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Thursday, January 29, 2004
Israel Sends IDF Humanitarian Officers to Front Lines

Israel Sends IDF Humanitarian Officers to Front Lines

Joel Leyden - Israel News Agency

Jerusalem-----January 29, 2004..A grey, blustery sand storm rolls fiercely
into Kalandia. The sky turns a dark brown over this Israeli checkpoint
bordering Jerusalem and Rahmallah. The dust burns your eyes as you focus on
a Palestinian family approaching the cement block which serves as your desk.
They wear red and white scarves over their faces, protection from the
freezing, relentless winds. They reach for their identity cards, but you
know that it could be a gun or a knife. You are half Mr. Nice Guy and half
combat soldier. You must be able to go from a warm smile to loading your
M-16 in half a second. You are an IDF volunteer who the Palestinians and
Israeli soldiers refer to as a Humanitarian Officer.

In September 2000, a small group of Israeli reserve officers created and
implemented the concept of "softening" one of the few contact points between
Israeli and Palestinian societies. The program, entitled "Volunteers of
Hope, was fully embraced by both the Prime Minister and the Chief of Staff.
They took terse and angry checkpoints throughout Israel and inserted a
mature, rational and non-combative approach to Israeli-Palestinian
relations. Their objective was to make the best out of a bad situation.
These reserve officers knew quite well that they were not going to solve the
Israeli Palestinian conflict but in the interim they were determined to ease
tensions and illustrate to both cultures that coexistence was possible.
Working out of a small office in Tel Aviv, program director Col. Triber
Bezalel is constantly on the telephone. He supervises all of the
Humanitarian officers who are posted in Jericho, Kalandia, Bethlehem and
Ariel.

"Many people in Israeli society have discovered how important this program
is," Triber tells The Israel News Agency. "One of the very few points of
contact between the Israeli and Palestinian populations is at our check
posts.

Triber states that the success of the program can be seen in the smiling
faces of the children who pass these harsh check points. Both the
Palestinian children and their parents are able to see a human and warm side
of Israel as opposed to the hateful and violent propaganda they are taught.

"We can't allow a young 18-year-old soldier who has no understanding and
experience of family and business obligations to set policy at these check
posts. We get some very special and mature volunteers coming here to serve
and they come not only from Israel, but from North America and Europe," said
Triber.

"Our volunteers leave the safe, warm environment of their homes for a very
dangerous but rewarding mission on our borders. They assist our young
soldiers with security and provide an understanding, helping hand to the
Palestinians. Their job is to make life easier for those who cross the
borders. To assist women who are holding babies and children, aid the
elderly and sick and provide an open ear to Palestinian professionals who
have special problems. These are Israel's ambassadors to our Palestinian
neighbors and they perform brilliantly."

Triber states that the success of the program can be seen in the smiling
faces of the children who pass these harsh check points. Both the
Palestinian children and their parents are able to see a human and warm side
of Israel as opposed to the hateful and violent propaganda they are taught.
Both Israelis and Palestinians are offered a rare personal glimpse of hope
for the future of these two societies.

I witnessed this IDF program during the summer of 2002. These soldiers with
their compassionate and dedicated approach impressed me deeply. As I applied
for the program they informed me that the age limit was between 30 and 70.
That English and or Arabic were required in addition to Hebrew. And that you
must have served in the IDF. The age requirement was perhaps the most
important factor. How can a 18 or 19-year-old soldier access medical,
financial and family problems? They can't. How can they identify with a
mother carrying a baby for an hour or an unemployed man with few twisted
teeth and ripped clothes seeking employment?

As for language, almost a third of the Palestinians who are stopped and
asked to show their Israeli blue identity cards request to speak English.
The remaining crowd is proud of their Arabic origins and will not speak
Hebrew. Many diplomats, journalists and non-profit organizations are among
the 20,000 people that pass through Kalandia on a daily basis.

And the last or perhaps the first requirement is that you have served in the
IDF. It is not so much a demand for security as much as it serves to say:
this ain't gonna be easy."

The dust storm blows off to the East leaving cold, blue skies and puddles of
water. The blue and white Israeli flag appears a bit frazzled. A black dog
which is half wolf shivers between the concrete blocks desperately trying to
stay warm, to stay alive. Two rusty and white furred cats come out seeking
food and a human touch. All of the elements of nature pour out, the good,
the bad and the evil at Kalandia.

A day before my group arrived a Palestinian woman tried to plunge a sharp
kitchen knife into a female soldier. She was grabbed before any blood
spilled and was rushed off to prison. Perhaps that was her wish; perhaps she
had no money for food or for her children. Occasionally a young Israeli
soldier would point their rifle at Palestinians approaching the checkpoint.
Why are you pointing your rifle," I would ask. "I want them to be afraid of
me," one soldier replied. "You don't need to point your rifle to gain
respect here, nor do you need to hit anyone. Authority comes from your voice
and from your eyes," I said. "These people are not at war with you, nor are
we at war with them. It is the terrorists for whom we seek." The young
soldier was not quite convinced with this perspective. But then again if I
had been trained only for combat situations at the raw age of 18, I would
probably say the same. We are here for these young soldiers as much as we
are for the Palestinians. We know that these fresh high school graduates are
tired and subjected to tremendous political, military and emotional
pressures. We are here to stand beside them, with them and say
"kolakavoud" - good for you for being here and defending our tiny nation. We
eat, sleep and train on the same bases.

