Friday, July 30, 2010

Update from Israel: Missions in the West Bank and a thorough analysis of the Flotilla debacle

Dear family and friends,

I hope that you and your families are well and enjoying a relaxing summer.

Before I begin, as promised, I have updated new pictures of the army and my experiences which can be seen here.

As usual, things have been rather busy. My unit, Orev Nachal, is currently based out of the West Bank where things have been mostly quiet. We are mainly responsible for patrols and emergency response teams when not on missions. Our missions vary in scope and objective and are, for obvious reasons, classified in nature. However, there are two missions that I have been given permission to discuss. The first mission took place at the end of April. The target, Ali Ahmed Sweiti, has been on Israel’s most wanted list for the past 11 years. A senior member of terrorist organization Hamas, Sweiti was personally responsible for the death of 2nd Lt. Yaniv Mashiach in April 2004 as well as involvement in other shooting and bombing attacks. Surfacing from unknown locations once every year to two years, Sweiti had been able to thwart several attempted arrests by the IDF and Shabak (Israel internal intelligence, Israel’s FBI). IDF and Shabak intelligence again pinpointed Sweiti’s location to a specific house in the mostly Palestinian city of Hevron, and along with an elite SWAT team, Yamam, my unit (the Nachal Reconnaissance Battalion), were given the green light to arrest Sweiti. After repeated requests to peacefully leave the house, Sweiti refused, and responded by isolating himself in a room and shot wildly from a window. Sweiti was killed at some point between the exchange of fire and the bulldozing of the house. The mission made national headlines; you can read about it here.

The second interesting mission was more of a helping hand to the Israeli Police than a standard “military” mission. Most of the time, after arresting the suspect, we search the premises, and drive away with the suspect in custody. However, in this specific mission, we were arresting two known criminals for being ring leaders in an auto chop-shop crime syndicate, spearheading the stealing, dismantling, and selling of cars from both Israelis and Palestinians. After arresting both men, we left the scene with both men in custody, trailed by two massive flatbed semis, each loaded with 4-5 cars. It was a comical scene, something that none of us had ever seen before. Either way, when you arrest these criminals and discover hundreds of rounds of illegal ammunition and weapons, recover 8-10 cars, and hand the criminals over to the Police, you can’t help but feel that my year and a half of training was for something and even more, that I have personally helped in the betterment and safety of Israel and our Jewish people.

I have been debating for sometime if I want to talk about the following, and how exactly to express my feelings. One of the largest problems Israel faces from Palestinians in the West Bank is shabachim, or illegal aliens crossing the border into Israel. The Palestinians are usually searching for work and are harmless, but Israel’s biggest fear is the smuggling of drugs, arms, and bomb making substances.

When I returned from the US in April, I was sent on a standard patrol. We were notified of several shabachim in a valley, drove to the location, identified the shabachim, and began a full sprint pursuit. The shabachim immediately froze, dropped their bags, and formed a straight line. Upon request, they removed the contents of their pockets, removed their coats, and opened their bags. Each presented his personal identification. While my officer scanned each ID for potential criminals, my partner and I were in charge of securing the perimeter and making sure the shabachim remained quiet and orderly. As we have been taught for the last year and a half of training, we remained focused on the group, our guns pointed at the shabachim. This was the first time in my life that I had pointed my gun at someone. It was not a shooting range target, a metal plate, or even a crate; it was a living, breathing person.

As I have detailed in past updates, the IDF is extremely strict about its ethics policy and when a soldier is permitted to fire upon a suspect. In this situation, unless the shabachim become disorderly and legitimately threaten our lives, we are NOT permitted to open fire. Furthermore, if the shabachim suddenly run away we are NOT allowed to fire, even at their knees and below. Regardless, as most soldiers will tell you, there is nothing quite like the first time you have a person in your sights. You feel an overwhelming power, knowing that with the flick of your index finger, you can end a life. You nerves tense with a sprinkle of fear, a dash of the unknown. I trust my instincts, after a year and a half of intensive training; my reflexes know what to do before my mind has time to process the situation. After a few seconds of shock, my nerves calmed and I returned to a state of equilibrium.

I have always said that I want to finish my service having never shot a bullet. I feel that no person can be whole after he has washed his hands in blood. After two years in the military, I unwaveringly stand by this belief. If the situation arises when I must use my training, I will not think twice and pull the trigger. Yet, there is no valor in taking another man’s life; no medal will cleanse your actions. However, this is the life of a soldier. After two months in the army, the IDF makes every soldier take an ashba-ah, a ceremony of “swearing in,” where you promise to defend Israel and abide by her rules. It is the first time you are permitted to take your rifle home, swearing that you will use it only to defend the country, never to inflict unlawful harm. Soldiers are trained to killed, to protect, to defend. Yet no training will prepare you for the moment you line up a human target. Since this moment, I have participated in countless missions, arrests, and patrols, often setting my scope on a person. Each time my brain registers the situation, my nerves tense for a split second before my training kicks in and I return to equilibrium, calm on the trigger. I thank God each time for my training and the IDF’s insistence on the importance of human life, even those of our enemies.

