Jonathan Zausmer

The painful lesson of an army reservist in Qalqilya

Who wanders into dangerous unknown territory, where you'll stick out like a sore thumb among those who see you as the enemy?
Illustrative: The West Bank security barrier is seen near the Palestinian city of Qalqilya. (Flash90)
Illustrative: The West Bank security barrier is seen near the Palestinian city of Qalqilya. (Flash90)

It was during the Second Intifada. I was serving just outside the town of Qalqilya which is positioned just over the green line. As a battle-medic, one can find oneself either doing long hours of guard duty interspersed with basic routines, or called out urgently for medical duty. In this case, while the intifada raged not far from us, for the most part, all was calm.

It is during those down-time hours that many discussions take place. The senior medical officer was a settler, a reservist. We chatted as a group for many hours and he explained to us how happy he was in his beautiful home he had built in occupied territory just several kilometers away from our camp. He described how, when at home, high in the hills, he could see the view from his villa, sit by the fireside in winter and enjoy the cozy comforts of a virtual paradise in his small settlement town.

He must have been near the end of his tenure as an officer, with gray hair and lines of a kindly elder on his face. He said that the residents from his town had an excellent relationship with the Palestinian residents in the nearby village. Despite the conflict, he said they, the settlers, felt safe and confident. I remember him telling me how he always took his car to this village nearby for service and repair, and how friendly everyone was, and that he felt this was the way good relations between Jews and Arabs should be made.

So why, I wondered, were we all barracked in Qalqilya, waiting for something to happen? But that is intifada — nothing really happens, until something terrible happens. It was a quiet period and the outskirts of Qalqilya seemed calm and uneventful, like most days. Either luck, or simply good timing brought our service there to a quiet end.

It was a while later, after this brief military service, that I read in the news of a person living in a settlement who had been murdered in a Palestinian village not far from where we had been stationed. He was killed and shoved into the trunk of his own car, which was later discovered burned, after he had taken it for service in the town. The same town my army reserve officer had spoken about, where he had said that the Palestinian residents were so friendly and well-mannered. I looked for the name of the victim. It was him.

* * *

One of the problems we have here in Israel is that we only know we are in deep trouble when it strikes very close to home. As long as the violence rages far away from our comfortable lives, we all tend to adopt the philosophy of “managing the conflict,” pulling the wool over our own eyes as if it does not exist, and leaving the blood and guts to the military, its leaders and the ruling government. I have written previously that the third intifada is here. We need to recognize where we are and think about where we are going.

The story virtually repeats an episode, when, in early 2001, in the early days of the Second Intifada, two young restaurant owners visited Tulkarem — a Palestinian town just over the green line, for business purchases — and were executed at blank range, on the spot, by the Tanzim or similar cohorts. 

What is it that drives both the naive and the ideologically driven fanatics to wander into dangerous and unknown territory, sticking out like sore thumbs in the local milieu, speaking a language that the locals identify immediately as the enemy, to get a car fixed, or to buy merchandise, to bargain in the “shuk” (market) as if all is fine, while the eyes and ears, the guns and knives, the general chitter-chatter of the town is fully aware of the enemy (as many see us) in their midst?

We can identify two three major stereotypical characteristics here: 

One is the Jewish settler fanatic: he or she will drive on a dangerous route in Palestinian territory (with their children and loved ones) because it is “ours and we are not afraid — we own this land.” This is the hard core colonialist religious fanatic who believes that to be Jewish is to be in Judea and Samaria and Gaza because “it is our home,” without a single care or concern, because they are at the forefront of what they deem a new messianic age.

But when the blood hits the road or the bullet rips the heart, they weep the same tears, they cry to the heavens with the same distress as anyone with any trauma: in the end, there remains mourning and memory. And for what?

The other characteristic is the bravado cum “let’s go native” type personality. They will drive kilometers to bargain in the market in broken Arabic, drink black coffee with their “friends,” the locals who are “like brothers,” and wander back to their homes in Israel’s secure cities loaded with cheap merchandise and a sense of ethnic largess. A man’s man — for all people (but just remember we are the bosses, okay?)

The third characteristic is all about money. This is particularly, but not only, about vehicle parts and repairs. Most merchandise and definitely vehicle repairs, service, and parts are often much cheaper in the occupied West Bank because mainly labor costs less than in Israel’s cities, and the parts are harvested generally by means of  low-cost trade methods. And if you are in vehicle paradise, why not take a walk in the shuk and pick up a bargain or two?

Very often, all three of the above characteristics are at play in this dangerous game combining religious ideology, bravado, and money. Yet when the end is tragic — no, devastating, the same tears of loss are shed and the gaping hole in the heart for those who live on remains. 

“When will they ever learn?”

 What were they thinking?

About the Author
Originally from South Africa, Jonathan made aliya in the seventies, and lived and worked on a kibbutz for several years. He has a graduate degree in business from Boston University and is a managing partner of an Israeli based business. He was a co-founder of the Forum Tzora peace action group and participates in the Geneva Initiative workshops. He is the author of the book “Valley of Heaven and Earth”.
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