Reflecting on the past two years representing the IDF in the West Bank, so many thoughts run through my mind – lessons learned, ideas discovered, emotions felt, and experiences had. For the past two weeks, I have tried to sum it all up, rather unsuccessfully. Overwhelmed with ideas, emotions and experiences, it has been difficult for me to write a comprehensive summary of all that I’ve seen, heard, felt, thought and learned. Nonetheless, this is my attempt at doing so, so that I can share with all of you – my friends, family, colleagues, and those who have joined me digitally – my final reflections before I leave my position as Spokesperson for the Judea and Samaria Division. (In case you didn’t, I urge you read my post from last Friday.)
Whenever I brief on the situation in the West Bank, I am consistently struck by the complexities and intricacies of the IDF’s critical mission in the area. While I have spent the past two years explaining incidents that involve our troops, this past Tuesday (Aug. 6, 2013), I found myself in the midst of a security event that could have ended very badly.
I was on a tour with LT Yehonatan, my successor, and we were driving from Division HQ to the Shomron Brigade HQ. While driving along Route 60, we passed through the outskirts of the Palestinian village of Huwara. Huwara can hardly be considered a friendly village, and the stretch of highway that meets the village has been the site of explosive device attacks, shootings, pipe-bombs, fire bombs (Molotov cocktails), burning tires, and rock throwing. About three weeks ago, in the very same location, IDF troops had caught the man responsible for the June 12th and June 25th shooting incidents.
As we were driving, I noticed a Palestinian male who appeared to be in his mid-teens standing about 5 meters off the road. In the seconds that I watched him, he drew a grey pistol and aimed it at us.
Have you ever had a gun aimed at you? Because I hadn’t.
I immediately jerked the car as we made eye contact. Startled, the young man immediately disappeared into the alleyways. My heart was pounding and thousands of thoughts ran through my mind in the blink of an eye. Do I scramble out of the car and give chase? Do I fire warning shots in the air in an attempt to halt his escape? Do I drive into Huwara in an attempt to chase him down quickly? But that wasn’t all. Was he 16 or was he younger? Was it a gun or was it a toy? If it was a real gun, why didn’t he fire when he had me in his sights (mind you, I had a clear vision of the darkness inside the barrel)? If it was a toy gun and he was playing – where were his friends? Then there were the thoughts that brought me back to the many operational probes I sat through. If I scrambled after him, would LT Yehonatan know what was happening? How would he respond and what would he do? Do we leave the car together, and give chase together? Do we drive in, together, with the car? Do we split up, where I give chase and leave him behind (on foot or in the car) as backup, cover, and a way to direct the forces we called in? If I went after him (either on my own or with LT Yehonatan, either with the car or on foot) in what situation would I find myself once inside this hostile village? And what kind of response does such a situation warrant? If I responded with force in light of a perceived clear and present threat, what could have been the consequences? If I opened fire, what if I were wrong? If I held fire, what if I were wrong then? What would happen down the line if I let the apparent suspect get away?
Many questions in very little time, but two things were certain – I couldn’t ignore the situation, so some action was required, and the dilemmas facing soldiers in situations like these are endless. When backup arrived, we looked for the suspect. We came up empty handed and the day went on.
This incident reinforced something that I always try to explain: the threat is real. The lack of “successful” terror attacks from the West Bank in recent years should never be confused with a lack of motivation or desire on the part of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, or the dozens of other organizations that work tirelessly in order to reestablish themselves in the region. The relative calm and security stability that exists in the West Bank today has by and large resulted from an ongoing security effort headed by the IDF.
This security effort has two main aspects – ongoing routine security operations (which include the security fence, crossings, and riot containment) and ongoing counterterrorism operations (which include arrests and intelligence gathering and analysis). By combining these two aspects, the IDF conducts a comprehensive effort in the face of the many security threats and challenges.
For the past two years, all I have done, night and day was live, sleep, eat and breathe the various dilemmas the IDF faces when conducting an ongoing security effort in this volatile region. While many have grown accustomed the current situation, we mustn’t kid ourselves – the violent currents are strong and they are just beneath the surface. The hard-won security stability is the product of over a decade of effective counterterrorism and routine security operations; and it can all vanish in an instant.
This is why IDF commanders constantly assess and reassess the situation while considering a plethora of factors – from terrorism and rioting, through law and public order, to issues of quality of life and economics. Our assessments include evaluations of our own actions. On the one hand, we understand the risk of doing “too little”, while on the other we understand that by doing “too much”; we could possibly undermine that same stability we aim to create and preserve.
The consequences of a destabilized West Bank are dire – for Israelis, for Palestinians, for the region, and perhaps the world. A destabilization of the West Bank, an area that engulfs the critical coastline that is home to 75% of Israelis and produces 80% of our GDP, would have a direct impact on Israeli security, threatening countless lives (think of the hundreds of bus bombings and shootings we experienced just a few years ago). It would also damage the Palestinians’ quality of life, civil order, and economy. A return to the cycle of violence we knew in the Second Intifada period would inevitably result in a tragic loss of thousands of lives on both sides. Also, a destabilized West Bank would no doubt affect the region beyond our borders, when considering the situation in other Middle Eastern countries, therefore becoming a concern of global proportions. Certainly when considering Israel’s overall strategic security situation and the wide-array of threats facing our small vulnerable country, both near and far, one can understand why we must do everything in our power to prevent a deterioration in the West Bank.
The IDF is an organization that evolves through a process of implementing lessons learned and employing a system of checks and balances. There are many misconceptions when it comes to the way we operate and the many considerations we make when defining these operations. Our operations have evolved over the years, and are often misperceived. Whether it be the issue of checkpoints that for the most part no longer exist within our operational concept, the importance and necessity of arrest operations, or the principles through which we seek to contain violent rioting – there is nothing simple about our operations and there is no perfect answer to an imperfect security situation.
In no way, shape or form should any of this be understood as a statement with implications in either direction – it should be understood as stressing the importance of stability in the region and the work that goes into creating it, regardless of what the future might bring. After all, in the Middle East, there is no way of knowing what’s just around the corner – anyone who claims to “know” what will be is only kidding himself.
I, like most people, do share the hopes for a brighter future – no matter how that future is achieved. Also, I do consider myself an optimist. To express that, I’d like to borrow an anecdote from Israeli President Shimon Peres. When he was once asked by a journalist whether he was an optimist or pessimist, he replied with the following: “optimists and pessimists both die in the end – the difference is how they live their lives.”
As I have said, this is my last weekend on the job. On Sunday I pass it over to LT Yehonatan, my good friend and long-time colleague. I wish him much luck with what is certain to be a challenging period – and I am certain he will perform with excellence!
With that, I’d like to say that it was an honor and a privilege to serve my people and country in this capacity for the past two years – as Spokesperson for the Judea & Samaria Division. I thank you all for following along, and I look forward to whatever lies ahead.
Shabbat Shalom and Eid Mubarak!