A conversation with soldiers who stopped Nakba events

Photo: IDF (Zahal) Spokesperson

Throwing televisions, refrigerators, large stones, burning tires and more, Palestinian protestors didn’t hold rioting against IDF (Zahal) forces in the events of Nakba Day. Four combat soldiers and one officer in a special unit stationed in the area tell the story of what it all looked like up close

Date: 18/05/2011, 9:10 PM     Author: Tamara Shavit

For almost two years, an elite unit has been stationed in a fenced-off army base in southern Ramallah, a little past the red sign which says “No Israelis Allowed”. Every few months the unit leaves for training then returns. On Sunday (May 15), between the hours of ten in the morning and eight in the evening, its soldiers were the main army force stopping the riots in Kalandia.
“We entered in vehicles because of all the blocks,” says the deputy commander of the unit’s surveillance company. I raise an eyebrow and he explains. “They’re thrown from the roofs – refrigerators, televisions, many many stones. Anything heavy and available.”

So you enter by foot. “We met up with something like 500 guys approaching the checkpoint. Slow and safe. In the distance, masked people threw rocks. For ten hours, they play cat and mouse. They advance and hold back, hide and attack. Each time we let up they began moving again,” he tells IDF (Zahal) Website.

His soldiers slowly build the picture, four representatives from the three crews which operated this week. Liad, Eli, Daniel and Or, presented according to how long they’ve been in the army, from the most veteran who was drafted two and half years ago to the newest, who arrived in Ramallah a month and a half ago. “A truck or ambulance passes by,” they say, “Masked people running behind it, hiding and returning to their hideout. It moves and they roll trash cans toward you. They burn tires and roll them at you, too.”

It’s not the same story everywhere. “We didn’t have refrigerators thrown at us,” says Or, “but they hurled rocks. Stones. The first time I got to a checkpoint I thought the worst would be small rocks. Suddenly, giant stones are being hurled at me. You get that it’s not something that’s going to scratch you, it’s something that could kill you.” Daniel, already more than a year in Ramallah, says, “Yesterday they used objects I’ve never seen. Slingshots with marbles, for example. Marbles, because they are clear, you don’t see till they reach you. So they do damage to your face – they take out your eyes and break teeth.”

The soldiers say that they were prepared. On Thursday morning, they set out for preliminary surveillance drives, split up forces and carried out safety assessments. “Mental preparation was what was stressed,” said Deputy Commander Harel. “Especially for those who haven’t yet experienced days of rage [or days of extreme riots], but not just for them.” Liad, the veteran among the group says, “It was clear what the base for all this was. It’s obvious Nakba Day is the opposite of Independence Day. They kicked them out of the cities they lived in, and this is their moment to express their anger about it. And the anger is known.”

We’re not coming to conquer; we’re coming to disperse a riot

And still, they stress time and time again, no limits were crossed. “We really restrained ourselves. A lot,” says Deputy Commander Harel, “Live-fire wasn’t even considered. We used stun grenades and gas grenades, and in specific cases rubber bullets.” Eli adds, “That’s the idea, to be restrained. The mission isn’t to kill. It’s the exact opposite – that people will come out alive.”

“We came to disperse a riot, we didn’t come to conquer,” Daniel adds. “The goal is to prevent damage and prevent hurting people. If there are no rocks, we don’t respond. We would just stand there to make sure everything is ok. Everything we do depends on how much we are attacked. In most cases the unruliness starts the moment people see army. Sometimes it’s before. Sometimes rocks are thrown on an empty stand, and only then we get there.”

Sometimes it’s a little absurd, they say. Liad, the veteran, describes the last time he stepped into a riot this big just over a year ago. “There were building projects of the district coordination office in the city and the Palestinians interpreted them as destruction or thought a wall was being built. The work took place over a month. For a month there were riots and attempts to stop us.” And still, the four say unified, “It doesn’t usually get to the point where you don’t feel safe.”

When I try to be funny and ask where all this motivation comes from, what makes a soldier keep his weapon on safety when he is being attacked, they don’t really get what I want from them. “There is a crew behind me, and a crew next to me who backs me up,” says Daniel. “The feeling is there is always someone to lean on, that we all know what we are doing.” Knowing each other definitely helps. “It’s an operation in which there has to be something organic. There is adrenaline, there is drive, and still the most decisive factor in the motivation is the people you are with.”

“It’s part of the defense we provide for the country,” says Liad, and adds with no other way to say it, “It sounds cheesy, but it’s true. We are in the center of the country. Jerusalem is a few kilometers behind us. The people who are attacking the passageway now are the same people who can carry out an attack.”

Speculations, September and Syria

And so, between events, the routine doesn’t stop. Nakba Day is over and the work isn’t. Two of the five being interviewed came after a night of additional, routine operational activity. “As mentioned, we are here two and a half years,” says Zosman. “Ambushes, checkpoints and manning barriers in all the villages south of the city. The downfall is its draining, the advantage is that we know the front by heart. We navigate with our eyes closed.”

The show must go on? “We go back to the routine without a problem,” says Eli. “You are still particularly alert. There are reserve crews who are ready to give backup at any moment. But that’s what it’s like every day. Today there is more of a chance for riots, but not a day goes by when we don’t prepare for everything.” Each event, it seems, is an event. With the breaking of the security fence at Majdal Shams, the unit was almost sent from the center to the North. And September is just around the corner, the unit will stay in Ramallah until November, at least a month and a half after it will or won’t be announced that there is a Palestinian State.

Can they feel it? “Right now, no,” says Eli. “When you enter villages as you’re walking around the field, people still don’t treat us differently. Estimates we hear on TV, not in the street. But whatever happens, there’s not fear. It’s the opposite. We are anticipating action in September. What are we here for if not the moments of truth?”