Soldiers defending themselves from rioters 370.
(photo credit:YouTube screenshot)
Two security incidents in the West Bank drew a lot of attention over the past
couple of weeks, and for good reason.
The first showed IDF troops looking
like Keystone Kops. The second showed what a well-trained, cool-headed member of
the Border Police could do. Yet I came away from both with mixed
In the first incident, on December 7, a seven-man IDF patrol in
the Palestinian village of Kafr Kadum, near Nablus, came up against a phalanx of
well-organized youths throwing rocks and other debris. With several injuries
among his men and determining that it would be too dangerous for them to
continue, the patrol commander gave the order to fall back and
The problem is that in Kafr Kadum that day there was at least
one video camera in recording mode. The IDF insists that the resulting footage
posted on YouTube was edited, but it indeed shows, in full, excruciating detail,
at least some of the troops charging the rock throwers before beating a hasty
retreat, with one soldier awkwardly slipping on a carpet of small stones while
trying to stop his momentum, turn around and get the hell out.
footage it seems these soldiers were ill-equipped for crowd dispersal and had not
been properly trained for the mission at hand – and standing orders say that you
use live ammunition only when your life or someone else’s is in
While it’s true that rocks can and do kill, it’s often hard to
determine in the middle of a wild melee the exact point at which a life truly is
at risk. Your brain might be screaming YES! and your finger inching toward the
trigger, but if you’re a soldier you know that firing a single live round, even
into the air, could mean questions, or worse, from the brass. So you play it
To say this incident and others like it made the soldiers – and, by
extension, the IDF – look bad would be an understatement, and the radio call-in
shows and newspaper letters columns were full of angry, embarrassed remarks. The
comments were less about the soldiers and more about perceptions of stringent
regulations and a timid military that had lost its nerve and, not incidentally,
long been overseen by a highly polarizing defense minister. According to press
reports, even some of the soldiers involved were complaining about
I can identify with them. Having done some of my IDF reserve
service on riot duty in the thick of the first intifada, I know how a soldier
feels. Your hands are tied. There’s no one backing you up. You’re out there
alone, ill-trained and ill-equipped. So you start bitching.
You bitch at
the politicians for stupid policies.
You bitch at the entire world for
making pronouncements on what it can’t even begin to understand.
important, though, you bitch at the army for limiting your freedom of
But after taking a deep breath and two steps backward, you
realize that there is a need for clear and distinct boundaries in practice and
behavior, especially in situations where soldiers are few against many and it is
easy for things to get entirely out of control. Unfortunately, it’s not always
easy to rationalize this, and it’s even harder to reconcile the macro with the
THE SECOND incident in the past couple of weeks was almost the
exact opposite. It took place in Hebron on December 12 and involved a local
resident named Muhammad Salaymeh. It was Salaymeh’s 17th birthday, and for some
inexplicable reason he showed up at a Border Police checkpoint and entered into
an altercation with one of the guards. According to the IDF and police, the
youth pulled out what looked like a handgun and aimed it at the guard’s
At this point a female NCO, identifiable here only as N., raced out
of the checkpoint booth. Once she was able to get a clear shot at the assailant
she fired, striking him three times and mortally wounding him.
turned out that the weapon seen in Salaymeh’s hand had been a realistic-looking
toy handgun. No matter: From a trained soldier’s point of view, what looks like
a gun is a gun, and N. is to be commended for her clear thinking and raw
ON ONE of my last stints in the reserves, between the two
intifadas, my unit was assigned to an area of the West Bank just outside
Ramallah. The memory of Nachshon Wachsman was still fresh, and intelligence had
received information that there were plans afoot to kidnap another soldier,
perhaps in our area of responsibility – which included the hamlet where Wachsman
had been held.
We were given clear instructions during a briefing: If we
saw anyone trying to kidnap a soldier, the kidnapping was to be foiled at all
costs, even if it meant the death of the soldier. No more kidnappings. Full
These were grave instructions, and I clearly remember how we looked
at one another. I had served with some of these men for over a decade and a
half. One had saved my life in Lebanon. As the saying went, we ate from each
other’s mess kit. We knew the ages of each other’s children. We could finish
each other’s sentences.
And now, what they were telling us boiled down to
this: We might have to kill each other to prevent our own
Was this for real? After a few seconds of logical deduction
it made sense. Not only did Wachsman’s captors execute him during a rescue
attempt, but the commander of the rescue force was killed, too. So there was no
debate. Kidnappings are costly, even if they end well. Witness Gilad
Then the self-doubt slithered in.
Could we actually rake
an escaping sedan with gunfire knowing that one or more of our comrades was
inside? This we debated, and the comments were not surprising: Some thought they
wouldn’t be able to do it, but the rest of us thought we could. All of us
agreed, though: In every war tough soldiers had been reduced to tearful, hollow
shells for having been forced to kill the enemy – how would we hold up
emotionally after killing a friend? Would we, too, end up this way? Or worse?
Remembering all this made me wonder about N. She was feted personally by Border
Police Commander Amos Yaakov. She also was allowed to speak with select members
of the media, and she came off looking and sounding like a cool professional,
one the Border Police might use on a recruitment poster (were there not a need
to pixelate her face and hide her likeness due to the death threats she’s
“After they investigated the incident it turned out it was a
fake gun,” she told The Jerusalem Post’s Ben Hartman the morning after the
incident, “but it didn’t change how I felt about it. I’m happy this ended with
no injuries on our side and I’m sure any other officer in my situation would
have done what I did.”
I certainly hope so. But still, there’s something
that bothers me: N. had been forced to kill someone. To make matters worse, the
threat that justifiably had led her to open fire turned out to be not much of a
threat at all. Did she feel bad, or at least sad? From the words quoted by the
press it didn’t seem so.
Perhaps she was holding it in. Perhaps the
higherups had limited her comments. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. But
maybe after 45 years, occupying another people has become absolutely mundane, in
this case apparently little more than a job. N. herself was quoted as saying
that in the wake of the shooting she was considering extending her service and
perhaps attending officers’ school.
And therein lies our dilemma: To
protect ourselves from without, we run the risk of going numb – and perhaps even
rotten – from within. Is one threat more dangerous than the other? I honestly
don’t know, but we seem to have gone far beyond even thinking about this aspect
of our quandary, and it’s this numbness to our predicament that has me most
worried, no matter what the outcome of any security incidents.