Reserve Duty

Engaging before disengaging

By Arik Glasner

At the central bus station in Be'er Sheva, as I'm waiting with dozens of soldiers for a bus to Tze'elim, a balding guy with a receding chin and lips that seem to stick out in childlike defiance seeks me out. "I'm not doing this reserve duty," he says to me. I give him an astounded look and he immediately explains the blood ties between us: "You also belong to Yosri, right? You're from Misgav, right?" I'm not too sure that I "belong to Yosri" and I've never been in Misgav, but this exchange prompts me to take a closer look at my reserve duty call-up notice and, sure enough, he's right: I do "belong" to an adjutancy officer by the name of Yosri. I have to admit, it's quite reassuring to know that I "belong to Yosri." To know that someone is watching over you.

The bus glides into the station and the column of soldiers and reservists tenses and straightens like a snake that has just eyed a mouse. "I don't care," says my new friend. "Let me finish 30 days in jail and go home to eat lunch with my family. I'm not going to Gush Katif." We move up to the bus and I put my backpack in the baggage compartment. I hate this part where you have to part from your stuff. My new friend looks and laughs: "I didn't even bring clothes," he says.

The bus proceeds further and further away from civilization, into the desert.

 

 

 

 

Yearning for Rafah

Two days later, before boarding the bus that will take us from Tze'elim to Kissufim, my friend motions me aside. "You see? They're threatening to trial me and saying that I'll be doing reserve duty in another few months anyway. But in another few months, there won't be any Gush Katif – you see? The main thing is that I'll be home with my kids now." I tell him that I have to get back to the bus and he suddenly understands the abyss that has opened up between us. "Take care of yourself, and the next time I'll bring you a military snowsuit from home. I've got everything there."

The concentration of dozens of people around the bus allows for a few brief sociological insights. First, I take note of the very large proportion of immigrants from the former Soviet Union among the soldiers. Second, the very large proportion of kippa-wearers among the officers. What's a little confusing about this statistic is the habit of some religious officers to wear a hat or remove their kippa during training exercises, as if they want to make their presence less prominent. Third, the presence of a woman officer.

It falls to me to do guard duty for Rafiah Yam, one of the two secular settlements in Gush Katif. On the one hand, there will be fewer cakes for the soldiers, I'm sure, but on the other hand, I won't run into acquaintances here and will be able to think in peace about the things I want to think about. It turns out that the woman officer, Renana, will be our commander in Rafiah Yam.

We drive to the Kissufim checkpoint, which looks like part of a movie set of Stalingrad in 1943 (concrete barricades, tanks, a mobile kiosk, makeshift parking) where we are put on an armored bus that will disperse us among the settlements. Renana is not permitted to come with us because a minimum of two women is required on an IDF base, so we say a quick goodbye.

We 15 who are being sent to Rafiah Yam are the last ones left on the bus; Rafiah Yam is the southernmost settlement in Gush Katif. We get off next to a building opposite a concrete tower; the little yard in the middle is surrounded by concrete barricades. About 800 meters away, the outskirts of Rafah are visible. Within a few minutes, before we've had a chance to be brought up to speed by the reservists we're replacing, the ravshatz (Hebrew acronym for the military security officer), who is the local commander, drives up in a field vehicle and urges us to take cover behind the concrete barricades. "There's a sniper here who knows his work, so you ought to find a hiding place," he says.

The security officer is very tan; his face is etched with the lines of life; a shortened M-16 is slung over his shoulder and he carries a pistol in his belt. He chooses a cheerful-looking young man with a small build as his victim and says to him: "You look like you're from Sheinkin." Then he addresses all of us, with the same wooden humor: "First, the good news: Our women will prepare a Shabbat meal for you. Now, the bad news: You're spending Shabbat here." When one of us points out that the officer is standing exposed to the sniper, he replies with a tired smile: "I already have a gravestone with my birth date. Only the date of death is missing."

Now he turns serious: "First of all, no one here is going to go settling scores with Arabs, including anyone who knows someone who died in a terror attack. If Ahmed from Umm al Fahm with a blue ID shows up – you let him through. We're not a militia here. Now follow me."

