Thursday, October 2, 2008

Post-Chag Reflections

I've got so much stored in my mind about what I want to write about - discussions we had, funny things that happened. In many ways, Elie was at his best during the holidays. We talked a lot about the checkpoints and I want to write about that. He talked about what he wants to do in the army in the next few months and about being a soldier in general, and I want to write about that too.

But for now, the image in my mind is of the back of Elie, walking to the car with his young sister following him. From where I was standing, I couldn't see his face, only the uniform and the back of his head. Strapped to his back was the gun, the blue beret hanging perilously (as it always does) off his shoulder, and this little girl with her backpack following him to the car. There is such pride in this image - it's a regular, back-to-school day after three days of holidays. Elie leaves to go back to the army in a short while. He'll be there for Yom Kippur. He'll fast, as he did on Tisha B'Av - I can only hope he'll pull the night shift so it will be easier and cooler during the fast.

They laughed together, Elie and his little sister, about something he had said and she turned, threw me a kiss and climbed happily into the car. She's come to accept his coming home and his going too. She's come to accept that there are times she can call him, and more times that she can't. And she's come to accept that when he's home, he too has a need for her and so he will toss her in the air, even if she says she doesn't want him too. He'll play rough and tickle and tease her, until she acts like it is too much, and then he'll soften and comfort her.

She accepts that if she cuts herself, maybe Elie should check it and put the bandage on her. She accepts that he will tell her what to do, give her more chores than I do, and expect to be obeyed. He will give her unconditional love and attention when he does, and go off to his room when he needs that time (and she knows she shouldn't bother him).

The other major post-chag reflection has to do with Elie himself and his feelings about the checkpoints. It's a hard assignment for a young man. He's put on our borders and we are, essentially, a nation in conflict with our neighbors. We put these young men there and it is not easy. Elie told me of several conflicts. None that came to violence, but ones that came close enough to cause my heart to flutter, just a bit with worry.

More than once, he's had to raise his gun as a message that he has orders to protect and that means searching someone's car or demanding that a non-citizen show permits that allow them not only to enter, but to enter our cities with a specific vehicle. While Elie was home, someone from the army called him several times. One Arab had a permit to enter, but not with the truck he was trying to drive through. He was very angry at Elie and at some point even threatening. Elie called it in, and was told that not only was the driver NOT allowed to enter with the car, but that Elie should confiscate the permit as well.

This effectively meant that this man could not enter Israel to work, which infuriated him even more. The calls to Elie that came on the day before the holidays were to ask Elie for more information and the location of where the permit could be found.

In 1948, when Israel came into existence, the new state offered people within its borders citizenship. Many Arabs chose to accept this and many did not. Lands have changed hands over time, mostly as a result of war and this has included a shift in population control. Where once Jordan and Egypt controlled these areas, today Israel has control. Until some more permanent settlement is made, Israel contains Arabs who are citizens and Arabs who are not. Not only do we have people who would wish that we didn't exist living within our borders, many of these people have the right to vote and so elect members who believe, as they do, that the very country in whose parliament they sit, has no right to exist. Thus our democracy is stengthened, even by those who have little respect for the democratic principles that give them a voice to call for our destruction.

Those that are citizens carry the blue identity card, like mine. Those who are not carry a different color identification and are restricted. It's a hard concept for someone who grew up in the United States to understand. How can you let one person in one car pass through with a wave and stop a second car and search it thoroughly simply because one is a Jew and one an Arab? Or one's grandfather chose to accept the political realities of the time while the other's grandfather chose to hope that his Arab brothers would succeed and destroy the new state?

This concept of judging someone by their appearnace is as repugnant as if it were an African American and a white American, no? Would I have tolerated such an action in the United States? The answer, most definitely is no. But then again, I doubt 97% of terrorist attacks in the United States are carried out by African Americans, as 97% (if not more) terrorist attacks in Israel are carried out by Arabs. Worse, the last four attacks in Israel were carried out by Israeli Arabs. Those who carry the same identity card as I do and have the right to travel freely, as I do. Every month, they are given health benefits, social benefits and more.

In addition to these four attacks, which have killed or wounded many dozens, in the past few weeks, an Arab woman has thrown acid in the face of two soldiers, blinding one in one eye, and injuring the other in the face as well. Today, soldiers at the Hawara check point caught an Arab terrorist with two small pipe bombs. An army sapper safely detonated them, and no one was hurt. This time.

Mexicans do not have free access to enter the United States, and yet the Americans do not anticipate acid and knife attacks, firebombs and stoning attacks, on a regular basis as we do. North Koreans cannot freely enter South Korea, and yet neither side expects regular attempts to launch suicide attacks against their citizens. Where there is danger, even if it is only to the economy and not physical danger as we experience here, countries restrict the movement of non-citizens within their borders.

