Hindu Vivek Kendra
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"An Impossible Occupation"

"An Impossible Occupation"

Author: Scott Anderson
Publication: The New York Times
Date: May 12, 2002

Through a crack in the drawn curtain of his third-floor perch, Yigal Kelman uses the magnified scope of his sniper rifle to study the Palestinian family that has emerged onto a rooftop terrace some 300 yards away.

The family appears harmless enough -- a man in his early 40's, two younger women, an old lady... -- but the Israel Defense Forces have placed the town of Atil, in the West Bank, under a blanket curfew: no one allowed outside, and that includes on terraces. What makes Kelman especially nervous about this .. rooftop is that ... a gunman hidden therewould have a commanding view over his own position. . . . He sends his first bullet into the building a few feet below the roof line. The ... family looks about in puzzlement. ...Kelman fires a second shot... then another, and then a fourth, each one edging a bit closer to the family. ''For sure they know it's meant for them now, but they don't care,'' he mutters. ''They know I won't shoot them. Now it's just a game.''

As if to prove the point, the Palestinian man saunters over to the roof ledge to stare defiantly down at the Israeli Army's safe house. Focusing on him through a pair of binoculars, I see that he is calmly, methodically eating sunflower seeds and spitting the shells over the side. ... Kelman ... could put a bullet neatly between the man's eyes -- not that he would if it came to that. . . .

... I've watched Kelman, 29, in a number of these...situations, and I've been struck by his quiet, deliberate precision. In his large, unblinking brown eyes, there is no hint of anger or worry ...Kelmanis using all of his formidable skills not to hit his target but to miss it.

He sends his fifth shot into the rooftop water tank, maybe 10 feet from the family. Still nothing. So he fires his sixth into the upper edge of their satellite dish. Finally, the Palestinians stroll back inside, the old lady last of all.

''You see how it is?'' Kelman asks, ...''They could have left after the first or second shot and no problems. But no, they had to stay until I did something to them. So now they have a punctured water tank and a damaged satellite dish. That's how they want it.'' . . . The soldiers occupying this Palestinian home ... are members of one of the most celebrated -- and feared -- combat units of the Israeli Army: the Palsar Tzanhanim, or paratrooper reconnaissance commandos. ... Palsars serve as a special vanguard ... conducting sabotage, ambushes and intelligence-gathering deep inside enemy territory.

...these Palsars ... are reservists. ...: among the more than 100 reservists who make up this elite platoon are left-wing kibbutzniks and right-wing settlers, goat farmers and lawyers, 22-year-old students and 40-year-old construction workers -- men who distinguished themselves during their compulsory army service and were specially selected to join. ... . . ....Palsars operate as a collection of small specialized teams ... segregate their sleeping and living quarters according to team designation -- the sniper squad occupying one patch of the concrete floor, the drivers of the Israeli armored personnel carriers called Nagmashes in another. . . . ...Palsars maintain a secretive ... cell structure. Even when billeted at the same location, one specialized team often has little idea of another's specific mission -- and it's not uncommon for the recise details of a raid to be withheld from those conducting it until the last minute. They wear no distinguishing insignia ...a senior army officer asked a young Palsar for his unit affiliation, the soldier simply refused to answer. . . . The hall is considered a very high-risk location: there are a number of buildings nearby standing on higher ground, and a facing hillside of scrub brush and stone outcroppings could provide a hundred hiding places for a sniper. Even with the heavy red velveteen curtains drawn across all the windows and sentries peeking through the cracks, Timor, the platoon commander, orders most of the interior lights turned off. Anyone using the bathroom, which is outdoors, is to be escorted by at least one lookout rifleman. Within a couple of hours, Timor decides that even this precaution is insufficient and bans use of the bathroom altogether, placing a large plastic bucket in the stairwell to serve as a communal urinal. . . Part of the military's cautious approach is dictated by geopolitics -- the United States simply won't allow Israel to conduct the no-holds-barred offensive ,,, but part of it is a matter of survival. The Israeli Army now faces a more cunning and powerful Palestinian foe than it ever has .... Palestinian militias have learned how to build and place remote-control booby traps that can literallyshred a Nagmash. .... the soldiers... are fighting an enemy of surprising resilience and adaptability, quick to exploit any vulnerability.

