From the beginning of the first intifada, much was made of the Israeli brutality – the institutional brutality of curfews, collective punishment, mass arrests and deportations, and the individual brutality of beatings and shootings.
Some believed a firm hand was the only thing an Arab respected. Others said it was unnecessary. Still others worried that it could only boomerang, a brutal situation being even more brutalizing to the one dishing it out. (My father, a truly gentle man, used to tell me after giving me a firm spanking that it had hurt him more than me.) Many, if not most, instances of individual Israeli brutality I saw in Rafah were a direct result of the brutal environment.
While there were soldiers with either a sadistic bent or an appetite to avenge things real or imagined, some of the gentlest of men, when confronted by a violent situation such as a riot, could also step over the line.
That young man darting from an alley with fire in his eyes and a rock in his hand might have been a freedom fighter, but if you were the target, that rock could send a lot a very personal pain racing across your neural synapses. When this happened, you no longer looked upon that teenager as a romantic rebel – he was a son of a bitch and all you wanted to do was get him.
You had your orders. The kid looked 16, so you went after him. Maybe you fired rubber bullets; it was allowed if that’s what it took to grab him. Except that a thin smile crept across your lips. You got your revenge. You hurt him. Pain for pain.
You were taking all those rocks day after day and were glad that someone who had been throwing them hurt now, too.
But maybe this son of a bitch didn’t give up. Odds are he screeched like a banshee and clawed like a panther. He’d go for your eyes with his fingers and your crotch with his knees. He’d inflict more pain. So you’d punch him. Maybe you’d thwack him with your truncheon. Force was allowed if that’s what was needed to subdue him.
But still he fought.
If you were the sporting type, you’d admire his determination. But he was hurting you, so you leaned in with the stick and went for the face. And he still didn’t give in – anything to keep from winding up in some sand-blown prison camp in the middle of the burning, God-forsaken desert.
But he should have thought of that sooner, so you leaned in harder until either your buddies caught up and gave you a hand or the son of a bitch’s resistance – and face – turned to mush.
Once the plastic strips used as handcuffs were on, regulations said the beatings had to stop. Most soldiers could turn it straight off. (I once jumped up with my arms in the air the second I had finished tying a rock thrower’s hands, apparently my way of turning it off – and was told I looked like a rodeo cowboy who’d just roped a calf.) However, many could not flip the switch.
The rage sometimes stayed with you like a black cloud that planted itself in front of the sun: things went dark and there was a chill in the air. So you came back to the son of a bitch who poked your eyes half out and nearly crushed your testicles but who now was bound and officially “in custody,” and you gave him an elbow in the kidney. Maybe you followed this with a truncheon across the back. Maybe you grabbed his throat and squeezed. Maybe another soldier tried to calm you down – and you punched him.
You were known to be easygoing and quick to laugh, but here you were, ranting and raving, thrashing around, foaming at the mouth and lashing out at the enemy – and at your friends.
Maybe some of the others joined in the beating even though they themselves hadn’t grappled with this particular rock thrower and hadn’t been hit by his rock; the accumulated pain from all the other rocks, and the pent-up rage for not having been able to catch the ones who threw them, could all come spilling out the minute you found yourself an arm’s length from any son of a bitch.
Tension and fear had a lot to do with it. Walking or riding a patrol through the alien streets and alleys of a refugee camp demanded an alertness that could stretch your nerves every time someone darted from around a corner, every time a door slammed, every time someone shouted. And one moonless night, the kind where you saw only those things that fell within the swath of your headlights, this almost killed someone.
It was half an hour before the nightly 10 o’clock curfew. We were in three vehicles patrolling Rafah’s main street.
Having already put the more troublesome neighborhoods “to bed,” we were a little more relaxed.
Then thump! Then crash! Then another crash! Instinctively, the four of us riding in the open sided patrol wagon leaned inward to gain the full protection of the canvas cover. Then we leaned out.
Kobi saw it first – a building block shattered across the blacktop. Shimshon noticed another. I saw the third.
