Wednesday, January 18, 2017

From Gaza to Belfast: My four weeks as an Israeli soldier in Gaza

In 1996, I did 4 weeks reserve duty with the Israeli army in Gaza. It was the only time I ever served in the occupied territories. I was posted as a medic attached to a field hospital, near the Palestinian town of Rafiah at the South end of Gaza. The field hospital was manned by fellow reservists who knew each other and a doctor who commanded them. I was not normally part of this field hospital, so the doctor who commanded it, placed me "in the field", supporting the soldiers.
Our unit was an artillery unit which had been sent to guard "the Philadelphi road". At the time it was probably the most dangerous place under Israeli control, outside of South Lebanon which was also occupied.
The Philadelphi road was a narrow strip of land running along the border between Gaza and Egypt.
Between 1967 and 1977 the Israelis governed Sinai and Rafiah spread into what had once been Egypt. After the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai, the city was spread across both sides of the border and a narrow road went through it, which was the new border. The width of the road varied at different points but it was mostly about 10 meters wide. There were Palestinian houses on either side and the road was lined with concrete barriers, placed there to protect the soldiers. A fence ran along the Egyptian side of the road, marking the boundary between the two countries and preventing infiltration (this was before the tunnels). There were also watch towers along both sides: Small Egyptian watch towers (about one or two floors high) and massive Israeli watch towers.  I no longer remember their height but they towered over the surrounding area and I would guess they were about 4 floors up. There was a ladder to climb up and the watch tower was like a boat made of inch thick steel floating above Rafiah. When the wind blew, you could feel it swaying. As you climbed the watch tower you could see all of Rafiah and it amazed me that nobody took shots at us.
I was the medic for the Philadelphi road. I sat in the back of a jeep and we drove up and down the border, patrolling it. The seats in the back of the jeep were benches running along the side walls (not car seats), designed to allow us to rapidly jump out the back and to carry more men. I was taught to sit with my rifle poking out the back of the jeep - so if I accidently opened fire, the resulting bullet would not bounce around the jeep and so I was already in place to attack anybody trying to assault the jeep.  When guards in the watch towers needed to go for a shower, I climbed the ladder and sat in the tower, replacing them until they returned, so I saw all the watch towers. They were horrible.
We didn't only patrol the border, we also drove around the surrounding areas. I remember sitting in the jeep on the first day and there were four of us: The driver was an Ethiopian immigrant, the jeep commander, who sat next to him at the front, was born in Israel and in the back was me - born in the UK, and next to me a Russian immigrant. Both I and the Russian sat with our rifles poking out the back. On our first day we were looking for the army petrol station and I looked up from a vague day dream to realize we were about to drive up a back road into Rafiah.  "We are going into Rafiah!  We are going into Rafiah!" I screamed several times.  The driver stopped and the commander paused, we hastily backed up. It was probably the most dangerous moment in the 3 weeks.  Had we gone into Rafiah we would have faced being lynched or shooting our way out.
I didn't see many Palestinians. We lived in a small fort right near the Philadelphi road, but on occasional visits to the field hospital, which was in a large secure military base, we went through a checkpoint used by Palestinian civilians. I remember an old lady loudly gasping in horror as she saw my rifle poking out the back of the jeep. Later I was in another jeep whose commander liked to drive down to the beach and gaze at the bathing Palestinians. It looked wonderful, I wryly reflected that had it been safe for Israelis we would have been down there in the thousands eating cheap Humous and enjoying the beach.  Eventually I told the commander that we had to stop doing it because we were spoiling their relaxation time. He listened and we stopped going.
On one occasion we were sent to protect a technician who was repairing the border fence with Egypt. We stopped the jeep and I got out and stood next to him like a bodyguard.  Most artillery men are small and unfit, that is why they are in artillery. I was the opposite, as a new immigrant the fact that I was tallish and fit got me into artillery even though I had little military training.  Most people were fooled, I looked very war like, especially with all my medical equipment (I routinely carried 2 or 3 litres of intravenous drip fluid, not to mention a selection of bandages). Eventually the commanders realized that I had little military training and moved me to a less exposed position, but it took a while. While I guarded the man fixing the fence, a Palestinian woman wearing nothing but a bath robe came out onto a balcony next to the road. She started motioning for me to come to her. An Egyptian border guard scowled at her and she scowled back. I hadn't seen a woman for 10 days and it was all I could do not to start running over. Fear of a trap stopped me.
There was another fort right up against the Egyptian border which we visited. It had a table with a bullet stuck in the wood, and they said that the backyard was an Egyptian tourist spot. Busloads of Egyptians would climb onto a little platform to ogle the Israeli soldiers. When I head this, I said that I has to see it. I went out and walked to the backyard, as I walked I heard loud gasps from the assembled tourists.
The unit that replaced us were full time soldiers (doing national service), not reservists. They had a massive tank-like armoured personnel carrier,  We were the last reservists on the Philadelphi road.

A few weeks later, I got a new job working for an Israeli phone company.  They sent me to Ireland to learn about their new billing system. On my first day at work, I was given 2000 dollars in cash and plane tickets. I flew to Galway in Ireland. After a few weeks in Galway, Southern Ireland, I decided to go see Belfast.
I hired a car and told the car hire man where I was going.  "Is it a problem?" I asked.  "No" he said and then "I have just the car for you". He rented me a metallic green Audi. As it happened I was wearing a green fleece. I didn't realized the significance of it.  In those days there were no motorways in Ireland, but there was outside Belfast and I drove into Belfast at 100 miles per hour. Children waved at me. I didn't understand why.
In Belfast I went to the notorious Falls Road area, there I saw British troops creeping between the houses, trailed by small children carrying stones.  It was like Gaza except that it was Europe and the houses looked lovely - though there was a noticeable lack of cars.
When it was time to eat, I found it very hard to find a restaurant (Belfast had little night life) but someone told me to try near the university. I found a massive 3 floor pizza place next to the university and had a good meal. There was a stag night party there and as I left the restaurant I saw what was clearly a stripagram - a woman wearing little but a fur coat - going into the restaurant.  I cursed my back luck at leaving the restaurant too early. At that second a British army jeep went by. A rifle was poking out the back in my direction.

Three months later, Netanyahu opened a tunnel that ran along the Western Wall in Jerusalem. There were massive riots and all hell broke out along the Philadelphi road. 17 soldiers died (shots came from both Egypt and Gaza) and an Israeli Colonel was killed in the fort on the border (the one with the bullet in the table). My reaction was massive relief: I was glad it didn't happen when I was there.

No comments:

Post a Comment