Tuesday, April 3, 2007

News: Reporter's Journal: Spring Break: In Tel Aviv, Hanging with the IDF's Bomb Squard

Julia David
Tal Engel taking a break at his military base in Israel. "We have no choice because this is the situation we are living in."

By Julia David

On my first day in Israel over spring break, I discovered what it is like to be both a local and a soldier.

Across the street from the restaurant where I was eating in Tel Aviv, there was a bomb warning. Several Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers, padded with explosion protection, were ushering pedestrians away from the potentially dangerous scene. I stayed inside the café and watched as a bomb-detecting robot whirred its way towards a large black bag resting ominously on the sidewalk.

I have never been one for war and violence, but seeing these soldiers risk their lives first hand made me appreciate Israel’s mandatory military service. In Israel, it is difficult to call yourself an Israeli if you have not served in the army. Despite 2-3 years of mandatory service, serving in the IDF is a great honor for the majority of its soldiers.

“The threat of death lives in our country,” a soldier who chose to remain anonymous told me. “Most people aren’t in a hurry to face this threat, but we must, and that makes us stronger.”

I could go into the politics of the crisis with Palestine. I could also admit that not everything Israel has done has been ethical. But these soldiers are trying hard to achieve peace with the Disengagement Plan. I could also mention the fact that, despite Israel offering land for share with the Palestinians, they prefer "all or war." I could mention all of this, but ever since the "bomb" incident, I became more interested in the personal experiences and thoughts of the IDF soldiers rather than politics or tactics.

Every Israeli, man and woman, must enter the army at age 18. They become fighters, intelligence, pilots, and instructors, and each job is as important as the next. It is a life that is always on the edge, always sensitive to the dangers on each side of the Israeli and Palestinian border. It is a life that must be lived.

“You have to understand,” said Israeli commanding officer Tal Engel. “There is no other way. We have no choice because this is the situation we are living in.”

Each soldier has his or her own story to tell. Lior Kirshner, a head sergeant in the IDF, and Liran Azrad, an IDF sergeant, have both been to the Gaza Strip. Once, Kirshner, along with his unit, weighed down by a 60-pound pack, had to tightly press himself against a wall before forcing his way into the house of a known terrorist. Azrad participated in a unit that built bombs and aimed them at the terrorist’s homes.

“It’s always scary but in time you get used to it,” Azrad said with a shrug of acquiescence.

Engel, who patrols the borders of the Palestinian city of Schem, was once driving with fellow soldiers through a nearby Palestinian city, when a Palestinian radical threw a bottle of gas into the car. They jumped out of the vehicle just before it exploded.

It is extraordinary to see such enduring patriotism and loyalty to the country and to fellow soldiers. “I love my country. I love my people,” said Dana, a short-term participant in the army. “It doesn’t matter how much or how little you contribute in the army, I just feel good doing something.”

Every time I go to Israel, I am reminded of the threat and risks that lie in wait. I will eat at a café that had been destroyed only months before by a suicide bomber. I will go shopping on the infamous Sheinkin Street and see soldiers my age walking through the area with M16s slung around their shoulders.

The sentiment for the majority of IDF soldiers, as well as Palestinian citizens, is the same. “We want to live in peace, but right now, it just seems like that just can’t happen,” Engel said. “You end up with having a lot of question marks, but at the end of the day, you just have to do what you’re told.”

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