We're asked to walk in the dunes; the road is exposed to snipers. The officer takes advantage of the trek to stick it to the smiley fellow, Yehuda, again: "Even in Sheinkin they walk faster than that. Come on." Yehuda is from Bat Yam. Our commander has us walk all around the settlement, which is surrounded by dunes and located one kilometer from the sea and hundreds of meters from the Egyptian border. All of the obscure-sounding places from the news are within spitting distance: the Girit outpost, the Tencher road, the Philadephi corridor – and this is not the least bit reassuring. To a quiet and melancholic Russian, he says on the way: "What's wrong? Did your ships sink?"

After the briefing, with four of us already manning positions, we return to our quarters. The building is small and filthy – two bedrooms with four bunk beds each; the bathrooms are right off the kitchen and on their lockless doors, someone has hung up a cardboard sign that reads "vacant" on one side and "occupied" on the other.

The schedule for guard duty has to be prepared. Idea for a start-up: producing software that can automatically put such a schedule together. Preparing this schedule is an extremely complicated affair, because it comprises countless parameters (variety of posts, consideration of the desire by some to be on duty together, replacements every time someone goes home, and so on). The task requires a volunteer with a mathematical mind – a doctoral candidate in physics, say – who will stay hunched over the rapidly filling pages and mutter aloud to himself as he makes his various calculations.

I'm supposed to go on guard duty at 10 P.M., so I try to sleep. As always happens with bunk beds, I somehow end up with a top bunk. But I derive satisfaction from my ability to leap smoothly (stepping on just one rung!) up to the top bunk. The proximity of the bathrooms to the "dining room" is more disturbing. There's no chance of any real privacy in a place like this. In this way, too, reserve duty takes you back to adolescence. I fall asleep and in my dream I'm a married man, but for some reason, I'm chasing a teenage girl who is not my wife along a long hallway. Suddenly an alarm goes off and I run to look for my bulletproof vest. A strange dream. What could it mean?

Different discipline

My partner on my first shift is the taciturn Russian, Maxim. We climb up into the guard tower together and for the next four hours exchange maybe five sentences. There's something nice about this total absence of prying. I can sit and think in peace and listen to the radio.

One of the few pleasures of reserve duty comes from an appreciation of the difference between the "discipline" here in comparison to compulsory service. In Tze'elim, I derived real pleasure from jauntily and showily slinging my weapon over my shoulder. Here, with all the snipers, the infiltrations, the scares and alerts, I clutch the rifle butt like an American fighter in a Vietnamese jungle. But in the guard tower, after a little while, I'm once again enjoying the difference between this sort of duty in the reserves and in compulsory service: I adjust the radio, sit down on the chair and smoke. A chilly wind is blowing in from the sea. Life isn't so bad here – until the gunfire starts. We suddenly hear shots and jump up. But then the signal operator notifies us that the gunfire is "okay" – as he would report about every half hour over the next couple of weeks – and we go back to our musings.

In the 1 A.M. quiet and darkness, the radio plays song after beautiful song. One gets carried away listening – until the commercial about prostate exams comes on.

Life enters a loop: four hours of guard duty and six hours of rest. It soon becomes clear: Guard duty in the daytime is preferable, because then you can read without interruption, and at night, the best post is at the front gate, because there's electricity there and you can make coffee. Also, at the front gate
, we get to enjoy the company of sand rats (pale white and not disgusting like their gray brethren in Israel proper), who come out of their holes at night and nonchalantly scamper about near us. My regular partner so far is taciturn Maxim. One night, I'm startled from my reverie by a suspicious murmuring, only to discover that it's Maxim singing an old Russian folk song to himself. It's very cold and you have to warm up somehow.

The writing on the wall

One can learn a lot from the graffiti in the army. Ten years ago, when I was stationed in a bunker, the Kama Sutra-inspired etchings that a gifted soldier had inscribed on the walls of the position drove me crazy. Other graffiti was dominated by crudeness and despair. These days, such crudeness is hard to come by. Instead, there's a kind of nerdy, "Talmudic" humor with a clear tendency toward moral homilies. For example: "Endless patience brings immediate results." Or: "Live life as long as you're alive, because you'll never come out of this alive."

