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Four Weeks Out in Shechem

By B. Garson

Three months before my call-up date for reserve duty, I got a letter from the company commander with the ominous words, "We will be patrolling the bypass road south of Nablus." Nablus, or Shechem, conjures up frightful images. The city has been basically Judenrein for years, even more so since the Palestinians took over Joseph's Tomb last year. I always imagined I would feel more at ease strolling around Tehran or Beirut. Of course we wouldn't be going inside the city itself (which is in Territory A, making it off-limits to Israeli security forces), but even the prospect of coming within a few miles seemed harrowing enough.

I hid the letter from my wife, but I couldn't get thoughts of Shechem out of my mind. The High Holy Days were coming up and I kept thinking that this could easily be my last Rosh Hashanah. Almost every day during the forty days leading up to Yom Kippur, I found myself literally praying for my life.

After a few days of training exercises, we arrived at the base near the bypass road. Our unit was replacing a company of regular enlisted soldiers who, for the past five months, had been patrolling our assigned area. Before they dashed off we managed to ask a few questions. "Are things pretty quiet around here?" one soldier from my unit inquired casually. "Yeah, sure. Things are usually quiet enough." This reply was enough to allay many of our concerns. Although most of the soldiers in my unit had done at least one tour of duty in Lebanon or Gaza during their enlisted years, no one had been in a place like this for five years or more.

Hours later we had a rough awakening. As soon as night fell, shots were fired in the direction of one of the outposts we were manning. Two Palestinians had set out from the village on the other side of the hilltop, crept to the edge of the trees and fired a few shots at a soldier on guard duty. After a brief exchange, they turned back and disappeared into the trees, retreating into Territory A.

No one got much sleep at the outpost that night. They had not been expecting this kind of reception. Welcome to Shechem.

*    *    *

As a religious soldier, I never felt very comfortable with my overwhelmingly secular company. The army tends to bring the worst out in people. I found the talk tedious at best, and more often ranging from crass to offensive. Luckily this assignment kept most of the company busy enough to keep idle conversation to a minimum. But still, during 3:00 a.m. breaks on the grinding 8-hour patrols, one of the soldiers in the jeep invariably struck up a conversation. Tonight Ayal Sela was commanding my jeep, and he kept the conversation lively.

Ayal was quite different from the rest of the men in my company. At 39 he was one of the oldest among us, but he always seemed to be racing around with tremendous bursts of energy, whether it was instructing the driver to charge up a steep, muddy road or hopping out of the jeep to investigate suspicious movements. At the base I had seen him play chess with the same driven intensity. Now he was engaging me in a probing conversation that seemed to contain all of this bundled energy. I had been mostly mum for the past week, but somehow he got me talking and managed to extract things from my past that even my wife doesn't know about yet.

Later I parried and got him to reveal a bit of his past as well. Not surprisingly, Ayal had been quite an adventurer in his youth. He had spent close to a decade traveling around the world and working at various jobs. He told me about a stint as an ice-cream truck driver in Topeka and working his fingers to the bone on an Alaskan fishing boat.

I began to think that Ayal had been like me in my own adolescence and delayed adolescence, and sought confirmation for my theory. "In one of his poems Vachel Lindsay talks about that unique sense of freedom when you're on the road and have parted with your very last dollar. I bet you know what that feels like…"

"Huh? In all my years of traveling, I never had less than $2,000 in my pocket. And after my wife and I had worked for a few years in the States, we went back to Israel with $100,000 in cash in our shoes…Last dollar! Ho, ho, I knew it! I knew it! I could tell from the start: you're a wanna be Flower Child from the West Coast. I knew it!"

Of course I vigorously denied the accusation, but Ayal glanced back at me and saw that I had started fidgeting. I tried to explain that he hadn't grown up in the United States and didn't know the soul of a West Coast kid as well as he might think, that there were many subtle nuances among Americans that he missed, but he had already picked up the night-vision binoculars and was peering off into the dark. Suddenly he had returned to his officer mode, and a moment later we were flying down another bumpy road and skidding around the sharp curves.

One or two nights later, once again I found myself on a late-night patrol with Ayal. This time he directed the conversation to more philosophical topics. Soon we arrived at the subject of death. I took advantage of the opportunity to pop a theological question. "How do secular people explain how everyone who returns from a near-death experience tells just about the same story?" For a moment he fixed his eyes on the heavy clouds rolling across the moon, and then his attention returned to the jeep and the question I had posed. But he no longer seemed very interested in the topic, and dismissed it with a lame excuse. Once again we set off into the night.

Over the course of the next few days I didn't see much of Ayal. The long patrols seemed longer now. One day I returned from a routine shift, dragged myself and all my heavy gear out of the jeep and headed for the showers. An hour later I saw a bunch of soldiers gathered around the radio in the "war room," straining to hear. I went over and saw that no one was talking. "What's going on?" I whispered. "Someone in the jeep got shot. He's in serious condition." Everyone had a look of quiet panic on his face.

