The author talks to a woman at the Kalandia checkpoint – offering hope of a real and lasting peace.A grey, blustery sand storm rolls fiercely into Kalandia, a checkpoint bordering Jerusalem and Ramallah. The dust burns your eyes as you focus on a Palestinian family approaching the cement block which serves as your desk. They wear red and white scarves over their faces, protection from the freezing, relentless winds. They reach for their identity cards, but you know that it could be a gun or a knife. You are half ‘Mr. Nice Guy’ and half combat soldier. You must be able to go from a warm smile to loading your M-16 in half a second. You are an IDF volunteer who the Palestinians and Israeli soldiers alike refer to as a ‘humanitarian officer.’
In September 2000, a small group of Israeli reserve officers created and implemented the concept of “softening” one of the few contact points between Israeli and Palestinian societies. The program, entitled “Volunteers of Hope”, was fully embraced by both the prime minister and the chief of staff. They took terse and angry checkpoints throughout Israel and inserted a mature, rational and non-combative approach to Israeli-Palestinian relations. Their objective was to make the best out of a bad situation. These reserve officers knew quite well that they were not going to solve the Israeli Palestinian conflict but in the interim they were determined to ease tensions and illustrate to both cultures that coexistence was possible.
Working out of a small office in Tel Aviv, program director Col. Bezalel Triber is constantly on the telephone. He supervises all of the humanitarian officers who are posted in Jericho, Kalandia, Bethlehem and Ariel.
“Many people in Israeli society have discovered how important this program is,” Triber says. “One of the very few points of contact between the Israeli and Palestinian populations is at our check posts.”
“We can’t allow a young 18-year-old soldier who has no understanding and experience of family and business obligations to set policy at these check posts. We get some very special and mature volunteers coming here to serve and they come not only from Israel, but from North America and Europe,” said Triber.
“Our volunteers leave the safe, warm environment of their homes for a very dangerous but rewarding mission on our borders. They assist our young soldiers with security and provide an understanding, helping hand to the Palestinians. Their job is to make life easier for those who cross the borders. To assist women who are holding babies and children, aid the elderly and sick and provide an open ear to Palestinian professionals who have special problems. These are Israel’s ambassadors to our Palestinian neighbors and they perform brilliantly.”
I witnessed this IDF program during the summer of 2002. As I applied for the program they informed me that the age limit was between 30 and 70, that English and or Arabic were required in addition to Hebrew, and that you must have served in the IDF.
The age requirement was perhaps the most important factor. How can a 18 or 19-year-old soldier access medical, financial and family problems? They can’t. How can they identify with a mother carrying a baby for an hour or an unemployed man with few twisted teeth and ripped clothes seeking employment?
As for language, almost a third of the Palestinians who are stopped and asked to show their Israeli blue identity cards request to speak English. The remaining crowd is proud of their Arabic origins and will not speak Hebrew. Many diplomats, journalists and non-profit organizations are among the 20,000 people that pass through Kalandia on a daily basis.
And the last or perhaps the first requirement is that you have served in the IDF. It is not so much a demand for security as much as it serves to say: “this ain’t gonna be easy.”
The dust storm blows off to the East leaving cold, blue skies and puddles of water. The blue and white Israeli flag appears a bit frazzled. A black dog which is half wolf shivers between the concrete blocks desperately trying to stay warm, to stay alive. Two rusty and white furred cats come out seeking food and a human touch. All of the elements of nature pour out, the good, the bad and the evil at Kalandia.
A day before my group arrived a Palestinian woman tried to plunge a sharp kitchen knife into a female soldier. She was grabbed before any blood spilled and was rushed off to prison. Perhaps that was her wish; perhaps she had no money for food or for her children.
Occasionally a young Israeli soldier would point their rifle at Palestinians approaching the checkpoint. “Why are you pointing your rifle,” I would ask. “I want them to be afraid of me,” one soldier replied. “You don’t need to point your rifle to gain respect here, nor do you need to hit anyone. Authority comes from your voice and from your eyes,” I said. “These people are not at war with you, nor are we at war with them. It is the terrorists for whom we seek.”
