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Violating Sanctions

An American Woman’s Listening Tour Through the Axis of Evil

Disarming Soldiers

The Author By Kelly Hayes-Raitt | March 24th, 2007 | Comments 1 Comment »

My first few hours in Hebron, I was detained for over an hour by two remarkably young, polite, armed soldiers. As we waited … and waited … and waited at the checkpoint for some unseen voice at the end of one of the soldier’s radio to clear us, I engaged one of the soldiers in a game of Tic-Tac-Toe.
Abigail Ozanne, 23, is one of 6 Christian Peacemaker Team’s staffpeople on-the-ground here in Hebron, a dicey community on the West Bank where tensions and tempers flow easily between Israeli soldiers, conservative Jewish settlers and beleaguered Palestinians. She took Warren Unsicker, 24, a fellow delegate from Oklahoma, and me out for an orientation street patrol through some of the checkpoints.

CPT workers are regularly visible on the streets of Hebron, sporting their bright red baseball caps. Team members rotate 3 months in-country and one at home, spending their time in Hebron documenting human rights violations, intervening when appropriate and acting as a deterrent to abuses.

Warren and I lagged behind Abigail’s long, confident gait, snapping photos and spotting soldiers hidden behind rooftop sandbags and artistically cut camouflage. This would feel like a live version of Where’s Waldo if the guns weren’t real. We practiced our ecumenical greetings, addressing soldiers and Jews with “Shabbat Shalom” and Palestinians with “Salaam Alekum.”

We stopped at a sprawling home that a Palestinian had been remodeling for his family. The empty building has become a flashpoint. Monday, Jewish settlers began squatting, refusing to give the building back to its rightful owner.
When we arrived close to dusk on Friday, car after car of Jewish families drove up and unloaded camping gear to celebrate Shabbat and spend the night in the commandeered home. Crowds of Palestinians watched warily from the graveyard across the soldiers’ hastily erected barriers. One Jewish man emerged from his car with a rifle flung across his back, freeing his arms to carry his toddler and sleeping gear. Scarved women in long skirts carried in pots of food, children carried in toys.
We spoke with a group of Jewish teenagers balancing sleeping mats and backpacks who told us in that arrogant, gleeful manner teenagers have when they believe they are doing something slightly dangerous, that the “Arabs believed the building belonged to them, but that it really is ours.” They told us, without a touch of irony or hypocrisy, they had named the building the Peace Building.
It was getting dark and we hurried back toward the CPT apartment. The fastest route that would take us away from the conservative synagogue that might draw ire, insults or stones, was the dreaded Gate 5 checkpoint.

The first soldier, a dark, handsome, slight young man, waved us by. We headed right toward the grimy alley nicknamed Gate 5 checkpoint for its street address painted by the door. A second soldier ensconced behind a bunker that looked more like a portable bar, looked questioningly at his buddy, wondering why we had been waved through. His buddy, who turned out to be his superior, jumped up, suddenly requesting identification. He had thought we’d head toward the left, going into the conservative Jewish settlement.

Abigail challenged him before finally handing over her laminated CPT photo ID card. I stepped back, snapping pictures. The first soldier – taking Abigail’s ID – wandered away speaking conspiratorially into a walkie-talkie with a StarTrekian antenna.
Time passed. And passed.

“You must be bored,” I said to the soldier behind the bunker. “Yeah,” he said, sounding bored.

“We used to play tic-tac-toe,” Abigail said. “You know with x’s and o’s.”

I pulled out my notebook and drew a cross-hatch, putting an “x” in a strategic place and handing the soldier my pen. He hesitated, took the pen, drew an “o,” then looked around to find his superior before handing the pen back to me with a dismissive wave as if to say “soldiers shouldn’t be engaged in such games.”

“What? Are you worried I’d beat you?” I teased. He looked up and smiled.

More time and more small talk passed. I continued joking with the young soldier while his superior walked around, whispering importantly in his intermittently crackling walkie-talkie. We were hostage, waiting for the first soldier to return Abigail’s ID.

We exchanged ages. “I could be the mother to all of you!” I said, not proudly. “Does your mother worry about you?” I asked the soldier.

A Jewish settler boy, probably 7 or 8, came through the alley and started menacingly toward some Palestinian boys who had been playing quietly. The soldiers deftly redirected the child out of the alley. I was impressed with how quickly and easily they diffused the situation.

Later, a settler stopped to offer the soldiers white chocolate and scornfully sneer “Nazi” in my direction. The soldiers turned him away from me, and walked him a few steps out of the alley.

“Hey, let me through and I’ll bring you back a full dinner!” I bribed.
After 45 minutes, the soldiers changed shifts. Great, I thought, a whole new group to try and charm. As our first set of soldiers left, I called, “What? No good-bye?” They turned and grinned.

The 2 new soldiers were joined by a patrol of 6 soldiers. Surrounded by 8 young, heavily armed men in the growing darkness of the claustrophobic alley, I asked, “So, anyone been to America?”

The soldier in charge had spent 5 years of his youth in the Berkshires. Didn’t matter; no amount of bonding was getting us out of here quickly. We were definitely getting a taste of daily life for Palestinians.

Finally, one of the soldiers returned Abigail’s ID card, asked Warren for his passport, repeated the important whispering in the walkie-talkie and handed him back his passport.

I was without my passport. A soldier scolded me, I apologized, promised I wouldn’t do it again, and then was left to the mercy of the unseen crackle at the other end of the walkie-talkie.

Since Abigail’s ID had finally been returned, we decided to leave and chance walking the long way around – a less safe option at this time of night. As we started walking out of the alley, the soldiers immediately called us back and allowed us to pass.

What was behind this mysterious Gate 5 checkpoint that it required such heavy security? A winding, smelly part of the souk that would have been vibrant an hour before but was now desolate and showing its age had nothing to do with the soldiers’ arbitrary display of power.

What goes through the minds of these young people forced to serve 3 years in the military? Our first afternoon in Hebron, we used our own weapons to disarm the soldiers: Humor. Patience. And tic-tac-toe.

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One Response to “Disarming Soldiers”

  1. Wafa Says:

    “A taste of daily life for Palestinians” indeed Kelly what an experience you had in Hebron. That’s what Palestinians have to go though everyday.

    As a Palestinian you are cursed if you dare to leave your house without your ID.

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