There are rhymes like: "Don't want tuna/ don't want halva/ until when?/ August arba (fourth)". Then there are the more optimistic and accepting ones, like: "I've been guarding here for four and a half hours and I'm still smiling." There's also a classic, whose broken Hebrew attests to the author's origins: "We're here and the world is silent." The only coarse graffito reads: "Handsome blond hunk, blue eyes, powerful physique and nice shaved ass" (followed by a phone number; anyone who's interested can contact me). The only straight erotica is romantic: "I can't get you out of my head, 31.12.04". Maybe the reason is the preponderance of religious people serving in the army, or maybe just a general moderation of machismo.

A friendly chat

Relations among the 14 of us (one of the soldiers immediately asked to see a mental health officer when he arrived, because of the sniper), are surprisingly gentle. There's no yelling or hassling and people even try to show up early at their positions. The whole thing seems to be taken with a sort of tired irony that doesn't cross the threshold of despair. We politely pass things to each other at meals. One of the best decisions we made was to appoint one of us as cook and exempt him from guard duty. The maternal presence of someone looking after our meals is soothing.

This is how Andrei, a 30-year-old forklift operator from Holon, described it to me: "At work, I'm stressed. I curse. Here on reserve duty, it's quiet. This is new for me." Andrei immigrated from Kiev, "10 minutes from Babi Yar. So many people were killed there." On guard duty and in between, there is time to talk. Andrei is happy with Ariel Sharon "because he didn't give in to them, even though he's terrible at economics." He reveals to me that because of "economics," there's "a big aliyah to Poland now."

He "sometimes misses the way things were before Gorbachev. You had money, you had whatever you needed. I'm making a decent living now, but there are no luxuries. I used to love being with people. Now, If I happen to not be working, I close the windows. Don't put on the television or anything. I just sit with my legs up, alone, and listen to a little music."

He served two years in the Russian army without getting to go home even once. "In Russia there's no such thing as open fire rules. A shot in the air and then boom." In response to my kidding question – I thought it was just legend – he tells me how in the Russian army they made alcohol from shoe polish: You spread the polish on a slice of bread and let the bread absorb the alcohol fumes. Then you scrape off the polish and chew the intoxicating bread. The Kiddush wine was finished off very quickly, thanks to me and my Russian comrades.

On one night shift, I hear shouts from afar in Arabic and turn to Andrei. He has also heard the shouting, but "they said `Yallah' and `Yallah' is Hebrew, isn't it?"

The Russians are coming

If the IDF is the "people's army" then, according to what I saw in Rafiah Yam, in Israel there are three million Russians, 1.5 million Sephardim, a half million religious and a million Ashkenazim (and 1.5 million Arabs). The Israeli elite – according to this mistaken key – is religious. Of the 14 of us, seven are new immigrants: They are divided into two groups between which there is neither hostility nor closeness: the plebes and the intelligentsia. Andrei is one of the plebes.

Mikhail, of the intelligentsia, brought with him to reserve duty a case filled with dozens of books that he reads by candlelight in the tower at night. Alex, a computer engineer from Herzliya, serves as the spokesman for laconic Mikhail and explains that Mikhail developed a technique of "diagonal" reading that enables him to polish off books at record speed. Mikhail emits a small chuckle, but not because of our conversation, which I suspect he doesn't understand, but because of the book he's reading. Alex goes on to explain that Mikhail really loves doing reserve duty and even asked the army for extra reserve duty, but the army told him there was no budget for it.

Mikhail stands up to stretch and smokes one of the cigarettes he's rolled himself. He glances at us and at our small courtyard, looking like Napoleon as he slides his left hand into the opening of his jacket. Alex, the computer engineer, is married with two children. He named his daughter, who was born in Belarus, Darya, but his son, who was born in Israel, is named Yonatan. He has never been to Tel Aviv and wants to know what places are worth seeing there. When one of the Russian reservists returns from a visit home, he brings vodka and dried fish, and we all sit down to drink. Brotherhood.

