Sunday, November 21, 2004

Necessary evils

My cousin D., who made Aliya from the UK a couple of years ago, is in the final stretch of his army service, and has just been moved to the Bethlehem region. Here's an excerpt from his latest email, which does a lot to dispel the commonly held view that Israeli soldiers are racist monsters:
[M]y experience in the Bethlehem area is markedly different to those that I had either on the Lebanese border or in Gaza as it is the first time that I have interacted with Palestinians on a daily basis. My job consists of patrolling the area on the look out for anything suspicious and also helping to staff army road blocks, with the job of ensuring that the complex division of Palestinian and Israeli areas isn't breached by terrorists. Usually both populations, Israeli and Palestinian are able to use the same roads and transport routes in the area, but occasionally in times of high tension, some roads are closed to Palestinians in order to ensure the security of the Israeli population.
This was the scenario that I encountered over the past couple of weeks and it was one that was not easy to deal with. As I'm sure most of you have noticed, a significant event recently took place in the region - namely the death of Yasser Arafat. There was a very real fear that following his death, utter chaos and violence would rein in the West Bank and so in preparation for this, restrictions were placed on Palestinian movement immediately following Arafat's death. I found myself on a hastily built checkpoint with instructions to turn back Palestinians wishing to use that particular route.
Although many Palestinians were understanding, how do you turn away a man begging to go to work? How do you turn away an uncle who wants to pick up his family to take them home? How do you turn away a man with his elderly father? Fortunately for me I was able to defer many decisions to my officer who made the difficult choice as to whether to make an exception or not - on some occasions he did. Why? Because like me, beneath the weapons and the uniform, the soldiers that I serve with are also decent human beings. On the one hand we carry with us the huge responsibility of the safety of Israeli citizens but on the other we all recognise the equal humanity of the Palestinian population and don't wish to cause them any additional inconvenience than is absolutely necessary.
In the last few weeks I have been more conscious of this than ever before and when on duty I try to carry out my work with the greatest respect and humanity possible - even if it is just smiling when I check someone's ID or wishing them a good day as they pass my road block. The situation in the West Bank is both complex and difficult and sadly necessary evils do exist such as road blocks and checkpoints - I simply hope that with the death of Arafat a new, moderate and progressive Palestinian leadership will emerge that will help to bring about an end to these necessary evils.

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