"Who is it?" I asked. An older soldier standing next to me quietly pointed at the name of the driver on the duty chart. I was startled. "He's just a kid, barely in college," I thought. Then I noticed that Ayal was commanding that patrol and that it was the same jeep I had been in just an hour earlier.

I saw no reason to stand around the war room among the sullen group of men holding their silent vigil, but as I wandered off I realized there was absolutely nothing for me to do. Then I did what every normal Israeli does whenever he or she is anywhere near the vicinity of a terrorist attack: I called home.

After another trip to the war room I realized that I had misunderstand my informant, for he had actually been pointing to the next name on the list: Sela. Ayal? But Ayal has kids. Ayal has already seen everything and done everything. I couldn't imagine him lying on a stretcher bleeding.

I went into my room, sat down on my cot and began to read Tehillim [Psalms]. Then somehow, despite the tension, the effects of my long nightshift got the best of me and I fell into a restless sleep.

Someone stepped into the room and I jolted out of bed. "How is he?"

"He passed away," the soldier said quietly.

*    *    *

That evening two officers from the brigade's rabbinical staff came to our barracks asking for the company commander. I heard them ask various mundane questions and gather Ayal's personal belongings. Then I remembered that Ayal had a wife waiting for him at home. I tried to assure myself that she must be an exceptionally strong woman. After all, she had kept up with Ayal during several years of his travels abroad. Yet all that evening I kept imagining the scene at their apartment. At about 8:00, about the time Ayal would normally come home, two polite officers would come knocking at the door, and then the three young children would see their mother start weeping uncontrollably.

At the base everyone was morose. Soldiers walked around with blank expressions on their faces. The volleyball net was taken down. Radios were kept on low volume. Gradually the solemnity transformed into anger. "No more Mr. Nice Guy out there," one soldier said, referring to how we handle Palestinian traffic on ostensibly closed roads, and other soldiers voiced assent. But the next day there was hardly a single vehicle out on the roads. Apparently one of the well-known rules of the game says that when an IDF officer gets killed, the locals stay out of the army's way for a while.

When the three soldiers who had been with Ayal came back to the base, they were visibly changed. They had a tight bond that anyone could see at a glance. Was it because they had been shot at by three heavily armed terrorists? Because they had shot several rounds of ammunition at live targets? Because each of them knew he might have killed a man? Because when the shooting stopped, they saw their captain lying dead on the deck?

For several days, I felt an urge to find out everything I could about what had taken place before, during and after the shootout. I spoke to the three soldiers who had been with Ayal in the jeep, the soldier who had been in the war room at the time and heard all of the reports from the field, the lookout who witnessed the entire incident from start to finish, the reinforcements who arrived 15 minutes after the shooting began and the doctor and team of medics who evacuated Ayal by helicopter after it was already too late to help. Based on all of these accounts I pieced together the following: Ayal had been standing outside the jeep when suddenly a volley of shots burst out. He fell almost immediately with two severe chest wounds, despite the bulletproof vest he was wearing. The other three soldiers with him took cover alongside the jeep and saw that the shots were coming from behind a mound of earth some thirty yards away. The subsequent exchange of gunfire lasted 10-15 minutes, and when the battle had ended, the three attackers lay dead, while the three IDF soldiers remained unhurt. The dead Palestinians were identified as Hamas activists from Shechem.

(In terms of media coverage, the event was a classic example of the marvels of the Palestinian propaganda machine. Within hours of the attack, Arafat publicized allegations that the Red Crescent ambulance that arrived on the scene soon after the first shots were heard had been ordered by an IDF officer to remain at a distance, and by the time they were permitted to approach, all three Palestinian gunmen lay dead. This is basically the sum of events my mother heard on the radio the next day halfway around the world. Presumably tens of millions of people heard similar reports. Thus Arafat effectively turned a terrorist attack by Hamas militants into accusations that the IDF blocks ambulances. Meanwhile probably less than two dozen people know that the paramedics in that Red Crescent ambulance later stood off to the side and refused to treat Ayal as he lay on the ground dying from his wounds.)

"Doesn't it just make you want to cry," one of the soldiers said lamely to the brigade rabbi the next day. "A widow and three orphans…"

"And if it had been a twenty-year-old kid who was not yet married, it wouldn't make you want to cry?" he said.

In my mind I played the battle scene over and over again, imagining the two fateful bullets entering Ayal's flesh from the openings at the top and one of the sides of the bulletproof vest. I speculated how long he had remained conscious, what he had thought and said, how the medics had treated him 45 minutes later as he lay dying. These macabre scenes remained with me day and night.

Then I began to recall the conversations I had shared with Ayal the week before. He had told me how he spent his free time with his kids and I could almost picture their faces, though I had never seen a photograph. I remembered the story about the $100,000 and wondered how they fit all those bills into four shoes. Then suddenly I recalled our conversation about near-death experiences and a shudder ran down my spine.

"I told you so, Ayal," I whispered, and climbed back into the jeep.


from the January 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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