We never look at our watch during our first few days as IDF volunteer
humanitarian soldiers. We don't have the time. The insurance agent from
Haifa, the truck driver from Afula, the former Lt. Colonel from Acco and the
journalist from Jerusalem spends hours in intense combat and arms training.

You shoot dozens of rounds from your M-16, listen to lectures on how bombs
are made and hidden and learn who can and who can't pass from your security
checkpoint. But one issue is made very clear, humanitarian considerations
rise above all else in the IDF and you are expected to make wise and rapid
decisions as to who is innocent and who could be a terrorist. You always
take the side of security, for you don't want it on your conscious that you
have allowed a terrorist to enter Israel. You don't dare think that if a bus
or restaurant is blown up - that the terrorist responsible for that barbaric
atrocity came into Israel with a wave of your hand.

We spend our first few nights in tents as we train and keep our ears open.
Finally we are driven to our army base where again we receive specialized
lectures and instructions regarding security and special cases which deserve
humanitarian consideration. They waste no time placing us at the Kalandia,
Bethlehem or Nablus checkpoints under the temporary supervision of those who
have already served there. No mistakes are tolerated. Everyone is looking at
you - the Palestinians, the Israeli soldiers and your fellow volunteers. You
have journalists and the ladies of Machsom Watch observing your every
movement. But you soon learn that their job is obsolete. They can only
monitor as you - the IDF volunteer have the sole authority to allow an
honest, sincere and peaceful Palestinian through the maze of fences and
cement blocks. It is you - the volunteer soldier who must decide which
person and which car is authorized by law and by humanitarian consideration
to move from North to South.

After an exhausting 8 hour shift with no break except to quickly down a cold
meal you drop into bed only to be awakened 5 or 6 hours later for your next
shift. You find yourself amazed at how resilient one can be. You even
actually embrace coming to your tall, metal chair at this barren and dusty
checkpoint - you know that someone will need your patience and understanding

We wake up before sunrise and finish our shifts before midnight. We find
that our best friends are a M-16 and a warm cup of coffee.

As a father of three small children, I keep an eagle's eye out for mothers
carrying babies and children.

I know how this precious weight feels. I know the child needs warmth and a
smile. Sometimes I escort these mothers with their carriages passed dozens
of others and wave bye, bye to the smiling wide-eyed child. I do so without
a helmet and without full combat gear. These protective items only serve to
alienate and create a hostile feeling at the roadblock. We make this
sacrifice of personal safety as all of the IDF volunteers do. We place our
lives at extreme risk for the sake that perhaps a few Palestinians will go
home knowing that we too seek a peaceful compromise to the nightmare that
Arafat, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah have created for both peoples.
"Wahad, wahad," you find yourself saying as hundreds pour through the thick
cement and fence structures. One by one you repeat in Arabic - you must keep
the human flow going but you must also examine each face and each ID. Many
Palestinians will find any excuse they can to get through this border.

Dozens of forged medical notes written in broken English describing back and
stomach pains, notes from dentists and fake press credentials pass through
your hands. You must be able to differentiate non-fiction from fiction. One
woman complained to me of severe hand pain as her doctor's note described
her only ailment as nasal congestion. She was told to go back and get
another note. They buy these medical notes for 5 shekels (one dollar). It is
not the documents that we really evaluate - rather it is their faces and the
bags they carry. We know that as each and every Palestinian approaches, that
they may be a walking bomb waiting to make tomorrow's headlines. But I
estimate that over 80 percent of these Palestinians are good people,
innocent victims of extremist Islamic politics who truly desire peace for
their children and just want to go to work or visit their families.

We wake up before sunrise and finish our shifts before midnight. We find
that our best friends are a M-16 and a warm cup of coffee. We cherish the 5
or 6 layers of clothes, the wool hat and fleece gloves we wear. We leave
Kalandia and the other security checkpoints with a blue hat and a small
paper certificate of thanks. But most of all we leave the outskirts of
Rahmallah, Bethlehem and Nablus knowing that we have made a small difference
between two very polarized and distant but yet similar cultures. We return
to our soft and comfortable homes, our families and friends knowing that we
have experienced a very special opportunity. That we Jewish, Islamic,
Christian and Druse IDF volunteers coming from a rainbow of political right
and left wing thought have projected a rare, and golden expression of
humanity. Offering hope of a real and lasting peace illustrated by too few
smiles, handshakes and the soft words of salam, shalom through that cold,
windy and narrow passage we leave behind.

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