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July 10, 2002
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Israel's army continues to arrest Palestinian genocide bombers

MSNBC (www.msnbc.com) has published an article from Newsweek that describes how Israeli reservists are fighting Palestinian terrorism. The author, Joshua Hammer, joins a platoon of the IDF (Israel's army) who has received orders to arrest Palestinian would-be genocide bombers.

Before their call-up last month, they were Haifa bakers and Tel Aviv software engineers. Their views run the gamut from antiwar campaigners to right-wingers.

Israeli men do three years of compulsive active military duty at the age of 18, and then have to serve in the reserves one month per year until the age of 45 (I served as a medic in the IDF, patrolling the Jordanian border). Women serve two years at the age of 18 but do not serve in the reserves.

But when Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic-intelligence service, sent word down last Monday afternoon, Cohen-Topel and his men put aside their personal views and climbed into their Nagmashes, rugged armored personnel carriers, to race across the Biblically beautiful hills toward Beit Lid, a farming village near Tulkarm. They have seven young Palestinian men’s names, and a map showing where they live. [...]

They knock again, harder this time. “Yehud!” shouts one soldier, using the Arabic word for “Jew,” synonymous for “Israeli” here in the West Bank. [...]

Palestinians in their mid-20s soon stumble out, staring wordlessly at the cordon of troops. The soldiers cuff them, blindfold them using strips of bedsheets and shuffle them toward a waiting flatbed truck, leaving the young woman sobbing alone on the doorstep. Cohen-Topel climbs back into his armored personnel carrier, satisfied that the arrests have gone off without a hitch. “It’s not a good feeling to wake up people in the middle of the night, to take men away from their wives and children,” he says. “But I have no doubt that what we’re doing is necessary.”

I copy the full article below.

A Shark Hunt In The Night
NEWSWEEK - Joshua Hammer - July 2002
http://www.msnbc.com/news/777065.asp

On patrol with Israeli reservists, hunting suicide bombers and fighting fires, the danger is clearer than the ultimate resolution—even to the soldiers. An exclusive NEWSWEEK visit to the front lines of their war on terror.

In the predawn hour before the morning prayer, the West Bank village of Beit Lid sleeps in silence. Only the furious barking of two stray dogs might alert its inhabitants that a platoon of Israeli reservists has just crept onto the main street, wagging M-16s and getting ready to kick down doors.

THE VILLAGE IS A SUSPECTED way station on the underground route that suicide bombers use to infiltrate from Nablus across the Green Line and on to Israel proper, only 10 miles from here. Sgt. Sivan Cohen-Topel and his men are about to round up suspects. “We don’t expect resistance,” whispers Cohen-Topel, a compact 28-year-old. “But all it takes is one guy with a gun.”

Israel’s crack Palnat Company is on the front lines of the war against terror, and last week it offered NEWSWEEK a rare view from its trenches. These men are experienced reservists, and nearly all of them have seen active duty in Lebanon. Before their call-up last month, they were Haifa bakers and Tel Aviv software engineers. Their views run the gamut from antiwar campaigners to right-wingers, such as the soldier who earnestly postulated a simple solution to the Palestinian problem: “Let’s nuke them.” Back in 2000, such internal disagreements eventually forced Israel to withdraw from Lebanon, a topic much on these citizen-soldiers’ minds. But when Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic-intelligence service, sent word down last Monday afternoon, Cohen-Topel and his men put aside their personal views and climbed into their Nagmashes, rugged armored personnel carriers, to race across the Biblically beautiful hills toward Beit Lid, a farming village near Tulkarm. They have seven young Palestinian men’s names, and a map showing where they live.

Now, as the muezzin’s call to prayer wails from the village mosque, nine soldiers creep to a modest cinder-block house on the outskirts and knock sharply on the door. Twenty seconds pass. They knock again, harder this time. “Yehud!” shouts one soldier, using the Arabic word for “Jew,” synonymous for “Israeli” here in the West Bank. A fluorescent light switches on, illuminating the shabby interior: Dome of the Rock paintings, tattered pink drapes. Seconds later, a bleary-eyed young woman appears in the doorway. She’s told to roust all the men out of the house. Three Palestinians in their mid-20s soon stumble out, staring wordlessly at the cordon of troops. The soldiers cuff them, blindfold them using strips of bedsheets and shuffle them toward a waiting flatbed truck, leaving the young woman sobbing alone on the doorstep. Cohen-Topel climbs back into his armored personnel carrier, satisfied that the arrests have gone off without a hitch. “It’s not a good feeling to wake up people in the middle of the night, to take men away from their wives and children,” he says. “But I have no doubt that what we’re doing is necessary.”

