Welcome to Rafah. It was getting toward evening on my reserve unit’s first day of riot duty in Rafah, a town that literally straddled the border with Egypt at the southern end of the Gaza Strip.
Our 12-man patrol had spent the better part of the day being shown around by men from the unit we were replacing and we felt ready for anything. Even for Shabura, Rafah’s toughest neighborhood.
We had been driving around Shabura in three patrol vehicles for about 20 minutes when a number of youths darted from an alley, pelted us with rocks and ran back in. No one was hurt, but Gingy, our red-headed platoon commander, chose to chase them.
We stopped on a dirt track between Shabura’s western edge and an orange grove, and dismounted. Gingy left half the unit, including me, the platoon medic, to look after the vehicles; he took the sergeant and everyone else into the alleys.
We formed a defensive perimeter around the vehicles and kept turning our heads, taking in all the corners and rooftops.
There was no real tension, but we absentmindedly stamped our feet and kicked at the loose dirt, and our fingers did a dance of their own around our rifles’ trigger guards.
All was still.
Suddenly, Gingy and the sergeant emerged from one of the alleys. They were dragging a screaming and kicking woman.
The other four men were close behind, running backwards, their weapons pointing into the passageway.
Gingy and the sergeant were scared – you could see it on their faces. Then you saw why. Rocks. Dozens of them – no, hundreds of them – flying through the air and now following the men from the alleys.
I stood openmouthed, at least until one of the rocks whizzed by my head, frighteningly close. Then, as I ducked behind the command car, I heard it: a low rumble with the beginnings of a throaty cry, like the Comanche charge in a Hollywood western.
Gingy and the sergeant hauled the woman to the jeep.
They tried to push her into the tiny jump seat in back, but she fought hard, spitting and kicking, trying to bite and dig her nails into Israeli flesh. Gingy slapped her across the face, but this just seemed to stiffen her resolve.
The rocks were now coming in thickening waves along with bottles, iron bars and other debris, and the people throwing them began pouring from the alleys. At first, they were a few dozen, but within seconds their number had swelled to what seemed like a few hundred.
Other than a crash course in crowd control, we were never trained for this.
My only weapons were a truncheon and an assault rifle with a magazine of live ammunition. I could use the truncheon if the crowd brought things down to hand-to hand combat, but regulations said I could use my rifle only if someone were wielding a lethal weapon: a firearm, a knife, a hand grenade, a Molotov cocktail. Not rocks. Unless, of course, those rocks were large and coming fast, close and furiously enough to become the only things standing between me and old age.
But where could I draw the line? After something had already split open my skull and – if I were still able to function – the use of my weapon would now be a matter of punishment and not deterrence? So I simply watched as the rocks and refugees came closer and closer, and tried to determine whether this was merely a political demonstration against the arrest of a Palestinian woman or a life-threatening riot by people hell-bent on revenge for 40-odd years in a refugee camp.
We finally were able to regroup and jumped aboard our vehicles.
Backing away, our whining and grinding gearboxes added another line of dissonance to the screaming, cursing and clanking of rock against metal. But we only backed into another human wave, just as angry, just as threatening – and everyone seemed to be aiming whatever he or she was throwing exclusively at me.
What’s more, things were now flying from the orange grove, meaning we were surrounded. So some of the troops with rubber bullets and tear gas let loose. The 15 hard rubber pellets in each canister could cause a lot of pain at 15 meters or so – and severe injury or even death at closer distances.
However, the throngs were at standoff range: close enough for their weapons, but not for ours. As for the gas, we soon discovered we were downwind.
I’m not sure how long we were in there or how we got out, but after two other 12-man patrols had answered our calls for assistance and just about all of us had been hit, we were racing toward one of Shabura’s far corners.
As we regrouped, I looked for the woman whose arrest had sparked the riot, but she was nowhere to be seen. Maybe she got away. Maybe Gingy decided she just wasn’t worth the trouble and had let her go. By this point I didn’t care enough to even ask and I never found out what happened to her.
