Humans behind helmets

A female Israeli soldier of the Caracal battalion in the Negev desertI’m Israeli and I can’t even work a BB gun. It’s true! I scream like the girl I am and the sight of it perturbs me.

They shouldn’t let people like me anywhere near the army, but for Israeli teenagers, going to the army is a fact of life.

Israeli conscription is mandatory for girls and boys aged 18. I specifically say girls and boys because that is what they are; children.

Without a release form, you can’t get a job.  There is a small community of artists who drink shots of schnapps at pop up bars in Tel Aviv until the sun rises, any day of the week. They talk Tolstoy and trust funds. One told me he pretended he was crazy to get out of the army. Another walked into the interview smoking cannabis, put his feet on the table and declared he was an addict. These boys were free to enjoy their lives, pursue their dreams and eventually enjoy the security of their inheritance.

I don’t judge them. I would have done the same. In fact I did! But there is no place for some people in a war zone.

“They came at us with guns. Every day they attacked the village,” said my Grandfather, a weathered man who doesn’t usually say very much. My Iraqi born grandparents were one of the first settlers in Israel, they traveled there in the boot of king Hussein’s car.

There had been rumours of ‘the ground shaking’ as he put it.  The Iraq my grandparents knew was a place of freedom, art and civil society. Arab and Jew lived side by side, their cultures so similar they were kin. “I was nursed by Arab women!’ My grandmother exclaimed. Her parents had enjoyed the wealth of a thriving Fallujah and Bagdad. But times were changing.

After their escape in the boot of the car, the change came fast. With the creation of the state of Israel, Jews were kicked out of Jordan, Syria and Iraq.

 “They said, you have somewhere to go now. So go!”

Some, like my great grandparents did not act on the early tremors and lost everything. Their property was seized. Their business; a row of shops in Fallujah taken, their bank accounts void.

With no choice but to go to Israel, they made the journey across the desert. My great aunt, a five year old girl at the time, wasn’t going to make it. Lice ridden, starving and separated from her family she had little chance. As luck would have it she met a distant relative, a boy of 14. He was starving and weak like she was, but he carried her on his back until he contracted TB and could walk no further. They both made it in the end and to this day she calls him ‘my saviour’. 

“They attacked us with guns. Every day. Every day. We only had sticks. Then one day the Americans came. They gave us guns. Finally we could defend ourselves.” My Grandfather would have been 16.

“But Saba, you took their land,” I said at the time.

He looked at me with a spark of defiance. “They took ours!”

The situation in the Middle East is more than simply pro-Israel or pro- Palestine. There is a bigger story to tell. Hamas stand against everything our liberal constitution stands for. The idea of life under a terrorist state is Hobbesian. It’s not even a reality to us but a sandy hell you see on TV. But Hamas are not the liberal Arabs my grandparents grew up with in Iraq. 

“Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.” – Benjamin Franklin

It is also our duty to acknowledge that Israel stands for the same liberty and freedom we do in the west, just as many Arabs in the Middle East do. 

War comes to people who don’t have a choice, to people who wouldn’t even know how to work a BB gun (and thankfully I will never need to!) It is our duty to look at the grey area and understand the humans on either side.

Before we pass judgment on the boys and girls in the Israeli army, we should remember that they are also fighting to protect their land and their freedom and it wasn’t so long ago that they only had sticks with which to do so.

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Siena Dexter is a creative copywriter at Proximity Worldwide. She has an MA in Ancient History from UCL and specialised in social anthropology in the ancient world.

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