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For the Israeli soldiers belonging to Isaac Mofaz's squad, the drudgery and monotonous repetition that manning a checkpoint entailed often proved to be nothing short of maddening. It was far worse than normal guard duty. With the exception of casting a leery eye upon the odd character who lingered too long in close proximity to one's post, an armed sentinel standing watch had little to do. Checkpoints were a different matter all together. From the moment one assumed his tour until the next relief showed up, a soldier at a checkpoint had to be on his toes as he dealt with endless lines of impatient and sullen civilians anxious to get on with their daily chores.
The company to which Mofaz's squad belonged was responsible for a stretch of road in the West Bank that lay between an ancient Palestinian town and a refugee camp. In an effort to block the flow of arms and explosives between the two a wide antivehicle ditch had been dug right in the middle of the road forcing anyone who desired to go from one site to the other to do so on foot. While militarily sound, the obstacle came to be hated by both sides. To the residents of the refugee camp who relied upon the shops and marketplace in the town and the businessmen in the town who depended upon the cheap labor that came from the camp, the antivehicle ditch was more than an inconvenience. It was an open wound, another painful reminder that they were little more than victims of an age-old conflict that defied all logic and resolution. For the soldiers charged with manning the checkpoint at the footbridge that straddled the ditch, it meant dealing with people who made little effort to conceal their seething contempt and hatred for them.
Mofaz and the men in his squad had no sympathy for the Palestinians. To a man each and every one of them knew someone who had suffered the loss of a friend or family member to a terrorist attack. Mofaz himself was an uncle to a girl who had lost both legs before she was even old enough to walk on them. It was the memories of such horrors that spurred him and his squad to carry out their dreary and irksome duties with a greater degree of vigor and thoroughness than circumstances called for.
This routine never varied. Over time the faces of the people coming and going assumed a sameness that dulled the senses, made the long hours longer, and engendered an air of indifference within the Israelis when dealing with the Palestinians who had no choice but to endure whatever treatment the soldiers were in the mood to serve up. Civilian foot traffic coming from the refugee camp wishing to cross the bridge queued up along the road behind a white "call forward" line painted on the pavement thirty meters away from where the checkpoint was located at midspan. The actual checkpoint itself was a sandbag bunker. Standing a little over three meters high, it had assumed an air of permanence, just like the Israeli soldiers who occupied it. At the base of the bunker a trio of soldiers inspected all ID cards and searched every parcel, package, and bag carried by each and every Palestinian going from the refugee camp to the town.
The procedure was the same regardless of age or gender. While one Israeli soldier took the ID card being offered by the Palestinian and compared the photo on it to the face, a second patted the civilian down and riffled through any bags or packages they might be carrying. The third member of this party stood with his back against the sandbag wall of the bunker, cradling his weapon in his arms with the thumb of his right hand resting on the weapon's safety as he watched both his comrades and the Palestinian before them. Within the sandbag bunker two more members of the duty squad provided backup for the soldiers who were in continuous contact with the Palestinians. This was where Sergeant Isaac Mofaz normally stood his watch. When standing on the firing step within the bunker he could look out over the heads of his own men and see what was going on at the checkpoint as well as beyond the call forward line. If something happened, which never had during any of his tours of duty here, there was a radio within the emplacement that he could use to call for assistance that would come in the form of a platoon-sized ready reaction force located in a fortified compound little more than five kilometers away. Until that help arrived Mofaz's squad would be on its own.
This by no means meant that they were helpless. On the contrary, Mofaz's squad was armed to the teeth. In addition to their own individual weapons there was a 7.62 mm machine gun mounted on the parapet. From there it had a clear field of fire that swept an area well beyond the call forward line. At the foot of the bridge on the near side of the ditch facing the town was the squad's armored personnel carrier or APC. Like their comrades in the bunker on the bridge the driver and a junior NCO stood ready with their American built M-113 armored personnel carrier throughout the entire tour of duty watching over a second trio of soldiers as they checked IDs and searched packages of the Palestinians approaching the bridge from that direction. To provide covering fire for them the two soldiers manning the APC relied upon the M-2 Heavy Barrels .50-caliber machine gun mounted on their vehicle. In addition to laying down suppressive fire using a weapon capable of spewing out slugs measuring half an inch in width at a rate of up to 450 per minute, the crew of the M-113 also had to be ready to rush forward onto the narrow bridge itself if the situation really got out of hand and it proved necessary to retrieve their comrades.