Our performance in Shabura’s evening twilight sealed our fate, for it was part of a test.
The locals knew when a fresh unit was due in. They also more or less knew what to expect: troops with shaved heads and colorful berets meant young conscripts willing – and able – to run and hit hard, while longer hair and potbellies meant reservists who were often out of shape and weighed down with worries about families, jobs and mortgages.
To determine just how tough or malleable the troops could be, the locals almost immediately would confront them with all the stops pulled out.
We were told that in Rafah these tests lasted a day or two. If the unit could hang tough and come right back with an iron fist, the area would become – and remain – relatively quiet.
However, if the troops made the mistake of arresting a woman and then confronted the resulting mayhem like the Keystone Kops, the locals would declare a holiday and provide all the entertainment the greenhorns could handle.
Thus we greenhorns passed our month of riot duty in Rafah.
Relative quiet At the beginning of the first intifada (Arabic for “shaking off” – presumably the yoke of Israeli occupation – and the word everyone came to use in place of “uprising”), every death, every firebomb, every bullet, virtually every stone was duly recorded by the media both at home and abroad.
There had never been anything quite like it: The Palestinians had never exploded with such sustained rage, and the whole thing had never been so wide open to the curious and concerned.
But familiarity breeds contempt (or at least yawning boredom), and after a hundred or so Palestinian deaths, additional casualties warranted little more than passing statements on the news. A hundred soldiers being called out to confront frenzied rock throwers became just another anonymous incident if there were no deaths or serious injuries. There could be rocks and rubber bullets, decibels of noise and clouds of tear gas, but as long as there was no blood, things were “relatively quiet.”
My month in Rafah came in July 1988, a few months intothe intifada, which had burst upon an unprepared Israel the previous December after an IDF tank transporter crashed into civilian vehicles, killing four Palestinians.
By this time, a typical day in Shabura – a relatively quiet day, as the saying went – might have seen us complete a patrol or two without a single rock. But policy had us “demonstrating a presence” at least once an hour throughout Rafah, and even more in tougher neighborhoods like Shabura, and the next time around, the rocks would come in barrages.
If you stopped to think about it, even with the occasional rockless patrol, it felt like there was a war going on – and this was a period of “relative quiet.”
Between patrols, we’d debate the merits of the army’s anti-riot policies, and some of the men in the unit would say that staying out of the neighborhoods and maintaining a low profile would best maintain the quiet. On the surface it was convincing: Since the rocks were being thrown when we went into the neighborhoods, there would be no rocks if we stayed out.
But we soon found that the Palestinians wanted the confrontations, and if we didn’t go to them on our own, they’d do everything they could to draw us in. It was like getting the mountain to come to Muhammad – and they had their methods.
The locals were fully aware that Israel was determined to exercise total control in the occupied territories.
They were also aware that burning barricades, besides being dangers to safety and freedom of movement, were potent symbols of insurrection.
So they’d roll their old, treadless tires into intersections and set them alight, and block the roads and alleys with huge boulders, rusty bed frames, ancient refrigerators and worn-out furniture – anything to get us into the neighborhoods, and thus into the maelstrom.
Once we were inside, there were a number of ways to engage us. One of the most frustrating – and frightening – was the ninja, so called because it looked something like one of the strange and terrible weapons in those movies of the same name.
One type was a nail-studded piece of wood or plastic; scattered along the roads, preferably the sandier ones, they were quite effective against tires. Sometimes there were so many along a single stretch that we’d feel our vehicles settling not at an angle, but straight down – every tire had been punctured.
If the damage was so great that we couldn’t make it back to base before going totally flat, we’d have to halt the entire patrol and change the tire(s) on the spot.
Then we were sitting ducks for another type of ninja, where nails would be pressed through apples or potatoes.
These would be aimed at us.
The Palestinian weapon of choice, however, was the rock, and the strategies employed in throwing it were well developed.
Every block had its “eyes,” usually women or young kids who would send some kind of warning when a patrol was heading their way. This gave the rock throwers a head start to load up on ammunition and let loose by the time the patrol vehicles had come into range.
