After returning from my 30 days vacation at home, I became quite used to not carrying a rifle everywhere. It didn’t take more than half an hour for me to get used to having one again. Shortly after I received my equipment and weapons, I was again sent out on missions.
A guard duty here:
A patrol there:
And very often, an ambush:
Upon my return, there was only a bit more than a week left of my unit’s Kav in the Shechem area. One of the final missions I was privileged to carry out was an escort mission. My company was tasked with the escort of 20 bus loads of people (think large coach tour buses) whom wanted to visit the Joseph’s Grave (Kever Yosef).
This was much larger than the usual number of people that visit the grave, and because Shechem is populated only by Arabs, each visit requires a lot of security precautions (residence to Jews is forbidden by the law of the Palestinian Authority as per their demand in the Oslo Accords). Visits occur only late at night, and never on the same day or time, and always on a different part of the month.
During my unit’s tour of duty in Shechem, we secured several visits to Joseph’s Grave, all without incident. However, 20 bus loads is a lot bigger than the usual two in each visit we experienced prior.
Normally, a visit of two buses alone took all night to do. How in the world do we do the same thing with so many more people!? The longer the visit will take, the more likely we can expect trouble. And our job is to keep trouble in check.
Still, it is the right of the Jewish people to visit their cultural and national origins. And the IDF is here to facilitate that right, when necessary, and not ask that it be discontinued just because it isn’t easy to do on first glance.
We practiced all day for what we would have to do on our mission, we practiced various contingencies in case of trouble. And yes, sometimes bad things happen. Years ago an incident occurred during one such visit that resulted in a long drawn out fire fight, which to my knowledge required the IDF to fire a LAW (light anti-tank weapon) which is like a small rocket launcher. Why? Aside from what a LAW can do against vehicles, its good for hitting shooters behind windows.
Things were under control shortly after use of the LAWs.
Thankfully, my unit experienced no such problems and we were intent on continuing that record. So practice after practice, briefing after briefing, night fell on Shechem. Saffrons, large personnel carrier vehicles (like a titanic compared to a tug boat) were on their way to various bases of ours that would participate in the visit.
Those selected to participate in the mission placed their combat gear neatly outside, all together in formation. I was sent to commandeer one of the Saffrons that had arrived to our base, to ensure that it return to our base after it leaves to drop off some intelligence unit that would be participating in the mission as well.
Due to that little task before the mission, I may have been responsible for causing another driver of another Saffron (a friend of mine) to not be needed at all on the mission itself. As such, he did not enter Shechem on this visit.
Before midnight, we boarded our saffron and were dropped off at our staging area. Shortly after midnight, we boarded our saffron and entered Shechem all the way to Joseph’s Grave. As we practiced, each squad set out to achieve their individual missions. This includes taking over key vantage points that allow for control of alleys, streets, and the surrounding roof tops, as well as roads that lead to Joseph’s grave.
Part of the problem of a mission like this is that it lacks surprise. Despite the fact that we arrive on a different time of month, each month, the Arabs still have the common experience to know that we consistently visit this specific area. Hence, they could leave traps.
This was something each squad had to check for very carefully, each squad in its own operating area. My squad was tasked with taking over the roof of a building overlooking much of the area including a particularly large, bushy, grassy, field like area. Such areas are most risky, as they are usually more dark at night than the urban environment around it, and because of the freedom of movement they provide. The cover of darkness added to the freedom of movement makes it a trouble makers dream.
As my squad exited the Saffron, we made sure to load our rifle (move a bullet from the magazine to the gun’s chamber) and then proceeded down the streets to our objective. As we moved, other squads went about their business. Some to missions like ours in other directions, some to setup shop at Joseph’s Grave.
Lights went up, some of it was noisy. And all around the grave, is a city full of residences. No doubt, the neighbors knew, we are here and tonight is the night. Yet again, visitors.
As we moved up the dark alley way to our destination, we covered each other and monitored every window. Finally we reached our designated building, it was several stories. All the lights were off, the gate outside was open. We climbed the few steps before the gate, passed the gate, and approached the front door.
Arab doors are built strong, they are large like back in Ottoman times perhaps. And they are tough. While some of us covered our surroundings. Like the gate behind us, so no one else enters, and the sides from which we could be exposed, other soldiers checked if the front doors are locked…carefully. If they are locked, we would have to break the lock. And regardless of the lock situation, we may have trouble on the other side.
Thankfully, the Arabs of the area must also have a common knowledge not to bother locking their building doors (not to be confused with their own apartment or home entrances) because we won’t let a lock threaten the security of visitors.
