Israel's Last Line of Defense
Civilians Saving Lives
By: Fiamma Nirenstein
Waiters, guards, bus drivers, businessmen, and other unlikely heroes.
Almost every other day in Israel, it seems, an ordinary waiter, store guard, or bus driver, a twenty-year-old soldier on leave or a fifty-year-old businessman, will seize a terrorist by the arms and, while his explosive belt is still ticking, push him away from the scene, simultaneously shielding bystanders with his own body. He may save dozens of lives, and may forfeit his own in the process. He is a new kind of citizen-defender, and Israel's last line of defense. The Jewish state begets many like him, but he is also a unique type-very much a local product.
As the world knows, the Israeli army and police force have not succeeded in creating a perfectly hermetic seal against the catastrophic terrorism that has hit the country over the past two years. Barriers, checkpoints, and occasional armed forays into the occupied territories function only partially to deflect the lone suicide bomber armed with TNT and hate. Since September 2000, this latest strategic weapon of the Arabs has claimed 700 dead and thousands of wounded, in a country of only 5 million Jewish inhabitants. Everywhere, you see children in wheelchairs, disfigured victims of every age, not to mention the legions of mourners for family members and friends lost in a moment's horror.
All this has changed the face of civil society in Israel, if not the very concept of civilian life itself. For now, the most effective protection against such attacks, aside from periodic incursions into Palestinian cities, is this spontaneous form of civil defense, the only thing that works even when the terrorists from Jenin and Nablus manage to get past the barriers and show up at a cafe in Tel Aviv or a gas station in the West Bank town of Ariel. It seems to function naturally, on its own, but in truth it is a very strange phenomenon.
Noon. Emek Refaim, the long street that runs through Jerusalem's German Colony, where bougainvillea and jasmine hang down from the weathered three- and four-story stone buildings. By this hour the daily racket has already reached its height: bus and car horns, mothers yelling at their children not to cross in the middle of the street, the din of rock music blasting from car stereos. In among the old Arab houses and the buildings of the Knights Templar-the cemetery of that medieval Christian order abuts the local supermarket and Burger Ranch, the boughs of its trees extending over the stone walls-are dozens of cafes, upscale wine bars, boutiques, sushi joints, vegetarian and Chinese restaurants. It is impossible to find a place to park; the police who patrol the area seem to have accommodated themselves to the prevailing chaos. The cafes are full, chic girls and boys are out walking their dogs, pretending they are in Tel Aviv The large glassed-in terrace of Caffit, where people sit sipping cappuccino, completely exposed to the street, is all open invitation to a terrorist.
Our hero, Shlomi Harel, twenty-three and a waiter, is dressed in a white shirt and dark pants. His eyes are puffy. He was up late the night before: being a waiter, a guitarist, a student, and popular with the ladies will do that. He wears a ring in his left ear and two studs in his right, sports a tattoo on his arm and spiky hair. How many lives has this boy saved? Around 50, but it doesn't show.
"On March 7 at 1:30 I saw a big, fat guy trying to come into the place," he begins. "The guard had already stopped him, but I immediately rushed over. He was sweating a lot, I learned Arabic in the army so I asked him, 'What's your name? What do you want? Where are you going?'-anything to try and identify him, to try to understand. He had this lost look, he was sweating like crazy, and he said, 'I don't speak Hebrew,' in Hebrew. I pushed him into the corner, with the guard's help. I wasn't thinking about anything."
Shlomi has black eyes that his Iraqi-born mother might have painted on him with a paintbrush. He is well mannered, reserved though not exactly shy, dead tired. He would not let me pay for the coffee I drank at the bar, allowing me instead to admire his method of carrying several cups and saucers in one hand. His coworkers and the bar's owners like to laugh about the great Shlomi, whom the international press has made briefly famous. "Oh, you're the real Shlomi, the one and only, the big hero," they exclaim. Everyone seems to adore him.
