in the process. I learnt how and where to stand on the door and that once I was moving in to move in as quickly as possible because the doorway is without a doubt the most dangerous place to be. It was stage one and we went through it over and over again.

When night fell we practised moving through the village together in formation but never on the main thoroughfare through the centre, always around the back. There was patrolling where we all basically walked down in a line, there was moving in fours and there was moving in twos. There was moving in fours but with two guys covering another two guys and then vice versa as we made our way through this mock Arab village.

We were there for a week, alternatively shooting up these empty hulks of buildings and practising taking the whole village. One night the Captain turned up and told us to take the village, he had positioned a couple of his own guys at strategic points to play ‘enemy’ soldiers. He wandered through the central path while we were busy moving around the back of the houses. All he did was shake his head the whole time. At one point I ran out from behind one of the houses to lie flat and shoot a sniper on a roof opposite, to which he shot me a look that seemed as dark and as fatal as any sniper’s bullet.

He waited for us to ‘fight’ our way to the end of the village before calling a halt to the exercise, he then took Green aside. It was about 15 minutes before our officer returned and I had no doubt as to the kind of conversation he had been having. We were sitting in one of the buildings taking shelter from the cold, our sweat soaked bodies ensuring that no shelter could really prevent any of us from shivering. Yuval was telling us about something that had just happened to a friend of his in combat and were listening in rapt attention. Every story about some soldier who was actually in the field, caught our attention. There were stories about snipers, about capturing terrorists about ambushes in open country, about the fighting in Nablus or Jenin or Qalqilia or any of a thousand other places I had never heard of before and whose names I forgot as quickly as I heard them. The guys had friends in just about every unit in the army from tanks to Duvduvan to engineers and Sayeret Matkal, we got a glimpse into everything but never anything more than just that glimpse, the real thing was still a long way off.

Eventually Green returned looking grim, he didn’t shout at us though, in fact his voice was soft to the point of being gentle, “Okay we’re going to go back to some basics, come back outside.” So Yuval stopped talking at exactly the point where a terrorist was in someone’s scope and we stepped back into the cold and fog to practise some more. There was no talk about taking the village again, Green simply, quietly explained that we were going to walk through how to move once again. He told us to look ahead and plot our next ‘Zig’, how to use the walls to cover our movements, how to stick to those walls and never leave them, not even to take on snipers on rooftops…especially not to take on snipers on rooftops!

It was very slow and precise at first, moving slowly along a wall before stopping and lowering to one knee when the wall ended, sneaking the barrel of the rifle slowly and deliberately around the corner without exposing myself to possible enemy fire before scooting forward to the next wall once the person behind me took my place.

Once I had made it to the back of the next building the whole process began again and always there was Green aided by the Captain and the two previously unknown guys he had brought with him. It was while learning the art of urban warfare that I learnt the term ‘Zig’ for you can’t know anything about fighting in a built up area without understanding how to make a Zig. In short a ‘Zig’ is the corner of a building that a soldier takes over. You look ahead of you for the next Zig and through a series of Zigs make your way to the target where, more often than not, you’ll take your last Zig and stay there.

Moving correctly and moving incorrectly in an urban environment is the difference between life and death. When moving between zigs I slowly grasped the difference between moving stealthily in a way that afforded me the best possible protection and scampering through in a way that afforded an enemy in waiting the opportunity to shoot me.

We went through it over and over again until the Captain nodded to Green and turned away, apparently convinced that we now had a fairer idea of what we were doing. Green assembled us all together in the gloom and when he had our attention he didn’t speak, didn’t say a word, he just looked at us all. We stood this way for a few minutes, the tension built between us, something was coming.

The Captain stepped back in, he was holding a stopwatch. “When I was here with my team we were able to get the whole team on to the roof of that building in 20 seconds in full kit.” The building he was referring to was one of the smaller ones in the ‘village’ and by a seemingly lucky coincidence we had been assembled right next to it.

I tensed, in this situation to utter a single word under your breath, even to sigh could have gotten all of us in much greater trouble than having to climb onto a roof. Staying quiet was almost too much to bear since the urge to mutter “in the best traditions of the Paratroopers” every time he finished a sentence was on the tip of my tongue. Then I heard “Go” and along with everyone else I was running to the house to try and climb my way up an 8 feet high smooth concrete wall with no conceivable way of actually making it up there.

After a couple of seconds of looking like I really wanted to get on the roof but without being able to think of any practical way of getting there I heard someone call my name. I looked up to to see that Haim and Yuval were already up there and leaning their hands down towards me, I took a run up to the wall, kicked out and waved my arms in the air for them to catch, they got me and as I ran my legs up the wall they pulled me onto the roof.

The whole episode took over a minute of floundering around but eventually we were all up there. Clearly not ‘in the best traditions of the paratroops’.

The Captain shouted out the time and told us all to come down. We returned to our starting positions, I felt like I was on the bloody gibush again. He shouted “GO”, we ran, fumbled around, someone pulled me up onto the roof and this time it took even longer. He barked “1 minute 37 seconds” up to us and down we climbed down knowing that we were going to go again and again until we had beaten his supposed time of 20 seconds.

“Take 3 minutes to discuss what you’re going to do” he said, in the best traditions of the paratroopers I mouthed. This wasn’t anything new, in fact doing this kind of nonsense on the gibush had been my introduction to army life, but after months of training and hours of going through house to house fighting I had had enough. It was frustrating to do this, it gave me the feeling that there had been no progression. I had already been through boot camp, parachute course, a week without sleep and a whole load of other things and here I was, cold, tired and doing the exact same thing I had been doing on my first day.

But then again no one asked me for my opinion, I had two options, to get on the roof as quickly as possible or to shake my head and sit on the side, exactly like on the gibush. That was when I formed my first mental picture of all the rest of the team finishing their training without me. Perhaps I would go to the ceremony and watch as each of them was handed their unit insignia, knowing that it could have been me too if only I hadn’t been so weak…

As per usual it was Asaf who was talking, Asaf who would go on to become an officer and deputy commander of the unit. The smaller guys, like me were going to run to the wall and boost the taller guys up onto the roof, they would then hang down and pull the rest of us up. We had a plan and once you had a plan the end was in sight.

“GO!”

We went, I ran to the wall and bent double only to feel someone’s leg hit my back and then someone else’s, when there were no more I took a run up to the wall, kicked up the side of it and flailed with my hands and felt the reassuring tug of friends pulling me up.

“38 seconds, you think that’s good?” He shouted up to us? Personally I thought it was pretty damn good, especially down from a minute and thirty something, but obviously I wasn’t going to say so, instead no one answered, in fact no one even looked at him. The ground had suddenly become a very interesting place to rest my eyes on.

“Get back down and do it again.”

And so we went back down, we did it again, then we did it again, then we did it again and we kept doing it until we had refined our method, until we knew exactly what spot was best climb the wall at, where there was a slight dip in the ground and where a little bump make it that tiny bit easier. I wasn’t bent double any more, now I was linking my hands together and as soon as someone stepped into them I would push them up getting them onto the roof as quickly as possible. A few of us positioned ourselves by the wall and the rest simply waited their turn rather than everyone running to the wall at the same time and bundling into each other.

Eventually I found myself on the roof watching the Captain click his stopwatch and call out “18.7 seconds, excellent!” At which point he simply turned around and walked off. Green sent us to sleep, I can’t remember what time it was, I had stopped caring, I only knew that I was tired and that tomorrow held more of the same.

The Red Beret

I can’t remember exactly when it happened but there was a creeping sensation among us that it was all coming to an end. The tasks Green and Mark were giving us were the same tasks that we had already completed many times before, gone were the days of surprises. The red beret lay waiting for me at the end of all of this, I could see it, I could see it every time I fell asleep and I could see it every time I was told to help carry that damn stretcher one more time. It was so close I felt that I could reach out and touch it. The thought of getting one was what kept me going, the thought that is was so close that I could always walk one more step towards, carry that stretcher just a little further, eat shit for just a little longer.

After Urban Warfare training there were only two big obstacles remaining, the first was War Week and the second was the 90 km beret march. I only remember bits of War Week, flashes from my memory that come to the fore when I try to focus on those few days out of the 6 months that encompassed Boot Camp and Advanced Training. The week was the culmination of everything we had learned, it was the hardest week, we were given the least food, almost no sleep and the infantry drills seemed to go on and on and on, each of which ended with two ‘wounded’ being carried on stretchers for hours until it was time for another infantry drill. Attack up that hill, the enemy has pulled back to another hill take that one too and that one and that one…it went on and on. I counted the minutes, I counted the seconds always reminding myself that the week only had a finite number of minutes and every one of them I counted brought me closer to the end.

I remember being told to fall wounded and hearing Tom ordered to carry me on his shoulder. One of our 2 stretchers was broken so he slung me over his shoulder like I was a kitbag and proceeded to march for five kilometres over the rough terrain with nothing but my voice urging him on. The rough terrain ensured that we fell behind the main group pretty quickly, Mark hung back with us. Tom didn’t stop moving, he had the Negev machine gun strapped to him and drums of ammunition and he still didn’t stop. Tom, “Big Tom” stood at over six feet and had a temper about him, he wasn’t to be woken up for guard duty roughly, nor crossed lightly. He was a party animal and loved trance music, when he wasn’t in the army he was usually at some 24 hour rave going crazy and trying to forget about everything he had been enduring in the army. His father had been a career officer rising up to the rank of colonel or General in the combat engineers. Eventually we caught up to the others and Green gave Tom permission to put me down, which is to say he dropped me.

I remember storming a hill, firing with the others. I remember being asked to guard in the Urban Warfare village only to be shaken awake by Green, I had fallen asleep standing up, he said that my eyes were open. I remember Green coming under the stretcher with us and Mark too, helping us for the first time to complete the tasks we had been set and I knew that they didn’t want to kick any of us out any more.

The beret march was entirely different, I remember every step I took over the 23 hours it took to complete. We started near the town of Rehovot by the Mediterranean coast and finished at Ammunition Hill, the site of the Paratrooper’s victory over the Jordanian army which opened the path into Jerusalem in 1967. At the start we moved through soft almost marshy ground that my red paratroopers boot sank into. I remember thinking that if the ground remained that way until we reached Jerusalem I was never going to make it. Nevertheless I continued purposefully placing one foot in front of the other with the knowledge that the red beret was waiting for me at the end, the prize was guaranteed, all I had to do to seize it was carry on moving one foot in front of the other.

We moved ever onwards buoyed by the knowledge that this was the end. At some point down the road Omer, who had pulled me along on my 45 kilometre feat of endurance went to the toilet along the way and found that blood was coming out instead of what was supposed to. He finished on the ambulance. But he was carrying a radio on his back, that radio sat on the ground for a moment and once again we all looked at it in silence before Tom picked it up and on we marched.

We marched and we marched some more, it was dawn when we started and we marched through the height of the day and through to sunset and on into the night. We had two official stops of 30 minutes along with the 5 minutes an hour that was a feature of every march. I lost track of time along the way, we started in high hopes, happy that it would all soon be over, we talked as we moved but that didn’t last long. After a while we were alone in our own special mental world, that place that we had constructed where we could concentrate on the mental task of forcing the body ever onwards and upwards to Jerusalem.

During one of the breaks Tom threw the radio down onto the ground, he’d had enough, without thinking I picked it up and put it on my back. It was the first time I had carried the radio before and to my surprise it fit snugly on my back as if it was made for me. It was heavier than the stretcher that had caused me so much pain during a march of half the length of this one but I don’t remember feeling the weight. I remained at the front of the team from the moment I took it conveying messages to Green and relishing in the fact that the days of extreme pain were way behind me.

And so we moved, we moved through the day into the night and through the night into the first rays of light. When the ground became steeper I knew we were climbing the slopes up to Jerusalem, the site of famous battles over millennia, the seat of King David’s power and most importantly the I was walking over soil that had been fertilised by the blood of those Jewish warriors who went before me. I was climbing to the end of the torture of training and the prize that made it all worthwhile.

My parents were in Israel at that point, they had come to see me gain my beret, they had come to see my dream come true.

I remembered that moment in Manchester when I watched those girls leaving the recruitment fair with the corporate crap in their hands. It felt like another world, another dimension. It was in a reality that was devoid of stretcher marches, rifles and food that had been placed in tins before I was born. It was a dimension devoid of tents that blew down in the rain, devoid of soldiers struggling through rain and going without sleep, of officers who gave orders that were impossible to carry out until they were proven possible by sweat and teamwork. It was a world that belonged to a different me, to a boy looking for a home, looking for a purpose and a direction in life. My parents were here to see me, I wondered if they would recognise me as I climbed the hills into Jerusalem. I wondered if would have recognised myself if I had been able to glimpse into the future.

And then we weren’t moving cross country any more we were marching close to roads and underpasses, bridges and civilisation. We stopped. The Captain looked back at us “open the stretchers” he shouted, “in the best traditions of the Paratroopers” I mouthed. I turned to see the stretchers unloaded but no one wanted to be wounded this time, we knew what was coming, we, the newest Paratroopers were to run up to Ammunition Hill in our final rite of passage.

And then we were standing, stretchers on our shoulders, tense like a catapult waiting to be released, the Captain stared at us blankly as if he didn’t care, the same way Green and Mark and the other commanders had looked at us from the beginning, like we were nothing, like we had no idea what we had gotten into, like he detested our mere presence. In this our final moment of glory I saw nothing in his face depicting the feeling of elation that we all shared after fighting so long and so hard to get to that moment in time. I saw only pain and worry, a look that warned that this moment lacked all meaning, rhyme and reason. I hated him for that.

“GO” he shouted and as one we all ran, I didn’t know where I was going but I ran along with everyone else. I can’t remember who was on the stretcher or who was around me, I just remember sprinting forward down a road, I remember the motorists hooting their horns as they saw us pass, some with their fists in the air. I remember seeing people smiling, I remember not being able to keep up with the stretcher no matter how hard I tried. I didn’t know where I was going, I didn’t care I just ran and ran until I could hardly breathe and until I couldn’t tell the difference between the sweat dripping from my forehead and the tears spilling from my eyes, it was over at the end of the road, it was over when I reached the place where my Paratrooper forebears had broken open the road to Jerusalem, it ended at Ammunition Hill.

I was to be reborn at the end of this road and it was just a few more steps away.

I ran and I ran with my brothers all around me, together we had endured and together we had prevailed.