Day in, day out, the Israelis were there, executing their assigned duties while bearing up as best they could under the blistering afternoon sun or bitter cold of night. Like the demeanor of the people passing back and forth over the bridge, their presence assumed an irritating sameness that was almost painful to endure. As noisome as these mindless and routine duties were for the Israeli soldiers who performed them, in the eyes of some they paled in comparison to what the people who had to pass through the checkpoint suffered. They were the ones who experienced the degradation of being hassled and harassed in this manner on a daily basis by soldiers as they tried to go about their business in the town or return to their homes in the refugee camp. Few of the residents of the camp had a refrigerator that could hold more than a day or two's perishables. This meant that someone in every family living there had to cross the bridge that separated them from the marketplace in the town almost on a daily basis. One very vocal resident compared the experience of living like this to trying to breathe with an Israeli boot planted squarely on their throats.
Heaped upon inconvenience was humiliation. To the Palestinians the checkpoint was more than another nuisance imposed upon them by a people they saw as an enemy. It was a physical reminder that they were little more than hostages within their own homeland. To them the soldiers were an alien presence in their midst, a harsh reminder that they had no control over their own lives or futures.
All of this contributed to the atmosphere that was both tense and volatile. The Israeli soldiers didn't want to be in the West Bank and the Palestinians didn't want them there. As so often happens when a situation such as this exists there were some who were eager to do more than simply bemoan their fate. And just as there always seemed to be men and women ready and willing to take action, there were those ready to provide them with the means of doing so.
One such man was Syed Amama. It hadn't taken much to convince the young Palestinian student to act. Like most of his young companions he could recite without hesitation a litany of grievances that had become little more than a fixture of the rhetoric that passed for political discourse between Muslims and Jews. He could lay out in detail the chronology of events that led to the current sad state of affairs and explain why all blame belonged to the Jews.
Just as the driving force behind the willingness of Mofaz and his men kept them at their duty, Syed's uncompromising hatred of the Jews sprang from the sort of truth that no one outside the region dared to admit. It was simply the way things were. Syed was a Palestinian. From birth he had been taught to hate the Jews. Throughout his childhood the notion that they were evil incarnate was hammered home to him and his compatriots every time the Israelis launched a foray into the Palestinian areas of the West Bank to bulldoze the homes of suspected terrorists. The lingering stench of death that freely mixed with the pungent odor of diesel fumes thrown off by Israeli tanks created a terrible resolve within Syed and others like him that could only be assuaged by the total eradication of his hereditary foe. Though his education had prepared him for entry into a university in Egypt, the circumstances of his people lured him to follow another path, one that promised to be a more violent, far less enlightened future, and incredibly short. Rather than becoming a teacher, a well-spring of knowledge, Syed had chosen martyrdom.
The path to this glorious end was easily found. In Syed's case, it led him to the doorstep of a shadowy organization known as the Palestinian Liberation Army. Like the al-Aqsa Brigade, Hezbollah, and Hamas, the PLA had but one goal: the destruction of Israel. And like its sister organizations, its main weapon was terror. The PLA cell or squad that Syed became a part of was made up entirely of impatient young men such as himself, Palestinians who saw themselves as patriots. To a man they believed they had both a political mandate and a sacred duty to use direct action to liberate their land and redress the wrongs that the Jews had visited upon their people. That this action might entail his own death as well as those of other Palestinians who did not share his ardent convictions did not matter to Syed. After suffering under the daily humiliations that the Israelis inflicted upon his people, Syed had come to view such a death as a form of liberation. "Is it not better," he queried friends and family alike without telling them of his secret life, "to live one day as a lion than one hundred years as a sheep?"
