Author’s note: This was written four years ago about this time of year right before the holiday of Purim, which is celebrated this year on 14 -15 March. Purim celebrates the rescue of the Jewish people in the Persian Empire from the evil designs of Haman the Agagite, a man descended from King Agag, the King of Amalek.
It was the day before Purim around 1:30 in the afternoon, and I was relaxing, reading an issue of Time Magazine someone had popped into my mailbox. I was interrupted by the phone. It was Nurit, the commander of the local Mishmar Ezrahi, the volunteer Civil Patrol that helps the police and the IDF spot and stop terrorists. She said she needed me for a patrol at a community center in Gilo where there was a Purim carnival going on for the children in the neighborhood – right now.
So I stuffed a cheese sandwich into my mouth and walked down to the local sub-station a few hundred meters away. I signed for a rifle, a couple of clips of bullets and a blue Velcro vest with “Mishtéret Yisraél (Israel Police) and Mishmár Ezrahí (Civil Guard) in big letters on it. I also received my official I.D. as a member of the Mishmar Ezrahi, complete with photo and Teudat Zehut (national ID card) number imprinted. A few minutes later we all left.
There were four of us in the hatchback driving toward Gilo. Nurit, and a young guy whose name I forget, Claude and me. Nurit is a pretty young lady, young enough to be my daughter, who is the cop, the professional with the salary. The young guy who drove the hatchback is a draftee to the army, was also young enough to be my child. The way it has seemed to work in the past is that I was paired off with some retiree, at least twenty years older than me, who has been here longer than I. This time was no different.
Claude was born at least seventy five years ago in Algeria and fought in the British Army when the French were defeated in 1940. He speaks Hebrew with an unmistakable French accent and has several children and grandchildren here. He has lived in Israel for seven years.
When we arrived at the Gilo Community Centre, we were not the only Civil Guard members there. In addition to the other civil Guard members, there were also two military policemen armed with M16’s and several civilian cops. One of those policemen started to explain the assignment to us, assuming that we could both understand Hebrew. Fortunately, I did understand, because when he was done, I repeated his instructions back to him in English, speaking to him as quickly in my native tongue as he had done to me in his native tongue.
Essentially, we were to check the building to see that all possible routes of entry were locked except one, check the street for suspicious packages and people and wander around, and through our presence (with the unloaded M1’s that were as old as I am), reassure the locals that everything possible was being done to insure their safety and security. At all times Claude and I were to maintain eye contact, and in case of a problem, call some of the military policemen present on the radio. In the event that we were attacked with one of the Arabs’ newest toys, the Kassem 2 missiles, we were to herd the children into the basement of the building as quickly as humanly possible.
This particular patrol was particularly easy, and therefore boring. But I got to practice my Hebrew and show off the little French I know. I learned a lot about Claude who had visited this country during WWII as a British soldier. He was captured by the Germans twice, escaped twice, and subsequently lived in Tunisia, Algeria. When the French evacuated North Africa and gave their colonies their independence, he moved not far from Geneva before coming to Israel. I bought myself a hot dog roll and an espresso coffee and was able to take a break (no doughnuts and coffee at a local greasy spoon, though). A few times I heard gunshots from the Arab village of Beit Jallah, across the wadi, but none of them were close by. I spent a lot of time looking at the sky checking for “incoming”.
My biggest security problem on this patrol was a couple of young children who wanted to set off firecrackers nearby. Being the natural party-pooper that I am, I told the children not to set them off. When they moved some ten meters away and started to set them off anyway, I called over one of the cops and he took the firecrackers away from the children. In Israel, firecrackers are illegal but usually tolerated. In neighborhoods which are under regular Arab gunfire attacks, police don’t like them at all as they sound similar to bullets being fired and can scare the residents who are nervous anyway.
As I stood at the entrance of the Gilo Community Centre, I reflected on how I never thought that at age fifty-and-a-half, I’d be standing in a cold winter wind, patrolling a community centre with a rifle slung over my shoulder. It was kind of like the afternoon in May 1985 when I was mopping a floor in a Burger King in Bloomington, MN. I stopped for a moment then and reflected. I never thought then that I would be mopping a floor for a living after having earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and public administration and having gone to law school for a year. When I was mopping the floor I was getting paid and I felt humiliated. This afternoon, I was getting nothing, but I felt elevated. Go figure.
The patrol itself ended at six in the evening. The four of us got into the hatchback and left, driving south along the Bethlehem Road (toward Bethlehem), a typical suburban boulevard such as is found in the States. Suddenly, the driver swung over to the left side of the road and stopped the car. He and Nurit jumped out of the car and confronted two young men who were walking north towards Jerusalem proper with backpacks on their shoulders. The two men took off their backpacks and put them on the sidewalk, while Nurit and the driver searched the backpacks thoroughly. Even though there appeared to be no signs of resistance on the part of the two young men and no signs of violent intimidation by Nurit and the driver (for example, neither young men were told to ‘assume the position’ or were pushed against the hatchback for a search), both Claude and I were ready with our rifles, ready to load and fire.
Nurit took their identity cards, examined them for a few moments, and put them in her jacket pocket. Then she and the driver re-entered the car and left the young men on the street. We drove south toward the border patrol posts between Arab controlled territory and Israeli controlled territory and the driver stopped the car at the guard post. Nurit opened the window and handed the ID’s she had scarfed from the two young men, said something quickly as to where she had found them and what the men looked like, then closed the window and we drove off, making a u-turn and returning up the highway.
Only then did I ask what had just transpired. I wanted to know how the young men were going to retrieve their identity cards. The driver answered that they knew where to go, and that they would be along shortly at the border post. He then went on to explain that each morning, several thousand Arabs from Bethlehem walk up the highway toward Jerusalem looking for work and pass through the checkpoint. So, in the morning, it is normal to see them coming up the Bethlehem Road walking toward Jerusalem, with backpacks or lunch pails. At six-fifteen in the evening, this is a not normal occurrence.
The Arabs in Judea and Samaria, the land conquered from Jordan in 1967, have one of two kinds of identification cards. One is an orange card issued by the IDF for those Arabs living in area “C” of Judea and Samaria, the sections controlled by Israel. The vast majority of them, however, have green cards issued by the “Palestinian Authority” which controls areas “A” and “B”. If they have additional documentation allowing them to work in Israel, they can enter Jerusalem. If not, they are turned back at the border. The two young men who had just been searched had the green cards, but no authorization papers. And as the driver had assured me, they were indeed walking toward the border post to retrieve their ID cards and return to Arab controlled territory.
So that was the end of the patrol the night before Purim. We got back to the sub-station, and returned our weapons and vests. The fellow with the hatchback drove home, Claude walked to his apartment on the other side of the valley from the absorption center, and I walked back to the absorption center to a Purim party. Nurit locked up the sub-station, got on her motorbike, and disappeared into the night.