The beginning of 2002 was a fairly torrid time in Israel. A day that went by without some sort of terrorist attack was something of a rarety. March 9th, Saturday night things came very close to home when a suicide bomber walked into Cafe Moment, close to my office, 5 minutes walk from my home. The straw that broke the camel's back was the bombing of the Park Hotel in Netanya on Seder night; 30 people murdered as they took part in celebrating Passover.
The next day I received the phone call to report to my unit. Rumours had been rife that it was going to happen and in honesty I was pleased to be called up - I would not have felt right sitting on my hands doing nothing. 21,000 Reservists were called up that day - there were no shirkers. I encountered people in my unit who had not done Miluim for years due to dubious medical issues - the country was 110% in support of the action to be taking.
My unit is made up of Olim and Sabras, of businessmen, lawyers, computer programmers, teachers and students; there are those that wear kippot and get up early in the morning to pray serving alongside tattooed and pierced secularists, from North to South and all socio-economic sectors, we represent the salad that is Israeli society. We all came together with a common cause and those who were not called up that we encountered showed their support - they brought food and sent gifts, I had my bus ticket paid by a Hareidi youth, people came up and told me "Kol hakavod" in the street. This was Am Yisrael at it's most beautiful - pulling together in a time of great distress - if only it were always like that.
At the time, other than a few minor raids, the IDF had not yet gone into the West Bank cities which had been given over to Palestinian control as part of the Oslo accords. Initially headed for Nablus (Shchem) we were then supposedly off to Hebron before our final destination was given - Bethlehem. Although it was subsequently to prove relatively quiet, we didn't know what to expect and I was extremely scared at the prospect, certainly not gung-ho, but determined to do my duty.
The month or so that we spent in and around Bethlehem was of huge importance to me personally as it help me to form certain opinions on the conflict. It was the first time that I'd had real and direct contact with the Palestinian people, seen how they lived and spoken with them about their hopes and dreams.
Geographically, Bethlehem is effectively a Southern suburb of Jerusalem. From my home I can be at Roadblock 300, the entrance to the City in approximately 5 minutes if I don't hit traffic. I could run it in no more than 15 minutes - probably closer to 12. The population knows Jerusalem well - they work here - or maybe they used to. Israelis used to shop there - as we rolled in on our Armoured Personnel Carrier, our driver gave a surreal commentary on where he used to go for hummus and petrol.
I have no doubts that going into the Palestinian cities was the correct and necessary thing to do but I have never felt less comfortable than when knocking on the door of people's homes, checking if anyone was on the Security Service's blacklist and searching through their belongings looking for weapons. Setting up a base in a families home whilst they moved in downstairs with relatives was a particularly horrible thing to have to do and we made every effort not to do any damage, rolling up carpets, locking rooms which weren't in use and even mopping the kitchen floor before we left.
Perhaps the most revealing thing for me was the conversation I had with a couple of Palestinian men in their home in Doha - an up market area of Bethelehem whose homes look across to Gilo, Ramat Rachel and Har Homa in Jerusalem. They had low opinions of the leadership - both theirs and ours and opined that if it were left up to the ordinary people the Israeli - Palestinian problem would be sorted out quickly. All they wanted was for their kids to be able to get an education, grow up and raise their families in peace - pretty much the same as any regular Jewish family wants. As we sat round drinking sweet tea, kicking a ball around with their children, I felt that their was hope. I don't know how representative this particular family was of the Palestinians in general but as long as they are not the only ones, then I tend towards the view that there is a solution - as long as its those who represent the consensus and not the extremists steering the ship.