The roofs! They were bombarding us! Our vehicle screeched to a halt in the middle of the street and Kobi prepared to leap to the right. At the same time, a car that had been following us swung in the same direction, apparently to pull over to the curb.
Kobi’s mind was on the roofs, not on the car, so he jumped. But the car was not slowing. Someone shouted at Kobi, who through sheer instinct raised his rifle.
Not only were they bombarding us, they were also trying to run us down! The driver got the message and noisily brought his vehicle to a standstill just inches from Kobi. The rest of us hit the ground running – the car had stopped, so we turned our attention, and our weapons, to the roofs.
An eerie silence had already settled over the scene and it was clear that whoever had dropped the building blocks didn’t want to stick around to see what would happen. So we turned our attention back to the car – and to Kobi, who was standing next to the left front door, rifle barrel level with the driver’s face.
Kobi screamed a string of semi-intelligible words. He then motioned with his weapon for the driver, a slightly built man of maybe 35, to get out. When the driver complied, Kobi slammed him against the rear door.
The man shook from the impact – whose force was surprising, as Kobi was of even slighter build – and continued to shake as Kobi’s angry words poured out.
“Give me your ID card, you miserable son of a whore! Hands on the roof! Spread those legs or the wind’s gonna be whistling through you!” Kobi’s voice pierced the nighttime quiet and bounced off the buildings. He was breathing hard and his eyes were bulging half out of his head.
Gingy, the patrol commander, walked back from his jeep. The driver saw his lieutenant’s bars and began pleading in a high-pitched whine, stammering at every third word: he hadn’t been trying to hit anyone; he hadn’t seen Kobi preparing to jump; he hadn’t noticed the building blocks in the road.
But Kobi wasn’t satisfied.
“You saw we had stopped!” he barked.
“Everyone else in this town stays far behind when we’re on the road – and they stop when we stop!” It was true. Army vehicles on riot duty owned the roads. They ran stop signs, crawled through otherwise bustling commercial zones, headed the wrong way down one-way streets and on the left side of traffic islands, and stopped smack in the middle of crowded intersections. The local drivers kept their distance and no one even dreamed of hitting his horn.
Kobi’s adrenaline had been racing even before he was confronted by what appeared to be someone trying to run him down – a thing not unheard of in the occupied territories – and he stared hard at the driver. He looked down at the ID card and then threw it in the Arab’s face, telling him to get out of his sight.
The driver looked at Gingy. Gingy nodded toward the car. The man picked up his ID card and jumped behind the wheel; he probably would have sped off with a squeal of rubber if he hadn’t been so damn careful not to hit anyone.
And Kobi just walked in circles, hands on his hips, rifle dangling by his side, wide eyes staring at the ground.
People dropped building blocks from flimsy tin roofs you’d never think could hold someone.
They flung firebombs from behind the most innocent-looking walls. They meandered by and suddenly whipped out knives they knew how to use – and they could give a little tug on that wheel and run you down.
It was all there in those streets and alleys, and you never knew when it was going to happen.
Even after a dozen patrols, it didn’t get any easier. Your finger inched toward the trigger for the slightest reason. You played with the safety, but you knew that firing a single bullet, even into the air, would mean questions from the brass, most likely when you’d rather be grabbing the pitiful amounts of sleep they let you have between patrols.
So you started bitching.
You bitched at the army for tying your hands.
You bitched at the politicians for stupid policies.
You bitched at the entire world for pronouncements on what it couldn’t even begin to understand. But you took it all out on the first Palestinian who looked at you cross-eyed.
Just plain folks As with the rest of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, not everyone in Rafah was actively engaged in anti-Israel disturbances. Many local residents remained supremely indifferent.
There could be football-size rocks sailing by and the odd washing machine being shoved off the roof onto a passing patrol; the air might be filled with choking clouds of tear gas and the sounds of spitting and crackling rifles; young, sneakered boys would be charging past with stones, bottles and crowbars, followed by booted and helmeted soldiers shouting all sorts of things about the boys’ mothers and sisters.
