Through the eyes of an officer

Commander Josh speaks about duty, losing a soldier in an attack and the stress of military service.

checkpoint 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski, Illustrative photo)
checkpoint 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski, Illustrative photo)
Josh commands a troop of 37 raw recruits. His soldiers, military policemen, guard four of the border crossings and roadblocks just outside the Arab villages surrounding Jerusalem. When Israel gained control of the city in the Six Day War, the Arabs in the eastern part were issued special identification cards. They were offered full Israeli citizenship, and though most refused, they were given the blue IDs that allow them more freedom than their West Bank counterparts. They have the freedom to travel throughout Israel without special permits, and they are allowed to vote in local, but not national, elections. East Jerusalem Arabs also receive Israeli social security and health benefits. According to Israel's Central Bureau of Population Statistics, there are more than 250,000 Arabs living in greater Jerusalem. Josh immigrated to Israel from New York and remembers the Jewish Agency posters, which read: "We can't promise you a rose garden, but we do promise you a challenge." Every day, thousands of these men, women and children pass through the checkpoints and roadblocks guarded by Josh's soldiers. "Most of them are on their way to work, or visiting friends or family, or buying groceries," Josh says. "There are pregnant women rushing up to the hospital in Jerusalem, and angry taxi drivers trying to make some money. We have to deal with Palestinian Authority officials, UN diplomats, international media, donkeys, farmers, just about everything and everybody passes through here." These crossings are a microcosm of all that is good, bad, and unfathomable in the lives of east Jerusalem's Arabs, and it all passes daily under the alert and formidable gaze of Josh's soldiers. "We're trying to weed out any terrorists," Josh explains. "Since Israel built the [West Bank security] barrier, these checkpoints are now the main targets for potential terrorists trying to get through unnoticed amongst the hundreds of people passing through every day. We have to check each and every one. A lot of them are angry and try to push through without being checked. It's a tough job." Many people believe that the constant friction between the soldiers and Palestinians at these roadblocks causes more agitation, hatred and even terrorism in the long run. "Sure, the people get angry at us, and sometimes it gets pretty rough," Josh says. "But what alternatives do we have? How else can we stop the bombs and terrorists? Sometimes we just have to put up with a bad situation because it could be worse. It's our job." It's a tense and complicated situation these young soldiers are coping with, and sometimes things get out of hand. Last month, a gunman snuck up behind one of the soldiers and shot him in the back of the head. Before getting away, he managed to shoot and wound Shoshana, one of the many female soldiers guarding the checkpoints. "I was the second one on the scene," Josh recalls. "I got the report and me and my driver got there in five minutes. There was Rami, dead, lying face down on the street, and the girl soldier, wounded, propped up against a jeep. It was dark, 10:30 p.m., I felt like I [was] in a movie, like I [was] going to wake up in a dream back in my room at the base. Then, you understand this really happened. Then you feel anger. I can't say that I was in shock, because I was moving. Not frightened, more angry." Just behind the jeep, where a medic was already attending to the girl, Josh noticed that a group of Palestinians were moving toward the border gate. "It got really tense out there," he explained, "you could feel it in the air. 'If another Palestinian makes one move, he gets shot.' I'm standing there, over the dead soldier, watching these Palestinians coming closer, and I'm getting angry." "This is what you've trained for," the 22-year-old officer says. "Everyone is waiting for you to be the first to act, first to do something. You have 30 seconds and everyone is waiting for you to tell them what to do. You trained for three years, but in those few seconds all you're thinking is 'keep everyone out of the way, and restore some calm between the soldiers and the Arabs, so that we can take care of the wounded girl and keep these people back from running across the border.' Everyone was so tense." Josh said that there were moments when he nearly lost control. "Some of my soldiers started crying when they saw their friends lying there," he said. "I told them to go behind the wall so that no one would see them. I didn't want the Palestinians to see that we are weak, or that they could break us. Others started shouting at them because we felt it was their fault. I yelled too. I told them that they better keep back away from the border or there was going to be real trouble. I even pushed some of them down to keep them away. Some of my soldiers hit them, and I didn't say anything. I knew how they felt. I wanted to do it too." Watching the crowd of men move closer to the gate, Josh recognized some of their defiant faces. "That's the hardest thing," Josh says. "These people are going through that border every day and you get to know them, you talk to them, and then suddenly you see in their eyes [that] they're not your friends, they hate you." Some of these were the men who had crossed his station earlier that morning. There was one boy who had even saluted the young officer, whether in mockery or envy, he is not sure. Some of the older men came up so close that he could smell the burnt wood on their clothing and it reminded him of having watched them squatting around a fire all night long. "When I recognized these people," Josh says, "I didn't feel so angry, just helpless. What could I do?" Relaxing his grip on the steel trigger of his semi-automatic, he turned to his troops. Josh saw that the platoon had already begun caring for the wounded girl. Soldiers came out from behind the wall, now weeping openly over their dead comrade. The Arab men standing at the gate just huddled together in the cold, and looked on with suspicion and curiosity. "Today I learned more about myself, and what it means to lead soldiers," Josh says, "than I learned in three years of army training. We may have lost a soldier," he says, "but we gained a lot of understanding, about who we are, and why we are here." Josh says this is why he wanted to be an officer in the first place. "A lot of my friends went to be Paratroopers, Golani or Air Force pilots," Josh says. "For me, this is a really important job. We are dealing with a huge problem here, and nobody knows how to fix it. Not many soldiers want to do this job. A big part of it is keeping my soldiers motivated. Every day I need to remind them about how important their job is." Since the attack last month Josh sees that his soldiers are much more on the alert. "They understand now how dangerous this job is," Josh says, "and they are much more careful. They are not afraid or anything like that, just more motivated to do the job." The army is still looking for the man who killed his soldier. Josh is not sure if they'll ever find him. "I've come to realize that we don't live in a world where everything goes the way you want," Josh says. "Serving here wakes me up to the harsh realities of life in Israel and just how complicated it can be." Israel turns 60 this month and it doesn't look like we'll be getting an early retirement from the conflict with the Palestinians. In fact, it doesn't look like we have much of a pension plan at all. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is now considering relinquishing control of at least some of the Arab neighborhoods that Israel annexed in 1967 as part of a peace deal with Palestinian leaders. Whatever the future holds, getting to know Josh and some of his soldiers out there on the roadblocks and checkpoints has given this old man, at least, something to be proud of.