10 April 2008
After a very long day that ended with going to bed at 1am, I woke up at 03.50. Getting ready in record time and running on fumes, I made my way to the shared taxi stand. Around 5.00, the driver, still short of many passengers, agrees to a fair price between myself and the only other sucker out at this time of night. We’re off to Tel Aviv, letting me catch the 6.17 train and 6.40 bus to campus on time.
Why in the world would I wake up at such a satanic hour? School sponsored a free trip for the graduate students to Israel’s North, to meet with the two UN peacekeeping forces deployed along the borders: UNDOF along the Syrian border in the Golan Heights and UNIFIL along the Lebanese border.
The trip was a lot like the numerous ones I’ve taken in the past with Birthright Israel groups, only this time I was the participant and not carrying a binder full of medical forms and exhausted from a night of watching students drink at the hotel bar, not to mention the focus was on international peacekeeping.
The first stop was Mt. Bental, a dormant volcano on the eastern edge of the Golan Heights, overlooking the only-kilometers away Syrian frontier. We descend the bus in the parking lot and are met by a baby blue beret-clad soldier with an Austrian flag sewn into his khaki fatigues. I was doing my best not to laugh out loud at a soldier, with his thick German accent, tell a group of mostly Jews the minute-by-minute itinerary for the morning and to follow him along the border with Syria. There were off-color jokes being made that kept the exhausted cohort in high spirits, especially when we met the IDF liaison, originally French, whose knowledge of the situation on the border was the same of a low-level reporter on a local TV affiliate station. So far, the same old tour and talk of the region. I could do the same in my sleep, something I ended up doing unconsciously as I began to lose consciousness from the lack of sleep.
A few minutes later and we were in one of the two UNDOF bases in the area. The troops deployed there come from a variety of countries, all of which keep a strict sense of separation from one another. Each building was demarcated by which flag flew at its entrance. This one Japanese, that one Polish. We entered one of the Indian buildings, met by Sikh soldiers in baby blue turbans held fast with UN logo pins. Sitting in an auditorium that looked more like the set of a 1980’s teen movie, we were given a briefing by the security attaché to UNDOF, a middle-aged Dutchman. After nodding off to his monotone voice reading off his PowerPoint slides, it was time for questions. While I’m a big fan of anything international, the UN isn’t at the top of any Favorite lists of mine; as such, I asked a question about their troops’ preparations in relation to the language and customs of the region. The attaché responded that not only do they give a whole half-day of background training in the area to the contingents, but the troops themselves don’t even have to speak English – only their commanders do. I continued to push him on the absurdity of this (chances are that a Syrian shepherd doesn’t understand a lick of English, even when being shouted at by an Indian guard as he’s crossing No Man’s Land), and the attaché didn’t like being challenged by someone with near-perfect English who was most likely Israeli, so he started asking me questions back. We both got tired and he took one more question from the audience. Jay 1, UN 0.
After a reception in the Indian mess hall, complete with Sikh soldiers posing for pictures and an array of digestive biscuits and various juices, we were on the bus heading for UNIFIL. The ride through the area this time of year is spectacular, with the chlorophyll bursting forth in every leaf and the cherry trees showering the fields in a ticker-tape of flowers. Along the way, past picturesque Druze villages and rolling hills, we pick up a reserve soldier who’s the spokesperson for the IDF Northern Command. UNIFIL wasn’t going to met with us, but we were still going to get a tour of the area. We stopped in Metulla, the northernmost town in Israel which happens to be surrounded on three sides by Lebanon. With military escort, we’re allowed out of the bus and stand in a deserted parking lost a few yards from the border. Suddenly, I remember being in the exact same spot eight years ago in high school. Where there were tourist souvenir stands and a packed parking lot stand some rusted shacks and a lot overpowered by wildflowers and weeds. Eight years and a war make a huge difference. We stop at a nearby kibbutz, overlooking undulating green hills with Lebanese villages cascading down the slopes, and in the near distance a UNIFIL post sits quietly. I was hypnotized by the tranquility of the place, a stark difference from almost two years ago.
Back on campus, students were putting together an awareness campaign on Sderot, using the fragments of real Qassam rockets as props to illustrate actual attacks, and challenging the affluent student body if they would tolerate even one rocket hitting Tel Aviv.
It’s off to the States for almost three weeks, full of fat white people and relative quiet.
Have a Great Passover!