IDF Trying Something New in West Bank: Politeness

Most Arabic expressions soldiers learn are designed to order civilians to stop, open the door, identify themselves and present ID papers.

Generations of Israel Defense Forces soldiers have learned a limited lexicon of Arabic expressions while working West Bank checkpoints, patrols, arrests and searches of Palestinian homes. The expressions are designed to order civilians to stop, open the door, identify themselves and present identification papers.

IDF West Bank
Archive / Nir Kafri

For most troops, these are the only words of spoken Arabic that they knew. For Palestinians, this was the soundtrack to the occupation.

Last month, a company of Armored Corps reservists decided they would try to adjust the tone. The troops of Company 11 of the 7001 Battalion agreed that their central mission - safeguarding the checkpoint that lies on the key road linking Samaria with the Jordan Valley - would be carried out while using a different kind of language in their daily encounters with hundreds of Palestinians.

"I wanted to see if it was possible to see Palestinians as human beings and not as potential threats who suddenly take out knives or pipe bombs," said Eliezer Cohen, a poet and social worker who initiated the idea. "This is antithetical to the entire viewpoint on which we were educated in the army."

As someone who deals with words, Cohen and the other soldiers reworked the expressions used by troops at checkpoints.

"In the beginning, instead of starting the sentence with 'Wakef' (stop), we said 'Sabah al-heir' (good morning ). This changed their reaction almost immediately," Cohen said.

"Instead of saying 'gib al awiya,' ordering them to show ID, we said 'min fadlakum' (please ), with an emphasis on the request," he said. "But it wasn't just the words. We decided that we would look everyone in the eye and that we would not aim our gun at anyone. This is out of the assumption that the overwhelming majority of people are interested in quiet and going to work."