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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 in the 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. 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 along with an Alsatian called Yossi. The cars set off, we drove towards the city and parked somewhere somewhere on the fringe. I wasn’t really paying attention to where we were, I was angry that I was being left behind to guard the car a complete waste of time! I wanted to be in the action, I wanted to be doing something. The others disembarked and promptly 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 we heard popping in the distance. Elad turned to me and said “Marc, is that shooting”. I, looked back at him exasperated by the level of inexperience he was showing in even asking that question. I 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 collapsed into the vehicle on top of me. Aviv looked at me with wide eyes and sweat streaming down his face. “Didn’t you hear the shooting!!!” he said.

Welcome to Nablus.

The next day the whole unit was gathered for a briefing. 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. We weren’t told when we were leaving, only that; “the amount of time the mission would go on for  would be determined by our success.” I didn’t know what that meant. Each team in the unit was given two locations to take over ensuring that we would all be split up from the start. we looked at some maps, plotted the routes into the city and prepared our combat vests with the paraphernalia of war, ammunition, grenades, stun grenades, gas grenades, emergency medical equipment, and combat rations for several days . This time it felt 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. Our weapons were loaded, camouflage cream on our faces and packs on our back. He stood before us, that pig of a commander speaking the words of a combat commander talking to seasoned troops. The words I remember most were; “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. 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 very 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.

He 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. On operations in Nablus we always rode in and out on those armored troop carriers. Up to 10 of squeezed into an area designed for about 5. 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 my first time.

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 “preeka” came from Bubba up front. It meant we were to leave the comfort of the Knight, our escort into the warzone and jump out into the forbidding city beyond the window. This was it, I kcicked at the unfamiliar doors and felt the weight of the armoured opening give to the sudden burst of force as we all bounded out into the Winter 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, which was itself part of a team of 18 and our team was just one of the unit’s three. We were all there together, all waiting together 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 for my to simply float away, perhaps towards consciousness for it had to be that the task I was currently engaged in was something from a dream, another world. It couldn’t be that this boy from the suburbs of London had really found himself among a bunch of Israeli soldiers, in the middle of an Arab city, carrying a weapon capable of inflicting tremendous pain on our enemies. And yet there I was, moving forward step by step towards an uncertain future.

We were to be walking most of the way to our target, 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. I put my fear to bed in those first few seconds, standing there among 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 log 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 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, 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. All around me they covered the walls save for the occasional poster of Arafat with a heavenly light falling onto his face from above.

We moved ever forward the sound of a can of coke sliding, scratching, skittering it’s way through the night shattered the silence, as one the unit slowly sank to one knee, weapons raised looking to see if the intrusion of sound into silence had awoken any beasts of the night. I looked up, I looked at all of the windows of houses 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 yourself 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 forwards, towards the kasbah, the heart of Nablus. Upon arrival the two other teams peeled off on their journey towards their own individual target buildings. On their way they would each break up into squads each with their own buildings to occupy. None of us knew how long we were to be there.

Suddenly Bubba moved towards one of the alleys and led us into it. I was not sure whether it was a relief to be in a dark area or more frightening to be in such a confined space. Everything was new to me and I could not escape the feeling that this was the culmination of my entire life. Adrenaline was pumping through my body, knowing that there could be an ambush at any time. I savoured 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.” But I would not leave until the task was done. I did not feel as afraid as I had been whilst cooped up in the armoured car. On the contrary I felt calm and confident and was enjoying the feeling of moving with supreme purpose. I had come with a weapon and I was ready for whatever the enemy chose to throw at me.

I loved every minute of my tour of Nablus, courtesy of the IDF. As a kid I had dreamed of being a commando sneaking behind enemy lines in World War II. I had read about the great commando raids by the SAS in the North African desert. Now I was doing the 21st century equivalent. It seemed so surreal though; it was difficult to believe that there would ever be any resistance at all. 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?

Silent movement in a city is impossible. For all that had been drilled into me during training about how to walk and how to move, I realised in the Kasbah that everything creates noise. The sound of a foot touching the ground, the sound of equipment rustling on your body. No matter how well you think that the straps have been adjusted and equipment checked it still rustles. Intervals of quiet were punctuated by the ear splitting scream of a can accidentally kicked across the street by a soldier who forgot to look down at the ground to see what he was walking on.

After crouching for 30 seconds or so we would rise and move forward again once Bubba had been convinced that there were no enemy 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. I had no idea what my target was since my Hebrew was not good enough to fully understand the briefing. In this state of ignorance as to where I was, where I was going and what it was that I was supposed to do when I got there, I continued to move.

