Israeli Army Reserve Duty in the Gaza Strip


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Reserve Duty in Gaza

By Steven Plaut

"Fare thee well, O Gaza, for we are parting;

Fare thee well, O Gaza, and let's not see one another any more."

The words are from one of the more popular songs heard on Israeli radio these days, with "Oriental" melody and instrumentation. The song is screaming out in high decibels from the ghetto-blaster in the room of the regular soldiers next door in the barracks. The scene is an Israeli Defense Forces base deep inside the Strip. No, not Sunset, but Gaza. In semi-tropical Gaza in February of one of Israel's worst winter droughts, it has been raining nonstop since our troupe of reservists checked in to the base for a 22-day tour of duty, here amidst the sand dunes along the Gaza Coast.

Gaza, land of the Philistines, land of the HAMAS Islamic terrorists, land of the soon-to-be implemented Israel-PLO autonomy plan. We can see Egypt off in the distance. Gaza, a thorn in the side of the Jews throughout history, never quite liberated from the Philistines during the First Temple, firmly subdued and held only by Alexander Yanai of the Hasmonean dynasty established by the Maccabees, the territory in which Palestinian terrorism was reborn in the 1950s under Egyptian sponsorship, and where it has been thriving under the intifada. If this is "occupied territory," I suppose I am an "occupier," but have been called worse things. The base has an army name, but within hours I have renamed it in my own mind Camp Jerkwater, and the name sticks.

Jerkwater bears little resemblance to the "fire-bases" of the Vietnam movie genre, and might more properly be called a "water-base". It serves the navy, sits just a few meters from the Gazan shore of the Mediterranean Sea, and we are being drenched by torrential rains apparently sent by the angry Philistine god Dagon. North of here is Gaza City, a cesspool of Islamic fanaticism and violence, the city in which the chained and blinded Samson brought the house down upon his Philistine tormentors. We are near the Gush Katif settlements, a collection of Jewish farming settlements populated mostly by Orthodox Jews from the center of Israel and immigrants. Just over yonder behind the dunes sits one of the Strip's seamier refugee camps. A few weeks ago one of the camp's leading citizens knocked on the door of a Jewish citrus grower north of Tel Aviv, asking for help in getting his car started. As soon as the helpful grower was under the hood, our kindly neighbor stabbed him to death.

The Strip is home to some 800,000 Palestinian Arabs, most of whom would like nothing better than to see us and our ilk buried deep beneath the sand and mud of Camp Jerkwater. The northern two­thirds of the Strip are covered with citrus orchards stretching in all directions, now lush and green from the rains. The southern third, home to Jerkwater, is mostly desolate sand dunes. Everywhere one looks there are PLO flags waving eerily from almost every Arab dwelling; the Israeli policy since the Rabin-Arafat handshake has been to allow them to fly freely.

The Strip is filled with squalid refugee camps and slums, although there are also middle-class and wealthy neighborhoods, filled with luxurious housing the average Israeli can only dream of, reflecting the wealth that some Gazans have accumulated from commercial activities under the years of Israeli "occupation." The Strip is also home and base to the Muslim terrorist movements, HAMAS and the Islamic Jihad, and of course to every imaginable faction of the PLO. Among the smiling neighbors of Jerkwater are most of those 400 Muslim extremists that Prime Minister Rabin so thoughtfully returned to their homes from their hilltop of deportation in Lebanon a few weeks ago, just in time to make us feel welcome. Now they are our neighbors, doubtless engaged in nothing but the most wholesome of civic activities.

Jerkwater is a mound of sand and dirt with a few barracks. We reservists have the honor of serving as guards for the station and its indigenous inhabitants, a group of young men and women doing their mandatory army service, the "regulars" or "Sadirniks." They are 19 and 20. Reservists are Israeli men who have finished their regular service and continue to spend quality time away from their homes and families in military service, up to the age of 50. The reservists or Miluimniks sent to guard Olde Jerkwater are mostly recent dischargees in their 20s. I am nearly twice their age, and the oldest jerk in Jerkwater, eight years older than the commanding officer.

As these things go, Jerkwater is considered to be a relatively soft reserve assignment. It is quiet and the surrounding countryside is beautiful and tropical, the sea switching intermittently from stormy to delightful. There is a reef just to the left, on which swimmers can sun in the summer. Air Force fighters roar overhead throughout the day; they must bank and turn here or else, in less than a minute, they will be in Egyptian air space.

