The Israeli army's war against itself.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Aug. 12 2005 5:55 AM

Gaza's Other War

How do you train Israeli soldiers to fight Israelis?

Preparing for pullout. Click image to expand.
Preparing for pullout

"You killed him!" screamed the red-faced woman, wailing over her husband's apparently lifeless body. The couple was being removed from their home by Israeli troops carrying out the Sharon government's Gaza disengagement plan when the man was felled by a heart attack. A group of solemn-faced soldiers from the IDF's Ofek unit stood a few feet away, apparently unsure what to do next, as the man's hysterical family surrounded the stretcher carrying his corpse.

A few moments later, the dead man had an unscheduled resurrection, swatting at a swarm of flies collecting on his face. "It's a miracle!" cried his wife, without missing a beat; the paramedics hovering over the settler, and most of the sweat-soaked soldiers nearby, cracked up. It was six hours into the IDF's final dry run before disengagement, and most of those present were eager for a little relief. But not everyone was laughing. One pale-faced female soldier sitting on the grass nearby shook her head. "They can play like this is a game now," she said. "They know it's not real. They know it won't be so funny next week."

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In a few days, practice time will be over for Ofek, part of the first wave sweeping into the settlement bloc of Gush Katif. Nobody seems to know for sure precisely what sort of greeting they'll get. Over the past few days, residents have begun melting away from the Jewish settlements in northern Gaza; the towns that were supposed to be the unit's first stops are mostly empty. Either settler resolve is cracking—or the 9,000 who remain are the hard-core base that will resist to the end.

This is a two-front operation for the IDF. One fight will take place in the settlements of Gaza, where soldiers and policemen will forcibly evacuate every resident, down to the dogs and cats. The other battle is for the hearts and minds of Israeli soldiers, who are struggling with a deep ambivalence over their assignment—psychologically punishing duty at odds with the personal politics, and the parents, of some. Some have family or friends still living in Netzarim or Kfar Darom and worry they'll have to confront someone they know. "It's in the back of your head," says Erez, an air force officer. "You see someone, and they look like someone you know. And even if they're not—they could be someone you know. We're all the same blood."

So, mental preparation has been the single biggest element of IDF training leading up to the government's Aug. 15 disengagement deadline. Part of that effort has been role-playing daylong simulations. Last week, each Ofek soldier assumed a settler alter ego, down to political views and personal habits. They donned the orange ribbons of the anti-disengagement movement and shrieked anti-disengagement chants at other units practicing their eviction protocol. "You are a traitor to your people!" screamed one through a bullhorn, as his comrades laughed nervously. This week, the roles were reversed. On a kibbutz three minutes from Gaza, a team from the unit practiced removing the same family from a home over and over. Sometimes they carried out family members, each soldier assigned an arm and a leg. Sometimes they waited for hours in the blazing sun as the "family" shouted insults at them from inside the home. "Traitors!" yelled a voice from inside the house. "Police state!" screeched another. Did Ofek's earlier experience as "settlers" give them any tools to help deal with the verbal assault? "You can't listen to what they say anyway," said Amit, a young soldier from central Israel, as the "negotiations" continued. "I'd be mad too. We've come to take them from their home. Of course we're not welcome."

But even more draining for some than the simulations have been counseling sessions. Earlier this month, army psychologists and brigade commanders coaxed soldiers into confronting their worst fears for disengagement. "What would make you freeze?" asked an officer at one session. The young soldiers eyed each other nervously before responding. The most common answers weren't the stuff of typical battlefield nightmares: A familiar face. A wheelchair-bound grandmother. One nervous woman stood and spoke softly. "I worry about a crying child," she said hesitantly, playing with the hair at the back of her neck. To carry off obstructing settlers, the unit has been broken into teams of four, by gender and size; female soldiers have been instructed to handle resisting children if their parents won't. "I don't want to separate a mother from her child. I don't know how I would handle that. I don't want to think about that."

The military has dismantled illegal West Bank settlement outposts, and some of the troops training this month are veterans of these operations. But by deliberate design, most of those involved are desk jockeys: nurses and mechanics and computer technicians in their mid-20s, slightly older than the average soldier. Officials hope their relative maturity and noncombat occupations make these troops the best fit for this effort. Officers hand out hints for navigating disengagement's tricky mental terrain. Don't accept food or water from the settlers—it reduces resolve. In fact, don't speak to them at all—leave the communication to commanding officers. And at the first glimpse of weapons, call in the Special Forces. (This is a different sort of IDF operation, and these soldiers will be using different tools. That means no guns.)

Soldiers are instructed to use a "reasonable" amount of force to complete their mission. That's defined as a level "just slightly higher than the force they use against you." Anyone who feels himself or herself getting out of control has been ordered to retreat to their company bus to compose themselves. Anyone who starts losing the nerve to complete their mission has been told to do the same.

Some military leaders have started to openly express concern about the operation's lasting scars on the institution. A soldier who went AWOL over Gaza policy shot and killed four Arab Israelis on a bus in northern Israel last week. It's an extreme case, but all summer soldiers have been disciplined for refusing disengagement duty. On Wednesday, an IDF soldier posted at a Gaza checkpoint was arrested for threatening to shoot prime minister Ariel Sharon. And the army is still looking for nine AWOL soldiers—and their weapons. Some top army officials predict the struggle over disengagement will reduce the motivation of religious soldiers to volunteer for combat units and be officers, widening the rift between the religious and secular elements of Israeli society.

Last week, Ofek got an unscheduled first meeting with the anti-disengagement crowd. Settler leaders organized a massive protest in Ofakim, just minutes from the Gaza border, and threatened to march the gathering straight into Gush Katif. Nervous Israeli officials sent thousands of disengagement trainees to form a human chain paralleling the border. Troops were given orders not to speak to protesters. But as the night wore on, and orange-clad advocates spent an hour, two hours, three hours, pressing their point with unresponsive soldiers, the line seemed to buckle. Soldiers began to talk back to the protesters, almost in spite of themselves. "[The protestors] are speaking their minds. They're not necessarily wrong," said an exhausted air force major, as it grew close to dawn. "They are not bad people. You see how they love their kids?" he said, as children scampered into a protester's tent set up perhaps a dozen yards from the troops. "I love my kids too. I wish I could be with them now. But we all have a job to do."

Rebecca Sinderbrand has reported from the Middle East for Newsweek, the Boston Globe, the Columbia Journalism Review, and other publications.