Friday, July 18, 2014

Driving through Gaza City at Midnight

I remember that the streets were very narrow, very dark. The mosques were empty and the stores had their shutters down. It was quiet; there was no one about in the middle of the night. And, I remember feeling very safe, sitting in the back seat of an Israeli army jeep driving through Gaza City, even while wearing the green uniform that identified me as an IDF soldier.

This was long ago, in the late 1970s, when I was doing my three years of conscripted service in the army. Some ten years after Israel captured the Gaza Strip in the Six Day War, the area was mostly peaceful. Israeli soldiers had frequently fought Palestinian militants based in Gaza, but when I arrived, I really didn't have anything to fear.

My short stay in Gaza happened before there were any Israeli settlements there. It was before the violence of the first Intifada, and almost 30 years before Israel dismantled its settlements as part of the unilateral disengagement plan.

Hamas, designated as a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States, Canada, and many other countries, took over the Gaza Strip in 2007. From its Gaza base, Hamas continued to launch terrorist operations targeting Israeli soldiers and civilians. More than 1,200 rockets have been fired into Israel since the start of the latest outbreak of hostilities.

As I write these lines, Israeli forces are on the ground in Gaza; an Israeli soldier lost his life overnight.

With my father at an army base; I was apparently on guard duty at the time.

I had no fears at all entering Gaza as a teenager serving in the Israeli army. At the time, Gaza was just another Palestinian area under Israeli control, raising no unusual concerns. It was an era of peaceful coexistence. My family had visited Jericho and freely driven through Ramallah and Nablus on our travels in Israel. My father used to take a daily bus trip via Hebron on his way to a job in Beer Sheva. Workers from Bethlehem came every day to their jobs in Jerusalem. Israelis shopped in the markets of Tulkarm and Kalkilya. Gaza was just as quiet as these other cities and towns.

I must clarify that I did not serve in the army as a combat soldier. Due to a lowered physical profile, I served most of my time in uniform at a medical supply base in the center of Israel. The rest of my service in the Nahal army branch was devoted to establishing a new kibbutz in Israel's southern desert.

It was a bit exciting for me to be part of an army unit setting up a new base in the Gaza Strip, not far from the Mediterranean Sea. I'm not sure today, where exactly this base was located, but at the time, I remember it being on a desolate hill, surrounded by sand dunes. There were no Palestinian homes or fields in sight. The prefabricated buildings had never been used before. Water arrived daily in a tanker truck. A noisy generator provided electricity in the mess hall.

We served many shifts of guard duty at the base, although it wasn't clear what we were guarding against. One dark night, when the stars seemed to be swallowed by an unfamiliar sky, a shot rang out. One of the soldiers had heard a suspicious noise and, in an infringement of standing orders, had quickly fired. It was just a mule, grazing nearby; the animal escaped unscathed. That single, misguided shot was probably the scariest thing of my entire army service.

My sisters, Debby and Judy, came to visit me at the base.

For some reason, I gravitated into an administrative position. My job was to go out each morning and list the activities of my fellow soldiers, who were busy stretching lengths of barbed-wire fencing, something we called concertina, to protect the base. Even though I was far from being an officer, I felt a bit haughty in my clerical duty. It gave me a chance to talk to the other soldiers, and kept me from participating in the manual work.

One morning I approached the sharp barbs of the fencing, ready to list the names of the soldiers in my notebook. I don't recall exactly how it happened, but I fell against the fence, deeply gashing the palm of my hand. As I held a cloth against the blood, I hurried back to the base's office to get bandaged.

All my life I've had a problem seeing blood, especially when it's pouring out of a wound in my body. Arriving in the office, I saw a mass of red on my hand. I passed out. The next thing I knew, I was lying on the linoleum floor, with a damp cloth pressed against my forehead. But, I couldn't see much of anything else. As I fainted, I had landed on my glasses, breaking one of the lenses.

I was sent north, away from the Gazan base. I hurried to an optician to fix my glasses. After a brief vacation, I was reassigned to the medical supply unit. I would never return to the Gaza Strip.

This all sounds so trivial now, when young Israeli soldiers are fighting in Gaza, endangering their lives so that the citizens of Israel, including me, can live in security, without the fear of rockets falling from the sky. Maybe someday, the Gaza Strip will be free of Hamas, offering a chance of peaceful coexistence. Maybe one day, it will again be possible to drive safely through the streets of Gaza City at midnight.

With my mother; this time I'm in dress uniform at a different base.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. Your current photo looks a lot like your father looked back in the late '70s. I'm almost finished with Valley of Thracians. You manage to keep up the intrigue and weave the characters and plot together nicely! And I like getting Bulgarian and Thracian history in the bargain! I'll do an Amazon review when I'm finished.