If one ignored the geography and politics, it could be a hill anywhere along the Central California coast. The flora is the same. Jerkwater is covered with the long-finger-leaf succulent seen all over the Monterrey Peninsula, sprinkled with pokerweed, cactus, and centered around a few eucalyptus trees. In some ways the surroundings look like a photo from a tourist brochure: countless palm and date trees, flocks of sheep and goats tended by Bedouin shepherds and shepherdesses, the occasional camel or donkey cart. The nights are filled with the croakings of millions of Gazan frogs, enjoying the puddles and pools formed by the recent unusually-hard rains. When the sea is calm, it fills with fishing boats, some actually run by Gazan smugglers.

The food in the navy is considered edible, relatively speaking. We sleep in real barracks, although unheated and my room has no glass in the window. We have real-albeit-unheated showers with real hot water. By contrast, the infantry who fill the Strip consider the navy soldiers to be pampered sissies, who actually need food, toilets and hot water to function. On the other hand, some of the more elite units - like the paratroopers - look down their noses at the infantry because they actually need sleep.

The navy is also considered a relatively civilized branch of the military. The soldiers are well-behaved, and even follow orders, well - sort of, after a fashion, Israeli-style. Things could be far worse, mind you. It does not go below freezing, so frost is not a problem like it was during basic training. We also have real bathrooms with real ceramic fixtures. This in contrast with those Third-World facilities eight years earlier in my cheery basic training bootcamp outside Nablus, originally built by the Jordanians before 1967, in which advanced motor coordination and well-toned thigh muscles are required in order to perform one's duty in the correct military stance. Yet another important life-skill Princeton grad school failed to teach! Ah yes, basic training, in which one eats, sleeps and showers with one's rifle. Which makes the squatting all the more challenging. The memory will never fade of the unfortunate colleague who made a wrong movement in the dark of the latrine, only to discover his rifle fallen into the netherworld below, and then having to clean the thing.

Our duties are actually quite simple. Guard Jerkwater. Just guard. Well, that and occasionally riding shotgun on convoys racing around the Strip. The night we arrive the commander spells out our duties. Back in the center of Israel the army has a tough job, he explains. It has to locate the terrorists. We are blessed with a far simpler assignment. Here we do not have to search for the terrorists because we know exactly where they are. He then traces out a 360-degree circle around himself.

Jerkwater lives within its own bubble. There is death and terror just beyond the perimeter, with shootings and Molotov cocktails part of the daily routine of the Gaza Strip. The current joke is that the Gaza Pizza Hut is so popular because on the way home one gets a free cocktail. Rocks are hurled at soldiers and civilians, rocks that can maim and kill. The son of a colleague just had his cheek bones shattered by a rock and nearly lost an eye.

There are dangers in unexpected places. Four months earlier two hitchhiking Gaza soldiers hopped into the back seat of a car with yellow Israeli plates just down the road, driven by two men with yarmulkes and Orthodox side curls. The two men were HAMAS terrorists in disguise, who murdered the two soldiers at point-blank range with a pistol from the front seat. One of the soldiers was a navy reservist heading back from Camp Jerkwater, home to his wife and child. The HAMAS ringleader responsible, one Mohammed Shahin, will be killed in a firefight with the army in Khan Yunis four days after I am discharged from Jerkwater.

Once within the barbed wire, the main features of life are the cold and the boredom. We do day and night watches and patrols, each lasting four grueling hours. The time passes at an excruciatingly slow pace.

In one sense I have lucked out. I am serving with Don, a childhood buddy from Philadelphia who grew up with me in the Habonim youth movement. Doing reserves with a childhood chum is the army equivalent of hitting the lotto. We pass the time gossiping and reminiscing, and when that gets boring, we try to recreate dialog from TV reruns, tell jokes, and so on. The young Sadirniks refer to us as the elders of Zion, pitying us in our dotage. In drab green uniforms (No, Private Benjamin, they DON''T come in other colors) we look like large middle-aged olives.

