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Monday, February 02, 2004

A bump in the road

Yesterday began as a typical Sunday morning. I got the kids up and ready for school…enjoyed my coffee and Jerusalem Post while Ari and Gili plowed through their breakfasts…and collected my kisses before heading out to the car (yes, Sunday is a work / school day here).

Each week, I get a few calls and e-mails from an assortment of soldiers who are serving their compulsory two or three year service, requesting rides. Having received ‘weekend’ passes to be with their families, they all have to get back to their bases by Sunday morning. So, on this particular Sunday morning, I collected four soldiers who had been in touch the night before. Three of the four are 18-year-old girls, and the fourth is a 19-year old boy. Some of us have traveled together often enough now to be able to have good-natured arguments over whose turn it is to feed the CD player…and to gently poke fun at each other’s taste in music.

Using the most extreme biological definition, I suppose that I am theoretically old enough to be the father of any of these teenagers. While this doesn’t do much for my youthful self-image, it does help explain the combination of paternal pride and protectiveness that I feel for these kids I see each week.

But for an accident of birthplace, these soldiers would be college freshmen and sophomores getting ready for the spring semester, rather than heading off to war. The three female soldiers are assigned to logistic units and tank instructor duty, respectively, and the soft-spoken, bookish looking boy of the group wears the insignia of an elite combat unit. All of them carry responsibilities that I couldn’t have imagined during my peacetime service in the U.S. navy. Despite the discipline of army service, some of the girls make typical teenage statements with an extra earring here, and an unauthorized bit of make-up there. The boy is the first of the bunch to drift off to sleep during our commute, but the halfway point in a typical Sunday moring commute usually finds me surrounded by soft snores emanating from heads that rest on welcoming shoulders.

As we neared the outskirts of Be’er Sheva, I glanced in my rear-view mirror and was reminded of the call I received from this sleeping combat soldier's mother, thanking me for driving him to his base each week. She told me that she worries endlessly about him while he is in the field…and she is relieved to know that at least he has a safe, warm ride at the start of the week. To his credit, he was completely unembarrassed that his mother had called me.

This momentary reverie was abruptly shattered with a loud bang, along with a spray of glass from the rear window of the car. Everyone was suddenly, and completely awake. Each person instantly reacted according to personality and training. One of the girls asked if anyone had been hurt, and without waiting for an answer, began performing a visual inspection of everyone in the car. The other three soldiers instinctively reached for their machine guns (soldiers, even those not in a combat unit, carry a machine gun during every waking moment of their service) and began scanning for immediate threats. I floored the accelerator, and pushed the car up to about 130 (kilometers per hour, thank you. I was startled, not suicidal).

After a few adrenaline-pumping seconds with no sign of additional danger, we slowed down to the posted speed limit and called in the incident so that the army could investigate and warn cars traveling along the road.

What we didn’t do was stop to investigate or retaliate. Although everyone in the car was armed (and angry), the Rules Of Engagement were crystal clear: Unless there is an imminent, unavoidable threat, or someone’s life is in immediate danger, we were not allowed to respond. The Palestinians know this perfectly well, and leverage this perceived weakness on a daily basis. ‘Rules Of Engagement’, for the uninitiated, is a fancy term that is basically analogous to hunting regulations. Every red-blooded American hunter that puts on an orange vest in the fall knows precisely what, where and how many they can legally ‘bag’. They also trek out into the wilderness secure in the knowledge that those cute little critters won’t be shooting back. Barring the vests and ear-flap hats…sound familiar? In the backwards logic of our present reality, the Rules Of Engagement are put in place to ensure the ‘animals’ don’t shoot back.

In the most asinine bar-room contest of ‘Punch-for-a-punch”, the inebriated participants have the limited comfort of knowing that, once they pick themselves up off the floor, it will be their turn to knock the snot out of their opponent. Unfortunately, according to the rules of our little game, so long as our ability to leave the scene was not blocked and no obvious follow-up attack was forthcoming, our only legal recourse was to ‘get the hell outa dodge’. Forget the fact that the rock could have turned any one of us into funeral fodder. Heck, on those winding roads…if the stone had hit me, we could have all been kicked out of the gene pool!

Now, lest someone assume that we somehow instigated this attack, let me assure you: We were not in contested territory. We were not traveling in a military vehicle (and to an outside observer, the tangle of teenaged sleepers could not possible have been identified as soldiers). The only outward indication of identity was the Israeli license plate and the kippah on my head. To borrow an unfortunate phrase from an African American comic…we were guilty of DWJ - ‘Driving While Jewish’.

After I had dropped the soldiers at their destination, I headed over to the police station to file a report. This kind of thing happens so frequently that there is actually a pre-printed form to help speed the process. The policewoman tsk-tsked maternally over the damage to the car, and made a perfunctory statement of relief that nobody had been injured before sending me on my way with a copy of the report.

The next step was a trip to the auto-glass place (imagine owning that franchise here!) where everything was set in motion to make my car whole again. Since this was technically an act of terrorism, I won’t have to bother my insurance company. Instead, the Israeli Government has graciously offered to pick up the tab. Thanks!

Over dinner last night, my wife and I downplayed the incident in front of the kids…but I can tell she was a little more rattled than she’s letting on. For the record…so am I. But the fact that nobody was hurt qualifies this as a relatively minor incident in the grand scheme of things…a simple bump in the road.

Posted by David Bogner on February 2, 2004 | Permalink

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