Doug Greener 88 248.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Ronit gave me the opening journalists dream about. She wasn't much taller than the M-16 rifle we got at the start of our 12-day reserve service. Yet she was always the first one on the firing line, the first one running out to do the shooting exercises and the first one in the classroom when we heard our lectures on communication equipment, explosive devices and the civil administration in the West Bank.
"A regular G.I. Jane," I called her.
"This is our country and we all have to defend it," she said while straining her neck looking up at me. "We're fighting for our homes."
Most of the 20 men and two women doing their volunteer reserve duty with me would have given similar answers as to why they were there. So would I.
The outbreak of the "second intifada" - or, more specifically, the lynching in Ramallah of two Israeli soldiers shortly thereafter - transformed me from a dove to a super hawk in short order. But I thought it was hypocritical of me to hold such a position while I myself was safely beyond army age. I didn't want only young soldiers to have to face the consequences of my new political stand. I wasn't satisfied with "do as I say"; I wanted "do as I do." Therefore, I was elated when the IDF set up a new Volunteer Reserve Unit in the wake of Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. Despite being 58 at the time, I must have been one of the first to sign up.
So here I was in 2008, running around on my third volunteer miluim, shooting at targets at night I could hardly see, running from pillar to post, taking cover and shooting again. Huffing and puffing. I pride myself on keeping in shape, but my driver's license still says, "Born 1943." After two days of training, we were assigned to five different locations more or less along the old Green Line. I went with three other volunteers to Rantis, now a Border Police base not far from Beit Aryeh and Ofarim.
Our easy job was checking the Israeli vehicles traveling from the West Bank to Israel. The hard job was patrolling along the security fence and its future route. This was especially true since the area we were responsible for included Ni'lin and Butros, two Arab villages where violent demonstrations against the fence break out with unsurprising regularity.
My first "mission" was a patrol along the fence. One of the most visible goals of the volunteer unit - however small our numbers may be - is to replace regular soldiers and young reservists, allowing them to get more leave time at home.
This I was doing as I piled into the patrol jeep with a Druse officer, a driver and a very sleepy girl soldier who looked and acted like she had done this a hundred times before. We sped along the fence, looking for telltale signs of attempted breakthroughs, even though the entire stretch has electronic surveillance. Then we drove along the proposed route, where huge earthmoving equipment was preparing the ground for the fence's extension.
We settled down for lunch in a central location where we could be called out in any direction at a moment's notice. Apparently, while we were eating, a demonstration broke out in Ni'lin, because a Border Police van drove up and we were given a prisoner to watch "until we come back to get him." Our prisoner was a sorrowful sight: handcuffed and blindfolded, with his shirt and pants filthy and torn to pieces. We sat him down in the shade of a tree, took off his blindfold and gave him cold water to drink - all he wanted. Suddenly, he began to speak to our Druse officer in Hebrew, even though the officer spoke Arabic as his mother tongue.
"Can you loosen my handcuffs?" The officer told him that they were the plastic kind that could only be cut off but not loosened.
Our prisoner then suddenly launched into a political tirade about how the security fence keeps him from reaching his olive trees, and he was only demonstrating peacefully for his land when he was shot with rubber bullets and arrested.
The officer didn't answer him, but I started stewing as the prisoner continued without stop to tell us of his misfortune. Perhaps he spoke Hebrew so the rest of us could understand him.
Finally, being who I am, I couldn't take anymore and just exploded: "What are you crying for? Let me remind you that before October 2000, you had no problem reaching your olive trees! What happened then? Oh, I remember. Your great leader, Yasser Arafat, whom you voted for, declared war on Israeli society and began sending suicide bombers into Israel, who killed hundreds of Israelis.
"The fence keeps us alive, and that's worth more than your goddam olive trees. Didn't you think we'd fight back when you started blowing up our restaurants and homes and buses? Maybe you can play the victim for those stupid bleeding-heart Israeli leftists who lick your tuchis, but it doesn't work with me. Stop your whining!"
As often happens when my words start to come faster than my thoughts, I reverted to speaking English in the middle of my diatribe. But, lo and behold, our prisoner answered me right back in good English. You know, I thought, this guy is probably a contact with the foreign volunteers who come here to join the demonstrations and attack soldiers and construction crews.
"Walla, this guy doesn't like Oslo and Abu Amar [Arafat]," said the prisoner in English to no one in particular. Oslo? Who had mentioned Oslo? This was a very astute olive grower.
"Of course I don't like Oslo. It gave you seven years to equip and train your troops before you attacked in 2000. Now we're fighting back and you pretend to be the victim!"
As we returned to lunch and rest, the officer and the driver came over to me and said, "That was great. You said what we were thinking." Although I felt slightly elated to have been an unofficial spokesman for the soldiers, this was definitely not the main task of the Volunteer Reserve Unit. We have often used our mellowed aging to calm tensions between young soldiers and Palestinians - at roadblocks, for example. Sometimes, a calm word - or an English word - from a wizened warrior such as us, can make the difference between a smooth passage and a real flare-up.
During the past year, about 200 volunteers took part in 16 12-day tours of duty along the Green Line. The unit has thousands of names on its database, mostly from people who hastened to volunteer in 2002, when motivation was at its peak. In that year, I volunteered for the first time, and there were 60 people in my tour of duty.
After the incident with the Ni'lin prisoner, we spent our remaining days patrolling along the fence and guarding at the road block.
One of the most rewarding parts of volunteer reserve duty is the chance to meet up close our wonderful young soldiers, and I had plenty of time to speak with them. Their innocence and enthusiasm can be very refreshing, and they share these qualities very freely.
There's also the feeling of being a little special and a little needed, which is always nice to know. Our volunteerism is a great ice breaker. The young soldiers can't get over that we're actually doing this. They give us places to sit down in the lounge and in the dining hall (well, maybe that's because of our gray beards!) and they're extra quiet and polite when we need rest.
I also enjoy being in the company of men and women who share my values of volunteerism and giving something back. That's about all we share, by the way. The volunteer unit has people of all religious and non-religious backgrounds, ages and political opinions.
So this year's volunteer reserve was a good one for me. I came home feeling that I had made a real contribution to the public weal, and even a little better about myself.
Those interested in volunteering or finding out more about the IDF's Volunteer Reserve Unit can call (02) 569-4210.
The writer works in advertising and direct marketing in Jerusalem.