by Amy Styer
26 January 2012. Jerusalem, Israel. Villainized in liberal media, compared to Nazis by some, what are the soldiers of the Israeli border police really like? Are they heartless maniacs charged up on testosterone with high tech weaponry that they indiscriminately use on civilians? Do they harass Palestinians that merely want to take a sick relative to a doctor? Do they confiscate food and search old ladies in order to collectively punish the Palestinian people? Loaded with questions like these, I headed to an Israeli base in a dangerous location; dangerous as defined by the Army. Border police stationed here receive double pay for hazardous duty.
I spoke with current border police, former border police, and a Lt. Colonel at the Anatot Army base which mans checkpoints around Ramallah and the border between Israel and the West Bank. The only person I can name is Lt. Colonel Yuval Shenkin because the other soldiers are not authorized to speak to the media (a common PR practice of most armies of the world). Lt. Colonel Shenkin presented journalists and activists with a slide show of items confiscated by border police including trunks full of meat, eggs, and more sinister objects such as drugs and weapons.
Almost immediately, an activist asked the Lt. Colonel why the Army confiscates food. The Lt. Colonel explained that smuggled meat and eggs can present a health hazard resulting in death. There are no inspections or assurances that the meat is bacteria-free, that it was held at a proper temperature, that the animal wasn’t infected with a contagious disease, that the meat wasn’t injected with a harmful substance, that the animal was treated humanely, or that proper sanitation was maintained. Also, there are no details of where the meat originated or when. In other words, there are too many safety risks. U.S. Customs and Border Protection does not allow the importation of meat even if it has been inspected. Israeli standards are no more stringent than other nations.
The other problem with trafficked food products is that they often contain drugs or weapons hidden within. The Lt. Colonel pointed out that there is no food blockade of Gaza or the West Bank. It is for cost reasons alone that people smuggle meat and eggs from Egypt. The cost of food in Israel is on average with industrialized nations (with the benefit of an industrialized nation’s health regulations).
A journalist asked the Lt. Colonel why the Army performed searches on seemingly law abiding individuals. Even with all the available intelligence, the Lt. Colonel said, random searches yielded far more contraband and stopped more terrorists. It’s inconvenient and time consuming to shuffle through suitcases, but the net result is that it saves lives.
I thought I might get politically correct answers from the Lt. Colonel about day to day operations of check points, so I went around the base and talked to border police directly. It should be pointed out that Israel has a mandatory draft for males and females at the age of 18. Therefore, the Army is representative of Israeli society and not a certain demographic that’s patriotic, athletic, or power hungry. As I walked around the women’s dorms, I saw Hello Kitty stickers on a door, balloons from a birthday, and packages from family. Girls with nail polish and makeup kits darted in and out of rooms. I felt like I was at a college dorm. I thought about it for a minute. When I was 18, I was at a cushiony university going to parties every night. These girls are in a barbed wire jungle. They call their mothers every night to tell them they’re alive.
I started a conversation with a group of female soldiers who invited me in for mint tea. The oldest was 19. They said that the job conditions are tough—outside in the elements, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. There are often verbal assaults and pushing from people anxious to get through the checkpoints. I asked them about the treatment of Palestinians at checkpoints. They pointed out that the Army stations many women as border police in order to be culturally sensitive to Muslims. They recited a script in Arabic that must be used per Army protocol. Every detail of their interaction with Palestinians is regulated to ensure fair treatment. If they deviate, they can end up in Army jail. Activists from groups such as Checkpoint Watch routinely come to scrutinize their behavior. I thought of seeing journalists, Europeans, and nuns at the checkpoint I cross daily. The soldiers are also aware that numerous security cameras monitor their every move.
I asked a former border policeman the toughest questions knowing that having been released from the Army he was under no pressure to answer a certain way. Is it true, I asked, that border police allow settlers to attack Palestinians? He emphatically declared that his job as border police was to protect all civilians regardless of nationality. Incidents between settlers and Palestinians are usually part of an ongoing feud. There is a high rate of theft of livestock from settlements, particularly around Muslim holidays. Destruction of crops and acts of violence by Palestinians (such as the recent murder of Asher Palmer and his one year old son) can cause the tense situation to boil over. Border police break up fights and arrest whoever is guilty, including settlers.
What about the disproportionate use of force by soldiers? The conditions in which soldiers can fire a gun are almost maddening I was told. First, a warning in Arabic, then the commander is notified. Upon his/her approval a warning shot is fired into the air. If the perpetrator does not stop, then a shot is fired at the ground, and finally a shot is fired at the leg. One soldier who followed this exact protocol was told by his commander that he did the right thing, but still had to spend months in jail. In addition, soldiers’ bullets are counted regularly. Stories of potshots taken at civilians are unfounded as every bullet must be accounted for. But what about all these stories of soldiers massacring civilians? The former soldier asked me, “What, like the massacre at Jenin?” (In 2002 Palestinians alleged that the Israeli Army massacred thousands of civilians in Jenin. The story was widely circulated in mass media and turned out to be false.)
For a minute the veteran looked directly into my eyes. He then parted his hair and showed me a deep, jagged scar on his head. “You think stones don’t hurt?” he said with pain in his voice. I sat utterly silent as he relayed the story—Palestinians on a ridge hurtling rocks and old TVs at his unit, numerous surgeries as his life teetered, and being diagnosed with permanent brain damage. He’s trying to learn in university, but headaches, memory loss, concentration problems, as well as PTSD makes it nearly impossible.
Soldiers with guns look menacing when juxtaposed with elderly farmers. It seems so David versus Goliath, but appearances aren’t everything. Stoning, stabbing, being run over, and explosives are risks faced daily by border police. The knives and stones of the innocent looking farmer can kill just as easily as guns.
Amy Styer is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem, Israel.