Teaching Them Who's Boss

When soldiers in Gaza are not in tanks or other armored vehicles, they hide behind reinforced concrete positions with narrow gun-slits. There, sheltered from fear, seeing but unseen, they teach the Palestinians every day exactly who's the boss.

During the past three-and-a-half years, S., a veteran ambulance driver, has been evacuating victims injured by Israeli army gunfire and the bodies of those killed on the firing line in Rafah. Early in the morning of February 8, he was summoned to pick up an older man who was suffering an anxiety attack. His house, the family home of the Abu Labada family, had been seized by an Israel Defense Forces unit; his son Ashraf, who was not known in Rafah to be on the army's wanted list, fled from the house, and was shot and killed. The soldiers did not find the tunnel they were looking for. The other sons were arrested. Only the women and children were left in the house, held captive by the soldiers and the tanks that took up positions around the house for the next 15 hours.

Yet the task of evacuating the older man by ambulance was not at all simple. Despite coordination between Israeli and Palestinian liaison officers, the first ambulance that was dispatched turned back on its tracks when gunfire was directed at it from one of the Israeli armored vehicles. S. got into the second ambulance with another medical crewman. They, too, had the benefit of an okay from liaison officers on either side.

The distance between S. and the first tank that he saw near the house was 200 meters. The tank blocked his way to the entrance. On the radio, he was told to advance. He advanced some 20 meters, and then several shots were fired, striking the ground next to the ambulance. S., who has quite a bit of experience at these things, had no trouble getting the message: Stop where you are. He then looked for an alternate path to the house, and found it.

Before he eventually reached the front door of the house (a roundabout distance of about 400 meters), he had to pass a tank, and then another tank, had to wait for 15 minutes in front of the first one (until it blinked its lights and moved to the side, allowing him to pass), all the while constantly informing his dispatcher as to his progress. "I'm careful, because I know how scared the soldiers in the tanks are," S. explained.

Once in the Abu Labada home, an army doctor led him to the father, with the intention of moving him to the ambulance. But at that point an officer called him over, and led him out to the yard, where the officer showed him the body of a dead man (whose identity was as yet unknown to S.). S. refused to transport the dead man and the live patient in the same ambulance. The officer permitted him to call for another ambulance. In the meantime, he relates, the officer had a camera and intended to photograph the body. There was a chicken coop in the yard. Upset by all the tumult, the chickens began flapping their wings. The rustling sounds alarmed the officer, who dropped the camera, leapt in the air, frantically looking in every direction and clutched his rifle. "The Israeli soldier is afraid of a chicken coop," S. thought. This fear is another aspect of Israeli control of the Gaza Strip.

When soldiers in Gaza are not in tanks or other armored vehicles, they hide behind reinforced concrete positions with narrow gun-slits - like the two positions at the Gush Katif roadblock that dictate the movement of thousands of cars and trucks making their way along the main north-south traffic artery of the Gaza Strip. There, sheltered from fear, seeing but unseen, they teach the Palestinians every day exactly who's the boss. There's no one to talk to. The roadblock shuts down for the night at 8 P.M.

Last Tuesday, February 10, at 5:15 P.M., a long column of cars had formed behind the roadblock south of the Gush Katif intersection (a concrete position and a traffic light that is controlled by the soldiers, which alternates from red to green and back again). From 3 P.M. onward, the drivers at the front of the line say, they advanced at a rate of 20 meters an hour. Meaning not at all. The same was the case for the cars coming from the north. Until seven at night, the line from the south moved perhaps 100 meters. The tense, pushy drivers formed four lines instead of two. A female soldier from the Army Spokesman's office called to say that she spoke with soldiers at the roadblock to find out what happened, and that they "aren't familiar with" the problem, that maybe there was a car accident. In other words, that it has no operational relevance (such as intelligence warnings, security precautions or an especially long convoy of cars heading to the settlements).

No, the IDF Spokesman was informed in a direct report from the field, 200 meters away from the seeing and unseen soldiers, there was no accident. The female soldier continued: In any case, it is not our forces that are causing the hold-up. To which the direct report from the field responded: "But our forces are controlling the traffic light, and the light is red, and the column is not moving." In the meantime, the cars from the other side were starting to move, until the other side of the roadblock was completely emptied of its waiting cars. At 7:47 P.M., our forces changed the southern traffic light from red to green. Bored soldiers amusing themselves at our expense, the drivers in line concluded.

This too is an aspect of Israel's control of the Gaza Strip, but normally there is no one to check with the IDF Spokesman's Office to hear that there is no operational reason for delaying by several hours the passage of ambulances, trucks transporting food, buses and cars, carrying teachers, pupils, doctors, patients and just plain passengers.