Army life changes one's personality. Upon arrival, one starts to yawn, complain and ask when do we eat. There is a dinner gong that is rung when chow is served. Slowly we become Pavlovian experimentees, and by the third day start to drool when the gong sounds. Life starts to resemble a dog food commercial, as the happy puppies run to the kitchen in response to the ringing. Canaan is being caninized, and not just in food. Around the perimeter, there are kennels that have been brought in. Some army camps have begun to use German shepherds to supplement the guard teams, and Jerkwater is next in line. By the end of the first week, I find myself experiencing an irresistible desire to crawl inside one of the kennels and go to sleep. The ultimate insult, a university professor doing a dog's military job.

The commander is a reservist like ourselves, who moved as a youth with his family from Brazil to a kibbutz. He and two more of the reservists are accountants. He answers field telephones with the greeting, "Internal Revenue Service." I suggest as a battle plan that if the HAMAS attacks the station, we send out the accountants and really screw up their books. That should teach them. The commander likes to pretend we are in a five-star hotel. Passing by some rainy night he yells at the guards, "Hey guys, let's go downstairs and sit in the lobby!", or "Where is that damn concierge with the espressos?"

The Master Sergeant is the camp nudnik. His age, height and weight are each exactly 24. When not guarding, he fills our lives with deep meaning by sending us off to clean the latrine, pick up orange peels and cigarette butts, and so on. I suggest short-sheeting his bed as in summer camp, but Don thinks he is too short to notice. He likes to assign people to tables and seats in the mess hall, which I find infuriating, but Don shrugs and notes that every classy restaurant has its own Maitre D'. One day someone bursts into the mess hall yelling where is the medic, the Master Sarge feels ill. The whole room erupts with the chant, "E - NE - MA!! E - NE - MA!!"

It is hard for one who has never experienced it to imagine the cold of tropical Gaza in February, especially at night. The ferocious winds seem to be blowing from all directions at once, but especially from off the sea. I curse the rain, until a dry weekend produces blinding sandstorms, far worse. The long 2:00 to 6:00 AM watch is the hardest. I wear the thermal underwear my brother has sent from New England, over which sits the uniform, on top of that a sweater, then the bullet-proof flak vest, then the goose-down ski coat from California, covered by the army winter coat and the ammunition belt, holding ammunition clips in its pouches and Sugar Waffles in other pockets designed to hold hand grenades. And I am still freezing.

Sugar Waffles are the great military secret of the Israeli Defense Forces. Wafers that come in lemon, chocolate and vanilla flavors. Without them the army would collapse. They are everywhere. Occasionally, infantry mudrats come by the gate begging for handouts. The commander climbs up to the guardtower to make sure I am not dozing. I pass him a Sugar Waffle. He nibbles in British twit manner with pinkie raised, and says, "Delightful! Did you make it yourself?"

A long afternoon in the guardtower. I watch through the field binoculars as a pretty teenage shepherdess cajoles her goats. Fearless birds wander into the tower, standing a meter away from me, staring. In exchange for Sugar Waffle crumbs they come even closer. The shepherdess has approached our perimeter too closely with her flock, and is being shooed away by a guard, then walks away muttering curses.

Down beneath the watchtower a jeep has come inside the perimeter, carrying a surveying crew, mapping out the area just to the north of the station for a new infantry camp. The crew is headed by a young lieutenant, exuding competence and confidence, barking orders to a crew of four soldiers who scamper obediently up and down sand dunes, moving about the surveying equipment. The lieutenant is Ethiopian, the other soldiers are "white". Snapshot of Israel in the 1990s.

It is Friday morning, the Muslim Sabbath. It is the last week of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. I am on the bus heading back to Jerkwater after spending nearly 20 hours at home on a short furlough. The bus radio is reporting a large demonstration of "greens" and animal rights nuts protesting the conditions under which the dolphins are kept in the Tel Aviv Dolphinarium. The dolphins eat well, sleep whole nights, spend the day playing, and in general have it much better than does your faithful reservist at Jerkwater. Suddenly the radio blasts a news flash: there has been a massacre in the Machpelah shrine of Hebron perpetrated by one Baruch (nee Benjy) Goldstein, an ex-American and fanatic member of one of the splinter movements of followers of the late "Rabbi" Meir Kahane. The passengers are shocked, none more than me. The mass murder - it will later become evident that he murdered 29 people, which is actually a mini-atrocity by Middle East standards - is sickening enough, but the bastard had to do it five days into my own winter holiday in Gaza. Can there have been a less appetizing time to be in Gaza since the Philistine Goliath stalked the territory three thousand years ago?

