Behind the barrier of sandbags spilling their contents, two beige- uniformed Palestinian national security men huddle against the cold. They are no older than thirty, nudging each other with a shared wisecrack in between stopping cars in a search for contraband on the road to Ramallah.
The barricades protecting these enlisted men are sandbags stacked at a man’s height and a corrugated iron shack swaying in the winter winds. Palestinian national security officers face the stronger and modern arsenal of the Israeli military with little more than bravado and the rifle slung over their backs. Perhaps that is why they worry.
“I always try and protect myself because I have a family that depends on me,” says 26-year-old Lieutenant Abdallah. He has not seen his family in Gaza for a year and a half. Married just before his transfer to serve in the West Bank, he has put dreams of a son on indefinite hold.
Abdallah is the second breadwinner in a family of 15. If he is frugal, he is able to send three fourths of his salary back home. National security members make approximately $300 a month. He comforts his family about the risks by telling them he is far from more dangerous flashpoints. When there is an armed clash or an invasion nearby, Abdallah is always sure to call home right away.
More and more, that danger looms. In the nearby Ramallah village of Beit Rima, five national security officers were killed on duty at their positions near the southern entrance to the village. Scores of Israeli soldiers accompanied by tanks and Apache helicopters raided the village on October 24 in the wee hours of the morning.
One surviving officer, 24-year-old Mahmoud Yousef, said he was taken by surprise by the Israeli helicopter hovering overhead.
“Right after that, the shooting began in our direction,” Yousef recounted to a journalist. He said the shooting coincided with the helicopters appearing and with a ground raid by the Israeli military. “Tens of soldiers started coming towards us, shooting in our direction.” Yousef said that because of the heavy barrage of bullets coming their way, the unit was forced to split up.
“But we didn’t get far. We were all hit by bullets,” he remembered. “I was shot in the leg by a bullet fired from the Apache.” Yousef said the Israeli soldiers then detained him and his wounded colleagues who bled to death because they were not allowed to receive medical attention. Five of his comrades died that day – three from the West Bank and two from the Gaza Strip.
But that is not the only story that makes these national guardsmen look like sitting ducks. On May 14, five national security officers stationed at the Beitunya outpost were slain as they prepared for a late night dinner in their makeshift shelter of a corrugated iron shack.
Israeli soldiers opened fire at the post, killing five of the six. Palestinians alleged that the soldiers dumped two of the bodies into a nearby ditch after shooting the men in the mouth.
At the time, Major General Haj Ismail, northern district commander of the national security forces, described the men as “soldiers of peace,” saying that their outpost had previously seen not even one battle. He said one of their duties was to reroute Israelis that had lost their way from the nearby Israeli military compound.
Abdallah knew one of those men well. “Mohammed Daoud was friend, my comrade – we trained together, we shared food and we only separated because of the call of duty once we reached Ramallah,” he remembers.
The two knew each other from back in Gaza. After sharing the same military training, the men were transferred to Ramallah and separated. Daoud was sent to the Beituniya outpost, while Abdallah took up duties at the Al Bireh national security outpost. Thinking of how his friend and comrade died, Abdallah admits that he is filled with rage, but says that his uniform forces him to follow the orders of the Palestinian Authority that have banned him from revenge.
It happens that most national security members in the West Bank are from Gaza. Brigadier Khalid Mismaar, spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority security forces, explains that with the signing of the first agreement to redeploy from West Bank cities in 1994 there was the need to recruit a large number of national security forces in the West Bank to fill the ranks.
“This forced us to call for a number of our troops working in Gaza to take up positions in the West Bank,” says Mismaar. According to Abdallah, recruits were brought from Gaza because no one in the West Bank wanted to do grunt work, preferring instead to try for better desk jobs. Then these same enlisted men remained in the West Bank, even after local recruitment increased.
Fadi Mousa, 22, is stationed at Ramallah’s Grand Park checkpoint. Mousa says that he grew accustomed to the two-week alternating stints at home and in the West Bank. But when the Intifada broke out, Mousa found himself stuck in Ramallah, unable to return home. Israel has completely closed the Gaza Strip and Gaza residents are no longer allowed to pass through Israel to get to Gaza.
“These soldiers have not been able to return to their homes for the past year and this has led to a number of personal and humanitarian issues, particularly because many of the soldiers who were killed have been from the Gaza Strip,” explains Mismaar. It appears to many that the families of the remaining enlisted men might not once more see their sons alive, he says somberly.
And even if the crossing were open, Mousa is not sure he would venture the trip. Mousa says he fears that national security officers are being targeted by Israel and that on the way to Gaza, he or his comrades might be assassinated at an Israeli crossing.
Mousa’s mother, Um Fathi, says the holidays mean little without her son nearby. She dreads the coming Muslim holiday at the end of Ramadan, a time most Palestinians spend with their families. Worse, she lives in constant fear because so many Gazan mothers have only seen their children returned as corpses. Um Fathi says she cries every time someone mentions her son’s name.
“Some [families] were not even able to attend the funerals because of the closure,” says Mismaar. He says the men from Gaza often feel homesick and isolated, despite that other members of national security attempt to calm their unease and befriend them.
There are some small rewards. Mismaar points to a special bond that exists between national security force members and the public. He says that families living nearby the Palestinian checkpoints often bring food and drink to the enlisted men. Sometimes citizens even offer an extra room for the men to stay in when they are not on duty.
And too, Abdallah takes a measure of pride from guarding a “first warning” point to any Israeli invasion. He says he knew when he enlisted that he would be subject to danger and even death. He sees staying on as his duty as a source of pride.
Abdallah’s shift begins at sunset. The days at the outpost, which he has not left for over a year, are spent sleeping. When he is awake, he often does not stray far from the checkpoint; the tension of imminent danger is just too great and according to the emergency plans, there must always be reserve soldiers at the checkpoints.
“Entertainment and seeing family and friends has all become part of the past since the start of the Intifada,” he says. It is a lonely and thankless job to stand as a human shield. These men know it could end in death.