As many of you have seen in the news, Israel was recently attacked by a group of thugs disguised as “peaceniks” aboard the Gaza bound flotilla, the Mayi Marmara. For those who are unfamiliar with the situation, at the end of May, six boats left the Mediterranean, headed for Gaza on a “humanitarian mission.” When the boats approached the Israel coastline, the IDF Navy called to the boats to be checked for weapons and possible terrorist aid in the Israeli port of Ashdod. The IDF made a promise that if there were no banned substances aboard, they would permit the humanitarian aid to enter Gaza, even though no humanitarian crisis exists. Five boats cooperated and docked in Ashdod, where they were checked and their contents disseminated in Gaza. However, one boat, now known as the “Flotilla” refused Naval orders, and proceeded to “break the Gaza blockade.” The IDF responded by sending its elite team of Navy Seals (a unit known as Shayetet). Less than 20 commandos descended to the Flotilla, one by one from a helicopter hovering above, onto the deck of the vessel, where 600 thugs pounced upon the soldiers as soon as they landed. The soldiers were armed with paintball guns and pistols as a last-case-scenario if the mission got out of control. The Flotilla “peaceniks” were armed with armed with sling shots, metal poles, large hammers, knives, stock piles of gas masks, and homemade explosives. You can watch a video of the weapons found aboard the Flotilla here. The soldiers were given the permission to open fire with their pistols once one of the soldiers had his pistol ripped away from his belt and the “peacenik” shot him in the stomach. Amazingly, the commandos were able to regain control of the situation which ended in the death of 10 “peaceniks” and several injuries to Shayetet soldiers.

As usual, the entire world was quick to condemn Israel’s actions. I watched the entire event unfold on Israeli TV with up to the minute updates and videos. After talking with many of you, I was amazed to hear that most of these videos never made the US news. I am sure that many of you have your own ideas and some of you may even criticize Israel’s actions. I want to offer a few thoughts and articles for you to process.

1) I, along with many Israelis, do not agree with the Navy’s actions to send less than 20 Shayetet soldiers from a helicopter, one by one, down a rope, unto a deck of the flotilla, teaming with 600 thugs. The IDF intelligence was disgraceful, and they put the lives of our soldiers in jeopardy. Under no circumstance should the commandos have ever boarded the vessel with paintball guns and not legitimate weapons with nonlethal force (rubber bullets, stun grenades, etc). Furthermore, the flotilla should have been stopped by larger naval ships and forced to dock in Ashdod. However, I was not in the command center and none of us know the specific reasons for the orders, yet I do place blame on the IDF for its questionable tactics, especially putting her soldiers at risk.

2) For those who believe the Flotilla passengers were actually peaceniks with only humanitarian aid in mind, I ask you, how do you explain all of the weapons and homemade explosives onboard the ship? How do you explain the dialogue between the commanders of the Flotilla and the IDF Navy, where after being warned that the vessel was entering an area under naval blockade, the Flotilla “peaceniks” responded with calls of “Go back to Auschwitz” and “Don’t forget 9/11 guys?”

One flotilla passenger told a reporter during a stop in Cyprus, “We are now waiting for one of two good things: either to reach Gaza or achieve martyrdom.”

The commander of the fleet also said, “We will not allow the Zionists to come near us, and we will wage resistance against them.' With what will they wage resistance? With their fingernails. These are people who wish to be martyred for the sake of Allah. As much as they want to reach Gaza, the other option is more desirable to them." (Source for both quotes)

Furthermore, how do you explain the video footage of what transpired? It is astounding to me that these videos, widely shown on Israeli news channels, barely made CNN, even Fox News. Here and here you can see Shayetet soldiers boarding the Flotilla, one-by-one from a helicopter. You can see the “peaceniks” pulling the helicopter’s rope as soldiers are sliding down, and you can watch the “peaceniks” attack the soldiers—often 15 against each soldier—with metal pipes and knives while soldiers retaliate by shooting paintballs. You can see them throw a soldier off the main deck of the Flotilla. You can see the paintball gun at the 51st second of the first video.

In this video, you can see firebombs and stun grenades thrown at the soldiers. I continue to ask myself, how can anyone believe that these are peaceniks? How can you objectively watch these videos and believe that the people aboard the Flotilla were not trying to kill the soldiers?