As a result, the Palsars operate in a peculiar state of sensory deprivation. The soldiers here exist in a kind of perpetual shadow, living behind drawn curtains and under dim lighting, rarely venturing out except at night, and then only in tanks or the windowless A.P.C.'s. Their knowledge of the battlefield is largely limited to the maps they study or the tiny corner of land they view when the Nagmash door opens, and so anyone who crosses their path is viewed as a potential life-and-death threat.

But the Palsars face an even more fundamental challengehere -- one typified by the discovery they made inside a primary school in Tulkarm.

Entering the Palestinian Authority school in the early days of the offensive, a group of Palsars found the classroom walls papered with posters of Palestinian suicide-bomber shahids, or ''martyrs,'' a pantheon of heroes for the 5- and 6-year-olds to look up to. Days later, they can't stop talking about it. I've heard about the primary school from at least a half-dozen platoon members, and always in tones of angry disbelief. . . . Over the course of the following day, the vulnerability of the Palsars' command post becomes increasingly evident. Not only does the wedding hall afford a limited view of the surroundings, but nearby residents -- mostly young men -- have embarked on a war of nerves ... breaking curfew to edge ever closer ... from different directions.

''Sometimes they do this to show off,'' one soldier explains, ''but it can also be to help a sniper, to show him where we're standing.'' The afternoon is punctuated by increasingly frequent gunfire as the Palsars fire warning shots at the approaching men. At one point, two young members of the squad take turns shooting from different windows ... . . . That afternoon, word comes that a scouting party has found a new headquarters location: a large single-family home onthe other side of Atil ... the Nagmashes are quickly loaded up, and we set off on a dusty, jouncing journey of several miles ...it is impossible from within the windowless vehicle to tell how much ground we are actually covering. . . . ... Palsars choose command posts for their spaciousness and their height ... these house seizures tend to fall most heavily upon wealthier Palestinians ... the family living in the pleasant home with its modern kitchen and formal sitting room was simply told to ...find somewhere else to stay for a few days. To a man, the soldiers profess to be extremely uncomfortable with this house-seizure policy, ...they gingerly explore their new surroundings. In the couch-and-coffee-table arrangements in the living rooms, in the posters and clutter of toys in a child's bedroom, they seem to find a reflection of their own homes such a short distance away.

That sense of familiarity goes only so far, however. In the television room ... the Palsars come upon a large framed photograph of the patriarch of the family ...Tucked into a corner of the frame is a smaller photograph of a boy of 5 or 6 ... dressed in a Palestinian fighter's outfit and clutching an oversize toy Kalashnikov. ...on an upstairs coffee table, they find a wood carving showing Israel and the occupied territories joined as one nation, but a nation wrapped in the colors of the Palestinian flag....

At the same time, they take a certain quirky pride in trying to minimize the effects of their presence. Within minutes of their arrival, they roll up the family's better carpets, moving them, along with various breakable objects, to one corner of the upstairs sitting room. There are chickens in the small backyard, and one soldier is given the task of making sure that they are regularly fed and watered. By longstanding policy, nothing of the family's is to be used -- not the onions sitting on the kitchen sill or the soap in the bathroom -- and on the day the Palsars leave, a cleanup crew will give the house a quick scrubbing, perhaps even leave behind a bit of money to compensate the family ... . . . . . The television is wired to an Arab satellite system, and there appear to be at least four stations devoted to ... Israeli ''atrocities'' in an endless loop: scenes of Israelis blowing up Palestinian buildings and firing on Palestinian crowds, of Palestinian boys being carried through the streets bleeding from Israeli gunshot wounds. This ... even shows up on an Arabic music channel; intercut with shots of a pretty woman singing a ballad are images of Palestinian blood running in the streets, the carrying of dead martyrs by fervent crowds.