Back in Jerkwater, the station is on heightened alert, and will remain so for weeks. In all directions but the sea there are ugly clouds of thick black smoke rising from the Palestinian towns and refugee camps, from burning automobile tires and occasional burning automobiles. From time to time automatic gunfire is heard in the distance, and occasionally an explosion. The sights and sounds are surrealistic, as if on a drive-in movie screen viewed from inside the perimeter. Gaza is under curfew and sealed off, meaning all the terrorists have to stay out of Israel and in here in the Strip with us.

In the evening I am dozing when the camp siren goes off. The entire base scrambles to battle positions. The loudspeaker tells us this is not a drill but a real alert. Groggily I climb into the fortified trench, banging my knee in my half-awake rush. My helmet is on my arm, as there is not a single one in the entire base that fits my head. Don yells at me to prepare photon torpedoes and phasers. A short while later the alert is canceled and I limp out of the position, the only wounded victim of the HAMAS for that evening. For the next week similar alerts and scrambles will help us pass the time.

The HAMAS and their PLO comrades are out for blood. Arafat's Fatah representatives in the "occupied territories" are calling for "revenge," not against the depraved perpetrator - who is dead - but against any Jew anywhere. Arabs are attacking synagogues throughout Europe, and shoot up a van full of Hasidim on the Brooklyn Bridge. Palestinians, enraged by the desecration of the holy shrine, respond by desecration of a holy shrine, heaving rocks from the Temple Mount down upon praying Jews by the Western Wall. Rabin responds pusillanimously, ordering the Wall and its prayer grounds to be evacuated, a move without precedent, caving in to Arab violence and savagery.

It is the golden opportunity for Arafat to exhibit for all his new Israel-bestowed badge of Statesmanship. It is the chance of a lifetime for Arafat to distance himself and his movement from terrorism and bloodlust, to exhibit political maturity and leadership. He could call for patience and avoidance of violence, valiantly demanding that Arabs refrain from "revenge" against individual Jews who had nothing to do with the Hebron massacre, insisting that it would be unjust to regard the Jewish people as responsible for the acts of a single lunatic, pointing out that the Arabs themselves had performed an endless series of similar massacres for which they owed penance, including numerous attacks on worshippers in synagogues (those in Istanbul and Paris come to mind), a massacre of Jews in Hebron in 1929 with twice the carnage as Goldstein's, and of course countless murders of their own Arab brethren, at least 30 murders during the intifada for each victim of Goldstein. Arafat could point out that the decades of massacres and terrorism by Arabs had been performed not by lone fanatics but at the direct command of the Palestinian "leadership".

Alas, Arafat wanted to hear nothing of statesmanship, but was reverting to form - indeed to caricature, and the "New Middle East" of Peres, Beilin and Rabin was looking more and more like the familiar bloody old one. Arafat accused the Israeli army of carrying out the massacre at government orders, screamed for revenge and blood, ordered his followers to revert to terror. This is the "moderate" in whose hands the Israeli government intends to trust the fate of the country? And for good measure, when Muslims bomb a church near Beirut a few days later, killing 10 and injuring 60, an event the media marks with instantaneous amnesia, the PLO adds its voice to those of Syria and its Lebanese puppets accusing Israel of perpetrating that deed as well. Arab moderation is not looking too well.

The violence is not restricted to the "territories." There are Arabs rioting in Jaffa and Nazareth and in the Bedouin town of Rahat outside Beer Sheba. The Bedouins serve in the Israeli army and are usually considered as loyal and moderate as Israel could wish. A Bedouin youth dies in the riots, and is buried in a coffin draped with a PLO flag, this - not in the West Bank or Gaza - but in the Israeli heartland. Israeli Arabs attack soldiers and police with rocks and knives. The hatred in their faces, after two generations of citizenship and democratic education, matches anything that can be seen here in Gaza.

Despite the media myth concerning the "brutality" of the Israeli army as it "suppresses" the Palestinians, the foremost concern of the military seems to be to avoid shooting rioting Arabs, no matter what the provocation. At least once a day - and sometimes more - we drill the Procedures for Opening Fire (POF), a long list of instructions and prohibitions designed for dealing with rioters, attackers, and suspicious persons, starting with warnings and ending with shooting into the air and then - where there is no choice - at an attacker's legs or car tires. The POF is so unwieldy that more than one soldier has suggested in earnest that a lawyer be assigned to every army unit. It is not unusual for soldiers to be placed in jeopardy because of fears of prosecution for violating the POF. If we drilled shooting the way we drill the POF, we would all be crack marksmen.