3) Of course, this entire debacle brings up the question, why is there a blockade on Gaza? I will defer to an excellent article by renowned lawyer and Israel advocate, Alan Dershowitz. You can read his article here. I would like to add that as recent as this past November, a vessel was stopped and boarded off the Israel coastline. Aboard the ship were 500 tons of guns, explosives, and arms, enough to arm a 400 man army battalion. The ship left Iran and was apparently on its way to Hezbollah in Lebanon. You can read about the specifics of the attempted smuggling here.

4) Moreover, for those who continue to question the legality of the blockade even after reading Mr. Dershowitz’s article, I offer you this legal explanation by the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

5) As for the question of a “humanitarian crisis” in Gaza, the evidence is clear, there simply is NO crisis. Every week 10,000 tons of food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies are sent by Israel to Gaza. A recent UN convoy, led by Robert Serry, has declared that there is “no humanitarian problem in Gaza.” Serry acknowledged that there is a lack of building supplies in Gaza, but Israeli President, Shimon Peres explained, “Hamas is a murderous body, a terrorist organization, and an Iranian agent that spends all its efforts in expanding its weapons arsenal through tunnel smuggling. Hamas uses building materials [intended for houses and schools] to construct these tunnels and strengthen its terrorist network. Israel will not compromise the security of its citizens by allowing such tunnels.”

If you want to continue to question the “humanitarian problem” in Gaza, I ask you to read the following quote by Defense Minister Ehud Barak:

There are 1.5 million people living in Gaza and only one of them really needs humanitarian aid. Only one of them is locked in a tiny room and never sees the light of day, only one of them is not allowed visits and is in uncertain health – his name is Gilad Shalit, and this month four years will have passed since he was kidnapped.

6) Finally, I want to end with a personal testament to the character, resolve, and professionalism of the Shayetet commandos. I have a personal connection with Shayetet as my cousin served in the unit and another dear friend is currently in the unit. Simply put, Shayetet soldiers are some of, if not the best soldiers in the IDF and in the world. If they had not be as skillfully trained as they are, there would have been a much larger bloodbath, resulting in the loss of significantly more “peaceniks” and potentially IDF soldiers.

A significant part of my training was Krav Maga, the IDF’s hand-to-hand combat. One of our drills was to survive an ambush of 20-plus people. For three minutes, I was beaten in every direction, fighting furiously for my life. The drill was done in full padding and under strict supervision. At the end of three minutes I collapsed on the ground, completely exhausted. When I compare this to the Shayetet soldiers, I gasp in pure respect and amazement. These soldiers not only boarded a boat from a helicopter, one-by-one, outnumbered roughly 30-to-1, but they were able to sustain knives, sling shots, and metal pipes while doing the “real” version of my exercise. As you can see in the videos, one soldier was thrown overboard, yet the soldiers continued to respond with nonlethal force, firing harmless paintball pellets at the thugs, doing nothing over than covering the assailants with water based, temporary paint.

As a soldier, I am awed by Shayetet’s professionalism and soldering. Without question, they are heroes. I offer you this final video of a Shayetet soldier explaining the encounter.

Breaking away from politics, I had the pleasure of spending two extended weekends with two of my best friends, Jacob Kornblatt and Ronnie Barnett. Ronnie was on a Birthright trip and Jacob decided on a whim to spend a two week vacation in Israel after graduating from Case Western in May. I invited Jacob to my old stomping ground, Kibbutz Yiftach, where we spent a quiet evening with my adopted family, the Baraks. Jacob got to experience the never-ending bus ride from Tel Aviv to Yiftach, and then the laidback nature of Kibbutz life.

We returned for a weekend in Tel Aviv, spending a great two nights partying, swimming in the Mediterranean, and relaxing on the beach. We discussed philosophies of life and Jacob confessed his realization that he wants to make Aliyah and live in Israel. After a long discussion with roommate, Ethan, Jacob has decided that to completely assimilate into Israeli society, you have to join the IDF—he’s right by the way. As such, Jacob believes he will return to serve in the IDF after his contract with Teach for America finishes. I have my doubts, but I continue to wish him the best of luck.

As usual, I have provided you with a significant, first person account of serving on the front lines in the IDF—as well as a sequel to War and Peace. I hope that you have taken the time to watch the videos and read the articles that I have linked to this update. Israel needs all of her children to support her as much of the world is set to condemn her. The best way to respond to those against Israel is to know the facts, to watch the actual videos, and listen to the actual dialogues. As usual, I ask you to use this blog as a resource of information and a firsthand account of the West Bank and the IDF. Please pass my message along to anyone and everyone who is interested or needs to read my experiences. Remember, if you do not stand up for Israel, who do you expect to?

With much love, respect, and VDBL,

Nadav Weinberg