If the throwers lacked a clear field of vision – for example, if they were in an alley running parallel to the patrol route – they would be given a signal and then heave their rocks at vertical angles that had been tested to ensure they landed on the general stretch of road.
These angles were usually quite steep and you’d have a certain amount of protection only if your patrol vehicle had a roof. But a roof made it difficult to spot the rocks during their descent, and if you were going to give chase, it helped to see where they were coming from. (Then again, you’d be able to jump out and run only if you weren’t already reeling from a good smack on the head.) Other rock throwers preferred flat trajectories, meaning they had to stand somewhere inside alleys that opened onto the patrol route.
This method required a completely different strategy.
The youths would stand around, nonchalant and with empty hands, so the lead patrol unit would see nothing but a bunch of innocent youngsters. The kids knew patrol vehicles came in threes, and once this vehicle had passed they would scramble for ammunition.
The second unit would roll into view too soon for any rocks, but it had its purpose: the elapsed time between the first two vehicles would help the kids estimate the arrival of the third, and they’d have their rocks in the air in hopes of hitting Tail-end Charlie just as it came into view.
The flat trajectory meant the rocks would go straight into the patrol wagon’s open sides – with considerable force – and by the time the troops realized what had hit them, the kids would already be sprinting deep into the maze of alleys and passageways. If there was a chase and the soldiers were getting close, the rock throwers could join in a ball game of some type that was being played nearby – where everyone was sweaty and out of breath.
After a while, certain stretches were designated trouble zones so that, while still a hundred meters or so away, we would already be on top alert, our necks angled forward, our eyes searching for any movement, our rubber bullet and tear-gas canisters pointed outside, launchers loaded and safeties off.
The kids were often ready for this, too. They’d heave a few rocks from one side of the street to get our attention, and when all eyes were riveted there, marksmen would let loose from the other side.
There were a lot of rock throwers in Rafah, but by the time we arrived, most of the hardcore rebels had been arrested. In fact, most of the rocks and missiles were now being thrown by children below the age of 16, some even as young as four and five. This meant that many of the projectiles were harmless.
While the older youths were dead earnest rebels, to the little kids, the whole thing was nothing more than the Middle East’s version of tag. However, these kids sometimes did connect, and if they were close enough, their rocks could hurt just as much as those of the older and stronger kids.
Our orders were to arrest only troublemakers 16 years old and up. But some of the troops who were hit hard by the younger kids felt a need to teach them a lesson, the idea being to let them feel the business end of a truncheon across their backside.
Sometimes these men would take their lessons a bit too far. I, for one, could not bring myself to hurt anyone unless this person was in the process of hurting me or resisting arrest, but I did, at least psychologically, step over the fine line separating toughness from brutality.
One afternoon, my patrol came under a hail of rocks in another problematic neighborhood. (Shabura may have been Rafah’s toughest, but there were others not far behind.) One of the rocks drew blood, so we jumped off our vehicles to give chase.
We saw one of the stone throwers, a boy of about 12 or 13, run into a house. We charged up to the door and pounded with our riot sticks. No answer. We pounded some more. Still no answer. The boy went through that door, so we forced it open – and found an entire family sitting around the dinner table.
The boy was there, slurping his soup between deep breaths and denying he had done anything. But what did it was his family’s insistence that he had never even left the house, and this sent Meir, one of our more zealous patrol members, into a rage.
Meir grabbed the boy’s arms, placed them against the wall, raised his truncheon and gave each a vicious thwack. I wouldn’t be surprised if he broke the bones. (Meir was no full-time monster; on one particularly cold night, I saw him wrap a jacket around a shivering, handcuffed kid we were delivering to the lockup.)
We climbed back into the patrol wagons and I told Meir in no uncertain terms that he had gone way over the line. But as we drove off through other neighborhoods and more rocks, I found a bright side and proved that, at least in my mind, I could be just as brutal as Meir: Here was one kid, I told myself, who wouldn’t be throwing any more rocks at me.