One theory as to why Palestinian violence has escalated so is based on their awareness of the POF constraints under which Israeli soldiers operate. Where else can rioters throw rocks at soldiers and police with near impunity? Certainly not in Los Angeles, as the scores dead in the riots there demonstrated. One of the reservists proffers his own preferred alternative POF: any bugger approaching him in a threatening manner gets wasted and then he hires himself an expensive lawyer.

The days go by and Jerkwater is beginning to lose its rustic country charm. The sun has come out and the day has warmed. Jerkwater is bedecked in its springtime holiday outfit, with wildflowers springing up from the sands, drenched by the recent rains. Large sand lizards come out, sunning themselves on rocks and alongside the fortified positions. They bob their heads up and down in a form of sexual provocation, although it really doesn't do much for me.

Outside, the world might be going mad, but inside the perimeter the hours go by painstakingly and in slow motion. Boredom and sleep-deprivation are the main features of army life. Don and I try to fight off the boredom by calling one another Trapper and Hawkeye. It doesn't work.

It is my 43rd birthday today, and I have celebrated by pulling the very worst guard duty possible, the double-whammy. It begins with a 6:00 to 10:00 PM night shift, followed by a 2:00 to 6:00 AM shift; in between the two shifts one can sleep for maybe ten or twenty seconds. In the morning I have also been selected for the honor of riding shotgun on one of the convoys. By Murphy's Law, I conjecture, a convoy on my birthday should get attacked by rock-throwers. Don and I survived the 60's together. If they throw rocks at us, he notes, at least this will give a new meaning to the expression "getting stoned for your birthday."

When guarding or convoying, we are supposed to carry no identification papers except for an army ID card, used if taken prisoner. One of the reservists finds this amusing, saying that after all it would be one thing for the HAMAS to take him prisoner, but absolutely unforgivable if the bastards used his credit cards.

Gaza is filled with eccentrics and the bizarre. On Sabbath, the settlers, mostly religious, go for long strolls, oblivious to any dangers. Among them is a group of Burmese, members of a tribe from the jungles of East Asia who believe they are descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel, who converted and live as Orthodox Jews in Gaza._ One sees them all over the Strip. The men sport yarmulkes and the fringes from their tzitziyot dangle down their sides. Two walk by on Saturday and point at us up on Jerkwater, probably saying to one another, that's funny - they don't look Jewish.

The radio reports that some sharks were sighted off the Gazan coast. Perhaps they have smelled our mess hall. Eron, one of the Sadirniks, who has grown up in a secular home but has now become very religious, has just come back from a furlough and is looking low. I am very scared and worried, he explains. Well, I think we are okay, I try to reassure him; surely the army has things under control. He looks at me as if I am from Mars. Who the hell is talking about that nonsense, he says indignantly, I am worried about the Rebbe. The Lubavicher Rabbi in Brooklyn is close to death.

There is a bungalow colony just across a field from Jerkwater, mostly empty, a remnant of better times in Gaza from before the intifada, with a few Burmese in residence. Late at night I hear loud singing, apparently from some folk troupe, slow bluegrass and old folksongs.

"In the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines,

And you shiver when the cold winds blow."

No pines in Gaza. Dates, palms, tamarisks, eucalyptus, but no pines. I join in the chorus, calling out across the field but they cannot hear. A folk troupe here? In Gaza? Their impresario must have gone berserk.

The radio is my salvation. It takes an unbearable watch and turns it into something merely unpleasant. We are prohibited from reading while on watch, and dozing off is the surest path to a military prison.

Today is International Women's Day, and an Israeli feminist is telling how Israeli women's groups want to build a battered women's shelter in Gaza. The treatment of women in Arab society is about as bad as it can get. Seems that the Palestinian "feminists" have always been far too busy running around the world attending women's conferences in which they bash Israel and so never got around to setting up a battered women's center. Hence the Israeli feminists are taking the initiative.

On another channel a radio call-in quiz show is in progress. The announcer gives out the clues. Here is the first caller, one Abdul Karin from the Nassurat refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. His guess is that the clues refer to Dr. Yosef Burg, one of Israel's founders and a cabinet minister for decades. Karin knows Burg's political and personal history down flat. The announcer asks him if there are a lot of people in the refugee camp who listen to the quiz show, and Karin assures her it is very popular. His knowledge of Burg is impeccable, but alas the guess is wrong and the clues refer to someone else.