The Palsars are initially taken aback by the gore of the videos -- most of these stations don't show up on the Israeli satellite system. But they also view them with a critical detachment... crude examples of Arab propaganda. They usually watch only a fewminutes of these programs . . . The list of tactics that they believe are necessary but misunderstood is long. Temporarily taking over Palestinian homes ... is the only way to place soldiers in a relatively secure environment to watch what goes on .... The blanket curfews allow them to search for suspects in a way that minimizes civilian casualties. ...having Palestinian men raise their shirts and lower their trousers at checkpoints is the only way to determine if someone is a suicide bomber. And the detention and searching of ambulances ... is necessary because Palestinians have used ambulances to transport guns and bombs in the past. . . . At the wedding hall a few days earlier... Sagee, standing sentry at one of the wedding-hall windows, who spotted a young Palestinian man moving through the nearby bushes. With a hard, menacing shout that sounded nothing at all like his usual soft mentor's voice, he then fired several rounds from his assault rifle at the army-prescribed distance of [at least] one and a half meters from the man.

''These are the kinds of situations we all face by being here,'' Sagee says when I ask about the incident. ''We are constantly being forced to do things we don't want, in hopes that we don't have to do worse things later.''

Late on the night of Friday, April 12, the Palsars prepare to raid a house in Atil that they believe to be the hiding place of the local commander of the Tanzim, the militia wing of Yasir Arafat's Fatah party. ... Because of the danger involved, raids go forward only when commanders decide -- based on aerial photography, tips from collaborators or the word of interrogated suspects -- that there is a strong likelihood that their quarry is inside the target house. Like most Palsar raids, this one will be carried out in the dead of night, along a route that has been meticulously chosen to ensure both a margin of safety and the element of surprise.

At 2 on Saturday morning, about 25 Palsars climb into three Nagmashes outside the seized Palestinian home and begin a circuitous journey through the foothills surrounding Atil. In the dim, dusty light inside the A.P.C., the men simply stare mutely at whatever portion of the steel frame is directly before their eyes; the high, clanking roar of the Nagmash makes conversation a major effort, and the suffocatingly cramped conditions ... reduce all movement to a minimum.

After a half-hour's drive, we ,,,stop ...about a half-mile from the target. The soldiers slip out of the Nagmash and silently form up in two columns. The march over the hill is along a dirt road bordered by stone walls and olive trees -- a perfect place for an ambush ...and by an elaborate, prearranged choreography, the columns constantly shift pattern.

Coming to the target house ... the raiding party fans out to all sides, some soldiers training guns upon the house while others face outward, covering all approaches. The site secured, Yaron Ishai, the deputy platoon commander, scrambles forward to bang loudly on the metal front door. He shouts in Arabic for those inside to come out, and after a long moment of quiet, a befuddled middle-aged man finally opens the door.When he sees the half-dozen flashlights and assault rifles trained on him, he slowly raises his hands over his head.

Following Ishai's commands, the man lifts his shirt and lowers his trousers to show he is not wired with a suicide belt. One Palsar then rushes forward to collect the man's identity papers.

It is determined that he is not the wanted man, but rather his brother -- and he claims to have no idea where his brother might be. He is ordered to bring everyone out of the house, and he returns with his wife and mother and six or seven young children. The women and children are moved to one side of the front porch, where Sagee holds them at gunpoint. When Ishai asks in Arabic if everyone is out, the man nods.

''You understand that if we find anyone else inside, we're going to shoot them,'' the deputy commander explains. The man nods. ''Everyone is out.''

With the Palestinian man leading the way at gunpoint -- if there is a booby trap, he will trip it -- the Palsar search team moves slowly into the house. One unit cautiously advances from room to room, scanning each corner with rifle-mounted flashlights. Others stand post, their rifles aimed at every conceivable spot a gunman might appear ... ..

As the advance unit enters a back room, Ishai suddenly spots a figure moving in the dark. Shouting a warning to his comrades, he pushes up against the wall and raises his assault rifle to fire -- but then hesitates for a fraction of a second.

