This is the second in a series of stories told by former IDF soldiers about their time in service and life in Israel, brought to you by StandWithUs and Jspace.com. Hen is one of the 13 soldiers on StandWithUs’ 6th annual “Israeli Soldiers Stories” tour, which has two legs in 2014: February 16-March 1 and March 30-April 14. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com to find an engagement near you. Click for more information.
Hen is an Israeli of Tunisian and Iraqi descent. His grandparents were Jewish Iraqi refugees who fled to Israel when his great grandfather was hanged by the Iraqis for being Jewish. When he reached mandatory military service at age 18, he chose to serve in the COGAT (Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories) unit. For five years, while rising to the rank of lieutenant, he worked as an intermediary between the Israeli Defense Forces and the Palestinian Authority, the UN, and the many non-governmental organizations that work in the West Bank. COGAT’s purpose is to take care of the Palestinian civil issues, maintaining their well being and aiding in humanitarian issues.
Jspace: Why did you choose to serve in COGAT?
Hen: The COGAT unit of the IDF works with the Palestinians to protect civilians and improve the Palestinian territories through building infrastructure, roads, schools and working with the Palestinian Authority to promote prosperity. I lived through the Second Intifada and saw a suicide bombing at an ice cream store near my house when I was 12. Those memories were still fresh and I wanted to understand the people who were behind it. Working with the Palestinians provided me with this insight and helping them maintained the hope that there is a better future for both sides.
Can you share some anecdotes or stories about active duty that illustrate what life was like?
I was the liaison officer for International organizations at the West Bank and many times I had to coordinate life-saving operations of Palestinians that had to be treated by Israel and the IDF. One very hot day in Hebron, the UN liaison office alerted Hen that two youths entered the Judea Dessert, searching for metal to sell in the market. They picked up an unexploded bomb left by a terrorist organization for the IDF and it exploded. The Palestinian Red Crescent delayed reaching the place, leaving the IDF as the only ones able to help. In less than 5 minutes, an IDF ambulance arrived, and within 10 minutes, they were rushed to a close IDF base–my base actually–where an IDF doctor attended to the youths. I then facilitated issuing permits to the parents to visit the Israeli hospital. The two Palestinians are in good health and I visit them periodically. That bomb was targeted toward Israel, yet it injured Palestinians, and it was the IDF that saved their lives. The parents held no hatred for Israel, they are innocent civilians caught in the conflict.
Have you received any pushback? How do you deal with difficult situations like that?
I’ve spoken at many universities and the anti-Israel groups have a similar method of pushback: They tape their mouths shut, stage walk-outs and shout insults. Each time, I urge them to stay. I suggest they ask the questions they want to ask and to not block free speech. Once, I even offered to stop my speech and let them take the stage and talk about whatever they wished because dialogue is the only path to peace. I even said they have a chance to “grill” an Israeli that they disagree with. Not surprisingly, they kept on walking out. Students thanked me after for doing that. The anti-Israel students congratulated themselves on Twitter and posted Youtube video. This “Walk Out” served me more than it did them. In another university, a professor asked if I knew how many Palestinians have been raped by the IDF. I answered that as far as I knew, none. She responded that I was right, because, “You IDF soldiers don’t rape Palestinians because Israelis are so racist and disgusted by them that you won’t touch them.”
What message do you want people to take away from your story?
The IDF is not perfect, no army in the world is perfect. Mistakes are made, but we try to improve; we get better. We try to protect civilians; in fact, we go out of our way to do so. We respect the International law. We respect the Geneva Conventions. We protect human life because it is part of our basic training. But we are also human and thus, will never be perfect. But we are peace loving, we have hope for a better future, not just for us and for our kids, but also for the Palestinians and their children.
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