Monday, December 31, 2007

Through the Eyes of a Soldier

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By Alexander Landa

As an Israeli soldier disturbing the daily routines of Arabs, I began to question the validity of what I was doing. It didn't take long for me to find the answers.

The almost daily depiction in the media of the so-called "Israeli aggression" and the dramatic pictures of Palestinian suffering with children being carried away on stretchers and hordes of teenagers throwing rocks force us to ask: Why are these people suffering?

Serving in the Paratroopers unit (Tzanhaniim) of the Israeli Army for the past year and half in Nablus (Shechem) and Ramallah has given me a first hand glimpse into the underlying causes of the conflict, a perspective not commonly portrayed by the world media.

After completing eight months of intensive training, my unit's first assignment was in Nablus. As we moved into our new domain in armored vehicles with tank support, I was somewhat surprised to see the esthetic beauty of the city. Overlooking the city are two biblical mountains, Har Aval and Har Grizim. On the outskirts of the city lay remnants of impressive houses and cars. Before the first surge in violence in 2000, Nablus was the financial hub of the Palestinian Authority (PA). It has since been transformed into a terrorist hub that has reduced the city into ruins. According to intelligence reports, a majority of all terrorist attacks coming from the West Bank had some connection to Nablus.

We could see the full scope of decay engulfing the city -- roads completely destroyed by tank and armored carrier movement, buildings hollowed from weapons fire. We directed our operations from inside an Arab house on the northern border of the town close to the refugee camps Askra Yeshan and Askra Hadash, relocating the Arab occupants to the basement apartment. Our immediate mission was to enforce the curfew imposed on the area in order to prevent the smuggling and movement of bombs, bomb making equipment, and terrorists. The main methods used to carry out our objective were to establish check points in various parts of Nablus and to conduct raids and patrols at night.

"Afpteh al Jaket afptheh vkies" -- (lift up your shirt and open your bags)", I shouted in Arabic during one of my first times manning a checkpost. "Taal! Taal! (approach)," I yelled out to the Palestinian who is waiting with his family at the check post to cross into Nablus. The man told me he and his family were going to the doctors located in Nablus, a common response at the checkpost. He showed me a two-year-old prescription written in Arabic and English that stated he has foot problems, as he professed to me that he was suffering from serious heart problems.

"Afsterig (closed)," no crossing today, I explained to him, because there was a general warning in the region.

"When will it be open."

"No idea," I responded as he turned in dismay and walked home with his family. As the family walked away from me, I could not hold back from feelings of guilt in disturbing these people's lives. After conducting searches of every man, woman, and child and making them wait in long lines and disturbing their daily routines, I began to question the validity of disrupting the lives of civilians. It didn't take long for me to find the answers.

That night, as we were sitting down to eat dinner in the Arab house, the communications officer ran into the kitchen and yelled out "Hakpatzah emet! -- a real emergency!" I was on the emergency team that night, so five soldiers and I abruptly dropped our food, put on our equipment, and jumped into the armed carrier. We sped off in the direction of the Askra Yeshan refugee camp with an armed Hummer following us and a tank leading the way.

We had confirmed information that a group of four heavily armed terrorists were in the refugee camp, en route to commit a terrorist attack in one of the bordering Jewish towns.

We rode through the camp with the hatch of the carrier open. I was leaning out with my heavy caliber machine gun primed, waiting for the order to shoot. While pursing the terrorists through the refugee camp, we were pelted with rocks, and a Molotov cocktail narrowly avoided the Hummer.

Many thoughts and emotions flowed through my mind. If we miss these armed terrorists, many Jewish lives will be lost... How many people injured? Families ruined? I recited passages from Psalms while leaning out the vehicle and continuing to look and wait. In the end we didn't find the terrorists, but, thank God, the local patrol of the town tracked them down and killed them.

On one mission in Ramallah, after the first attempt on Shiek Ahmed Yassin's life failed, my unit had gone on full alert expecting a retaliatory attack from Hamas. A group of Hamas terrorists were planning a suicide attack inside the green line (Israel proper). We had specific information of who the lead terrorist was but his exact whereabouts where unknown.

We conducted house to house searches throughout the night with no success. A few days later, the news over the radio reported that there had been suicide bomber who had blown himself up in a cafe in Jerusalem. In the attack, seven people were killed including Dr. Appelbaum and his daughter, Nava, who was to be married the next day. The suicide bomber was a 'student' at Bir Ziet University, close to the area that we had conducted searches. He seemed to fit the profile of the terrorist that we had tried to apprehend.

We were never informed if he was, in fact, the terrorist that we were pursuing. But I cannot remove the contradictory pain of feeling both responsible and helpless. Perhaps if my unit would have been able to capture that bomber on that fateful night, Dr. Appelbaum would have walked his daughter to the chuppa. Instead we accompanied them to their graves.

Yes the Palestinians are suffering; no one denies that fact. But the question as to why they are suffering also has an unequivocal, simple answer. Their leadership and government have chosen terrorism and violence as form of conflict resolution. Their society has chosen to grant idol or martyr status to terrorists who have tried or succeeded in murdering innocent men, women, and children. The choice of terrorism -- or in Islamic fundamentalists terms, Jihad -- has distorted the murdering of innocents into holy acts.

The next time the world media parades pictures of Palestinian suffering, consider the reasons why. Their society has chosen violence and destruction, and we have every right and duty to defend ourselves from it.

Author Biography: Alexander Landa, born in Kiev, Ukraine and grew up in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. A Rutgers University graduate and a former Wall Street analyst. He served as a Paratrooper (tzanchanim) from Aug 2002 to Jan 2004 in Ramallah, Shechem, and Gaza. Alex and his unit were recently deployed in Lebanon for active duty where they faced extensive combat. He is currently studying in Jerusalem where he lives with his wife and daughter.

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