The BBC reports that the American State Department is urging all Americans to stay out of the West Bank and Gaza, and even avoid Nazareth. I repeat this to the commander and ask him if it is okay if I go home. He roars with laughter, and he tells me a joke as quid pro quo. A penguin wanders into the army camp and befriends a soldier who walks about with her hand-in-flipper. The commander tells him to take the penguin to the zoo. Next day the commander sees them together and asks what happened. I took her, says the soldier, and tonight I'll take her to the movies.

Exactly one week has passed since the massacre in Hebron. It is early Friday morning. I have lucked out and got a weekend furlough, good until Sunday morning. The sun has just come up and it will be a warm sunny day. At 7:00 AM I am outside the perimeter awaiting the bus, carrying my laundry, my M-16 and two or three clips of bullets. There is a mist over the palms that makes the surroundings of the camp look like the African Savannah. The birds are singing. The hothouses that belong to the Gush Katif settlements, bursting with winter vegetables, begin about 200 meters away and stretch off into the distance. The quintessence of calm and tranquility.

The tranquility is an illusion. There are three terrorists hiding in the bushes somewhere nearby. In exactly half an hour, at 7:30 AM, they will enter one of these hothouses and attack two settlers with knives and machetes. One of the settlers will be seriously hurt, but will draw a pistol and kill one attacker and wound another. In two hours I will hear the first report of the attack on the bus radio while riding north.

Jerkwater is undergoing suburbanization. The infantry are building a position just to the north. It is completed in a single day, consisting of some tents, a large flag on a flagpole, a water tower and some barbed wire.

Coming back to the camp, the bus passes by a Peace Now demonstration near the checkpoint at the old green line, with signs that say "I am Not Afraid of Peace." Of course no one in Israel is afraid of peace, just of "peace." Next to the checkpoint is a large lot where Gazan farmers bring their produce and sell it to Israeli "smugglers" who then transport the food into Israel, defying all the efforts of Israel's official agricultural cartels to keep the food out and to keep Israeli food prices high.

It is a cold night and the rains are returning. The mess hall served dubious hotdogs today, and - let me tell you - they definitely did not answer to any higher authority. I try to invent new bedtime stories I will tell the kids after I get home: more adventures in Chocolate Land, the land where everything is made of chocolate and where any nasty driver who honks his car at children will have it gobbled it by them.

The radio once again sustains me. Steven Spielberg is in Israel for the screening of his movie on the Holocaust, and Spielberg talks of exploring his Jewish roots. I know of a good place where he can do some exploring, just by taking over for me here on my 10:00 PM to 2:00 AM patrol. The Voice of America, broadcasting out of Rhodes, is playing Texas Swing. The voice of Bob Wills wails on about his San Antonio Rose, deep in the heart of Texas, deep in the bowels of Gaza. I stomp about to the music trying to keep warm.

There have been two shootings in recent days near the checkpoint closest to Jerkwater. And at the Erez checkpoint at the northern tip of the Strip, an alert reservist stops a car with Israeli yellow plates, sees something suspicious, and slips a bullet into the chamber of his semiautomatic. The car tries to make a break for it, but the reservist is too fast. When the shooting stops, there are two dead bodies in the car. One is Ibrahim Salaneh, a leader of the HAMAS' military wing with the blood of at least seven murdered Jews on his hands and that of God knows how many Palestinians. The press releases a news report of an attempt on Rabin's life when he visited Khan Yunis two months back. A bomb was tossed at him but failed to explode. Khan Yunis is a short bicycle ride away from Jerkwater.

The Israeli government has just made the two splinter factions of followers of Kahane illegal, declaring them terrorist organizations, and has suspended habeas corpus for their leaders, arresting them on sight. Rabin and company are trying to curry favor with Arafat and save the negotiations. They are even seriously considering Arafat's demand that an armed international militia be stationed in the West Bank and Gaza - to protect Arabs from the Jews. I wonder if they will also endorse a militia to protect Japanese trawlers from attacks by whales, and protect Newfoundland fur traders from attacks by baby seals. If the "peace process" is so fragile that a single atrocity can jeopardize it and cause the Arabs to revert to xenophobia and blood libel, is it really worthwhile pursuing and taking risks for?