EASING CURFEWS

Most Israelis would agree with him. Two weeks after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon launched Operation Determined Path in response to a series of suicide-bomb attacks in Jerusalem, the military reoccupation of the West Bank has dramatically reduced the level of violence inside Israel—even as it imposes a stranglehold over the lives of nearly 1 million Palestinians. Last week Israel’s cabinet voted to ease the round-the-clock curfews that have kept West Bankers penned inside their homes for days on end; security clearances were granted to 5,000 Palestinians so they can go back to work in Israel. But unlike previous incursions, Determined Path seems likely to go on for many months—perhaps as long as it takes Palestinians to replace Yasir Arafat with a moderate new leadership. “If the Palestinians are wise enough to free themselves from the regime of murder and terror, they will be able to achieve a life of freedom on their land,” Sharon said last week. He vowed that the troops “will remain in the centers of the cities for a very long time.”

That all but guarantees a vital role for Israel’s reservists. Long considered the bedrock of the Israeli military, nearly all men between the ages of 22 and 45 perform one month of reserve soldiering every year, and are subject to mandatory call-ups in times of crisis. During Operation Defensive Shield last spring, Army reservists did most of the fighting—and the dying—in cities like Jenin, Nablus and Ramallah. This more low-key incursion has engaged just a single reservist brigade, although those 1,500 troops are deployed on some of the most difficult missions. Last week NEWSWEEK spent three days and nights with these soldiers in their camps at the edge of hostile territory, and on patrol through the heart of it. “We could find ourselves in another Lebanon,” concedes Cohen-Topel, a kibbutznik who, like most soldiers in his company, did his three years of compulsory Army service in Lebanon in the 1990s. He’s aware that the combination of military futility and popular discontent that conspired to persuade Israel to withdraw from Lebanon two years ago could repeat itself here. “They will study us. They will learn our movements. They will attack us. It’s only a matter of time.”

Lebanon was a more traditional war for the infantrymen of the Palnat Company. There they shouldered TOW missiles into action against Hizbullah guerrillas. Here they patrol in their sandbagged Nagmashes across a patch of rugged hills, canyons and picturesque Arab villages tucked between the cities of Tulkarm and Nablus in the northern West Bank; in effect, they’re well-armed cops in olive drab. Until last week the area was under Palestinian Authority control; during the intifada, Israeli intelligence says, it became infested by suicide bombers who hopscotched from one village to the next as they wended their way from Nablus’s explosives labs to Tulkarm, a militant hotbed just a short drive from the Israeli cities of Netanya and Hadera. Along dusty tracks given code names such as “Salvador” and “Hawaii,” in villages like Anabta and Beit Lid, Cohen-Topel and his men lay ambushes, set up checkpoints and make predawn raids on suspected militants. Their main mission, says one, is to “put the Palestinians on notice that we are here.”

DIVERSE VIEWS

Most of them would plainly rather be elsewhere. The soldiers’ temporary base lies beside the Jewish settlement of Avne Chefetz, a cluster of red-roofed stucco homes hugging the edge of the Shomron Hills, high above the Israeli coastal plain. Inside 12 large canvas tents thrown up on concrete platforms in a stony field, the men brew Turkish coffee, smoke, read by the dim light of two 25-watt bulbs and snatch a few hours of sleep on flimsy Army-issue cots between operations. It’s a bit like a male-bonding weekend retreat in America—only with worse food and a charged political atmosphere, and live ammo. Blindfolded Palestinian captives are sometimes led past the tents to a nearby white trailer—an interrogation center manned by secretive Shin Bet agents. Ripped away from jobs, school and families by the latest outbreak of violence, the reservists say that they’re compelled by a sense of duty but admit the reservist life can be terribly disruptive. Izhar Barak, a Middle Eastern studies major at Beer Sheva University, was forced to skip his final exams and put his bachelor’s degree on hold. Shai Rybak, 29, manager of a start-up software company, was summoned to the war hours before a critical meeting with a potential client. After a week in the field, he begged for—and received—a 24-hour leave to go and finish the deal. “I’m just lucky it is an Israeli firm,” Rybak says. “Foreigners would never understand.”

They might also be baffled by the range of political views expressed openly by the troops. Company commander Danny Rappaport, 39, a stocky, ruddy-faced man, had to hand over management of his brewery in Ashkelon when he was called up. “We’re here because we can see Netanya from here, and from all the villages in between,” says Rappaport, squinting in the harsh sunlight as he gestures toward the Israeli coast, 15 miles to the west. “My only frustration is that this was done too late. We should have reoccupied one and a half years ago. We paid the price for our hesitation.” At the other end of the spectrum is Lior Ur, 27, a Microsoft software designer from Haifa who says he’s willing to accept more attacks against Israelis rather than subject Palestinians to further hardship and humiliation. A quiet, articulate man with round wire-rim spectacles, Ur says he nearly signed a letter circulated by reservist officers last winter in which they refused to serve in the territories. He backed down, he says, because of “the special bond” of the Army life, the threat of jail and the feeling he could be a moderating influence in the field. “I despise what we’re doing here,” he says. “We’re just part of a circle of violence. We kill them, they kill us. There’s no end.”