A Paratrooper is Born

We couldn’t stop hugging each other, we couldn’t stop smiling and laughing and loving the fact that we had made it. Ammunition Hill marked the Paratrooper victory in 1967 but now it was the place where Marc Goldberg serial number 5489872 earned his red beret and was inducted into the Paratrooper brotherhood. It wasn’t just a battlefield any more it was the place where my dream came true.

We cried and we laughed and Green and Mark joined us in our happiness, they had gone through it all themselves barely more than 18 months previously. Green stood us all together to say something but I can’t even remember the words only the elation that came from knowing that I had done it, that this moment belonged to me and that it belonged to all of us together as a team at the same time. I had tried and I had fought and I had won!

There was food laid out for us and we ate the cheese and yoghurt and drank the chocolate milk and everything else and when the excitement subsided we felt the sores that come from moving for so long in full kit and it wasn’t long before none of us could move without feeling the pain in our bodies, but it didn’t matter, we had done it!

The beret ceremony wasn’t until later, the army didn’t want our relatives seeing us like this, sweat soaked and stained with mud and the smell of real Paratroopers, they wanted to show off sweet smelling smiling new Paratroopers in crisp uniforms. To that end buses had been arranged to take us back to Nebi Mussa where we showered and found that our kitbags were already there with our crisp Class A uniforms. I had forgotten just how wonderful Nebi Mussa was, with the tents that allowed us room to stow our gear and lockers for everyone. Being there, in the place that I had left a mere three months before brought into focus just how much we had done together and how much we had achieved as a team during the hellish three months of advanced training. I couldn’t wait to get to my family and enjoy the week off that was surely waiting and that was my biggest mistake.

I had assumed the army was giving us a week off in the wake of the beret march, it had made such sense that I hadn’t even questioned it or asked myself why I had it in my head that it was going to be happening. I asked Haim what he was going to be doing on his week off when we got out of the shower and he looked at me quizzically, “Brity we’re back in the army on Sunday man” he said.

The bottom dropped out of my world “but, but my family’s here” I stammered at him, he just shrugged his shoulders and went off to the tent to which we had been assigned. For the six months of training I had been so focussed on the red beret that I had almost forgotten that I was training not just to be a paratrooper but to be in the Orev and that involved another 6 months of training. Of course I had always known that I was training for the Orev but somehow I had managed to make a massive differential between the pre and post red beret army but it seemed that I had been the only one to do so. While the guys in the regular Paratrooper battalions would now be joining their parent units in the field I had the exact same amount of time that I had already spent training to do all over again. It was a crushing realisation.

That was when Anat appeared in my life, the Goddess with flaming red hair who sought me out to tell me that from now on she was the one who had my back. She was responsible for the well being of soldiers like me, those of us who were in Israel without our families. I was stunned when this girl with freckly skin and luscious lips sought me out, I didn’t think it was possible that a girl who looked so beautiful could have anything to say to me. But she said more than enough, she made it clear that I was ‘her’ lone soldier and that she would fight for me. I told her about my family and she promised me she would get me a week with them, it was easy to leave it with her and get ready for the big ceremony that was coming up, the red beret was not yet mine but no obstacles stood between us any longer!

Soon enough I had left all thoughts of the misery of going through the same training I had just endured and was back on board the bus to Ammunition Hill. The bus ploughed from desert to city and then over the very roads we had charged down a mere few hours earlier. Ammunition Hill had been prepared for the ceremony complete with a sound system from which orchestral music was played (classy stuff).

We rehearsed the ceremony a couple of times though there wasn’t very much to practise, each one of us stepped forward to receive a beret and then stepping back again, very simple indeed. It was February and the rain fell in fits and starts, the families soon arrived and I found myself standing there underneath a canopy of clouds, side by side with the men who would define the rest of my army service and a lot more besides.

The music was played over the PA system and after being ordered to stand to attention and then to stand at ease several times our names were called. Green was standing next to a table complete with crimson berets laid out in neat lines on it. If I had looked closer I would have noticed that a watch was sitting there also, but I didn’t, not least because I was standing in the back line of the three lines that we had been organised into and I was the shortest of every one of the others.

I’m easy to spot, I’m at the back and shorter than everyone else!
When it came my turn I stepped forward but instead of moving to the table to grab my beret and place it on my head Green stepped back grinning and Mark stepped forward. He took his own beret off his head and placed it on mine, Green presented me with the watch sitting on the table. “you were the best on the masa” he said. I felt my face go red, I had only ever tried to get through the training not be the best at anything. But there, in front of my comrades and my family I was being rewarded not with a flat, shapeless beret but with the battered beret of my commander, a sign of respect for my personal achievement, a sign of excellence.

When it was all done we threw our berets into the air and jumped up and down before running to find our families. Mine found me and I was suddenly being embraced by my parents and my brothers all at once. What a strange journey I had dragged them on, from going on holidays to Miami Florida and Spain when we were growing up to the site of a battle they had never heard of in a country they knew vaguely at best. They shared in my dream and took pride in my success, they hugged me on a cold, rainy day in February after having watched me win the beret of my commander and a watch from my officer. They were there because of me and I was there to achieve my dream. I knew that my dream was never theirs and yet there we all were on Ammunition Hill in the cold.

All the families there had brought food from home for their sons, my family had brought me takeaway sushi from the Tel Aviv Hilton!

In the distance I could see Anat talking to my Captain, watching this ginger haired vixen waving her finger in his face was more than surprising, it was the best thing I had yet seen during training. I wasn’t quite sure how a girl in the army for no more than a few months could browbeat a Captain but apparently this wasn’t a normal army and maybe she wasn’t a normal girl either. She came up to me slightly flushed, she had won me my week with my family. I hadn’t thought it would be possible but she did it and I would never forget it.

The day after the march I was with my brothers somewhere in the bowels of the Hilton hotel while my Mum was in the room. The maid entered to clean up, she saw my uniform thrown on the floor and she looked at my mother, in a heavy Russian accent she asked about the uniform. My mother explained that her oldest son was in Israel serving, “Your son in the army is the son of all of us” she said.

My mother cried.

From Paratrooper to Raven

Had I failed the second gibush I would have been assigned to one of the regular paratrooper battalions and would have been thrown straight into eight hour guard shifts in the West Bank while slowly groomed over a six month period to take part in operations in the territories. I had not failed the gibush however and now that my training to become a paratrooper or Tzanhan was complete my training to become an operator in the Orev or Raven unit could begin.

And so it was that after spending a week living it up in style with my family I was sitting in a base near the coastal city of Netanya waiting for my brethren to arrive. I had been ordered to report to my new home precisely a week after the beret ceremony since my unit was to be staying on base over Shabbat. This base we were now posted to was the official home base of the Paratroopers as well as a bunch of other brigades, it was a sprawling military installation different in almost every conceivable way both to Nebi Mussa and that pile of mud I had spent the previous three months leashed to. Even here the Paratrooper brigade had still managed to organise for us to sleep in tents rather than any kind of permanent structure.

I watched the bus come through the gate of our little area and saw my friends disembark, they all grabbed their equipment and traipsed down towards the tents where I was waiting. I had missed them, I wanted to hear about what they had been doing and how bad their first week of training for the Orev had been. It didn’t quite work out that way. They filed past me one by one, each of them ignoring me save for a word or a grunt of acknowledgement. I wasn’t prepared for it, but while I had been relaxing in a swanky hotel they had been learning the rudiments of navigation training. They had been out every night moving through the wooded terrain of the North of Israel and I had been out moving through the luxury terrain of the North of Tel Aviv. While they had been busting their asses I had been on holiday, they knew it and I knew it. I hadn’t spared so much as a thought as to what they were doing while I had been having fun, they on the other hand had been pissed about my preferential treatment and I couldn’t blame them.

The thing is that any random Israeli who heard that I had come to Israel to serve in the IDF, especially during such a tough time immediately gave me respect and told me how great I was. Those who didn’t know me would lavish praise upon me and tell me that I deserved an extra week off for the fact that I had come especially to volunteer. But between me and my friends that was all bullshit. We knew each other too well, had all been treated equally badly up to that point and had all gone through it side by side and now, from nowhere I had been given a week to enjoy myself and they hadn’t.

Their attitude wasn’t the only thing that had changed in the army, the whole atmosphere was different. The Orev itself was housed on this very base only a stone’s throw away from our little encampment. Soldiers from the unit had been with the guys teaching them the tricks of navigation and different soldiers would keep showing up to teach us the skills that we would need to know to be successful soldiers in the Orev.

They brought more than their skills with them, they brought stories of combat operations that they were going out on almost every day. It made the whole concept of going into combat a lot more real. Just a few days before my arrival at our new base two paratroopers had been killed and another two wounded while on combat operations leaving us in no doubt as to the dangers of operating in the heart of enemy territory.

I knew that the next six months would test me but I didn’t know how or what the difference was going to be between this new phase of my army training and what I had just been through. I would find out.

The Boys From Rehovot

Once we had our red berets Green began his cull. Only 6 months and a lifetime beforehand 20 recruits had begun their training to become Ravens. At this half way stage a comprehensive questionnaire was distributed and everyone filled it out anonymously. The army wanted to know what we thought of each other; who in the team was the most respected and who the least, who could perform the best under stress and who couldn’t perform at all. Supposedly this test formed the basis of Green’s decision on who would go and who would stay.

But of course it wasn’t.

The truth was that two of our number never even made it past boot camp, one hadn’t been seen since the first week of advanced training and another two hadn’t managed to make it to the end of the marches, making it obvious who was going to get dropped and who wasn’t. The questionnaire was handed out while I was with my family and I never even saw it, which annoyed the hell out of me. I vented this grievance to Green who sat me down and asked me the same questions that were on the test only he asked me where I thought I had been ranked on them by the others.

As soon as he asked me I understood why it hadn’t been necessary for me to fill out the questionnaire. In every respect I was right on the money when I answered him and he had known I would be. The truth is that you don’t spend six months eating, sleeping and bleeding with people only to remain blind about how they feel about you. I could have told him exactly how each and every one of the guys were ranked by the rest. Other than the five he kicked out we were a tight group of people who had come to love one another, even the guys I didn’t like I loved. A hand on your back pushing you forward, a drink of water from someone’s canteen when you’re on the verge of dehydration, being pulled along over kilometers by someone who is aching every bit as much as you are but still finds the strength to put their own problems aside and help you. These are things that build relationships and we were all well and truly in this together.

Once the five were gone word came down that replacements were coming to us. Naturally long before we heard it from Green Yuval had let us all know. He had heard it from a friend of his in the unit, who had heard it from the commander of the unit’s radio man, who happened to overhear his boss chatting about it on the phone.

The first thing we heard was that someone was coming to us from Sayeret Matkal, the top unit in the IDF equivalent to the British army’s SAS. Most people don’t last more than a month there even if they do pass the especially tough gibush and we considered it a very big deal indeed that we had someone coming from the peak of the army’s special forces units. We didn’t know anything about who the others were.

And so it was that the newest two members of our team turned up at the same time, lanky Asaf and stocky Aviv, childhood friends from Rehovot. It was Aviv who had come to us from Sayeret Matkal, to say that I was disappointed when I saw him would be an understatement. The bespectacled, nerdy looking character was hardly the superman I had imagined he would be. To call him stocky was a compliment, he was fat! How on earth this guy had spent even a minimal amount of time in the unit that stormed Entebbe airport and countless other missions that belonged in the films rather than real life was beyond me. I made up my mind not to bother with him there and then, so naturally we became fast friends.

Asaf was a tall, dark skinned character who had joined the army four months before me and been accepted to the Orev, only he had proven unable to suffer his officer and the feeling had been mutual. The officer had tried to kick him out of the unit but had been overruled by his own commander, leading to Asaf being ejected from his original team but not the unit entirely. He had been wasting time fulfilling various administrative duties until we reached more or less the point he had been at when he was taken out of his team at which point he was sent to join us.

My first memory of Asaf is of watching him working on the new equipment he had been issued. We were sitting on a stretch of grass waiting to be handed maps for navigation somewhere and he had seven magazines sitting in front of him. One by one he added parachute cord and taped a piece of foam to each mag. Watching him work was hypnotic. He taped each mag up in a specific way and threaded the cord through a hole in the bottom, he was at work with a lighter and a knife and had a special way of dealing with each mag. It had taken me hours on boot camp to get my magazines the way I wanted them and he accomplished the task, more professionally than I had within minutes.

Somehow I found myself sitting next to him while he was filling up those mystical magazines of his and we were even chatting. He stood at over six feet tall, thin as a leaf and had a big nose. His roots were Moroccan and his Dad was a professor at the world renowned Weitzman Institute, which was where they all lived. “You’re the one from England” he said “you’re the one who couldn’t get on with his officer” I replied, it was a beginning.

Navigation Training

My first week of navigation training was everyone else’s second which made me feel at a disadvantage, mainly because I was. A couple of soldiers were sent to us from the almighty Orev to help us learn the ropes. For them it was a great deal as it gave them a chance to get away from the grind of operations in the West Bank and we all loved it as we got to hear their stories about life in the unit.

They came to us from an enclosed section of the same base that we were now billeted in. Of course while we still slept in tents they had rooms, while we had taps high up on the wall they had showers with shower heads and most importantly of all, they had toilets that actually worked properly. It was from this base that we would depart each week for training somewhere in the country and it was back to this base that we would return every week for an inspection of our equipment and then either a day and a half off or a weekend restricted to the base.

One of the guys who was helping us out was a kibbutznik called Hanan, Green told him to catch me up on the week that I had missed. He took me to one side and we sat on the grass next to a flowerbed. He used the earth to build little models of the geographical features that I was going to need to know about in order to make a success of this whole navigation business. He told me their names in Hebrew which I instantly forgot and then he told me how to recognise them which I couldn’t really understand. Unfortunately there is only so many times you can ask someone to explain something before you nod politely and pretend to get it. So there we sat while he made small mountains out of the earth and I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. He told me that at the base of a hill would invariably be a dry river bed, that these dry river beds would constitute the highways of my navigation treks and that if I found the right ones they would take me to wherever I needed to go. He then taught me about ridgelines and said more or less the same thing about them.