Convinced of the righteousness of his cause and his ability to view his assignment with the same cold analytical technique he used to solve math problems, the young Palestinian was surprisingly calm as he stood in the queue behind the call forward line. One by one he watched his fellow citizens advance when the Israeli inspecting the ID cards beckoned to them. Syed didn't feel any need to cast a leery eye behind him where a pair of his companions lay in wait with a Russian-made RPK-74 machine gun. Ironically this weapon was a relic of another ideological conflict that had once commanded the same unquestioning dedication to diametrically opposed views of the nature of things that the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict demanded of its participants. This cynical little twist was not lost on any of the half-dozen Palestinians who were part of this action. Syed had no trouble picturing the smiles on the faces of his two companions as they watched and waited to open fire with the gun they had named "Justice."
The idea that they might fail to strike a telling blow never entered Syed's mind. They were after all but half of the equation. On the opposite side of the footbridge was another trio of equally determined young Palestinians waiting to mimic every action Syed and the pair with the machine gun were about to play out. Though he hoped that he would have the privilege of striking first, it did not matter. In the end the results would be the same. Israelis would die, Palestinians would be revenged, and the teachings of the Koran would be met.
One by one the people waiting made their way to the sandbag bunker where the Israelis stood, doing little to hide their boredom as they checked ID cards and searched bundles. It wasn't until there were but two people left between Syed and the Israeli that he began to brace himself for the attack. It had been decided that his companions manning the machine gun would break their concealment and open fire when there was still one person between Syed and the call forward line. The response of the unsuspecting and wholly innocent person in front of Syed would be a natural reaction to the sudden mayhem that would break out as soon as gunfire erupted. This, it was hoped, would draw any attention away from the foot traffic as the Israelis scattered in search of cover and sized up the situation before they began to exchange fire with the Palestinian machine-gun emplacement. If nothing else, the unwilling Palestinian would provide Syed with a shield that he could hide behind as he prepared to dash forward with his bundle of explosives.
The only aspect of the entire plan that troubled Syed was the question of whether it would truly be better if the action was initiated by the machine gun supporting him or by the team on the opposite bank. On the one hand he rather cherished the heroic imagery of charging forward into the teeth of enemy fire that would be directed against his comrades once they opened fire. Like so many young men who had never experienced war firsthand, Syed's view of combat was untainted by the harsh realities of combat. The images and notions concerning the events that he was about to participate in contained far more Hollywood and none of the horror.
• • •
The outbreak of automatic fire from the near side of the river where the squad's APC sat startled everyone on the bridge. Mofaz's response would have been comical under any other circumstances. While the man who was with him did his best to pull his head in between his shoulders as he threw himself against the sandbag walls of their emplacement, Mofaz fought his own urge to seek cover. Instead he exposed himself as he tried to sort out what was going on around him. Because he had not been on the firing step of the sandbag emplacement and hadn't yet thought to leap up onto it, the Israeli NCO stood on his tippy toes, craning his neck out as far as he could in order to see over the parapet. Like a giant bird startled by an unexpected threat, his eyes darted this way then that in an effort to identify the source of the gunfire and the effect it was having. By the time he was facing the proper direction, the three men who had been on the checkpoint leading out of the town were on the ground.
As if he were totally divorced from what was going on around him, Mofaz took in the unfolding situation. One of his men lay on his back, sprawled out on the pavement and thrashing about. Though Mofaz had never been in combat before, it was clear that the man had been hit. As he watched, he caught sight of another member of his squad crawling forward to where his stricken comrade lay while the third had managed to bring his assault rifle up to his shoulder and began to return fire. The soldier manning the APC's machine gun wasted no time in supporting him in this effort. Though the first rounds fired by that weapon were wild and no doubt were wide of the mark, Mofaz saw that the gunner was quick to adjust his aim point and delivered an effective second burst that succeeded in silencing the Palestinian machine gun.