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! As he came closer I nudged my friend and nodded in the 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. I was struck by the volume of posters on the walls celebrating suicide bombers. There were hundreds pasted everywhere. 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. At random intervals pictures of Arafat were posted with a heavenly light beaming onto his face. These were few and far between and left little doubt as to who really controlled the streets. 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 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 completed 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 manoeuvring around, behind and in front of my friends. 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 were the Shaheed who were 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 an anticlimax.

Upon reaching the top floor Bubba directed my squad leader to take us into one of the apartments where we found a rather dishevelled looking bunch of people. There was a family of four pushed together with an old woman from the flat next door, which was at that moment being converted into a shooting gallery by Bubba. The role of my squad was to guard the family and make sure that no one called to the outside to tell them that there were commandos located in the building. Should that have happened, there was the potential for riots on our doorstep and our chances of being able to get out alive and well would diminish significantly. I found out later just how farcical the concept of covert could be.

Upon stepping into the apartment 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. In front of me where there should have been a wall there was a sliding door, leading to the children’s room. I felt more like I was in a hospital waiting room than a living room. Still the apartment was better than I had expected… not that I had really expected anything, I had never thought much about how Palestinians lived. The man was thin and had shoulder length hair. 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. The old woman was dressed in white robes and was wearing a head scarf. The two women were talking animatedly in hushed tones.

After a couple of minutes Bubba came into the room and took 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. He and his guys would be staying in the other apartment and would take turns on the sniper position they had created there. The four of us would be staying in this flat looking after the civilians. Was this to be my entire role? Staying in the dingy flat 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 was not 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 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 and psychologically scarred from what I might do or what might be done to me suddenly seemed ridiculous. 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 me.

Naturally all of these thoughts remained unspoken, I would have sounded like a whiny kid had I said anything 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? Moaning aside, we split up 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.

My turn came to take watch and 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 that Bubba had given them from the master bedroom. 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 roused again. 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 arose 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 volunteer ‘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 did not 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 them around 19 or 20. The American girl was short with dimples and seemed to me to have come straight out of a film. She played the part of the stereotype so well, constantly demanding in her high pitched, whiny voice to be allowed to call the American consulate only to be quieted by a hard stare from whoever was tasked with guarding at that time. How could the consulate help her anyway? 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!
The other girl was less irritating. Tall and thin, she reminded me of many of the Asian girls I knew from London. She was a little sly and constantly trying to run off, but I liked her the most, maybe because I felt that I could relate to her more easily seeing as she had grown up in London and knew what it was to be a member of an ethnic minority… or maybe it was just because I found her sexy. 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 oversized 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.

Speaking English provided me with an opportunity for some responsibility; 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 at me incredulously at this: “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 and again I wanted to scream. 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 this 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.”
So began a five hour debate about the Israeli Palestinian conflict which raged back and forth between us, punctuated at times by an American accent shrieking: “Now I really am going to call the embassy”. We discussed water supplies: “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!”

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 did not 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 could not 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 could not 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 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. 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 did not mind them listening in. On the contrary, I was glad to have an audience; these were the people I wanted to understand me. We are not 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 again. I told the woman who spoke English to tell her not to worry. We would be gone soon. My comment was met with a shrill: “She can cry if she wants to!”
I turned to the American girl, but there was very little to say. Anyway, Baby came back to relieve me, something for which 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. 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 life I had never been able to eat a raw tomato, yet somehow when those tomatoes arrived I was clamouring for them along with everyone else and eating them was a wonderful experience.

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 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. What would I tell my friends back in England?

The commander of the unit had not told us specifically when we would be leaving and returning to base, only that it would “depend on the success of the mission.” This in itself confused me as I was not sure how to gauge how well the mission was actually going. The fact that I did not 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.

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 would not 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 did all decide 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? But they did not 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 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 being a babysitter for a bunch of spoiled kids.
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. Only problem was that I hadn’t a clue, and even I did, I probably wouldn’t be 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”. 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. Six o’clock– just a couple of hours 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. She began crying tears of joy instead of anguish. At this point I returned to the master bedroom for another smoke 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. Now that they had their story to tell of their experience at the evil hands of the 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 badly that 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 song and we all patted him on the back and complimented the man on having a son with such a voice.

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 into the apartment 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; and then it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps my particular part of the operation had been designed to simply provide my team with some experience as part of an operation and that we were never supposed to see or do anything except be there and get a feel for the ground. I thought this even more so later on when no other mission involved walking through the city quite as much as my first.

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 they took the opportunity to get as much of it as possible. For my part I sat there like the inexperienced trooper, 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 which are not under his control.

The word came through: 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 and 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. Although I hoped that not much more would involve dealing 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.

 

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