Soon enough the bus arrived and we grabbed our bags and various military paraphernailia and jumped on board for a ride into the North and my first week navigating through the hills and fields of the upper Galilee. Our destination was a barn in the middle of a field which the bus navigated to courtesy of a dirt path, this part of the journey left me feeling certain that any moment the bus was going to tip over but somehow the driver was able to navigate through the dips, bumps and puddles of the field while nonchalently smoking a cigarette and talking on his mobile phone.

We disembarked, maps were distributed and points to navigate to were given to each of us. My partner was to be Hanan and soon enough I found myself, map in one hand compass in the other, wandering through the fields. It wasn’t easy and it didn’t get easier either. After wandering around, map in hand for a few hours and having Hanan chat away in words that I rarely understood we ended up back at the barn we had started from.

Back inside we were given new points of navigation for the evening and I was given a new partner to work with. It was Aviv, the fat reject from Sayeret Matkal. I was conflicted when it came to this guy. On the one hand he had been in the best unit in the army, but on the other he was a reject and if we were accepting other people’s rejects then what did that say about us?

It didn’t matter much what I thought on the matter and I was learning very quickly not to spend too much time dwelling on the things that I had no control over. Aviv was with us now and we were with him and that was that. I wasn’t too sure how to explain to him that I didn’t really know where I was going or how we were going to get there, so I tried pretending that I knew exactly where I was going and how we were going to get there. That didn’t work too well either.

Okay so it worked for the first half of the night, that was Aviv’s half. Once he had found all of his points and it was my turn to take over I found myself wandering around not really sure where I was going. After a while or at least after it became appallingly obvious that I was lost I heard Aviv’s quiet voice asking me if everything was okay. I tried lying but it was pretty obvious and I found myself admitting to him that I didn’t know where I was going. I thought he would get mad, his section of the navigation had gone perfectly, the guy hadn’t even opened his map but had gone entirely according to compass bearings and the number of footsteps we took. Unlike me he had managed to memorise his entire route.

At Aviv’s gentle urging we took a break, I pulled out the map and he shone his torch on it while we both attempted to figure out where we were. He looked around us at the dark hills and mountains and I could see a flicker of recognition pass over him. He spent the rest of the trek helping me and showing me the ropes for navigation, his voice was a bastion of calm the product of a mind that was always logical and productive whereas mine had a rather nasty tendency to shut down when tired or highly stressed.

We moved ever forward, stumbling into the symbols on the ground that were the navigational targets of the evening’s entertainment. By the time we got back to the barn it was raining and many of the others were already int heir sleeping bags. I jumped into mine and passed out for a few hours of sleep, content in the fact that I had been partnered up with the fat reject from the ultimate special forces unit.

This was how the week continued, we spent our days learning our respective areas of the map and the nights trekking to Aviv’s areas as quickly as possible so that we had more time to get lost while looking for mine. There were many weeks of navigation laid out for us in our training with the distances and complexity of the routes growing along with our experience. The weeks were divided between the green of the North and the deserts of the South. The North was physically harder but I got lost less since the terrain had more features to it than the deserts of the South. Often I was with Aviv but Green mixed us all up sometimes too so I could find myself with anyone on any given week of navigation.

Camouflage

With the introduction of Aviv and Asaf into the team I found myself with invitations to Rehovot, a town about a 30 minute drive South of Tel Aviv. Asaf lived in the world famous Weitzman Institute where his father, a pre-eminent physicist worked. A couple of weeks after meeting them I was sitting in his house as the guest of his family. Aviv lived a ten minute walk away and I was given the opportunity of seeing what life was like in a town that everyone had already told me had nothing going for it at all. After Shabbat dinner Asaf, Aviv and I headed off to a house party. We entered the small house, it was less a party than a gathering of friends and they were all sitting there in the kitchen swapping stories of army life.

One muscley guy was sitting at the kitchen table telling a story of how the previous week he had just finished his training for the elite Golani reconnaissance unit and was now a accepted as a fighter. The man he was telling his story to was a newly qualified F-16 pilot and it turned out that everyone else in the room was either training to be a member of an elite unit or was already operational in one. I felt out of place for merely being on my way into the Orev. The stories flew all around me, one of an ambush just outside of Hebron another of cruising through the air at supersonic speed, another guy there told stories of planting dummy mines on the hulls of ships for his training to get into the Navy’s elite Shayatet 13 commando unit.

By the time we left I was wondering where I had landed, this place Rehovot seemed to be a breeding ground for Israel’s best and brightest.

Back at base everyone just laughed and shook their heads when I told them about Rehovot, it seemed they knew the places where the combat soldiers came from. Baby and Haim told me about the areas around Modi’in where they lived and where everyone signed up for the gibush of at least one unit, Netanel and Yoni about how many kids from Jerusalem go for combat units, Yaar about how it was all but unknown for someone from the settlement of Tekoa not to go for a combat unit. By contrast very few kids raised in Tel Aviv go for combat units, there were certainly none in our team.

Training moved from navigation in the North to camouflage training in the South. We spent a week learning how to use the lay of the land to our advantage when building a camouflaged position. In navigation the land is either an obstacle preventing you from getting to where you’re going or a reference point that lets you know where you are. in camouflage you learn to look at the features around you and figure out how to turn a natural feature into a shelter that can hide a bunch of you and your equipment. We practiced building the shelter during the days while at nights we carried out exercises that never deviated from roaming around the desert carrying loads of kit to a target area, then we built and hid in the positions before sunup, waiting for someone to try to find us.

Just like with navigation we were being trained by the camouflage experts from the Orev. Just the day before they had been on operations in Nablus, now they were in the Negev Desert with us. It was a good break for them and it made us feel like we were even closer to finally being accepted into the unit we were struggling so hard to get into.

They introduced us to the equipment we would need to be using and to the way to build a position and divided us up into 54 and 5 man teams for the duration of the week. Each team would build their camouflaged position together. There was a certain amount of sculpture involved in the crafting of each hide and the more artistically minded enjoyed being the ones to worry about the overall shape that each position would take. It quickly became clear that there were going to be arguments every time the hide had been built. There was always one part that was smaller than the rest and when we were on the first night exercise I could see that I was going to be shunted into it. The arguments started while were all digging;

“This is your part Brity” Haim whispered

“No that’s your part!”

“You’re the smallest one!”

“No you’re the smallest one!” At which everyone stopped digging and looked at me grinning while I silently berated myself. Was that really the best I could come up with? Telling one of the biggest guys in the team that he was shorter than me?

“Fine but but i’m still not getting in there…you get in there.” I retorted to their grinning, white teeth. The whispered argument became more and more emphatic the closer the hide came to completion; “Your Mum’s getting there!” “No, that’s where your Mum was last night!”

Eventually sanity prevailed, “Okay okay if you go in there I’ll give you my ketchup from the rations” Haim eventually conceded. “I want the mustard too” “No you can’t have the mustard” “Fuck you then I hissed” and we were back at it until Iddo stepped in and donated his mustard. I took the bribe smiling, sweat pouring down me and we all climbed in to our assigned piece of the hide panting from the exertion of its creation.

The night sky was clear with millions of tiny pieces of silver twinkling down on us. The air was crisp and cold, we were sitting still, shivering in the cramped ditch we had constructed, the only sound made was the chattering of our teeth.

One by one everyone fell asleep but me, sitting there with a pair of binoculars around my neck, hugging myself in the hopes of getting warmer. I thought of all my friends on their year off, backpacking around Australia or Thailand, some were in India others had already started the rest of their lives in a university graduate scheme at some big bank or PR firm.  I thought back to that moment on Field Week when I confessed to Elad that I had made a mistake and that maybe it was time to call it quits, I smiled remembering how he hadn’t understood me.

The starlight was just bright enough for me to see the desert below. I was high up and looking down at a panorama of beautiful desolation. The hill we were dug into gently sloped down to a dry river bed. An occasional rock and shrub stood out in the dusty white of the Negev, the only sound was a slight wind shuffling through the hills and ravines of the Negev Desert.

I sat there with my friends and waited for dawn.

Weekend

I felt ambivalent about time off back ‘home’ in my apartment in Tel Aviv. I would go back there on my own, always painfully aware of the fact that there was no one waiting for me there. After crashing on my bed I would spend a couple of hours at the the laundromat doing my washing, followed by some sitting on my bed in my room wondering what on earth I was going to do with myself during my time off. Of course all of the guys were on the end of the phone but I had just spent every waking moment with them and needed some space…but they were my only friends and if I needed time away from them it meant time on my own. This weekend was no different

As per usual I ended up in the beach side pub, Mikes Place, drinking as a substitute to talking to anyone. The army still hadn’t gotten me past a fundamental inability to communicate with the person sitting on the stool next to me, particularly if that person was a female. This weekend was no different, I sat there drinking my way into the oblivion only large amounts of alcohol can provide. The evening invariably moved from being a blank canvas of time to one slowly filled with each sip of beer or shot of whiskey that passed between my lips. I don’t remember most of the evening but I can remember the end vividly. The barman was getting annoyed with me because every time I picked up my glass I spilled some beer onto the counter and he had to wipe it up. I looked around and saw that somehow what had been a bar filled with revelers had become empty and that the shutters were halfway down. The evening was over and most people were already home in bed. I looked back at the barman who said to me “the others said I should throw you out, but I said as long as your money is good you can stay.” he shrugged and walked to the other side of the bar. I had, what many drunks refer to as ‘a moment of clarity’ it was time to leave.

I didn’t get far. I woke up a few hours later about 10 meters away from the pub, the sand of the beach had been my bed. The sun was beating down on me as I patted my pockets to make sure I hadn’t been robbed while I slept. I hadn’t. I crawled under some shade where I promptly passed out again. When I awoke I made my way home, to shower away the sand before getting into a real bed and nursing my hangover. At some point I got a call from Dave, he had moved to Israel from London at the same time as me, we had met on the Ulpan in Jerusalem just after I had moved to Israel. We had abandoned Jerusalem at about the same time for Tel Aviv and he now worked as a barman in Mikes Place. I didn’t like him. But when he told me to come over for lunch I couldn’t think of a reason not to, so back I went.

Walking in there I felt like I was revisiting the scene of a crime but managed to get over it enough to nod hello to Dave as I sat across from him and ordered a Coke. He grinned in a way which loudly exclaimed “I know why you’re not ordering a beer” he then said “sure you don’t want a beer.” I smiled and shook my head, “no thanks mate just the Coke”. The only other customers were sitting at one of the tables enjoying some time in the shade, with no one else there and nothing for him to do we bantered a little bit, there was a waitress there too and she joined in the conversation. She was French, she was tall and had very closely cropped hair. Mikes Place always seemed to attract people like us. Foreigners looking for something familiar, people speaking English, sport from our home countries, or maybe just companionship with people who knew what it was like when we would talk about where we were from.

The walls were plastered with Americana, old adverts for Coke, a jukebox, pool table and loads of televisions showing the most popular British and American sports games and when there wasn’t a game it would be the extreme sports channel. At night you would always hear a cacophony of different accents in there all trying to speak English over the noise of whatever rock music was being played LOUD. During the day it was different story though, the tourists who filled the bar in the evening were too busy sunning themselves on the beach to worry about getting a cheeseburger during the day.

So the three of us sat there, I ordered a burger and listened to Dave tell me the story about his latest conquest, the ease with which a barman could get women and how much all the bosses loved him. The waitress smiled politely, I ate slowly, the music played loudly and the sun beat down outside. We carried on talking shit until one of the bosses walked in, he nodded hello to us before going into the office, Dave promptly found stuff to clean and the waitress did a round of the other customers sitting there to make sure they were okay.

I had brought a map with me that had been distributed to us before we left for the weekend so that we would be up to speed for the next week of navigation. When the boss came out of the office and saw me studying it he sat with me. Everyone there already whispered about his military service, about how he dropped just enough hints to let you know he was in some ultra cool combat unit but then never actually spoke about it. He went over with me how to recognise the direction that water flows in simply by looking at the map, he showed me how the various small rivers all form little arrows into the bigger rivers that they run into. These arrows on the map point out the direction that the water flows in. Then he went off some place when I started asking him where he served in the army.

At the bar Dave offered me a brownie for free out of a dish that was sitting near him, he and the waitress watched as I took a bite and swallowed it down, “Dominique made them” he said with a nod towards the tall waitress watching me eat, waiting to hear what I thought of her latest, home made delicacy. I gotta admit, it didn’t taste great but I like to think that I pulled off a decent performance for this shaven haired French girl. At some point I left them and went back to my apartment wondering what to do with myself for the rest of the day.

I spent most of it sat at home watching CNN as the Americans and their allies plowed on into Iraq. I saw the pictures of US Marines in their Humvees, firing machine guns and I wondered how long it would be before I was qualified to go out on combat ops, even though I already knew the answer, there were 4 months left of training before I would be a fully qualified member of the Orev trusted to go out on operations. More navigation some hand to hand combat, technical courses and the final tests called the mesakmim (test weeks) were all waiting.

I tried not to think about the fact that once again I didn’t want to go back in. It reminded me of the kid I saw walk out of the gibush during a period when we were allowed to rest. There was nothing tough going on, there was no reason for him to choose to quit at that particular moment and every reason for him to stay, we were nearer the end with each moment that passed and yet he chose to walk away then. I now understood him. During training there wasn’t much time to think about quitting or about whether I was happy or whether the army was meeting my expectations, but when I was home, left to my own devices, that was when the thoughts of quitting came into my head. The non stop control that someone had over every aspect of my life, from what to eat to when to sleep to when to wake up is exposed in all its horror when those limitations were suddenly removed. I thought of England, of my friends, I felt utterly alone in this distant land, even despite the fact that I was surrounded by people for the vast majority of the time.

The next day I was going to jump on a bus up North to meet the rest of my team for another week of navigation training and the rest of the time lay before me, too little to really enjoy but too much to simply remain at home and do nothing. I remember calling a friend in London and staying on the phone to him while I walked to a cafe and sat there and ate an entire meal. Loneliness had set in. The relief of being able to talk to someone in English, without having to aimlessly grapple for words that were outside my vocabulary was something incredibly important. I didn’t care what we spoke about I just wanted to hear a voice from home.

The next day came and I was on a bus to the North, uniforms cleaned and rifle in hand.

The Riverbed

So now I knew which direction the water from the rivers and streams that intersected my navigation route flowed in simply by looking at the map. In no way did this make traversing them any more fun, but at least when I sat down before Green and he asked I could give him an answer. The area we had been allotted for wandering around in for the next week of navigation training was in the North and consisted of very hilly terrain with lots of dry river beds and boggy ground. I was partnered up with Baby for the duration, sometimes he would lead me to the half way point and I would take over and sometimes the other way around.

