Circle in the Sand

After an exhausting day, only one question entered my mind: was this car bullet proof? I rested a callused hand on the side of the standard white Israeli military vehicle, contemplating the possible penetration of a Kalashnikov bullet.

“Yalla, let’s go!” shouted Lt. Oren, as he came toward me from the officers’ trailer.

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“Oh,” he added, while cocking his M-16, “the car’s not bullet proof, so leave your ceramic vest on.” Oren stood tall for an Israeli, had light skin, and dirty blond hair. He made lieutenant at twenty-three.

I struggled to get situated in the seat, my gear bouncing into every position except the one most comfortable. My camera and my gun were on my lap, and my pack and canteen in the back. We both knew that military law called for all soldiers to wear seatbelts. We also knew that seatbelts would impair our movement, making us sniper prey. It was about midnight and I was exhausted; I let my seatbelt hang loosely over my right shoulder, unbuckled. I fell asleep.

I coincidentally awoke half an hour later to see the car sprawling into the left lane towards the cement median. The screeching brakes drowned my screaming voice as I jumped on the wheel. Oren was asleep. He abruptly awoke and led the car onto the dusty shoulder with astounding calm. He opened the door. “Are you okay?” he asked between gulps from his green army canteen.

“Yeah, sure,” I answered, though I felt the blood pumping through every vessel in my brain, and tried not to hyperventilate. Oren shot me a glance in the rearview mirror and said, “Drink some water. Take off your vest, and, oh, don’t fall asleep.”

I nodded. We had survived Hebron; we were not about to die going home.

It had been a quiet evening at the base in Tel Aviv just a few days earlier. I had stayed up after-hours to play cards and watch MTV with the other soldiers in my unit. We were attempting to pass our mandatory military service with as much ease as possible. Every eighteen year old in Israel goes to the army, or goes to jail. We were a hodge-podge of kids thrown together to accomplish one goal and one goal only: to photograph and document life on the front line. Not all of us would survive.

On this particularly cold February evening, we had all gathered into Major Tzvika’s office to watch the news. Everybody watched the news. Even after three years of the same stories and the same blood, not one of us could escape the news. This Israeli ‘news sickness’ was a birth defect of the second Intifada, a contagious disease contaminating the region. I stared at the flashy new computer mounted proudly on Tzvika’s desk. It seemed out of place in the shabby office. Located in downtown Tel Aviv, Tzvika’s third-floor location was prime real estate. Across the street I could see people finishing their cakes and coffees in the outdoor cafes as a local band played salsa music in the square. However, the barred windows reminded me that my unit was not located in Tel Aviv, among all the clubs and bars. Suddenly my thoughts were interrupted by the churning ring of the red telephone marked “top-secret.” As second in command, I answered, curious as to what the new mission would bring.

Hebron. One word brought back a flood of memories… none of them good.

“Okay guys, listen up,” I said, my voice rising over the chattering head on the TV. “There will be an infiltration of Hebron at zero four hundred hours.”

I continued reiterating the information given to me by the anonymous voice on the other end of the red phone. Someone was making bombs in Hebron again; two units would be sent to find him, and they needed us to document it. It would be like searching for a needle in a haystack—a burning haystack.

Before I knew it, I was on the ancient streets of Hebron, burial ground to the most holy of biblical forefathers. I caught a glimpse of Rachel’s Tomb as I focused my eyes through the wire netting on the window of the drab military jeep. We slowed at the Tomb of the Patriarch. The gold stones, exhausted by time and war, shone dimly through the jeep window. Abraham’s tomb, I thought, is where it had all gone wrong: where we had broken away from our brothers. If Muslims and Jews were all once children of the same father, Abraham, weren’t we then still family?

My feet began to sweat—the cool moisture soaking through three layers of standard army socks. As I bumped along in the back of Lt. Oren’s jeep, repressed fears began dancing out of my heart. This would be my first house raid. I checked my gear one last time and looked myself over. I had erased my sex with my short hair cut and red paratrooper boots. Not many girls went to the front, and I didn’t want to shock anybody.

“Alright, we have a lot of work to do.” said Lt. Oren, matter-of-factly. The baggy eyes under his helmet told me that he worked too hard and slept too little. Lt. Oren’s passion for Hebron had clearly been tainted by three years of war.

