It Might as Well Have Been Yesterday

In July 1988, at the height of the First Intifada, my reserve combat battalion was sent to Rafah. I kept a diary then. These are excerpts.

Naksa day at Kalandia crossing FOR GALLERY 465 09 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Naksa day at Kalandia crossing FOR GALLERY 465 09
(photo credit: REUTERS)
IN JULY 1988, AT THE HEIGHT OF THE FIRST INTIFADA, my reserve combat engineering battalion was sent to Rafah, at the southern end of the Gaza Strip, to relieve a unit of reservists who had completed their spell of riot duty. For us it would be a frustrating, exhausting and eye-opening month.
My battalion’s area of expertise was minefields – planting them, uprooting them and leading other combat units through them in times of war. It was often a tricky job, but there were methods.
There was routine. There was normalcy.
But not in Rafah.
I kept a diary then, and after our rotation was up I fleshed it out into a long piece, mostly to remember what I had seen.
The following are excerpts.
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. My only weapons were a truncheon and an assault rifle with a clip 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.
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….
Between patrols we’d debate the merits of the army’s antiriot policies, and some of the men would say that staying out of the neighborhoods and maintaining a low profile would best maintain the quiet. On the surface it was most convincing: Since the rocks were being thrown when we went in, 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 kind of like getting the mountain to come to Mohammed….
There could be football-size rocks sailing by and the odd washing machine being shoved off a roof onto a passing patrol; the air might be filled with choking clouds of teargas 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 – a real Fellini set – and 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 this craziness….
After awhile, certain stretches of road were designated trouble zones, so that while still a few hundred feet away we would already be on top alert, our necks angled forward, our eyes searching for any movement, our rubber bullet and teargas canisters pointed outside, launchers loaded and safeties off. But the kids were sometimes ready for this, too: They’d heave a few rocks from one side of the road to get our attention, and when all eyes were riveted in their direction, young and powerful marksmen would let loose from the other side….
A youth of about 15 or 16 darted from an alley just 10 yards 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 re-emerge, 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 is nothing these people could do to one another that would evoke the hatred they have for the Israelis….
Lawrence Rifkin is the author of Jerusalem Report cover story Rules of Engagement.