This last fortnight was rather relaxing, with most of my time being spent off base. It started off with Yom Hazikaron (memorial day for fallen soldiers and other people who fell in Israel's name, like victims of suicide bombings) and Yom Ha'atzma'ut (Israel's 62nd Independance Day), a unique time where one minute separates the saddest and happiest days of the year. I was in Jerusalem for both those days with my 'plooga' (which I've since found out translates as company not battalion!) and there I personally guarded at Zion gate, one of the more historically significant of the eight gates of the Old City, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zion_Gate. I was guarding there with a 'magavnik' (border policeman), the border police in general don't have a great reputation in Israeli or international eyes, but I happened to get on really well with this particular guy, who, was in fact, an Israeli-Arab called Sayid, voluntarily doing military service, just like me! It was definitely one of those uniquely Israeli moments where a Jewish-British immigrant paratrooper and a Muslim border policeman were joined together to guard one of the entrances to the Old City of Jerusalem on Yom Hazikaron!!!
Showing off our fridge for the week - jam-
packed with food.
My day was made even crazier when I randomly saw two friends from London just passing through the gate. I could see that they were just as surprised to see me in the middle of Jerusalem, especially since I was there in full army uniform, vest and gun. It was good to catch up on some old gossip from London and has made me excited to see all my old friends when I go back home as part of my speical holiday as a lone soldier, which I hope to take in the summer, after I've finished all my training.
From last Thursday, lasting a whole week, I was on 'Avtashim' where I was situated at a small settlement in the West Bank, and guarded the religious 'yishuv' (town) there. Whereas before, when we were placed in Hebron for a weekend , we were just supporting older soldiers (who were there as their permamaent station of guarding), this time we were the main body presence and the front line of defence for the settlement. Of course, it was really quiet and there weren't any incidents, but it felt very much like I was, at first hand, defending the Jews of Israel from the surrounding Palestinian neighbourhoods. I say there weren't any incidents but a couple of interesting episodes spring to mind from this week. For instance, on Shabbat, we had to warn off some left-wing 'humanitarians' who were trying to claim the Jewish-owned land or, how every morning I needed to check the IDs of the Palestinian workers, who were building more houses for the settlement, how ironic! This week I was definitely at the forefront of world politics as the settlement was, effectively, beyond the 'green line', which is the main obstacle and talking point behind the Israeli-Palestinian debate.
The three of us sitting down for dinner.
Apart from the meaningful and ideological feelings that I felt, it was also a very fun week. Two other soldiers from my class and I (no commanders!!!) were situated there and we lived, cooked and guarded together for a full week. I suddenly started to feel like my friends in university; living with other guys, preparing our own meals together and upkeeping a small place of our own, the only difference is that when my friends go off to a lecture, I, on the other hand, was leaving for a four hour patrol of the yishuv. It was maybe the first time that I have lived fully idependantly, because even here in Ortal, where I share my own apartment with two good friends, I do rely on my host family and the kibbutz dining room. The small religious settlement also made us feel very welcome and we were invited by one of the families to Friday night dinner. It was a lovely atmosphere but I will mostly remember the evening for how, even after introducing myself as Sam, the father insisted on calling me 'Shmuel' (my Hebrew name) the whole night, which, of course, got some good laughs from my friends! So, it was an extremely fun and meaningful experience; and is similiar to what my army service will be like after I've finished training and am sent to guard at different places round the country.
I've said it once before in the blog, but recently I've really noticed how Israelis really care and look after soldiers. There are countless examples of how citizens go out of their way to help a soldier, in particular, a lone soldier. Recently I was at Ammunition Hill (a famous battle site from the Six Day War) for Yom Ha'atzma'ut and, in the nearby park, there was a wonderful atmosphere with hordes of people coming to celebrate Independance Day with barbeques and picnics, which is what happens in parks all over the country. As soon as I entered the park I was bombarded with plates of meat, ice creams and cold drinks. It's just a small example of the typical Israeli mentality and the love for its soldiers, which explains why the Gilad Shalit issue is the most important thing on everyone's mind.
Breakfasts this week - cornflakes from the only bowl in the kitchen and half-dressed, ready for guard duty.
Yesterday, via my parents on the phone and the voting form through the post, I voted for the first time in the upcoming British elections. It's strange to think how my first act as a voting British citizen has come from my time as a Israeli soldier! Anyway back to the army tomorrow where I am going to a course where I will learn how to build looking-points and camoflauge in the shetach. If I sound vague about this it's not because it's something secretive but simply because I don't know what this course is, they just told me on Friday that I'm going! So it should be an interesting week ahead of me, which I hope will result in a 'hamshoosh' (Thursday weekend), as part of finishing the course. Fingers crossed.