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.