The young soldier was not quite convinced with this perspective. But then again if I had been trained only for combat situations at the raw age of 18, I would probably say the same. We are here for these young soldiers as much as we are for the Palestinians. We know that these fresh high school graduates are tired and subjected to tremendous political, military and emotional pressures. We are here to stand beside them, with them and say “kolakavod” – ‘good for you’ for being here and defending our tiny nation.
We never look at our watch during our first few days as IDF volunteer humanitarian soldiers. We don’t have the time. The insurance agent from Haifa, the truck driver from Afula, the former Lt. Colonel from Acre and the journalist from Jerusalem spends hours in intense combat and arms training. You shoot dozens of rounds from your M-16, listen to lectures on how bombs are made and hidden and learn who can and who can’t pass from your security checkpoint.
But one issue is made very clear, humanitarian considerations rise above all else in the IDF and you are expected to make wise and rapid decisions as to who is innocent and who could be a terrorist. You always take the side of security, for you don’t want it on your conscious that you have allowed a terrorist to enter Israel. You don’t dare think that if a bus or restaurant is blown up – that the terrorist responsible for that barbaric atrocity came into Israel with a wave of your hand.
We spend our first few nights in tents as we train and keep our ears open. Finally we are driven to our army base where again we receive specialized lectures and instructions regarding security and special cases which deserve humanitarian consideration. They waste no time placing us at the Kalandia, Bethlehem or Nablus checkpoints under the temporary supervision of those who have already served there. No mistakes are tolerated. Everyone is looking at you – the Palestinians, the Israeli soldiers and your fellow volunteers.
You have journalists and human rights observers watching your every movement. But you soon learn that their job is obsolete. They can only monitor as you – the IDF volunteer have the sole authority to allow an honest, sincere and peaceful Palestinian through the maze of fences and cement blocks. It is you – the volunteer soldier who must decide which person and which car is authorized by law and by humanitarian consideration to move from North to South.
As a father of three small children, I keep an eagle’s eye out for mothers carrying babies and children. I know how this precious weight feels. I know the child needs warmth and a smile. Sometimes I escort these mothers with their carriages passed dozens of others and wave bye, bye to the smiling wide-eyed child.
I do so without a helmet and without full combat gear. These protective items only serve to alienate and create a hostile feeling at the roadblock. We make this sacrifice of personal safety as all of the IDF volunteers do. We place our lives at extreme risk for the sake that perhaps a few Palestinians will go home knowing that we too seek a peaceful compromise to the situation the Palestinian leadership has created for both peoples.
“Wahad, wahad,” you find yourself saying as hundreds pour through the thick cement and fence structures. One by one you repeat in Arabic – you must keep the human flow going but you must also examine each face and each ID. Many Palestinians will find any excuse they can to get through this border. Dozens of forged medical notes written in broken English describing back and stomach pains, notes from dentists and fake press credentials pass through your hands. You must be able to differentiate non-fiction from fiction.
One woman complained to me of severe hand pain as her doctor’s note described her only ailment as nasal congestion. She was told to go back and get another note. They buy these medical notes for 5 shekels (one dollar). It is not the documents that we really evaluate – rather it is their faces and the bags they carry. We know that as each and every Palestinian approaches, that they may be a walking bomb waiting to make tomorrow’s headlines. But I estimate that over 80 percent of these Palestinians truly desire peace for their children and just want to go to work or visit their families.
We wake up before sunrise and finish our shifts before midnight. We find that our best friends are a M-16, a warm cup of coffee and a smile. We cherish the 5 or 6 layers of clothes, the wool hat and fleece gloves we wear. We leave Kalandia and the other security checkpoints with a blue hat and a small paper certificate of thanks.
But most of all we leave the outskirts of Rahmallah, Bethlehem and Nablus knowing that we have made a small difference between two very polarized and distant but yet similar cultures.
We return to our soft and comfortable homes, our families and friends knowing that we have experienced a very special opportunity. That we Jewish, Islamic, Christian and Druse IDF volunteers coming from a rainbow of political right and left wing thought have projected a rare, and golden expression of humanity. Offering hope of a real and lasting peace illustrated by too few smiles, handshakes and the soft words of ‘salam, shalom’ through that cold, windy and narrow passage we leave behind.
(Reprinted with permission from Israel News Agency)