In our country, Elie stands between these non-citizens and our cities. Elie, like so many of our soldiers, has to check to make sure that their need for humanitarian aide or their desire to work in our cities and factories, isn't a guise for doing damage, as in the many cases of Arab ambulances caught with weapons or the young Arab woman who planned to commit suicide in the very hospital that had treated her in the past.

Elie has a job - search, confirm intent, and get them out as fast as you can. Elie's latest orders restrict him to a five-minute limit. Search the ambulance and the people as fast as you can. You have 5 minutes from the time you see them approach to the time you must release them to continue. If you can't search it thoroughly in 5 minutes, let it go, even at the risk that it poses a danger to our citizens.

Elie searched a car the other day. It was a rental car driven by an Israeli Arab. As he was about to release the car, one of the soldiers found a bullet. Elie looked at the Arab. The Arab looked at Elie with a resigned look. Both knew what this meant. It took the soldiers hours to take the car apart enough to confirm there were no explosives, no guns.

"What did he say?" I asked Elie of the Arab who had driven the car there.

"What could he say? He knew what it meant." He had to wait. "We gave him coffee and told him to wait. Bet he was sorry he rented it."

Yes, that's what this is all about. This time, they didn't find more than the bullet but how could they know without searching? Elie has found guns; what if there had been a gun and not just a bullet?

Elie told me about an Israeli bus driver who was enraged that Elie delayed the bus full of Israeli passengers. Elie had orders to get on the front of the bus, ask the driver if everything was OK, then walk the full length of the bus observing various things. He was to speak to some of the passengers, engaging them in conversation, just a bit. "How are you today?" or "Everything OK?"

When Elie would reach the end of the bus, all the way to the back, he was to turn around and walk back up the bus until he reached the back door, and there he would exit. This was an order from his commanding officer. A few years back, a security guard in Jerusalem got on a bus, did a quick, routine walk-through and got off the bus. He didn't notice the Arab with the explosive belt. Or maybe he did, but didn't think he looked suspicious. The guard got off the bus. The bus started to move. And then, the bus exploded.

This time, as Elie entered the bus, the driver was annoyed. Maybe he had a fight with is wife in the morning. Maybe there was traffic. Whatever it was, the soldier in the green uniform was an easy target, "Can't you see everything is fine? Do you need to do this now? What do you see here"

Everyone on the bus understood the need, except the driver, who gave Elie a hard time.

"What happened when the driver yelled at you?" I asked Elie, anxious to find some way to undo the hurt, the frustration.

"Even the people on the bus were yelling at the bus driver to just shut up." Elie told me in frustration. "I wanted to tell him what I saw was an idiot."

"What did you do?" I asked him, thinking, oh no, here we go again. First the idiots from Tel Aviv comment, now the bus driver. "You didn't say that, did you?" I asked. Remember that Elie is 21-years old. Remember what you were like when you were that age? Had you learned restraint? Had you learned diplomacy? Or were you like me, like most 21-year-olds?

"No, I didn't call him an idiot. I did what I'm supposed to do." He told me. "I walked up and down the bus, talked to a few people and got off."

"And what did the driver do?"

"He finally apologized to me." But there was no joy or triumph in this, no sense that the wrong had been made right.

"Most people are very nice," Elie told me.

"What about the Arabs?" I asked him. There is supposedly no ethnic profiling in the United States, where 97% of the terror-related attacks aren't done by young, single Arab men and women who dress a certain way or behave a certain way. In Israel, there is and there must be.

"They understand. They know we have no choice."

Yes, so long as there are those who would blow up a bus or a mall or a cafe, Elie and the soldiers have no choice. In the last few months, two Arabs have taken bulldozers and used them to attack innocent civilians in the middle of Jerusalem. Do you think we don't watch bulldozers more carefully today? Do you think Elie's eyes didn't look at the driver when we passed a bulldozer? Wouldn't you look?

We had guests for several meals during the holiday and Elie's presence often triggered discussion about the army, army life, guns and weaponry. He carried his gun with him when he went to the synagogue and locked it in his room when he was home.

Though he talked about the army, much of the time he tried to get away from it all and just be who he is. There was much laughter in the house, much joking around. Elie and his younger sister were constantly wrestling, done with smiles and much squeaking on her part.

Elie fixed his brother's bicycle, did shopping, slept, talked, ate. In short, he simply got a chance to unwind and not be the "Commander" on base. Time was what it was, at least for a few days.

I drove Elie back to his base the morning after Rosh Hashana ended with two boxes of homemade brownies and the hope that he'll make it home for at least part of the upcoming Sukkot holiday. But ultimately, what stays in my mind is that image of Elie in his uniform, walking to the car, with his sister calling out to him and following him to the car. Him with his gun strapped to his back and the beret on his shoulder; her with her school backpack and long ponytail.

He opened the door for her as he answered her question and she climbed into the back seat. "Drive carefully," I called out, as I always do.

And later, when I dropped him at the base and it was his turn to put his backpack on his back, I called out, as I always do, "be careful. See you soon."

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