Exactly 10 years ago I was in Nablus wearing the green uniform of the Israel Defence Force (IDF) heavily engaged in a series of military operations against Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. Those operations lasted from Christmas through New Year’s Day and beyond. On New Year’s Eve 2003 I waited outside the house of a suspected terrorist, freezing, while the operation took its course. I was at the rear of the house with three others all of us shivering together in the cold. I thought of my family in London and wondered how they were celebrating while I lay there waiting, expecting to hear the familiar crack of an AK-47 at any moment.
Nablus is a city in the West Bank dating back to Roman times, it was the city that my Paratrooper unit was assigned to when I served in the IDF. During that time I was shot at daily and even caught in the explosion of a booby trap. For a moment I saw only a white light and heard nothing, I thought I was dead. It is not an experience I wish to repeat. Now, 10 years later it appears I might have to.
The Nablus I knew was devastated by the Al Aqsa Intifada. Building projects that had begun under the Oslo Peace Process had been abandoned leaving skeletal hulks all over the city, garbage rotted in the open, there was a nightly curfew in place on the city and it seemed that everyone there was unemployed. In short, life for residents stopped. But terrorists flourished.
During my first foray in the streets of Nablus I was struck most by the thousands of posters of suicide bombers plastered all over the walls. I crept towards my targets in the dead of night while huge pictures of dead bombers holding assault rifles stared down at me. Images taken from the television news depicting the devastation each of them caused made up the lower part of each poster. The number of civilians killed was proudly written on each poster.
My military service didn’t bring me face to face with the Arab Israeli conflict it made me a part of it. One more small pawn in a cycle of violence that seemed to make victims out of everyone. Sometimes I was stuck in Palestinian homes with the people who lived in them for days on end, or perhaps I should say they were stuck there with me. With nothing to do other than look at each other we often ended up talking. During these moments I learned about what it means to be a Palestinian. To be entirely at the mercy of events around you. Dragged into chaos by a handful of terrorists and suffering the consequences from the IDF who made a living a “normal” life impossible. We imposed curfews, launched operations from within their midst and in our constant quest for terrorists we allowed nothing to stand in our way. We were all too well aware that in Israel soldiers were stationed outside shopping malls, people were petrified every time they got on a bus, every time they went to work, “normal” life was impossible for them due to the gruesome “success” of the bombers, one of whom always seemed to slip past us.
During the Al Aqsa Intifada we worked according to a list of the top 10 terrorists in the city who we aggressively pursued. We became highly proficient at grabbing not just those who had agreed to be suicide bombers but, far more importantly, those who were recruiting and despatching them. In one operation my team arrested numbers three and five at the same time and congratulated ourselves on a great success. Yet barely a couple of days later my commander stood in front of us and with a straight face said that we were going after “the number three most wanted terrorist in Nablus.” I laughed out loud, surely it was a joke? Number 3 had just been arrested, we were still patting ourselves on the back for getting him.
He said it with all of the same gravitas with which he had told us the week before that we were going to pick up the other number 3. It was then that I understood. It didn’t matter how many risks we, the soldiers, took, it didn’t matter how many arrests we made. There would always be 10 names on that list. This conflict is beyond the horizons of soldiers and generals. Only the politicians can bring the bloodshed to a close once and for all.
These are the same politicians who have spent 10 years using the term “Interim talks” as opposed to “Final Status”. While their endless negotiations continue Israelis and Palestinians are once again dying in a stream of violence that has brought us to the brink of a third Intifada. I remember the fear of those days, the violence and the suffering endured by both sides. With that in mind I hope that the leaders who have taken the responsibility upon their broad shoulders to create a better future for all of us refuse to let Israelis and Palestinians go through the horror of those days once again. But I just can’t stop a fatalistic voice in the back of my head whispering to me that even they won’t be able to stop another round of violence from exploding among us.