One night I had my route memorized right down to a perfect T.  It was his turn to go first and walk the 20 or so kilometers to the half way point, at which point I would take over. Along the way we had to pass through a couple of specific ‘way points’. I was confident that everything would be fine, from my side at least. And so just after dusk we set off on out merry way, each of the pairs from our team being released at timed intervals until we were all in the field; each pair either doomed to wander aimlessly for hours until eventually discovering the base camp or to triumphantly move throughout the night to arrive back at base camp with plenty of time for sleep.

With my route carefully memorised I was happy to be off with Yuval taking the lead. We walked through the night over the rolling hills of the Galilee. At one point we came to a sheet metal fence where there was no earthly reason for it to be. Like true paratroopers we scaled the fence, barely even thinking about it. Once on the other side I saw that there was another fence of exactly the same type about 50 meters away. We walked towards it chatting away until I heard a snort to my right. I knew what it was before I even looked yet I had to confirm the source of this noise cutting through the night. It was, as I had imagined, a big, black bull and he didn’t look happy that we were encroaching on his turf.

I whispered something to Yuval only to be cut off when he whisper-shrieked “I know, I know”, “let’s just keep going” I said, petrified the bull would hear us, we walked forward in that way that keeps speeding up until you’re almost running but haven’t quite given in to your panic. I glanced to the left to confirm that there was another sheet metal fence there and that we had, in fact climbed into a bullpen. We hit the other side and almost leaped over it only to collapse on the ground panting. Eventually we looked at each other and burst into hysterical fits of laughter. It hadn’t occurred to me for a moment that I was armed with a powerful rifle and enough bullets to kill 100 bulls had the need arisen.

The first half of our journey through the night had barely begun, we scrambled through the rest of it, alternatively talking and then silent, wordlessly walking side by side. Once we reached the half way point it was my turn to take over the lead. Like I said I was absolutely sure that I knew the way and had the map memorised to the point where I didn’t even feel the need to open it. So we started moving away from the jeep that marked the half way point of our night. We walked along a path chattering in the moonlight until the path diverged into two. But both seemed to kind of go in the same direction and it was difficult to decide which of the two paths to follow. In the end I chose one that went on a slight incline instead of one that slightly inclined. And down we walked, we walked until what had been a nice wide path narrowed into a not quite dry river bed. We walked forward, forward ever forward. We walked onward while the dry river bed became more and more populated by large rocks that were hard to see in the dark. What had once been open ground on either side turned into steep earth walls that stretched way above us. we walked further forward, struggling through the trees and other natural obstacles that seemed to come out of nowhere, getting thicker and thicker the further we went along the river.

By this time it was incredibly, utterly, completely, obscenely obvious that we, I, had gone the wrong way. According to the only rule of navigation that really mattered, the moment I made this deduction I should have turned around and gone all the way back to that fork in the path and simply taken the other one, the right one. But I didn’t. Perhaps it was the result of all the training I had suffered through for the first 6 months. Training that emphasized time and again forward movement, where you never stopped, you never moved back, you attacked, you charged, you destroyed. Then again perhaps there was another reason, something more intrinsic to the human condition. It would have meant admitting that I had been wrong. It would have meant giving up on the route I had taken, it would have meant letting the riverbed beat me. I just couldn’t bring myself to stop moving forward, I had started down this path and I HAD to get to the end. It was a classic navigational mistake.

We spent hours stubbornly fighting through undergrowth, small trees and all the way along, rocks tripping us over at every turn. Still we moved forwards, always further forwards. We carried on struggling like that for hours, all thoughts of way points gone, all talking come to a close, communication limited to grunts alone. When one of us fell, as happened increasingly often a hand was extended though no words shared. The colour of the sky changed from inky black with unlimited silver twinkles to a deep rich blue purple with fewer twinkles to an lighter blue and still we grappled with the river bed. It was the sound of the dogs that let me know we were coming to the end. I had done enough navigation to know that the sound of those dogs meant habitation and the end of the nightmare that was the riverbed. We moved forward, the narrow confines widening with each step, the high banks that had towered over us in the dark now sloping down the world becoming a friendlier place with every extra bit of light illuminating our way.

The dogs were barking from within the village. It was an Arab village. The flat roofs of the buildings, the lack of any town planning, this was a Bedouin village, it didn’t appear on my map and was useless for letting me know where we had emerged. I called the dogs “Zombie dogs” I had only ever encountered them in the desert, they ran alongside vehicles there and protected the various Bedouin encampments from anyone who would find themselves staggering through the emptiness and encounter them. I called them zombie dogs because they were always foaming at the mouth, always damaged in some way, they would bark and bark and bark, they would run at us when we were walking nearby, they would chase vehicles, white saliva frothing on their cheeks and dribbling down them. Thankfully that night they remained heard but not seen as Baby and I emerged into their habitat.

It turned out that the majority of the buildings were made with sheet metal, there was sheet metal and corrugated tin everywhere around the houses, forming ramshackle fences, bits of it were discarded along the ground, wet with morning dew. I took a drink from my water bottle, Baby gave me a look that said he was glad it was over, his face filthy from falling over and crashing into various things along the way, I guessed that mine was too.

The village was built on the side of a sheer mass of land as if the ground simply fell away about 100 feet at a certain point. At the top of this land mass I could see a small village, it was this small village that marked the end of the night’s odyssey and the embrace of the oblivion we call sleep. I knew that the others would all be there in their sleeping bags already. GP Yosef would have been sleeping for hours.

We wandered around looking for a pathway up the face of the small, grassy cliff and eventually stumbled on one and proceeded with the last part of the trek, there was no pretensions even of the dawn anymore, with the dew being the only evidence left that it was even morning and even that was fast evaporating. We moved silently up the very last obstacle. I knew that not only would I be lucky to sleep for an hour but that I had nothing at all to show for a disastrous night’s navigation, save perhaps for the lesson learned that turning back and retracing my steps was the thing to do in the future. We climbed the path and made it to the top to discover a medic to be waiting for us. He was smoking a cigarette and looked at us through bleary eyes that immediately told us we were the reason he was still awake.

I didn’t really care, while he was spending his service following around soldiers in training I was slogging my ass off.

“Did you hear?” he asked us, which was typical of a jobnik, I’d spent the entire night wandering through the pitch black trying to figure out where the hell I was and he asks me what had to be, hands down the stupidest question in the world.

He asked the question of my back just after I passed by him on my way to my sleeping bag when he said “Mike’s Place was blown up tonight, don’t know how many dead.”

Then he flicked his cigarette off into the morning, got up and went to sleep.

It turned out I wasn’t the only English volunteer in the Holy Land. The attack on Mike’s Place was perpetrated by two volunteers from England who were so overcome by their own hatred that they committed to giving their lives in order to take others. Both of them wore suicide vests but only one of them found paradise immediately. He took three people with him, one of them was Dominique, the French girl with the shaved head who had made the brownies and given me one for free.

It was the first time the conflict had really pierced through the all embracing canopy of the army. I was so involved in training that the events in the outside world barely registered. As a trainee soldier I was a baby in the womb, still being grown, still being prepared for the outside war. That bomb sent a shock wave that I could feel even through the protection afforded to me by the army. I hadn’t known Dominique well but I had known her, she was the first person whose life had been taken by this conflict to be more than a statistic to me. I had spoken to her, I had seen her smile, seen her work and joke and laugh. I had felt the touch of her presence and now she was no more, never to make more brownies, never to grace the bar again, never to feel the touch of old age, to have children or enjoy the sweet opportunities offered by this world.

It was difficult to know what to think or how to feel. The fact that the bombers were also British made me feel as though they had pulled away the last vestiges of my British identity, I was Israeli now and I was in the army of my people, prepared to give my life to protect them, the fact that these two men had shared the same country with me for most of our lives made me feel that much more convinced that I was in the right place doing the right thing.

I was here to defend my people, they had come to kill and die for theirs.

To be a Commando

There were times when it felt like the training would just never end and there was no guarantee that any of us would actually complete the journey and be awarded the badge of the Orev, the winged sword with a cross hairs instead of a hilt. I had often thought about quitting, leaving it all behind and heading for the regular Paratrooper regiments. Once the first 6 months were up I knew that at any time I could simply leave the team behind and would be immediately operational. Sometimes I bumped into one of the soldiers from the regiments who had also started in August, they would always say something like “I’ve already been on 4 operations, what have you done?” What could I do but shrug? If I had known then that his four operations was the equivalent of one night in the Orev I would have felt differently. But I didn’t. What kept me going was imagining being there at the final ceremony, watching Haim and Yuval and Aviv and Asaf, Forrest, Iddo, Netanel all of them, they’d all have had what it takes and I would have been the quitter and somehow I just couldn’t stomach that.

and so the only target on the horizon of any consequence became the mesakmim. These are testing weeks and they are every soldier’s holy grail, they are the final weeks of training, both eagerly anticipated and feared above all else. Whereas War Week was a difficult experience all you had to do was endure it, there was never any personal accomplishment necessary, we started as a team and finished as one. The mesakmim were different, they were the time for personal accomplishment a time where you would face the final hurdles, survive them and then you were in, the unit we had seen only from a distance would embrace us and we would become one with it, we would be considered warriors. Real people.

The first of the mesakmim came after 10 months, it was for infantry skills, it was week in an area of land that had no name, only a number. Area 347. It was June and already so hot that the army had declared parts of the day too hot to train in. That wasn’t going to be a problem our Captain announced with glee in his eyes. He claimed to have a special permission from no less than the Chief of Staff himself to work us all day everyday regardless of the heat. That nameless area of desert we were transported to would remain emblazoned in the memory of all who were forced to endure that grueling week.

The bus stopped somewhere in the desert from the moment we were ordered off the bus were in trouble, the commanders were on us and it didn’t stop for the whole week. All of the worst parts of boot camp, advanced training and the courses that came after were squeezed together in one nightmare that just seemed to go on and on. It’s the funny thing about army time is that a week can feel like forever and like an illusion. When you’re only allowed a small amount of sleep time seems to stretch on forever with no hope of respite. And yet because of sleep deprivation you can never really be sure of when you’re awake and when you’re dreaming. You see while awake the things you only recognise from dreams and reach the point where carrying out even the simplest of tasks becomes a struggle bordering on impossible.

From the beginning we were sent to crawl through an area that the commanders had loaded with  thorns and any sharp, naturally occurring phenomenon they could find. We dived in and slithered along the ground until our arms were bleeding and then we crawled some more, the scratches given by these bushes were prized as badges of honour, look how tough we are, even when we’re cut and bleeding we continue to crawl through the filth. I can’t remember how long it went on for. It didn’t finish but morph into a series of other exercises that ended with us assaulting not one but a series of hills one after the other. Every time I thought we had reached the end I found there was another hill to attack. Then we restocked with ammunition and did it all over again and again and again until nightfall, when we did it again and again in the dark.

When the moon was high in the sky, the final hill assaulted and conquered, two stretchers were opened, two “wounded” were loaded onto them and we were on our way, where to no one knew. The ground was rocky and we moved primarily over the ridgelines of area 347, painfully aware that to the right and to the left lay nothing but a long drop down. We moved onward into the night forever forward. Over time the distance between the squads carrying each stretcher grew until we could no longer see each other. Sometimes we would reach a point where I was positive that the march was about to end but the ridge line never ended and we were hopelessly held hostage to the never ending trail at the top of the peaks. It went down and it went up but it never ended and neither did our journey.

We kept moving, the handles of the accursed stretcher burying themselves into our shoulders as we marched. Several times I was sure we were at the end, so sure that I called to the others and told them to pick up the pace, that we were at the end and if we could just find another burst of energy from somewhere, just enough to make it to the top of the nearest crescent then we had made it. But I was wrong every time. We would simply be told to keep on marching. And night became day and we were still moving through the hills of Area 347, every time we were allowed a break for water we would, as one, collapse, drink something and then pass out until kicked awake moments later. Then up we rose took the stretchers back upon our shoulders and carried on.

By late the next morning I was hallucinating the camp every 10 minutes or so. Mark the Sergeant found it hilarious, “where is it now?” he would ask, “It’s just here!” would come my increasingly agitated reply as if it was the most obvious thing in the world that the clump of rocks I was pointing at was in fact a series of tents. It was only when we were meters away that my error became clear to me and my frustration all the greater for it. Eventually one of the stretchers broke under the strain at which point we went from being 2 squads to one team again, everyone rushing to share the load. Except me. No one wanted to be under the stretcher with me anymore, I was too short, the weight would hang first into whoever was to my side making the whole thing go lopsided. In the end I carried Yuval’s bag and my own and he remained under the stretcher constantly without being switched.

By this time it was too late to talk of orderly lines of soldiers waiting behind the stretcher to take their turn under it in perfectly timed intervals of 90 seconds. There were two groups, the strong and the weak. The strong marched the stretcher relentlessly forward, switching among themselves, the weak trailed behind. Then there was me, exempt from the stretcher, carrying my own pack and Yuval’s, thankful that I didn’t have to face the test offered by that stretcher any longer as I wasn’t sure how I would have come out of it.

I can’t remember how long it went on for but eventually we were given some respite and allowed to escape from the sun. We each had half of a 2 man tent, we paired up to build the temporary shelter from the sun. I shared mine with Aviv. We filled up or water bottles from a trailer that had been towed to that desolate place by a Hummvee. The water was close to boiling point as it had sat there in that metal container in the sun. We drank the water with the necessity of those close to dehydration and then lay in our tent on the ground trying to sleep only to find that it was impossible. The closest I could get to sleep was closing my eyes only to blink them open again when the high pitched whine of a mosquito came close. We lay there in the heat that , Aviv and I in a curious state of non-sleep, with every second that passed my fear grew that we would be called out of those tents to begin it all again, the fear became so great that it was an even bigger obstacle to sleep than the various insects that buzzed around the fresh meat that was my exhausted body. I tried to sleep flat on my back, I tried lying on my side, I tried counting fucking sheep but the insects and the heat and the fear of what was to come prevented me from taking any real solace in the rest time we were given.