A week later, the Russians have become cognizant of their power and in a non-violent putsch, Alex takes over responsibility for the guard duty shifts. Now it seems that the Russians are guarding less. But this is apparently a figment of the imagination. Alex claims that "people want to maintain their partnerships on guard duty" and that he's working hard to ensure this.

The relative scarcity of reservists from the elite "First Israel" cannot be ascribed solely to differences in motivation among the sectors. It also derives from First Israel's intimate familiarity with the system and the ways to elude it. At any rate, Assi Dayan's 1977 film "Givat Halfon Ayna Ona" ("Halfon Hill Doesn't Answer") still resonates with the veteran Israeli reservists, and we quote it all the time. The Russians can't figure out what we want from them.

Renana

The anomalous situation of a unit without an officer is resolved after a few days, when Renana is housed in an apartment meant for female soldier-teachers in Rafiah Yam. The most notable change brought about by the presence of our commander is a moderation of the distracted gropings some of us had been doing to that package at the front of their pants. The rest of the changes, if any, are subtle. To the best of my knowledge, there are no sexist comments. It certainly helps that Renana, who is upbeat and quick to laugh, immediately volunteers to help us with guard duty even though she doesn't have to. When the cook is about to go on a furlough, she also volunteers to substitute for him, but warns:
"Cooking, yes. Dishes, no."

The army has its own gadgets. At Tze'elim, we were given the hottest new item: a fleece vest. The cook in Tze'elim offered to release me from my shift in return for it. But Renana isn't pleased with my military appearance. My epaulets are torn and I look like "a sad puppy." I snap that if she's not happy then she can sew them for me. She smiles, my commander, but she rises to the challenge and sews.

Avner

One day, I have a new partner on guard duty – Avner. He's not tall, but handsome, and has a quiet but strong presence. He speaks softly, as if to temper the intensity and fury in him. He is 28, from Ariel, and is studying reflexology at Ohalo (a college on the banks of Lake Kinneret, near Zemah). He was on drugs for years, he says, and tried it all: from marijuana and cocaine in Israel to heroin in Australia. Until he realized that it was all a mask, a pose, to be "the druggie."

He used to be a rabid fan of heavy metal bands, and on his shoulder is a small tattoo of the devil. When we hear a Guns N' Roses song on the radio, he is still overcome with admiration. But he's trying to wean himself from it. He puts on tefillin every morning, but doesn't say anything when we use the same dishes for meat and dairy. He says that yogis in India send Israelis home, telling them that "with a spiritual civilization as developed as yours, you don't have any need to come to us." When he comes back from a visit home, he brings an air purifier for the bathroom and a bottle of whiskey, even though he doesn't drink.

At the end of our shift, at five in the morning, we go back to our quarters and I ask him to give me a reflexology treatment. "Finally, you dared to ask," he smiles. I lay down on the bed and he massages my foot. The guys are a little worked up at first to see this massage, until they see that he is a professional. Anyway, it feels good and I fall asleep in the middle of it.

Disengagement and connection

The government has approved the disengagement and the residents we meet at the front gate are depressed. The security officer comes over to us to ask how we're doing, and then he says sadly: "They're taking our home from us. You don't get it, do you?"

That evening, he comes to our quarters and asks if everything is okay. To Yehuda he says: "If there wasn't a Sheinkin, they'd have to invent it, believe me. Someone in this country ought to be happy, right? Someone who hasn't heard of child allowances." His phone rings and he says to the caller: "There are three problems, my friend, that put you at the bottom of the Jewish people: You're a settler, you're Moroccan and you're in the regular army." He gets to me, all of a sudden.

On the way to the guard position, kids from Rafiah Yam bombard us with questions, and then, "One, two, three – When will the evacuation be?" From there, they proceed to shouting things like "crazy Arabs" and "I'll peek up your ass." At the front gate, one of the residents comes up and says to us: "Look, they want an evacuation? Okay, but give me what I deserve. Restore me to age 25 and I'll evacuate from here."