A civilian hero is deprived of the incidental benefits, such as they are, of armed combat: the adrenalin rush of anticipated battle, the comforting presence of commanding officers and mates. Instead, he is alone with a bomb, his hands clutching a crazy man bent only on killing and being killed. But Shlomi is very cool. From the instant he shoved the sweating and stammering stranger into a corner, he says, the rest of the event unfolded "like a machine."
"I pulled the backpack off his shoulders and it fell onto the floor. I opened the flap and saw the wires sticking out. It didn't explode because something must have been broken. I was lucky. I picked up the backpack, I was still on automatic pilot, and I took it away while someone else pinned the guy down until the police came. Why did I carry it away? I said to myself, 'If someone has to die, better one than many.' And then I thought, 'If it blows up, we'll all die and I'll really look like an idiot.' But it worked out, and so I became a hero."
When he got home his mother screamed at him, hysterically: "You idiot!" She was lying on the sofa, a glass of water in her hand. "I ran home to warn her before she heard the news on the radio, but she raised her hand to slap me, crying' about how I could have been killed." Shlomi laughs, but his eyes are still a little frightened at the thought of his enraged mother.
Shlomi is something of a Zionist, as Zionists go in real life. He was not a big believer in the Oslo peace process, but he was a little believer in it. He likes the idea of peace, and terrorism scares him more than war. But what is the alternative? Slowly, the dirty cups still balanced in his hand, Shlomi offers his ex-post-facto philosophy: "It went well, that's a sign that life goes on. If the backpack had blown up, I wouldn't be here to talk about it. So," he lapses into Arabic, 'ya-Allah, we have to live. We move around, we keep going, nonstop. People do their best, they're walking on eggs."
In Gilo, the Jerusalem neighborhood where Shlomi lives, the whole area was under nonstop bombardment a year ago. "When a shell landed in my apartment building it was really scary. There, it was hard to plan: if it hit you, it hit you. But when you can do something, things go a lot better." For having done something, Shlomi came into $5,000, a prize from an American philanthropist. "I'm saving it," he says.
In the old days in Israel, heroism of the Shlomi type was both a national reality and a national ethic. It was part and parcel of the popular ideology of the ruling (mostly left-wing) elites, forged in the crucible of the 1948 war and, even earlier, in the age of the pioneering kibbutzniks and those who made the desert bloom. Driving it was a very antiheroic dream: namely, the dream of a normal life in one's own land, among one's own people. This brand of valor had nothing to do with the outsized, myth-soaked heroism familiar to us from the propaganda and the statuary of fascism and Communism. It was not about gargantuan deeds by superhuman champions; it was family- and home-oriented, and rather intimate in tone. It was celebrated in lots of sad and even rueful songs, but few marches.
No doubt to the astonishment of many, it is still alive, having survived even the era of rampant consumerism and the good life. There are still many yuppies in Israel, but their roots would appear to run only a few inches deep. That there are also deep political divisions concerning the country's future goes without saying, some of them reflected in emigration figures and even in desertions from army service; but considering the circumstances, these, too, are remarkably contained. As for the post-Zionist interpretation of Israel's history, which replaced the anti-heroic hero with a bellicose, aggressive villain-the mythically rapacious, colonialist Jew who first oppressed and then drove out the native Palestinian inhabitants of the land-this mendacious reading likewise seems to have failed to take hold in Israeli consciousness, at least to anything like the extent once feared. The classic Zionist personality has assuredly gone through more than a few permutations over the last decades, but the essential character seems to have remained largely intact. Which is perhaps not so surprising, since it is unfortunately grounded in an implacable existential reality.
And it is evidently contagious. On October 12 of this year, Mikhail Sarkisov, a thirty-one-year-old recent immigrant from Turkmenistan, saved the lives of about 40 people who were sitting in the Cafe Tayelet along the oceanfront in Tel Aviv. Sarkisov had been a guard for three weeks, his training having consisted mostly of a stint in the Russian army. He was living in a trailer, without a bathroom or a refrigerator, his only items of luxury being a well-groomed moustache and a gold-well, maybe gold-ring. He had been issued a fake pistol because he did not yet have a gun license. When an Arab terrorist, his jacket bulging, approached, Sarkisov confronted him even as the metal detector started to go off.