Such clashing views can make an evening at camp seem like a particularly emotional session of “Crossfire.” One sultry night Ur finds himself engaged in a fierce argument with their press-liaison officer, Jacob Davidson, an ardent young Sharon supporter. Perched on the steps outside their tent, Ur insists that Operation Determined Path is doomed to failure. “When we pull out of here, a month later the labs will be up again, the bombings will restart. We’re not stopping the terror,” he says. Davidson snorts in disgust. “We’re slowing it down, we’re stopping 86 percent of attacks, according to Shin Bet,” he retorts. “Every little boy and pregnant mother saved in the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is worth us being here.” Ur shakes his head. “You’re not saving them. You’re postponing their deaths. You should be thinking more than ‘stop terror now.’ You should think, ‘we have to move forward’.” Davidson doesn’t buy it. “First we need a leader we can talk to,” he says. “But you can’t choose their leader,” Ur replies. Davidson takes a drag off a Marlboro Light. “No, but you can refuse to negotiate with such a man. Talking to him is folly, desperation. Our left-wing brothers and sisters are so desperate for peace, they’re grasping at the most ridiculous thing in the world.” Ur jumps up. He thinks Israel should withdraw from the territories now, end closure and rebuild the West Bank infrastructure. “What needs to be done is to give the next generation of Palestinians hope—jobs, peace,” he says. “What do you think? When they have a country, a life, will they still want to bomb Tel Aviv?”

GOD DESTROYS THE WORLD: A JOKE

The verbal sparring may be harsh, but the men of Palnat still manage to share a laugh or two over their grim situation. One joke making the rounds at base camp: God summons George W. Bush, Vladimir Putin and Ariel Sharon to heaven. “I’m sick of all of you,” he tells them, “so I’ve decided to destroy the world.” Bush returns to America and addresses his people. “I’ve got good news and bad news,” he says. “The good news is there is a God. The bad news is he’s going to destroy the world.” Putin tells the Russians, “I’ve got bad news and worse news—there is a God, and he’s going to destroy the world.” Sharon tells the Israelis, “I’ve got good news and better news. There is a God—and there’s never going to be a Palestinian state.”

It’s high noon in the northern West Bank, and the temperature is pushing 100 degrees. Cohen-Topel and his men clatter in a pair of Nagmashes over a dusty road past a sweep of terraced olive fields, silver-green branches withering in the heat. As the stench of a dead sheep wafts from a roadside garbage dump, the radio crackles out a warning of a suicide bomber on the loose between Nablus and Tulkarm. “He’s already made his video,” Cohen-Topel says. “He’s ready to go.” The men roar toward El Abed—a key transit point between Tulkarm and Nablus—and close the hatch for protection as they approach the village. Sealed inside the armored shell on this July afternoon, the men wipe away rivulets of sweat and squirm in discomfort. It’s like a journey inside an industrial-size tumble dryer. On a curving stretch of road just outside town they park their vehicles, gulp down the fresh air and set up a mobile checkpoint. It’s a tedious afternoon, stopping motorists and phoning in ID numbers to Shin Bet.

“If we have luck, we may catch some sharks,” Cohen-Topel says. A few possible sharks swim in hours later. Four men in a black Mitsubishi truck approach the rear of the line of taxis and other vehicles waiting to be checked. Catching sight of the troops, the driver does a screeching U-turn and roars down a dirt side road. “Stop!” one soldier screams. The troops fire a burst of bullets from their M-16s in the air, then pursue them through fields for 200 yards—as far as regulations allow. The Mitsubishi, too fast for the heavy Nagmashes, vanishes into the warrens of El Abed, too hostile and crowded for a small foot patrol.

By 6 o’clock the fierce heat has begun to dissipate. The platoon’s Nagmashes switch back above El Abed to a windswept hilltop with commanding views of the countryside, bound for a routine mission before heading back to base for the night. Cohen-Topel directs his troops to shoot up a brush-covered slope with their. 50-caliber machine guns, to set off any Palestinian booby traps. Then the unexpected happens: a spark ignites a fire that spreads rapidly through the brush. Licks of flame advance across the hillside, whipped up by fierce gusts of wind. For the next hour, the soldiers become firefighters instead of policemen. Faces blackened, they wearily declare the fire under control. It’s easy to see they’re pleased with themselves. In the occupied territories, the only victories left are Pyrrhic ones.

Posted by David Melle at July 10, 2002 08:54 AM
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