I go over to Neve Dekalim, to look at my e-mail in the library there, and it's quiet and sad there, too. I go to see the memorial wall for Yamit that was built in the Hesder yeshiva there and then to the surprisingly well-stocked zoo. One of the peacocks spreads its wings and leaps out of the cage to the dunes outside. Will it return?

In Gush Katif, of all places, relations of coexistence, problematic though they may be, have been preserved between Jewish employers and Palestinian laborers, who have practically disappeared from the landscape of Israel proper. Every day, hundreds of laborers come in from Rafah and one of our jobs is to secure the settlement when they go in and out. A resident of Rafiah Yam was killed by one of his laborers a few years ago. The security officer says that he proposed bringing in Thais, but the Palestinians are cheaper and the government wants to see them come into Gush Katif because this acts as a pressure valve to alleviate some of the economic distress in Rafah.

The laborers are wearing old clothes and some of them are in sandals, despite the cold. When they pass by us in groups, they don't openly look at us, but when they pass by individually, one of them will occasionally look up and wave in greeting, and be greeted in return. They carry see-through plastic bags with tempting pitas inside.

Women's Day

On the radio they're talking about International Women's Day, and Avri Gilad says that women are "the thing." Men are nothing special, and it's too bad he didn't notice this before. In the tower, Yehuda, 24, is telling his life story. His mother died a few years ago. His father left home when Yehuda was a baby and he is now suing him for NIS 350,000 in child support.

When he was 15, he met his father for the first time: "Suddenly he remembered that he had a son. Suddenly, in the middle of your life, a father shows up. No thank you, I told him." The army paid for his college studies, "but I said – shouldn't we contribute a little in reserve duty?" He works as a "nightlife promoter" and sometimes makes as much as NIS 3,500 in a weekend. But he wants to study design. The most important thing in life, he believes, "are connections – at the garage, at the grocery store … " He is only 24, but already "feels like an old man."

Toward the end of my reserve duty, my mother surprises me with the announcement that she will be in Gush Katif the next day. She is going to march with a group of women who were once evacuated from Sinai, from Kibbutz Saad to Neve Dekalim. When she comes to visit me at the front gate, I'm glad, but a bit embarrassed to have the other guys watching and seeing my mother come to visit as if I'm still a baby in compulsory service. She tells me about the hardships of the day, how the army stopped their bus in Kissufim and the police made them turn back, and "What are we, anyway? A bus full of grandmothers! In the end, they finally realized that it was stupid and they let us in."

Occupation and release

On the last night, in the tower, a loud explosion was heard. Probably a Qassam falling, we were told. That's not something that's reported in the news. However, a few days earlier, the news did report on the killing of two infiltrators in the Philadelphi Route, half a kilometer from us. If it weren't for the news, we wouldn't have known about it. On the radio, a female singer taunts, "You're not Solomon and I'm not one of a thousand," and I think about Israeli men, one of the world's most denigrated minorities. What hasn't been said about them? They're rude, they're vulgar, they're insensitive, they're "occupiers." I think about the Israeli "occupation army" that is composed of quiet and softly-singing Maxim, of Mikhail the speed-reader, of smiling Andrei the racing-car enthusiast, of Alex the computer engineer, of Avner the soft-spoken reflexologist, of Yehuda the orphan and so on. The problem with the occupation doesn't lie in the cruelty of the Israeli occupiers, as they try to convince us. The tragedy is that even if the IDF is indeed, and despite everything, a moral army, this far from trivial fact cannot dull the sting of the occupation, unfortunately.

The next day, our replacements arrive early. Reservists who are about to spend three weeks exactly the way we just did. At least, that's what I hope. I ride with one of the officers to the Kissufim checkpoint and go over to the mobile kiosk. I order a coffee and ask the vendor, though I'm certain of the
negative response, if he happens to have any sucrazit
– sweet n low (artificial sweetener). "Sure," he replies, and I pour the sucrazit into my coffee in total astonishment. Back to civilization.

 

 

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