The sound of a stun grenade let us all know that our respite had come to a close, I must have been asleep as I remember opening my eyes. Up we got, magazines full, ammunition belts for machines guns ready and we did the whole thing all over again. It was starting to get annoying, in other armies, you know, really professional ones, they do all of this kind of stuff at the very beginning and use it to weed out the recruits who don’t have the right stuff. I was getting the feeling that our infantry testing week was more to satisfy the sadistic streak that existed within our captain. Hadn’t we proven ourselves enough? Hadn’t we carried the stretcher enough times? Hadn’t we carried enough weight on our backs? Hadn’t we conquered enough hills and shot to death enough paper targets?

Apparently not.

During the slogging we were tested. After climbing to the top of one particularly tough hill we found 6 or 7 commanders waiting there for us, each of them tested us in a different way “use the binoculars to tell me how far away that tree is”, “take the map and call in an artillery strike on this grid reference”, what’s the rate of fire of a MAG machine gun?”, “program into this GPS how to get to Tel Aviv via Be’ersheva”. We rotated around until they were done with us. then they put us all into a cave for a ‘lecture’ on how to insert an IV into a wounded man. One by one we fell asleep only to be awoken by the words GAS GAS GAS as Mark threw a gas grenade into the cave. As one we all lunged for the opening, a couple of people didn’t get out in time and were overwhelmed by the noxious fumes. It’s one thing to throw a gas grenade in an open environment but throwing it into a closed one like that cave can be lethal, the acrid stuff has nowhere to go.

Some of the guys left their weapons inside and ran back in to get them only to run back out again and fall to their knees, even the Captain later admitted that was a step too far. But he could do what he wanted for in that area, for that week, he was king. Strange things happen in the desert when you’re low on water and sleep. I remember Iddo, utterly dehydrated and falling behind screaming at Green across a ravine, “GREEEEEN! CAN WE STOP FOR A WATER BREAK????” Of course Green wasn’t even in sight but the sound of Iddo’s voice reverberated around the area for another 10 seconds or so. Nothing I could say to Iddo could stop him from shouting again while we stood there waiting for a response from an unseen presence. In the end I convinced him that we would both drink while we walked. “you think that would be okay?” he asked me, eyes wide, “Yeah, I think it would” I said trying to make sure my tone matched the seriousness of his.

By the middle of the third day we practiced camouflage and dug out places to hide, the pace slackened. It couldn’t have gotten harder than it was, we were on the verge of losing people through simple dehydration, though we didn’t lose anyone. After 5 days of it we were finished, the bus arrived and we collapsed onto the air conditioned seats, shirts off, pungent aroma from sockless feet contributing to the general aroma of the sweat of men who have been pushed to the limit and come through it. We were pushed hard and, once again, we had come through.

Sleep took me as soon as I sat down on one of those comfortable chairs they have on buses, I was rudely awaken too soon. The bus had stopped in the middle of the highway and none of us could understand why. The Captain wordlessly got off the bus, Green was already standing talking to Mark before he turned and ordered us all off. My foggy mind was having difficulty interpreting the data. We weren’t on the base and yet we were getting off the bus, it seemed absurd. Slowly, slowly the truth flickered through. Haim muttered “it’s not over yet” the baggage compartment of the bus opened and Green ordered us to take out the stretchers and put our combat vests on. Looking behind us I could see that a couple of army jeeps had blocked the road.

We loaded the stretchers up with equipment and stood in two groups huddled underneath it muttering various insults at the Captain, at the army and at the world in general. On the word “Go” we started running as fast as our bruised and broken bodies would allow, we ran until we could see another 2 army jeeps blocking off the road and we ran towards them at the urging of Green, who, for the first time in almost 12 months was under the stretcher with us sharing the pain. We made it to the jeeps and turned around to run back to the bus. We pushed on full turbo and moved onward my stretcher competing with other. We ran and we hit the bus and it was over and we felt no joy, no accomplishment, no sense of triumph.

The Captain stood just there, stopwatch in hand announcing that the Navy commandos could run it a minute faster, then he climbed on board the bus waiting for us to load the equipment and clamber back, sweating and breathless and silently cursing the day he was born.

The first mesakim was over, 2 to go.

 

The Art of House Clearance

We were so exhausted after the sleepless wandering in the desert that we were given a week of relative tranquility in an army base near Netanya. While we relaxed with light duties the cuts and bruises healed. A shrink was brought in to sit with us in group sessions where we all talked about who annoyed us the most and why and how we could work better together as a team. I’ll never forget that Elad got the worst of it by far. The practical joker had his comeuppance, for some reason Haim was the only person who could understand what was, by now, my passing knowledge of Hebrew. Whenever I spoke everyone just looked at him and he would translate my attempts at Hebrew into something they could understand. Bizarrely I could also understand his explanation, naturally Elad still pretended that he didn’t understand just to cause some fuss. After a particularly passionate plea on my part for him to drop the facade and stop pretending that he couldn’t understand even a single word I was saying to which he simply looked at Haim and with a completely straight face asked “what did he say?”

The shrink was a tall woman, about 30 years old and she had her hair tied tightly back into a pony tail. She wore frame less glasses. She  never really said much, she just kind of sat in the corner the whole time looking pensive, there were moments when I thought she was going to add something to the debate but then, with her mouth half open and sitting forward, she kind of leaned back a bit, closing her mouth again, leaving me wondering whether perhaps she just really needed the bathroom.

For the first few days we didn’t do any exercise, then Green took us down to Netanya beach where we ran on the sand and in the water, by the end of the week we were running with a stretcher again and we were schlapping it through the water as we ran by the coastline. The exercise felt good, it felt like being released, using my muscles again reminded just how fit the army had made me since the agony of those first few weeks almost one year ago. One day the Captain gathered us all together and gave us a briefing on where the Americans were in Iraq and at the end muttered “getting in was easy, let’s see how easy it is for them to get out.” Then Mark stood up and announced that buses would soon be arriving to take us a TV studio where we would be sitting in the audience of the popular Israeli show ‘Yatzpan’. We really were on holiday.

By this time there were only two more important weeks of training before the final Mesakmim and the ceremony where the commander of the Parachute Brigade, Aviv Kochavi, would pin the Orev insignia to our uniforms. These two weeks were the ones I had been looking forward to, they were devoted to hand to hand combat skills and counter terror training, which essentially means how to maneuver through a built up area, how to conduct arrests of terrorists and how to move through a building in as safe a way as possible.

During our regular Paratrooper training we had learned how to fight in a built up area, but that was under wartime conditions where if you were taking fire from a house you would just lob a grenade through the window and enter every room with a spray of bullets. In the West Bank  you had to go right into the heart of enemy territory and literally pull them out of their beds while not hurting anyone else in the process.

The hand to hand combat lessons focused more on aggression than technique, I guess there wasn’t much they could do for us in a week so they concentrated on basic punches and kicks and then entirely on releasing our inner animal.  Doing so was relatively simple, we would all be paired off and told to fight each other, at first we did it with full padding on, then gradually less padding until we were only wearing gloves. There were other games too. We would all stand in a circle and two names would be called, those two would jump into the center and start to fight, then the instructor would call in another and tell him which person to fight and then another and then another telling them all to fight the same soldier until that soldier was on the floor, experiencing a pummeling at the hands of his best friends. Anyone who slacked off would be told in no uncertain terms that “Hezbollah won’t go easy on you” if that didn’t get him going then he would be told he was to be next to take on the 17 of us. Of course he may well have figured out by that point that he was going to regardless. The training gave me the perfect understanding of the phrase “getting your blood up”. the aggression had me so agitated that I couldn’t wait to fight, I couldn’t wait to attack, to be the one to be called on to march into the center of that circle and take on whoever came at me. They had unlocked aggression I didn’t know I had and they had done it within a few days.

The lessons were during the day, at night we practiced operational movement through a mock up of an Arab village. How would we move quickly through to our target while providing ourselves with the most cover. Instructors would hide in doorways and wait for us to try to get in to them, those that weren’t ready would feel a hand around the barrel of their rifle and before they knew what was happening they’d been dragged in and disarmed. It taught us an obvious lesson. There were more aggressive ones also, during one exercise I was moving forward when I was roughly thrown to my side and disarmed by 4 instructors I hadn’t seen until they were on top of me, it took them about 5 seconds to disarm me. Another lesson, don’t just look forward, the enemy is everywhere.

But the first week was nothing but a prelude to the second.

Accompanied by instructors from the counter terror warfare school and a mustachioed Major none of us had ever seen before we travelled to an old British colonial fortress, a relic from the days of the British Mandate. Within the crumbling walls of that old bastion of Britishness we trained night and day. We practiced movement in this nightmarish maze of rooms that were more or less in a state of collapse. We moved up stairwells back to back to back or so close to each other that it was difficult to walk with one aiming right over the other’s shoulder. The speed at which you gain an understanding of just how hard it is to take any kind of built up structure is incredible. As soon as we began practising in that place, attempting to move through corridors with doorways and windows on each side making it a truly intimidating experience. I thought back to what I had learned about the battle for Stalingrad in World War II, specifically about the Tractor Factory, a building which saw Germans and Russians fight bitched battles for every room and I could understand the frightening intensity that comes from tackling a determined enemy in such close quarters.

It didn’t take long for the paintball guns to come out. The instructors sat themselves down in the corner of a room and in pairs we would attempt to train our rifles on them without exposing any of ourselves to his fire. The first time I tried it an instructor shot me in the leg and in the arm. There was a long way to go. It was all about ensuring that as little of the body as possible was visible to someone inside, which is incredibly obvious whilst being almost impossible to do. Ultimately it required the development of excellent spacial awareness, an understanding of exactly where every part of your body was positioned, something that takes a lot of practise and a lot of experience.

When darkness hit we explored the building as if we’d never seen it before using flash lights attached to our weapons. The shadows stretched out before us, flickering, bobbing and weaving, stretching themselves into grotesque shapes as we crept through the confines of the crumbling fortress, creeping, probing and fighting our way through invisible enemies. At random times we would drop everything and the moustachioed Major would come out to play. He taught us techniques for taking down enemies. During one lesson we broke up into pairs, one turned his back and walked away from the other, his partner then ran up to him from behind slipping his arm around the partner’s neck and dragging him to the ground in one fluid motion. Other lessons were even more…interesting.

We learned how to surround a building with as few men as possible and how to search a building with as few men as possible. The final exercise was to conduct a fake arrest by sealing off a house in the middle of nowhere and then searching through the inside. By the end of it the team was certified ready for urban ops.

It was the most exhilarating training we had done and the most valuable now there ere only two obstacles standing in the way of us becoming operators in the unit, the training was complete, the mesakmim lay before us.

The End of the Beginning

I stood on the scales in the tent facing the Captain. He looked at me, “you’re overweight” he said. You take a maximum of 60% of your body weight only. Everyone was trying to do it. Sneak more in their pack, more weight, more to carry over the five days of the mesakem. It’s not that we didn’t think that 60% of our body weight was a heavy load it’s that we all had to prove to each other that we could carry more, that we were better. The competition between the members of the team had been ongoing for a year and now that the final test was here we were all trying to sneak more weight into the bags just to prove to each other who the strongest was.

But the captain was strict and insisted on being present when each one of us stood on the scales and making sure we didn’t take too much. I was carrying a lot of water, some camouflage equipment, ammunition, an army issue shovel and other stuff that was there simply as weight until the 40 kilos weight was met. Of course when you consider the fact that I was really light and that someone like Haim or Bull weighed a lot more than me you realise that some people were walking around with as much 60 kilos on their back.

We knew that though it was first of the two final weeks mesakem South, as it was called, was the toughest test. We were divided into pairs and were to trek through the Negev Desert for five days. We would have physical contact with the unit once a day for resupply of water and other than that we were on our own. We knew what was coming, we were scared but exhilarated by the fact that this thing, this elusive end of training had actually arrived, it was in our grasp, ours for the taking. Now all that remained was to get through this test.

I was paired up with Elisha. I hadn’t spoken to him much, I don’t think he had spoken to anyone all that much over the year. I wished I could have been with one of the other guys, with Yuval or with Haim or the Indian or Aviv but Green had assigned us to be together and that was the end of it and besides I was hardly actually going to complain he’d been with me all year after all. I just didn’t really know much about the guy and after a year of training that was really very strange indeed. Perhaps he felt the same way about me, I don’t know, I never asked him.

In any case it was Elisha and I who were the last pair left in a jeep being driven by the Captain down a dusty dirt track in the desert. We didn’t know where we were when he stopped the vehicle and said “good luck” over his shoulder. I might even have detected a smile on his face when he said it. But soon we were out and he had driven away leaving us standing there, carrying these packs on our backs, with no idea where he had dropped us, with a rendez-vous to get to in exactly 24 hours time.

I looked at Elisha “what do you think?” He asked

I shrugged, my mind entirely blank and simultaneously filled to the brim with the enormity of the fact that it was the two of us versus the desert.

“I think we should head West” he said. It seemed as good as any other direction to me so I simply nodded and we began our week together. Every 24 hours we had a rendez vous point for re-supply. If we were spotted by any of the commanders who were driving around the area in Humvees an anti tank mine would be added to our load. We ate the same rations we had been eating for the previous year though most of the time I was too tired to eat and took the opportunity to sleep rather than eat. Again Elisha was there to remind me to take something to give me energy. We walked through canyons and up hills and mountains in the middle of nowhere. We would receive random radio messages telling us to divert from our path and head to the top of a random peak and await further instructions when we got there.

At the top of one of these peaks we radioed in and were told to sit tight. It seemed so utterly ridiculous, sitting at the top of a peak we had been struggling to climb for 2 hours that I pulled out my mobile phone and proceeded to commit the most rebellious act I could think of. I called home in London. It so happened that while I sat shivering on top of a mountain in the desert my parents were at the home of friends playing Bridge. The disjointed conversation ended rather abruptly when a helicopter flew low over my head making the conversation rather difficult. It ended with a bellowed “goodbye Mum” and a prompt disconnect.

The helicopter flew away, leaving Elisha and I alone again to contemplate what on earth we were supposed to do in this place. We sat there wondering if the week had finished prematurely before the Captain’s voice crackled through on the radio. “you’re on hill 341?” He quizzed. When Elisha replied in the affirmative he was quizzed again “What do you see?” This was becoming ridiculous, he had already sent us miles off course to climb up to this bloody place, now he was keeping us here. “Elisha explained the surrounding terrain and once satisfied that we were, in fact, where we said we were he sent us back on our original course.