It is long enough for him to realize that the figure is not a gunman, but a young child. Cursing at the Palestinian man, Ishai grabs the child -- a boy of 8 or 9 -- and yanks him from the room, shouting at him to get outside with therest of his family. The search turns up no sign of the wanted man, and afterward Ishai is still trembling ...at the close call with the boy.''Three times I asked the father if everyone was out,'' he mutters through gritted teeth, ''and three times he forgets his own son.'' Or maybe he was too frightened, or confused, or angry -- all of which Ishai now appears to be.

During the half-hour search of the house, Sagee stayed outside to guard the family, and what he was most struck by, he tells me afterward, was the calmness of the children. ''They were even giggling and laughing sometimes,'' he says. ''I was thinking of my own kids in that situation --they would have been terrified ... . . . . As we clamber out of the Nagmashes back at the command center, I idly ask one soldier if he was disappointed by the raid's outcome. ''Not really,'' he says with a shrug ''At least none of us were shot, and Yaron didn't kill the boy.''

By the next morning, the fourth day in the Palestinian house, Yaron Ishai is becoming nervous. ''We've been here too long,'' ...''If there's a sniper out there, his is when he's figured out our patterns.''

During the night, there were several long bursts of automatic gunfirenearby -- enemy gunfire, the Palsars were able to determine from the echo pattern -- and some of the local residents have begun testing the Israeli defenses as they did at the banquet hall, venturing from their houses, coming closer and closer on foot until they draw warning fire. Ishai is also concerned by the way some of the soldiers have developed a habit of dallying in the streetin front of the house before boarding the Nagmashes: ''You can understandit, because they never get outside of this house, but they're easy targets out there.'' ... ''We've got to move soon. Something's going to happen.''

It happens that very night. At about 11, a stocky Palestinian man in his 30's suddenly appears out of the darkness and walks straight for the house. The startled sentries out front shout at him to stop, then fire warning shots, but the man never breaks stride; convinced that they're facing a suicide bomber, the sentries finally rush into the house and bolt the door. By the time the man stops, 20 feet away, at least 15 Palsars have their guns trained ... . . . . . A bizarre standoff ensues. Ishai, his own gun trained on the man, talks to him in Arabic. He repeatedly tells the Palestinian to lift his shirt and lower his trousers, and while the man eventually accedes to the first request, he angrily refuses the second.

''You think I'm playing?'' Ishai shouts. ''You think this is a game?'' He fires two shots just inches from the man's feet, but rather than recoil or obey the command, the man simply shakes his head and sits down at the edge of the street. ''Shahid,'' mutters one of the commandos at the window, certain that the man is a suicide bomber. ''He's going to go.''

But another soldier has a different idea. ''Ambush,ambush,'' he whispers as he races up the darkened stairwell ... .Since the man hasn't detonated himself yet, perhaps he is a suicide decoy, drawing the Palsars' attention to the front of the house as his comrades attack from the back.

But for almost 20 minutes, nothing happens; there is no other gunfire, no sign of encroaching gunmen, only this lone man sitting in the middle of the road, his back to the house, slowly shaking his head. Slipping out a side door, Ishai stands behind a Nagmash and engages the Palestinian in a conversation, straining for friendliness. He finally coaxes him to his feet and persuades him to lower his pants very briefly; no sign of a suicide belt, but he might still have a hand grenade concealed in his pocket.

...Ishai ... walks toward the man, his hand extended as if in greeting. He manages to get hold of both of the Palestinian's hands and quickly lifts him off the ground and body-slams him to the street. In an instant, six Palsars are alongside, their assault rifles trained on the stunned man.

He is neither a suicide bomber nor a decoy ... it's hard totell just what his purpose was in coming here. Some of the commandos conclude that he is either mentally ill or high on drugs -- a small drug pipe is foundin his pocket -- but after a brief, inconclusive interrogation, he is handcuffed and loaded aboard a Nagmash for the trip to a detention center outside Tulkarm.

It's hard to make sense of the incident: perhaps it is just another of those odd, inexplicable things that happen in a war. ... it seems to capture the quandary in which the Palsars find themselves. Most any other army in the world, faced with the very real threat of suicide bombers, would probably have simply shot the man in the street -- just as most any other army would have shot the boy in the house the night before -- but even in the heat of the moment the Palsars hesitated.

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