Sends IDF Humanitarian Officers to Checkpoints
pass through the Kalandia (Qalandiya) IDF security checkpoint daily.
This Palestinian women who had problems with her ID papers speaks
with an IDF Humanitarian Officer.
Minutes after this photograph was taken she passed through Kalandia
to visit her family.
Photo: Turkish News Agency
by Joel Leyden
Jerusalem --- April
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
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.
of a small office in Tel Aviv, program director Col. Bezalel Triber
is constantly on the telephone. He supervises all of the Humanitarian
officers who are posted in Jericho, Kalandia (Qalandiya), Bethlehem
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.
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.
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."
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
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
wake up before sunrise and finish our shifts before midnight.
We find that our best friends are a M-16, a warm cup of coffee
and a smile.
As a father of three
small children, I keep an eagle's eye out for mothers carrying babies
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.
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, a warm cup of coffee and a smile. 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.