With everyone's attention focused on the concealed position from which the Palestinian fire had come from, no one was paying much attention to the cluster of Palestinian civilians who had gone to ground at either end of the bridge. By the time Mofaz saw him, the young man clutching a nondescript backpack was already on his feet and sprinting toward the squad's APC. It took but a second for the Israeli NCO to realize what was going on. In desperation, he finally jumped up onto the firing step and began to yell out a warning for all he was worth.
It was already too late. Once the crew of the APC had managed to bring their machine gun into play, the soldier at the checkpoint who had been returning fire ceased doing so, turning his attention instead to helping his mate retrieve their wounded comrade. In stunned disbelief both the unwounded soldier and the Israeli on the ground watched the Palestinian fly past them. An effort to reach out and grab the man by the leg as he went by came up short. So too did Mofaz's feeble attempt to bring his own weapon into play though he continued to struggle unslinging it even as he turned in desperation to the three men who had been standing before the sandbag emplacement. None of those soldiers had needed to be told what to do. To a man they turned their backs on Syed and his still silent comrades, stepped out into the middle of the bridge, raised their weapons, and made ready to fire on the lone Palestinian making for their APC. None realized that by doing so they had set themselves up.
• • •
The failure of the men manning the machine gun nicknamed "Justice" to open up angered Syed. Impatiently he lay on the ground among his fellow Palestinians wondering if his companions were ever going to fire. He had no way of knowing that his companions were frantically trying to coax, cajole, or beat their antiquated weapon into functioning properly. After cycling the gun by hand several times, the senior member of the pair ignored the pleas from his partner to cease his efforts and strip down the weapon and replace the bolt. Instead, he lashed out at the mindless mass of steel and plastic, bringing his fist down upon the receiver. To his surprise, the gun began to function, erupting in a hail of fire and bullets.
Because of the crew's efforts these first rounds were wide of their mark, missing the Israelis, their bunker, and even the bridge. Not even Syed, who had been waiting for the report of the machine gun, took note of where those first rounds spiraled off to. This was not entirely bad, for the resolution of the machine gun's malfunction occurred just as the three Israelis who had been facing Syed were making ready to fire on the Palestinians attacking the APC. Thrilled by the fact that "Justice" was now operational, the Palestinian gunner took a deep breath, tucked the weapon's butt firmly into his shoulder, and drew a bead on the exposed Israeli on the span below. The effects of his first aimed burst was devastating.
Even before the last of the Israelis before him toppled over onto the ground, Syed was on his feet and running for all he was worth. Everything around him began to take on an unreal feel to it. Images no longer flowed seamlessly together into a single coherent picture. The best he was able to manage were quick, blurry snapshots of seemingly random events as they flashed before his eyes. Shouts and screams in Hebrew and Arabic alike mingled with the rattle of small-arms fire. Everything, even his own thoughts, was a jumble. What was never in doubt was Syed's goal or, if the truth be known, his ability to achieve it.
Having committed himself, the fanatic young man abandoned all caution as he concentrated on charging home. In the process of doing so he reached into the backpack clutched to his chest, seized the ring on the side of the satchel charge tucked inside, and gave it a quick tug. Ignoring everything but the sandbag emplacement before him, Syed pressed on. When he was but a step or two away, he hoisted the backpack up over his head until it was level with the lip of the emplacement's parapet. Only when he was sure that it would be impossible to miss did he fling the explosive package up and over the sandbag wall.
• • •
Overwhelmed by events that were spinning out of control all about him, Isaac Mofaz found himself stunned into inactivity. In horror he watched as his APC was shattered under the force of the explosives delivered by the first Palestinian attack. He was all but numb to the sight of his own men staggering under a hail of hostile gunfire that pelted them from both sides of the river. Not sure which way to turn or how best to respond, Mofaz did nothing even when he was hit in the side of the head by a bundle that came flying over the bunker's parapet. Like a sleepwalker the Israeli NCO gazed down at Syed's backpack before closing his eyes and whispering, "Dear God!" for the last time.
Copyright © 2004 by Harold Coyle