It was a real Fellini set, yet many of those not involved would keep right on doing whatever they were doing, not even lifting their gaze, sometimes dragging their two-year-olds by the hand just a few feet from all the craziness.
Others inadvertently found themselves in the middle.
Hot-headed youths would duck behind them after throwing their rocks, knowing we probably wouldn’t respond without a clear field of view. (Many in my unit grumbled about the high standards everyone expected of them and motioned toward the Egyptian half of the divided town; it was said things there were completely quiet because just after the beginning of the disturbances, Egyptian troops simply fired a long burst into a crowd caught up in the rebellious atmosphere wafting in from across the border.) Sometimes, non-participants were pressed into service in a more forceful manner.
On a day I happened to be carrying an M16 with rubber bullets, a youth of about 15 darted from an alley just 10 meters behind me and prepared to throw a rock. I pointed my weapon at his belly and he promptly dove back into the alley – only to reemerge, half dragging an elderly woman by the collar and holding her between us.
The kid was actually smiling. I hesitated and then charged, which must have stunned him, for he let the woman go and ran.
I fully expected the woman to turn toward the fleeing teenager, her fist shaking in the air, a twisted mouth pouring forth invective. Instead, as she trudged back into the alley, she gave me a look that said there was nothing these people could do to one another that would evoke the hatred they saved for Israelis.
We, too, would press local residents into service.
We knew we’d never receive their help voluntarily, so we’d confiscate their identification cards – without which they might as well not even leave home – for as long as it took them to clear barricades or haul away burning tires.
If there was an area where rocks had been thrown, we’d often grab the closest person, take his ID card and tell him to stand there and make sure there were no more rocks. These “shifts” sometimes went on for hours.
Then there were the nighttime jobs, where then-outlawed Palestinian flags had to be hauled down from power pylons and nationalist graffiti erased from the walls. The ones who ended up doing this were those who lived closest to the scene of the “crime” and who answered the midnight pounding on the door.
Their ID cards would be traded for telescopic, barbed-wire-tipped poles if there was a flag, or a bucket of whitewash if there was graffiti. We would then depart to complete our rounds, knowing these people would be waiting for our return no matter how long it took.
If the job hadn’t been completed, these people would get their cards back only by going to the local military government and facing down a tough soldier who didn’t want to hear any excuses.
The idea was to divide and conquer through collective punishment, making the innocent suffer for the transgressions of others. Sometimes it worked, especially with the adults; we saw many of them grabbing young rock throwers and smacking them across the face, kicking them and even targeting them with rocks of their own. Other times our efforts would backfire, and that day’s upright citizen became the next day’s troublemaker.
But mostly we couldn’t tell, for the Palestinians of Rafah all had a hatred in their eyes that could blow you away by sheer telepathy. All except for one kid we’d see around town, especially under the huge oak on Rafah’s main street where we’d relax with a cold drink and a chocolate bar.
At first, he maintained his distance. He’d sit and stare at us, at our uniforms and our weapons.
Then he’d break into a stained, toothy grin.
He was always barefoot and filthy, usually wearing the same clothes for days on end, and he was forever scratching his close-cropped scalp.
We started giving him our cold drinks and chocolate, and soon he was sitting right next to us, trying on our helmets.
In simple Arabic, he told us his name was Ibrahim, that he was 12 and lived nearby. He craved our attention, and most of the time he would just take a cigarette and show off his smoke rings or do silly things like stand on his head and fart at groups of kids on their way home from school.
The kids would point and laugh. We saw that this hurt him, but Ibrahim would just turn back in our direction, break into a grimy grin and think of some other way to entertain us.
It was clear from his looks, speech and actions that Ibrahim was mentally retarded, yet he seemed to be the only normative person I came across – on either side – during my entire stay in Rafah. He seemed to be the only one in town remaining above all the rocks and rubber bullets, the only person not consumed by all the hatred and mistrust.
I guess he represented that thin thread of hope that there just might be a sensible and fair solution to the whole mess.
Thirty years on, if there’s anything I could possibly miss about Rafah, it would be Ibrahim.
What else could there be?