And so we moved, one foot after the other, always knowing that each step taken brought us closer to the end of a journey that had begun a year ago. Sometimes we had to backtrack miles after realising we had made a wrong turn and sometimes we made it just on time. The memories of that week are cloudy, I’m not sure for how much of it I was particularly conscious as we slogged through, always with another rendez-vous to make, always with another target to hit and always having to duck the commanders. But painfully, slowly and as if through a strange fog of exhaustion we could finally make out the end.

When it came, it came via a radio message from the Captain. “Get to the following point and you have reached the end.” Was all he said. We looked at the map and Elisha spotted a shortcut to get there. “It’ll be harder but we’ll end this thing more quickly” he said. It was all I needed to hear and I nodded yes. Stupidly. An hour later I was balancing precariously on the ledge of a mountain, shuffling my feet next to each other and trying my hardest not to think about the long drop that was waiting any missed step. The crumbling rocks falling down the ravine served to remind how it was that other such soldiers had actually died doing this stuff and that I might well join them. The weight at my back was being tugged down by gravity herself into the deep abyss that I dared not look at and only my precarious handgolds on the rocks served to keep me from going down. But we made it, we made it up the hill that the Captain had told us to climb and as we moved further and further towards the target other pairs came into view one after the other.

And we knew it really was the end. When we reached the summit, someone handed me a plastic bottle of icy water. I looked at them as if they had given me manna from heaven as I took a sip and handed the bottle to my brother Elisha. As I did so I remembered the first march so many months before and someone’s hand on my back pushing me up the final hill.

It was his. One mesakem down, one to go.

A few days later we were in a hanger in a restricted part of Ben Gurion International Airport where drove out humvees onto C-141 Hercules aircraft. We had no idea why or what we would be doing, when the airplanes took off we had no idea where we were headed. They landed about 40 minutes after take off and we drove down the ramp and out into desert ready for anything but we weren’t to go far. An officer from the unit called Amir followed us off the plane and ordered us to change a tire on each vehicle before ordering them both back on the plane at which point it promptly turned around and took off from the desert floor. When it landed we drove off the plane at an Air Force base in the North of the country, it was from there that we really started the week.

Driving out of the plane and straight out of the base I felt like a real commando, my M4 assault rifle in my lap and ammunition all over my combat vest I knew that the week was going to be a wilder ride than the one I was experiencing in the hummvee. We drove for a while before receiving orders to march cross country to an ‘enemy’ base to launch an attack. And so the week went from march to attack to marching with stretchers to more attacks. We fired anti tank missiles and as much ammunition in a few days as we would normally fire in a month. Entire IDF bases had been cleared for our use as we ‘attacked’ them in the dark. During the day we lay up in camouflaged hides and at night the action went on.

It wasn’t hard at all, it was the end.

The final event of my training was a forced march to the unit’s legendary place. Mount Sartabe. Every new team climbed it carrying their full equipment the rite of passage was waiting for us on a balmy night, stars in the sky provided more than enough light to see my way up the path carved out by generations of Israeli Paratroopers on their way over the final hurdle into Orev. After 45 minutes or so we were strung out on the way up the mountain, I found myself alone walking the path roughly able to make out the shape of a bunch of my brothers in arms before me. They were carrying a stretcher laden down with anti tank equipment, the four of them were carrying the stretcher all the way and the rest of us carried their equipment.

I moved onwards and upwards around the spiraling pathway to the top of the mountain laden down with equipment and with the knowledge that through all of the crawling over thorns, endless wandering around in the desert nights, stretcher runs, camouflage training, hand to hand combat, shooting round after round after round I was at the end.

From somewhere off ahead of me someone fired a flare from a grenade launcher. I saw it fly off into the twinkling night sky and then descend slowly as it burned and lit up the area below. I could hear shouting ahead of me and could make out shadows standing far off, as I climbed higher the voices became discernible through the night. The shadows, they were calling me, they were calling us all;

“Team August 2002, it’s time!”

“Team August 2002 the unit’s waiting for you!”

A whole load of voices joined together making it hard to know what was unfolding ahead of me. The peak of Mount Sartabe is composed of a fine chalky dust, climbing it without any weight was a tough proposition, climbing it with a huge bag on my back as well as my combat vest loaded down with ammunition and water was almost impossible. The stretcher, which had been so far in front of me was struggling as one by one the people carrying it slipped and fell, sometimes the stretcher fell with them. This was the top and there was a helluva long way to fall down on every side. I ran to the stretcher as I saw Haim fall at the front and Elisha slip at the back. Every time one of them fell someone else rushed in to fill the gap. I fell more than once and struggled to get back up and keep pushing that stretcher forwards. Slowly, slowly we ascended.

We ascended to the sound of other soldiers urging us forward, they were the team that joined the army in August 2000. They were leaving as we were coming in and by being there that night they were performing their final mission. They were welcoming their replacements to the unit. They were all around us now, firing flare after flare, shouting urging us onwards and upwards to the top of the mountain. Someone shouted out “1,2,3” and we all gave one final effort, 4 guys carrying the stretcher and everyone else pushing those guys forwards or holding onto their arms and pulling them up.

And with that last effort we had done it. We had climbed the mountain to Orev Tzanhanim.

The date was August 2003.

 

The Ceremony

The gates of the unit were now open to us. There was just one right of passage left for us and that was to have the wings of the unit pinned to our uniforms. It being the Israel Defence Force there was very little pomp and ceremony. A beefy drill sergeant was brought into the unit to go over some of the moves with us for an hour or so. As we practised the reality of the situation hit home. The nightmare of being the failure watching his friends enjoy their moment of victory from the sidelines had never come to pass. The army had thrown everything it could at me and I had taken it all and asked for more. Those fields and mountains I had trudged through with a pack on my back, the endless nights of moving through the desert, lost, sweating, thirsty and so, so tired. I had done it. I had done it and Haim and Yuval and Aviv and Elad and Netanel and Iddo and Elisha and all the others had been with me. And now we stood there together ready to go through the final right of passage together.

We all stood on the small parade ground in the small corner of an army base dedicated to the Paratroopers of the Orev. The base was then and to the best of my knowledge still is home to the Paratrooper brigade. It was where the commander of the brigade and a former commander of the Orev, Aviv Kohavi had his office. My family were there sitting in the small crowd with the rest of the families of the guys in my team. There they sat engulfed by the babble of Hebrew being spoken all around them. Understanding nothing of what was being said, surprised by the vision of a military so utterly unlike the one they knew in the United Kingdom. There they sat while they watched their son and brother wearing the uniform of that country, carrying a rifle and sworn to defend it. I can’t imagine how they felt. They said they were proud, I imagine they felt a great deal more. The ceremony came just days after a suicide bomber blew himself up on a Jerusalem bus killing 23 people and wounding 130 more.

They watched as I was stood to attention, my red beret on my head, rifle in my arm and silver parachute wings on my uniform. My parents sat there in the August heat, smiles on their faces, come to watch their crazy son who had moved to the Middle East and was now being welcomed into the ranks of Jewish warriors pledged to keep their country safe. There were four men stood facing the crowd, one was Green, one was the Captain who had seen us through the year, the third was Coby the commander of the Orev and the fourth was Brigadier General Aviv Kohavi. When my name was called it was to Kohavi I moved first he shook my hand and welcomed me to the Orev. He pinned that small pin to my uniform, shared a couple of words with me and clapped my shoulder nudging me down the line to shake hands with the other three warriors on the podium. When I came to Green he smiled at me and leaned forward to whisper “no one deserves this more than you”.

But what came next was the point of all that training. It was what I had been yearning for. At the age of 24 I had achieved the only ambition I had ever had, I was a Paratrooper in the IDF going to fight for my people.

 

Welcome to the Unit

We were the new guys and everyone there made clear to us that we didn’t know anything. What stung the most was the knowledge that it was true. We didn’t have the first clue as to what it was like to go out on a mission, how to behave, what to do or how we would act under under fire. We were given a new officer. Green’s role was to train us up to the point where we were soldiers to the standards of the Orev and he had done it. He was given command of the most veteran of the three teams in the unit.

Our new officer was nicknamed “Bubba” after his resemblance to Tom Hank’s friend Bubba in the film Forrest Gump. The resemblance came primarily because he had an overbite and a way of looking down when he spoke making it difficult to understand him. He had changed teams not once but twice during his own training because of injury. He was a big guy, who had passed hand to hand combat instructors course. I found him to be slow witted. It seemed to take him half an hour to squeeze a sentence through his over sized lips. His black curly hair was receding and sat atop his high head like an genetic afterthought. I didn’t know how I was supposed to follow him into combat.

It was decided that we were to do more training. We were livid about it. The training was to take place in the same area we survived advanced infantry training. When there we were going to run through some more drills. The message was clear, “you may have gotten through the mesakmim, but you aren’t part of Orev” and we resented it. When there I developed a “bad back” and was unable to do very much. Similar medical problems plagued all of us. Suddenly Haim had a bad leg, Yuval a stomach ache. Mot people came up with something. The resentment was so extreme that we considered mutiny, simply rebelling and refusing to do anything. It was the first of our run ins with the new officer, who I would never manage to get along with.

The commander of the unit was a Major called Cobi and I remember thinking he was a pig of a man. He had made appearances from time to time throughout our training, his first was during Field Week. I didn’t like him. He looked like a pig, he didn’t so much as speak as snort. He looked at you through pig eyes that told you he hated you even before you had spoken to him. He loved to fight. The men hated and respected him in equal measure, he had been volunteering them for missions since he took command and that was before the outbreak of the Al Aqsa Intifada. Sometimes he invented missions and pitched them to the high command of the Brigade like a journalist pitches a story. “There’s been some unrest in this area, let me take a patrol out there tonight maybe we’ll kill a few of them” the pitch would go. What commander would say no to an offer like that? He imposed tough discipline and training during the infrequent periods when the men weren’t operating in the field. But morale was high because of him, you could detect that this was a man who loved the unit in the way that only a commander can. He had started his military career in the Orev and commanding it was the pinnacle of success for him. That kind of feeling trickled down to the fighting men under his command. His pride in the unit meant that we held our heads that much higher for being in it. He was a short man and at first glance he looked fat, until you looked again and realised that it was all muscle. I respected him despite not wanting to talk to him.

And so we spent 3 days back in those hills conducting mock operations, wandering around underneath a stretcher and being pissed off. But we got through them. My back “recovered” and we returned to the unit. Where we had a room instead of tents, where the showers were real showers complete with shower heads and hot water and separate cubicles instead of the taps set high in the ceiling. After spending our entire military experience either sleeping in the open or in tents all 18 of us shared a room with rickety bunk beds in it. The experience was heavenly. We now called the unit home, regardless of the fact that the commanders had dared send us for additional training.

The place the unit spent the vast majority of its time was Nablus, known in Hebrew as Shechem. It was a city that had existed in one form or another since the year 72AD. In the year 2003AD it was known as one of the top two most dangerous cities in the West Bank, twinned with Jenin, which Golani tended to look after. The name of the city had been invoked to us during training so often that it had an almost mythical status. Nablus is the unit’s real home, Nablus is where the action is, Nablus is where the fighting’s done. “Know Nablus better than you know Tel Aviv” were the words constantly pounded into us. for the men of the unit that was their reality. They were there almost every night and they knew the city very well indeed. But I didn’t. I had yet to set foot in the place. My arrival there had been an inevitability since I passed the gibush and now I was on the threshold of meeting my fate there. Soon I’d know how I’d perform under the stress of combat, if I’d remember everything I’d learned, if I was worthy of the badge I had been awarded.

All the answers were waiting for me in Nablus. They wouldn’t wait much longer.

Encountering the Enemy

It wasn’t long before Cobi had us out on missions. At first he started by making up random things. The first mission was to wander around a rural area of the West Bank for hours and hours int he middle of the night. I wasn’t sure what it was supposed to achieve but he must have been happy with the result because after that he started sending us out on more serious matters. When I say ‘us’ I mean the others. The first time I made it into Nablus I spent the night sitting in a ‘Knight’ armoured vehicle with Elad while the others went out on a mission. In this case it was a patrol. They were accompanied by a member of the dog handlers unit. The cars set off, we drove into the city, somewhere on the fringe. I was thoroughly angry, I was taking it personally that I was being left behind to guard the car. The others disembarked and disappeared into the night. Elad and I sat there waiting. In the front, Baby was sitting behind the wheel. The only thing I remember about it was that at some point in the night we heard popping in the distance. Elad turned to me and said “Marc, is that shooting”.

I had just spent at least thirty minutes trying not to fall asleep in the car, looked back at him and utterly exasperated by the level of inexperience he was showing in even asking that question sighed and said “of course not” in the tone of voice I reserved only for idiot children who have asked “why?” for the 77th time in a row.

We shrugged off the sound of the popping taking place beyond the confines of the vehicle and chatted to one another as if we were still in the base. The mission would take hours and all we had to occupy ourselves was absolutely nothing. Once enough hours had dragged on there was a banging on the rear of the vehicle and Haim’s voice telling us to open up. As soon as I touched the handle the door flung open and Haim, Aviv, Netanel, Iddo and a great big Alsatian practically collapsing in on top of me. I’ll never forget the look on Aviv’s round face with his eyes open wide and sweat streaming into them as he said “Didn’t you hear the shooting!!!”

Welcome to Nablus.

The next day the whole unit was gathered for a briefing. We were going back to Nablus, the mission was an ambush or to be more accurate a bunch of ambushes. We were going to creep into the city during the night, occupy strategic locations and then kill any terrorists who showed their faces. The amount of time the mission would go on for would be determined by our success. I knew only when I was going in and had no idea when I was coming out. Each team in the unit was given two locations to take over ensuring that we would all be split up. we looked at some maps, plotted the routes into the city and then each of us went off to get ready. This time it was real.

The last port of call before setting out into Nablus was the local army base. It was there that we all stood before Cobi for his final briefing. He stood before us, that pig of a commander, he spoke the words of a leader talking to seasoned troops. The part I remember best is; “we have an excellent chance for kills tonight”. I felt a stab of adrenaline, a rush of elation and of fear. This was going to be combat. This was going to be the real thing. Training was long gone, now I was in the Intifada as a fighting man. The rules of engagement were delivered to us before each and every mission and were decided upon based on the constantly changing environment. That night anyone we saw was to be assumed to be an enemy. There was a curfew on the city and such was the danger that anyone moving was considered to be armed and dangerous.