The Kahanists have not actually committed any crime, at least none for which evidence presentable in court exists. Their transgression seems to be that they refused to denounce Goldstein's massacre, and a few even expressed approval. It is a dubious decision for a democracy, where freedom of speech is supposed to be protected even for fanatics and extremists, as long as they engage in no criminal actions. "Betselem" and other politically-correct Israeli leftist civil liberties groups, darlings of the media and ever anxious to defend Palestinians and denounce the government on the weight of allegations by Arabs, suddenly have nothing to say about the denial of due process for the Kahanists. Betselem claims they do not have the resources needed to defend the civil liberties of the settlers.

The Kahanists are being banned for their views, not their actions. They are no more fanatical than the National Front parties in Western Europe, and have perhaps a hundredth of the relative electoral strengths of the European extremists. In an earlier dubious decision the Knesset prohibited the Kahanists from running in elections. In both decisions, the American State Department cheered approval, despite the fact that the Kahanists operate legally in the United States and Israel's actions would be considered violations of the First Amendment if they were taken in America.

The banning of the Kahanists also looks curious in light of the fact that the PLO-surrogate Arab parties not only continue to operate in Israel openly, but are de facto coalition partners of Rabin's minority government. Last year an Arab Communist Party Member of the Knesset openly called upon Gazans to escalate violence and attack Jews, stating, "Rocks are Insufficient." Abdul-Wahab Daroushe, Parliamentary leader of the Arab Democratic Party and an undisguised PLO stand-in, sent letters of support to Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War. Daroushe is visiting Syria, where his first stop is to lay a wreath on the graves of Syrian soldiers who died trying to destroy Israel. Daroushe, a resident of the Galilee, tells a press conference that he cannot abide being referred to as an Israeli Arab, and insists he is a Palestinian.

Uzi Baram, a cabinet minister, calls on the government to make Hebron judenrein, echoing similar calls from the Israeli left. Israel should atone for the Goldstein massacre by ethnically cleansing Hebron. The Israeli doves and some American Jewish liberal organizations have long argued against Jews moving into West Bank areas populated by Arabs, even into Jerusalem suburbs, expressing understanding and sympathy for the position that Arabs feel "violated" and "offended" by having Jews moving into their neighborhoods. The same folks would be the first ones out on the barricades if anyone expressed "understanding" for Southern white rednecks in the US who felt "offended" and "violated" when blacks move into their neighborhoods.

Like the Arab world, the Israeli left is assigning collective guilt and demanding collective punishment of the settlers, very few of whom are Kahanists, punishments never meted out to Palestinians, even after the worst provocations. As one example, three years ago Arab villagers in the West Bank town of Beita attacked a group of hiking Jewish schoolchildren in a pogrom. In the melee, one Jewish girl was killed. The Israeli government never considered a response based on depopulation of Beita, the solution being proposed now for the Jewish settlers of Hebron.

The proposals for depopulation are based on the alleged sympathy felt by the Hebron settlers for Goldstein's atrocity. But only three years have passed since the Palestinians were dancing on the rooftops as Saddam Hussein aimed Scuds at Tel Aviv, and the Palestinian leadership was urging Saddam to dump chemical and biological weapons on the Israeli population. Israel's response at the time to Palestinian calls for genocide was to provide them with free gas masks.

From the watchtower of Jerkwater one looks out over the red tile roofs of the Ganei Tal settlement. This morning a passing car opened up automatic rifle fire at the guards at the gate of the settlement; they emerged with scratches. Drive-by shootings - just like in Los Angeles.

With the world outside the perimeter filled with madness, the insanity of army life is starting to seem normal and sensible. A hawk has landed in the field opposite the watchtower, munching on something. Through the field binoculars I can see it is a chocolate pudding container, a scrap stolen from the scraps upon which our infantry neighbors subsist. Seagulls are bobbing on the gentle swell of the sea. The warm sun makes it harder and harder to keep my eyes open. My kingdom for a nap. Never mind the violence and terror out beyond the dunes. Forget the politicians. I can make my peace with the filth, the food, the cold. Just sleep. Like in the old Song of the Valley of the pioneers: "Rest comes to the weary, and slumber to the toiler." Let me close my eyes. Let me curl up in fetal position. Just for an hour or two.

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