International liaisons

Meet the three female officers who escort foreign diplomats visiting Israel.

female IDF officers 248.88 (photo credit: Yaakov Katz )
female IDF officers 248.88
(photo credit: Yaakov Katz )
When former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice traveled from Jerusalem to Ramallah last year, Lt. Liat Bershtling was at the checkpoint to meet her. When the United Nations wanted to transfer supplies from a warehouse in Bethlehem to the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead earlier this year, Lt. Limor Ben-Moshe coordinated the move. And when Christian pilgrims wanted to hold a ceremony in the Jordan River near Jericho, Lt. Shiran Avramov was there to open the border gate. Bershtling, Ben-Moshe and Avramov work in different cities throughout the West Bank but have at least two things in common - they are all Civil Administration International Liaison Officers and they are the only female officers in their positions. The remaining six posts in parallel District Coordination Offices (DCOs) are held by men. The three officers, ranging in age from 20 to 22, are in some of the most sensitive positions in the territories and are responsible for maintaining IDF relations with international organizations, of which the West Bank and Gaza Strip do not lack. Dozens of NGOs as well as governments operate today in the West Bank, including UNRWA, the World Health Organization (WGO), the World Food Program (WFP) and World Bank. In Ramallah, for example, 29 countries have missions, including two which are slated to open their doors in the coming weeks - Montenegro and Morocco. At the moment, mainly in the West Bank, there are several dozen ongoing projects that require the daily assistance of the IDF. An example is the construction of landfills in the West Bank. One landfill - called Zahret Al Finjan - near Jenin was opened in 2008 and was funded by the World Bank. Germany has allocated $10 million to build another landfill near Ramallah and a third is also under planning near Bethlehem and Hebron. Japan has also recently expressed interest to build a small landfill near Jericho. "Our job is to coordinate between the IDF and the international organizations," explains Bershtling, the veteran of the group. "There are many different considerations involved including Israeli security, the quality of life in the West Bank as well as the interest of the NGO or the foreign government." The concept, "International Liaison Officers" is relatively new in the Civil Administration and was only fully formed at the height of the Second Intifada. The trigger that got the IDF to understand the importance of the job was the accidental shooting of a UN project manager in Jenin in November 2002. The worker, Iain Hook, had left a message on the voicemail of the Civil Administration's only international liaison officer at the time to let him know where he was in Jenin. The officer, though, was unavailable at the time since he was accompanying an operation in another part of the West Bank. "This incident got us to understand that this is an important job and that there is a need for an international liaison officer in every single District Coordination Office (DCO), nine of which are located in the West Bank," said an officer in the Civil Administration. All three agree that as female officers they have an upper hand over their male liaison counterparts in the IDF. "It is easier for people to talk to us since we are less aggressive," said Bershtling. "Girls are nicer, more sensitive and easier to work with." One of the officers' jobs is to coordinate the entry and exit of diplomats into and out of the West Bank. One problem they encounter is that because the diplomats have immunity, they are not required to open their doors or windows when crossing into Israel. As a result, soldiers at checkpoints sometimes refuse to let them pass unless they show their faces and identify themselves. "The diplomats can wait an hour at the checkpoint and refuse to even lower their window and when I get there they get out of the car and greet me," said Avramov. Stationed near Bethlehem, Ben-Moshe works primarily on issues pertaining to tourism. In 2008, she says, 1.3 million tourists entered Bethlehem, a 100 percent increase from the previous year. Due to the influx, the IDF is working to improve the road infrastructure into the West Bank city to better facilitate transportation. Alongside their day jobs, the officers also accompany arrest raids into West Bank cities they are responsible for in the middle of the night. Bershtling, for example, accompanied a series of raids recently on a UN teachers seminar in Ramallah, where Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives were believed to be hiding. "After we pull up in front of the seminar I call the UN and let them know that we are coming and that someone should meet us," she said. "This way they open the door for us and we cannot later be accused of causing damage." The officers maintain regular contact with security officers who work of the NGOs and various government agencies that operate in the West Bank as well. "We let them know which roads they need to be careful on and where they was an attack recently," said Bar-Moshe, adding that if the need arises - in the event of a large-scale IDF operation in the West Bank - the Civil Administration has created plans to help evacuate foreigners from the Palestinian cities. "What is most important is the day-to-day contacts," Bershtling said. "If there is an escalation, these relationships will be the key to our success."