By noon, we had covered enough ground and raided enough Palestinian homes to make my hunger quite painful. We had one house left, and we just wanted to get it over with. As we entered, I heard a woman’s shrill screams, mixed with those of young children. I wanted to tell her to calm down; we didn’t mean any harm—just looking for a bad guy. We crowded the entire extended family into a tight corner and began to search the house for weapons and information. I guarded the family as the other soldiers searched for false walls. My eyes slowly scanned the filthy floor and found a pile of mismatched shoes. My muddy, red boots had brazenly smeared a brown paste all over the yellow tiles. I wanted to take off my shoes to show that I meant no harm… to show that I had respect for them… to show I was human. I scanned the walls, spattered with chipped paint and posters of Jerusalem. To my right, soldiers emptied drawers and left the contents sprawled on the floor. A cry from a small child brought my eyes back to the family.

It was then that I saw the look in the woman’s eyes. Without her head-scarf, she could have been my twin. Her skin was pale in comparison to that of most Arabs, and her eyes were green and intense. Those eyes drew me in; it was as if we switched bodies. Her eyes radiated pain and hatred. I wanted to explain the situation to her—tell her that I understood her contempt but needed to protect my own people. I wanted to tell her that it wasn’t my fault; the man hiding, using them as shields—it was his fault. A desperate scream, three years in the making, swelled deep in my throat.

Gun shots… we dashed out of the house in search of the perpetrator, but to no avail. That day, like any other, we were forced to infringe upon the rights of innocent Palestinians in order to search for a known terrorist, all the while being shot at by a man wearing blue. I drew a circle in the sand with my foot. That was the situation; I saw no way out.

I couldn’t stop time to consider the situation’s intensity; the clock kept running. We raided a few more homes and arrested men with small arms. I couldn’t look at their families… their children. I wasn’t embarrassed or ashamed to be an Israeli, I just didn’t want to see anymore suffering and hatred.

A giant mass of cameras greeted me as I exited a Palestinian home. A group of reporters had meandered into the square as if they were gathering to watch a show. They were waiting for us to shoot. Lt. Oren and I, distracted by this new development, didn’t notice the crowd of children hovering in the windows above. Suddenly, rocks rained down, hitting Lt. Oren most severely.

We eventually caught one of the children and sat him down next to a tank. He cried convulsively and fought as Lt. Oren led him to the square. The waiting photographers swarmed towards us as birds flock to bread. I understood the seriousness of the moment and begged Lt. Oren to release the child.

“I’m not going to hurt him,” Lt. Oren assured me.

The child, cued by his new found fame, screamed louder than before. The cameras clicked and flashed in our faces. Oren quickly released the child and he sprinted back to his cheering school friends. They lifted the young hero above their skeletal shoulders as he joined in their triumphant shouts: “Allah Wakbar!” I wanted to go home.

After surviving Hebron, I was determined not to die going home. To do this I would have to keep Oren awake. I gulped metallic tasting water from my filthy canteen and freed myself from the restrictive ceramic vest. My breathing returned to normal. Refreshed, I slid into the passenger seat and signaled for Oren to restart the engine. After a vain attempt at light conversation, I turned on the radio. Every few minutes, I looked over my left shoulder just to make sure Oren’s eyes were open. He was eerily calm. How could he stay so composed… so untroubled? He was as indifferent to the cement median incident as he had been to the invasion of Palestinian homes. It was as if nothing could faze him anymore; he had seen too much for too long.

My focus drifted from Lt. Oren to his rearview mirror. A swarm of flashing red lights screamed passed us as, ambulances rushed toward Jerusalem.

Silence.

I looked at Oren, expecting something—anything—but I got nothing. He sat there, like stone. Meanwhile, it was as if someone was squeezing my lungs and my heart. A group of ambulances indicates only one thing in Israel. I thought of my friends in Jerusalem and of the woman in Hebron. Faces flashed through my head. I tried to push bloody images of past bombings from my memory—ingrained images I could never forget. An urgent news broadcast interrupted the love song playing on the car stereo. I stared out the window at the blanket of darkness smothering the Judean hills—heavy and silent. I was too tired for tears.