There were vehicles all around us, each of us in our full battle kit, locked, loaded and ready for war. My face was smeared with black, grey and brown camouflage cream and thoughts of death flowed through my mind as I pondered the meaning of the Captain’s words. Would I really kill someone tonight? Was I to join the ranks of the initiated? The fear of what lay ahead of me, of the taste of real combat in the enemy’s comfort zone filled me with an anticipation matched only by the dread that perhaps I had been wrong from the very beginning, perhaps the journey that had brought me to this moment had been nothing more than a fool’s dream and that the only thing truly waiting for me in Nablus was a bullet that was to end my dream of saving Israel the very first time I stepped into an evil night inhabited by men who wanted nothing more than the honour of killing me.

Cobi finished speaking and we bundled aboard our respective vehicles. Even that was new to me. We were travelling in a vehicle called a “Knight” an armoured car that I was entirely unfamiliar with. During training when we had ridden on four wheels we had done so on hummvees. I would come to know the vehicle well. On operations in Nablus we would always ride in and out in those armored troop carriers. Up to 10 of squeezed into an area designed for about 6. There were 2 tiny, metal benches facing one another in the rear of the Knight. On each of those 3 soldiers would squeeze. In between them on the cold, steel floor the rest of the team would insert themselves anyway they could. In full kit it was always a problem, but somehow we always seemed to manage it. That night I barely even noticed the crowding, later in my service it would become so routine that I would even fall asleep on the ride in. But not on that night, not before my first real mission.

I was closest to the double doors at the rear of the vehicle, there was a lone, bulletproof glass window through which I silently said goodbye to the base known as “Hatmar Shomron”. We trundled through the night, the gate growing less and less visible until I couldn’t see it at all any more and then we were in Nablus. Driving through the streets of the city all I could make out was the light beaming down from the lamp posts. Soon enough we came to a stop, the word “prika” came from Bubba up front. It meant we were to leave the comfort of the Knight, our escort into the war zone and jump out into the forbidding city beyond. This was it, I kicked at the unfamiliar doors, they opened to the sudden burst of force as we all bounded out into the Summer night in the West Bank city of the suicide bombers.

I took my place in the formation which was in the centre of the squad of 9. We were all there together, all waiting in formation when the word came to move. At first I walked as if taking my first strides on the moon, expecting at any moment gravity to disappear completely and to simply float away. For a moment it seemed that I had it all wrong, that this wasn’t really happening. It just couldn’t be that the boy from Barnet was really here, in Nablus, holding an M4 assault rifle in his hands with a aquila scope on it. Had I really strayed so far from home? So far from all that I had grown up with, from all that was familiar? When did it all happen? It couldn’t be that this boy from the suburbs of London had really found himself among a bunch of Israeli commandos, in the middle of an Arab city, carrying a weapon capable of inflicting tremendous pain and even death on anyone he pointed it at. And yet there I was, moving forward step by step towards the darkness with my brothers in front of me and behind.

The vehicles had dropped us off at the outskirts of the city to prevent the noise of their engines alerting any terrorists to our approach. Standing there among the low buildings on an asphalt road I felt like I could have been in any city. There was nothing about Nablus, with her lamp posts and neat homes that made me feel as if my life was in danger.

Word was passed down that it was time to move. As one long snake we wound our way through the city from that pleasant suburb further in. We didn’t walk we crept, feet kissing the ground while inching forward, ears straining for any sound that was out of the ordinary, eyes attuned to the artificial light of the lamp posts and imposing upon the shadows attempting to spot anyone waiting within them as we moved towards our goal in the Kasbah, the ancient heart of the city.

The closer to the centre we moved the larger the buildings loomed before me, the more the night itself felt like something tangible, like an enemy hiding other enemies behind a veil through which my eyes simply couldn’t see. What had been small buildings became ever taller and more closely packed together until I couldn’t tell when one ended and another began. Whereas once the walls of each home had been clean of graffiti now they were awash in Arabic scrawls but what really got my attention were the posters. There were thousands of them and they were everywhere. Posters of suicide bombers complete with pictures taken from television reports of the carnage each bomber had caused. They covered every available space, save for the occasional poster of Arafat with a heavenly light falling onto his face from above.

We moved ever forward until the sound of a can of coke sliding, scratching, skittering it’s way through the night shattered the silence. It was as though the sound had the capacity to break something, so intense had the silence been up until that point. As one the unit slowly sank to one knee, weapons raised looking to see if the unwelcome intrusion of sound into silence had awoken any beasts of the night. I looked up, I looked at all of the windows of homes directly above me and those to the side of me. Lights came from some, others were dark, the only thing that was clear to me was the impossibility of adequately being able to defend myself in an area where there were so many people living in such close proximity to one another. Indeed a single grenade dropped from the building above me would have decimated my team.

Nothing happened. We rose and continued ever forwards, towards the Kasbah, the heart of Nablus. Upon arrival in the dank centre of the city two squads peeled away from us on their own journey towards their target building. Watching them move silently through the concentrated urban centre gave me a feeling of power, as if merely by watching these men follow the parameters of their mission my own mission was more assured of success.

Suddenly Bubba moved towards one of the alleys and led us into it. I wasn’t sure whether it was a relief to be in a dark area or more frightening to be in such a confined space.  I had savored the taste of moving around in a city whose very stones seemed to scream at me: “You are not wanted here, get out, get out now.” For all the tension there was something utterly contradictory in the back of my mind. The city was so quiet. There was no movement and there were no people. Was this really the dangerous city I had heard so much about?

After crouching for 30 seconds or so we rose and moved forward again once Bubba had been convinced that there were no enemies nearby. Not that Bubba had any real way of knowing where the enemy was. If there was anyone awake in the buildings we passed they could easily have called the relevant people and alerted them to our presence. Occasionally a light would go on in a room above us or hushed tones would be heard coming from an open window. Someone would point their weapon in the general direction and we would move on.

We proceeded until we arrived at our first target- an empty office building overlooking one of the main squares of the Kasbah. At this point our sergeant took his squad and entered the building while the rest of us remained outside. Once the sergeant radioed to Bubba that the building was ‘clean’ my squad continued on to our target.

Bubba took a right turn down a narrow alleyway where garbage was piled high, making it impossible to move quietly and where boots disappeared up to the ankle in filth. Here we stopped while Bubba crouched on some steps peering ahead. I was at the rear and as I watched the main road I could see an elderly Palestinian man, hunched over and with lines all over his face. He was slowly plodding towards us. This was disconcerting. What was I supposed to do now? If he saw us it could ruin the whole mission. Our entry was supposed to be covert. My orders at the start were that I could open fire on anyone I saw but to do so would have been ridiculous. He was just an old man, out in the middle of the night. He came closer and I nudged the soldier next to me and nodded in his general direction. A kibbutznik with four months more experience than me, he was not overly concerned. “Did he see you?” he whispered. “No,” I replied. We both held our breath as he walked past our alleyway without looking in our direction.

We continued on our journey. More posters on the walls celebrating suicide bombers. All were the same – with the face of the bomber and the name of the terrorist group claiming responsibility for an attack, all written in Arabic scrawl. A film strip was at the bottom portraying the carnage he or she caused and telling of the number of dead and wounded. Later on I would start collecting the posters as souvenirs. For that moment, though, I was awestruck. The cult of the suicide bomber was just that… it was the same in every Palestinian city I visited.

We reached our objective without incident– a block of flats, one of which had an excellent view of the Kasbah and would provide a good sniper platform. In we went and I found my heart beating faster and faster. Moving through the apartment block I expected a grenade to be tossed down any second. My squad waited just inside the opening to the building while Bubba took his to the top floor to clean out the two apartments located there. When this was complete he radioed down to us and we moved up the three flights of stairs to join him.

Adrenaline rushed through me in waves. I remembered live fire exercises in abandoned buildings eons ago. Firing and covering and maneuvering around. This was a big building. If there was opposition inside, it would have needed a company to take it out, but we were not a company. We were a few first timers. I shifted my weapon left and right as we climbed the stairs, one by one. As we moved through the silent building I looked at the doors to people’s homes, wondering what mysteries lay behind them. Where was the guy with the gun out to get me? Where was the martyr, already dead in spirit, waiting only for the opportunity to die in a blast of fire and shrapnel? Were they here? Were they waiting for me? Step by step I advanced. Don’t forget to look up, don’t forget to cover your angles. I reminded myself time after time. Don’t die, Marc! We took it floor by floor and moved slowly and quietly. Nothing happened and we reached the top in a massive burst of anticlimax.

Bubba was waiting for our arrival and directed us into one of the two apartments. After stepping through the front door I found myself in the living room, the top half of the walls were painted white and the lower half grey, there was a kitchen in a further room to my left. Directly opposite the front door there was a sliding door, with small square windows set into the wood. There was a slight, thin man with shoulder length hair sitting on the couch in the living room. He sat quietly, nervously smoking a cigarette, his eyes constantly flicking onto one of us and then darting away. Next to him sat his wife, a plump woman who spoke good English, which she later told me she learned from Bir Zeit University. Alongside her sat an old woman dressed in white robes and wearing a head scarf. The two women were talking animatedly albeit in hushed tones.

After a couple of minutes Bubba came into the room very much in control. He informed us that there were two small children sleeping in the next door room and that he saw no reason to wake them at this time. Children? I glanced back at the glass door with two sleeping toddlers beyond. Bubba went on to explain that he would be staying in the other apartment with his four soldiers and they would take turns on the sniper position they had created there. The rest of us would be staying in this other apartment looking after the civilians.

I felt like I’d been punched. That was it? My role was to stay in the apartment as an unpaid babysitter? Clearly I was not going to hit any terrorists on this mission; I wasn’t even going to see any! In fact all the drapes and curtains were closed so I wasn’t even going to get a glimpse of the city in daylight. Suddenly I hated Bubba. Why couldn’t he put me on the window? Forest was int he other apartment, he got to be on the window. What was so good about him? He wasn’t even a marksman!

All of my fears about becoming a changed man, about being in danger, about having to pull the trigger for the first time against a living target were for nothing. I felt embarrassed to even have been concerned. There would be nothing of any significance on this mission and all that the commander had said in his briefing had been directed at others, not at me.

Naturally all of these thoughts remained unspoken, there was nothing to say and the others were probably thinking the same as me anyway. The fact that my irritation remained tacit did not however mean that it went away. Hell, I was supposed to bring Hamas to its knees on this mission. How could I be expected to do that if I couldn’t even look out the window?

We divided guard duty between us and I came up second. We would do two hours each, which meant six hours between each shift, it seemed the biggest danger of the mission would be being bored to death. We went to sleep in the master bedroom after Bubba had allowed the family to take all of the blankets and pillows they would need. Orders with regards to sleeping were very simple: no using any of the family’s furniture, no taking off of the bullet proof vests and no removing boots. Somehow I managed to fall asleep immediately whilst lying on the floor in the required dress.

When my turn came to take watch I was roused by Snake, who had taken the first shift. He gave me the radio and told me where to sit. The door had been left slightly ajar and a chair had been positioned so as to allow me to see if anyone was coming up the stairs. The family were all asleep under a load of blankets and pillows. The radio kept making strange noises. Upon closer inspection, all of the different teams from my unit all over the city were reporting in. Unfortunately for me, I could not understand anything they were saying. I continued listening, becoming more and more anxious as I realised the responsibility I held in my hands. Eventually I plucked up the courage to report in, instantly realising that I had done so out of turn and I received no response. Sod it, I thought, at least I tried. My guard went uneventfully and after an hour and 45 minutes I left my post to wake up Baby who promptly roused himself and took over guard duty.

It felt as though the moment I had closed my eyes I was being shaken awake. My squad commander was tapping my shoulder. The light was streaming into the room so I guessed I had been sleeping for at least a couple of hours. He woke me with the words “The British are here”, quite possibly the least predictable thing anyone could have said to me at that particular moment. I rose slightly. My bullet proof vest made sitting upright a real struggle and I gave him my arm so that he could help me up. Certain that my bad Hebrew and fatigue were distorting my hearing I entered the main room of the apartment to find to my horror that we had gone from having five guests, including the two children, to an entire clan squeezed in. There were the couple’s cousins and their two children as well as the old woman’s nephew and his wife who had decided to come around out of concern for their aunt. A pregnant lady friend of the English speaking woman had decided to ‘pop in’ and had not stopped crying since. As if this were not enough, there were four foreign volunteers (Peacemakers in army vernacular), two American and two British. In the same way that I had come to destroy Hamas in my first operation, they had come to end the plight of the Palestinian people in a two week visit.

One of the British peacemakers was a tall, dark haired, Oxford undergraduate volunteering during his summer break. There was another guy- a gaunt looking, blonde American who didn’t say much, other than to repeatedly mutter under his breath “this situation would be a whole lot better if everyone would just smoke a joint”. There were also two girls both of whom were around 19 or 20. The American girl was short with dimples and seemed to me to have come straight out of a film. She was constantly demanding in her high pitched, whiny voice to be allowed to call the American consulate. I wasn’t sure how she thought the consulate possibly help her. Here she was stuck in an apartment in the middle of Nablus, a place that she had chosen to come to, attempting to save the world, knowing full well the risks that staying in an army controlled area implied and the moment something happened to her as a result she thought that she could hide behind her citizenship. I found it bizarre. The other girl was tall and thin, with deep, dark eyes, boasting a London accent she reminded me of many of the South Asian girls I knew from home, I felt comfortable around her. Which was weird. And so began my second turn at guard duty.

So there I was, all five feet six inches of me, wearing a bullet proof ceramic plate covered by a combat vest bristling with ammunition and grenades, as well as, of course, my beautiful M4 flat top rifle complete with X4 amplification scope. I tried my best to look if not menacing, at least imposing. I was not helped by my ridiculously over sized combat helmet. Even though all of the other stuff made me look like quite ridiculous, I felt that I could have pulled off the look had it not been for the fact that Bubba insisted I wear something largely resembling a round, green, upside down salad bowl on my head. Perhaps it was odd that in the middle of an enemy city, stuck in an apartment where the covertness of our operation was growing flimsier with every random idiot who walked in, that what worried me the most was whether I looked tough enough in the hat I was wearing. But at the time that it did not strike me as odd at all.