The door was unlocked, we followed our training as we entered the building. It opened to a narrow entrance hall that quickly led to long (from wall to wall) but narrow stairs. There were several flights of them to the roof. At the end of the first flight was a mat with many pairs of shoes on it. Inside must have been a sleeping family.
We quietly proceeded up the stairs, not wishing to disturb anyone more than we have to. On the way to the roof, most flights of stairs led to floors that were still under construction. No lights, in complete darkness we searched for anything suspicious including people or bombs.
In the meantime, we could hear the first few buses being unloaded. Someone with a loud speaker was giving them instructions. At this time, part of our squad was on the roof. While the other part was a few flights lower, monitoring the stairs on the way up to the roof. This way, we were in a position to respond not only from the roof, but also we could have a group on the street within fewer moments than it would take to descend from the roof.
After having split up and gone room by room, carefully looking for any kind of traps or people waiting in the darkness that engulfed us all, I took my position to cover the stairs leading to the roof from my cleared floor. I looked out a window shaped hole in the wall, of the as yet uncompleted structure, I could see civilians running briskly from their bus to the grave site. A mausoleum type building, a large one story structure.
The visitors weren’t afraid. Upon entering the structure I could hear them blowing whistles and horns. It was like Purim time, when everyone makes as much noise as they can with as many noise makers as they can whenever someone says “Haman”. Here we are, in the IDF trying to make this smooth and quiet to bother as few as possible, and there they are rubbing their visit in everyone’s faces.
I felt they were foolish, maybe even stupid. Like being given a cake, but teasing all the other people without cake before proceeding to eat it. I know that if I visit the grave of someone, regardless of their importance to me, I wont be making noise. If anything, all that noise that seemed to me entirely unnecessary was nothing more than a superficial experience.
But I’m a soldier, its not my place to have these opinions.
Maybe they were just very happy to be there, and didn’t consider the noise they were making as a kind of gloating that the entirely Arab populated Shechem couldn’t prevent a visit to a Jewish historical site. Many of the visitors are fervent religious people with a political statement to make, I have no doubt. And here you have a political statement coupled with religious meaning. And what political meaning wont express itself in some kind of noise?
Perhaps some are adventure seeking or curious tourists, with a connection to our past, just wanted to join in the celebration. This is just me hoping that at least someone in one of those 20 buses took away something more than a superficial experience to this place.
Regardless of people’s motivations, or connection to a tourist site like Joseph’s Grave, if they’ll keep coming to visit then I’ll keep coming to provide them security.
As the first few bus-loads of people finished up and ran back to their buses, the next few bus loads came to unload their passengers. And the whole story repeated again. They’d pray, they’d make noise, they’d leave. And somehow, we had everything over with hours before the sun would come up. It took us no longer than usual for the whole operation.
In the beginning of the night I found myself a few flights of stairs down from the roof, at the middle to end of the night I found myself on the roof watching through my gun’s sights the streets and windows around but mostly the door to the roof itself.
As the last busloads of people were exiting the area, I was allowed to pay a visit to Joseph’s Grave myself. My team mate and I quietly and carefully made our way down the stairs, out the gate, down the steps, and through the alley way to Joseph’s Grave site. (The rest of our squad, stayed up on the roof to continue providing security. Upon my return to the roof, the rest of the squad could choose to pay a visit while my team mate and I remain to operate from the roof.)
As I walked through the front gate of the structure, I wasn’t sure what I would find. The structure was obviously built by some Ottoman Sultan, it had the usual signs of Muslim design. There were vast areas of ground, where gardens could have been planted. Yet nothing was there, probably due to Arab interference. After all, we are there just a few hours a night while the Arabs can demolish and uproot whatever they want all month long.
More than once visitors to the grave find it in a state of disarray and graffiti covered, and they spend much of their energies cleaning it only to leave it in the hands of the Arab population again.
I walked on until I found, soon after, the room where the tomb was built. Under it, lay Joseph’s Grave. A religious man was praying to its side, another man was laying face down on top of the tomb, crying.
Another man would later stand to the other side, face down, and pray as well.
It was strange to me to see a human being laying on top of a tomb. He was hysterically crying too.
They knew it was time to go, but couldn’t endure all too well the thought of abandoning once again this site of our heritage. I don’t know what they prayed for, but my guess is that it be for a day when a visit to this grave could be done in the day time and without fear of harassment.
I do not remember praying. I remember feeling tremendously overwhelmed by history, and by the future. For a moment, the present was awkward to me.
Here was a crucial point of our past before me, and our visit here is a symbolic telling of our future. It was the present that did not fit, my gun, my helmet, my bullet proof vest, my combat vest…And this hysterically crying man.
This should be a place of ceremony, not missions.