No one in the team really spoke any English except for me, especially not Bubba who barely understood yes and no. And so I became the translator of the group, sending messages back and forth between my officer and our new captives. My first task was to explain to them why it was that we couldn’t simply let them go. They didn’t understand why we were holding them, even after I explained several times that were we to let them go then everyone outside would know that there were Israeli soldiers holed up in the apartment. They stared back at me incredulously when I explained this to them saying; “They all know already” said the British girl, “why do you think they asked us to come here and check on the people you are holding? They said you would never keep ‘us’ in here against our will!” She emphasised the word us. I wanted to scream. This wasn’t what I had signed up for. I would come to learn that all foreign volunteers considered their citizenship to be bullet proof. The thinking seemed to be that Israel would never dare to stand up to a British citizen. Her answer however, was disconcerting to say the least. Even if she was lying foreign volunteers would surely be missed, They must have people looking after them, schedules to keep etc. But Bubba was adamant: “No one can leave!”

So there we all were stuck together in the apartment. The temperature rose throughout the day. It was mid-August and the heat was sweltering. Sitting there in full kit I began to feel the sweat seeping through my uniform. “Aren’t you hot in all that stuff?” inquired the British girl sweetly, perhaps too sweetly. Was she mocking me? “Oh no, I’m used to it,” I said in as nonchalant a voice as I could manage. “Don’t you ever feel disgusted that you do all this?” asked the British kid. I laughed in genuine surprise. I had come a long way to defend my people, I had passed through tougher training than I had imagined possible in order to arrive precisely at this moment and arrest or kill terrorists attempting to blow up innocent civilians.

“No” I said a smile still on my face. “There are people out there who wish to do a great deal of harm to innocent people in Israel, I would rather stop them here in their own city than run the risk of them arriving in Tel Aviv.” And so began a five hour long debate about the Israeli Palestinian conflict which raged back and forth between us, punctuated at times by sirens and the sound of far away gunshots coming from the outside. We were also interrupted by an American accent shrieking: “Now I really am going to call the embassy” every now and then.

We discussed the supply of water: “You know that the Israeli government severely restricts the amount of water that Palestinians can have, don’t you?” he spat at me. “You know that there is no water in the Middle East, don’t you?” I spat back. “In 1967 we fought a war and won. Had we lost, this argument would be irrelevant, as my people would have been expelled from the Middle East! Murdered, dead, finished and no one would fucking care!” After I said that it went quiet.

He either became quiet because I had won or because I had become angry. I am not sure which. I had not been angry or right enough for the debate to end there and we continued to argue after a short silence, only to be interrupted once again by: “You said five minutes, that time is up, and I am calling the consulate!” A hard stare and she stopped and put her mobile phone away. And so I began again with the British kid, arguing about the devastation caused by Israeli bulldozers knocking down the homes of the families of suicide bombers, to the amount of time it would take the Palestinians to rebuild their cities in the wake of Operation Defensive Shield. My time on guard came and went and still we argued. When Baby came to replace me I told him not to bother. He didn’t argue. We continued. In the middle, the woman whose flat I had taken over let loose an impassioned plea, the plea of civilians caught in a war zone all around the world: “We are not terrorists, we are normal people trying to live our lives. Why have you come here”? Her appeal would not move me: “The army needs your apartment. Were there no terrorists blowing themselves up there would be no army presence here at all, ever”.

The British kid told me that the clinic for which this woman was responsible couldn’t open because we were holding her captive. I laughed out loud. This inconvenience couldn’t compare with the potential victims that would ultimately survive because of my actions on this mission. We were preventing suicide bombers leaving the city to their targets. “If a handful of people could not get to a clinic today, then they will go tomorrow,” I said. Inside though, he had given me pause for thought. I couldn’t be sure that what I was doing actually was contributing to stopping bus bombers. I was simply holed up in the apartment. Was anything I was doing actually helping?

“The only reason there are terrorists is because you are here!” The British kid said to me. “No,” I corrected him. “The only reason we are here is because there are terrorists!” I surveyed the room and noticed that all of my captives had been sitting on the edge of their seats, attempting to understand this strange dialogue between the British born Israeli soldier and the Oxford undergraduate peacemaker. I stopped speaking, afraid I had said too much. This was a strange moment indeed. They were used to the sirens and gunshots that provided a constant backdrop of noise. An insight into the mind of an Israeli soldier was something new. I didn’t mind them listening in. On the contrary, I was glad to have an audience; these were the people I wanted to understand me. We aren’t murderers, we do not do this simply to ruin your lives. We have no choice but to stop the bombers!

As we finished our argument a murmur went through the group, and the pregnant woman started crying. She had been crying for most of the time that I had been in the room. I told the plump woman who spoke English to tell her not to worry, that we would be gone soon. My comment was met with a shrill, American accented “She can cry if she wants to!” from the American girl, I looked at her but I had nothing to say. Anyway, Baby came back to relieve me, something for which, at that particular moment I was profoundly grateful.

I went into the master bedroom to find the guys making a feast of the bread rolls and tinned tuna we had brought with us. There would not be and never was any taking advantage of the civilians’ food or other possessions. Not feeling particularly hungry, but looking for comfort, I sat down with my friends and helped myself. As per usual there was not enough ketchup and I had to make do with mustard, which in civilian life I could never stand. Strange thing about the army is that I learnt to appreciate food in a way that I never had before. For instance during field week, after two days deprived of food, our sergeant arrived with a box of tomatoes; “eat up” he said. In 23 years of being alive I had never been able to eat a raw tomato, yet somehow when those tomatoes arrived I was clamoring for them along with everyone else.

Once eating was over I sparked up a cigarette and watched the blue grey smoke curl up towards the ceiling. There were sirens going off outside again and I wished I could have been there ‘taking care of business’. Instead I was stuck in a flat with a bunch of whiny tourists and some Palestinian civilians, not to mention kids. What would I tell my friends back in England?

I remembered Cobi’s words that our return would “depend on the success of the mission.” I had no idea how to gauge whether the mission was going well or poorly. The fact that I didn’t know probably reflects the fact that the commander himself was not really sure. So much about counter terrorism operations seems to depend upon the movement of events on the ground rather than any actual pre-considered time frame. I moved no further with my musings as Snake came to me and it was my turn to guard…again.

It was late, soon it would be dark, I scanned the room. There were still a lot of people in it and I was on my own. What if one of them tried to escape? Would I shoot? How could I ever justify killing a civilian trying to escape from his own house? So I would not shoot, but I wouldn’t let someone get away either. If it came to it I would use the butt of my rifle to down my fictitious enemy. It was then that I noticed that I had my weapon clipped to me rather than on a sling and that I would never have been able to use the butt to hit anyone, So I surreptitiously went about the process of unclipping the weapon and attaching the strap. As I did this I realised that it would make it easier for someone to remove the weapon from me, and then I remembered that that was the reason I had clipped the rifle to me in the first place. What if they all decided to rush me? There were a lot of them and if they all moved together they could get my weapon. Would I kill civilians then?

They didn’t rush me, and if they had one word from me and commandos would have come from left and right and killed anyone posing a threat. My mind was wandering too much. I was tired. When was I being relieved again? Why was there no TV to watch in this bloody place?

It had become more than obvious to all of us in the apartment that everyone outside did in fact know we were there. The Red Crescent had been shouting up to us for permission to drop in medical supplies while I had been eating and Baby had gone to Bubba to ask what to do. With the news, Bubba made one of his infrequent forays in to ‘our’ apartment as opposed to the one with the all important window. He surveyed the situation, saw the pregnant woman who was still crying. I asked him if we could get her out of there now that it was obvious that people outside were aware of us. He promised to radio the higher ups and see what he could do. In addition to this, the British girl was talking about how she needed her medication for a high blood pressure and could she ask the Red Crescent guys to get it for her. This was all a little too much and once again I found myself wishing for some armed enemy to appear so that I could involve myself in a nice fire fight rather than have to deal with the trials and tribulations that come from being a babysitter.

At that moment the American girl decided to come out of the toilet and complain that someone had not flushed it. “Probably one of the soldiers,” she said. “I bet they don’t even know how to use Palestinian toilets,” she said with a pointed look at me. Unbelievable! Even in a room in a foreign country, surrounded by men with guns holding her captive, she still found it in her to be condescending! What annoyed me even more was that I had been the last person to use the toilet and no, I did not know how to flush a Palestinian toilet.

It was at this point that the lady whose flat we were in decided to ask me when we were going to leave. Of course I didn’t have a clue, and even if I had known, I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell her. Naturally at such a moment, when all of my previous “just be patient” pieces of advice had clearly run their course, I came up with a superb answer, perfect in its simplicity. Just as I was about to say it the lady whispered to the British girl, “He doesn’t know” and they both giggled. Fantastic! Was this the lot of every soldier or was it just me that managed to allow himself to be ridiculed by his own captives?

At least her whisper allowed me the opportunity to scowl and ignore them all rather than engage in dialogue again. “I think they will leave tonight when it gets dark”, she said, “That’s what they always do”. That’s what we always do? I almost asked her what time we usually leave. Instead I glanced at my watch. five o’clock– not long until darkness. I hoped the lady was right. I did not feeling like spending another night babysitting.

Eventually Bubba returned from his window and we let the pregnant woman go at which point she began crying tears of joy instead of anguish. I returned to the master bedroom for another smoke and some sleep only to be awoken an hour later by my chubby section commander and told that it was time to do some tidying up. He also brought me up to speed. The volunteers and everyone else had been released by Bubba while I had been asleep. Strangely enough, I felt a little annoyed that I had not been around to say goodbye to them, especially the girl. I guessed now they had a story to tell of their experience at the hands of the evil IDF, I felt sure that by the time their plane touched the ground in the USA or UK their story would have transformed into soldiers holding them hostage as human shields and refusing to feed them.

We picked up all of the paraphernalia of our short stay– the wrappers, cigarette butts and assorted waste and piled it all back into the rucksack that Baby had carried in with him on his back. Once finished, we vacated the bedroom and Bubba gave the family leave to roam freely. Immediately the lady attacked the floor of her bedroom with a mop and bucket. I felt bad watching her work. Even though we had tried to clear up there was still ash and the remnants of the meals we had eaten there. Within a couple of minutes there was no evidence that we had ever been there. The relief flooding the apartment brought a smile to all of our faces and we began chatting with the Lady’s husband for the first time. He explained to us that he used to work in Israel as a builder during Oslo. His kids started running around the apartment. Before they had been quiet and in their mother’s arms. Baby learnt from the father that one of them could sing a popular Israeli song and so we all sat listening to the kid, pretending that an hour ago we had not subjected him and his family to 24 hours of fun with the IDF. The kid sang his Hebrew song and we all patted him on the back and complimented the man on having a son with such a voice. While I wondered where on earth planet Nablus was located and whether it was a space ship or an armored car that had brought me here.

Bubba came into the flat having supervised the cleanup operation in the other apartment and informed us that it was time to leave. Bubba’s guys followed him in and we swapped stories about what we had been doing for the past day or so. It turned out that Forest thought he had caught a glimpse of an armed man on the street, but it might not have been. I was jealous.

We said our goodbyes to the family and told them that we hoped they would not be bothered again. We hoisted packs onto our backs, checked weapons, did a final sweep of the flat to make sure that nothing had been left behind and then followed Bubba out of the door and down the stairs. It felt good to be outside. The the air was not fresh due to the stench of garbage strewn streets. The scent of spices also hit me as soon as I stepped out of the door, but at last I was moving and outside rather than cooped up in the apartment.

Eventually we arrived at the empty building we had left the sergeant and his team in. We moved inside and linked up with the others. Again, an opportunity to swap stories. I discovered that the guys in the empty building had had an uneventful time. The unoccupied building ensured that they had not had to cater to any civilians. At first I was jealous of the fact that they had not been burdened by peacemakers and crying, pregnant women. Later on I decided that there could not have been a better introduction to operational life than this claustrophobic experience. I would never look at civilians the same way again. I wasn’t sure exactly what I had learnt in those 24 hours. Perhaps it was simply that Palestinians are people too, with their own hopes, dreams and aspirations for the future and that those do not always involve killing Jews.

I watched as more and more soldiers filed into the building. Sweat had wiped away the camouflage cream from all of our faces and what was left behind simply looked as though a little muck had been thrown on here and there. Sentries were posted and the more experienced guys fell straight to sleep. They were familiar with the army by now and knew that simply because we had all met up it did not not necessarily mean we were leaving. They valued sleep like others value gold and took the opportunity to get as much of it as possible, whenever and wherever the could. For my part I sat there like the inexperienced trooper I was, wondering what the holdup could possibly be. Why were we simply sitting there? Surely no one had forgotten about us. Later on I would learn that these questions are irrelevant and that the lowly soldier does not have the luxury of asking why? or how? or when? One gets on much better in the army if he can keep his mind clear of such thoughts and simply respond to his orders without worrying about things that aren’t under his control.

Eventually word came through that we were leaving. Soldiers roused themselves from their state of semi-sleep and organised themselves back into their respective squads. Once again we began to move. The walk back to the jumping off point was every bit as exhilarating as the walk from it had been, and every bit as uneventful. We walked past the sinister alleyways and the stones that were now smiling at my departure, past the posters of suicide bombers all under the bright, white Palestinian lamp posts. Once in the armoured car I tried to reflect upon what I had been through. Hamas had not been destroyed and it appeared that they wouldn’t be any time soon. That was okay though. I would settle for whatever the army told me to do. I hoped that wouldn’t have to deal with civilians. I had still not learnt that when fighting terrorists, it always involves dealing with civilians. The terrorists themselves are civilians right up to the point at which they blow themselves up. Finally the rhythm of the vehicle got to me and I was able to close my eyes and leave my thoughts behind as the dark veil of sleep finally fell upon me.

 

 

Comments
Marc Goldberg says:

For God’s sake man, I use Nablus when I speak English and Shechem when I speak Hebrew else no one would know what place I was talking about.

IDF Vet says:

I loooked online and found NO Hebrew word NABLUS.
Are you referring to the biblical city called Schem in Hebrew?
You use many Hebrew words in your writing, so why do you use the Roman name for Schem?

lora druker says:

very nicely written marc. great details.
but what about Oren? not one word about my son??!!
hope all is good with you
lora

Marc,
I really enjoyed reading “Beyond the Green Line.” You might consider publishing this as a Kindle ebook on Amazon.com, perhaps as a series.

I published a 13-book series on my experiences in the U.S. Army. See my Facebook page if you’re interested.