IDF Expands Humanitarian Officers Program

By Joel Leyden

It's 2 p.m. at the Kalandia checkpost on a boiling summer's day. A long, crowded line of Palestinians wait to enter Ramallah. Young Israeli combat soldiers are positioned in front of them, standing behind grey concrete barriers and above on dusty hilltops sweating inside armor plated guard towers.

The 18-year-old troops appear ready for anything.

They have been trained for terrorism and conventional warfare. These young high school graduates keep a watchful eye out for the unusual. It could be a car with a sniper, a young boy holding a package or a women suicide bomber just waiting to make tomorrow's headlines. Then you hear the cry of a baby coming from inside the shoulder-to-shoulder line. The combat troops are heard yelling: "stay in line, keep back and approach the check post one by one."

A greying, middle-aged officer with a slight belly approaches the line. Wearing a flak jacket and helmet, he appears to be looking for something. Many call out to him, asking questions. He smiles and points at a women holding a tiny baby in a white, knitted blanket.

"Please come with me," he says. He studies the crowd and yells out, "Any more babies or children here?" He takes a Palestinian family through the checkpoint, passes the armed guards, passes the soldiers who inspect the IDs and passports and asks if they want water. He looks down at the children with a smile, takes off his helmet and wishes them a good day in Arabic. The children smile back, amazed at the sight of an Israeli soldier treating them like friends.
The children have just met an IDF Humanitarian officer.

In September 2000, the IDF created a concept and a new, softer reality for life on Israel's borders. They called the program "IDF Volunteers of Hope." The program consists purely of volunteers. The motivation to serve in this unit must come from the soul and not a written order from a recruiting base.

Out of the 6,500 soldiers who have applied for the program, only 2,200 have been accepted. The requirements are simple. You must have served in the IDF and your age must be somewhere between 22 and 75. The average age of those accepted to the program is 48. You must be able to speak fluent Hebrew and English. Arabic is optional.

Once accepted, the IDF volunteer goes through a few days of weapons training and learns special cross-cultural interpersonal skills designed to take on young IDF soldiers and Palestinians coming from a wide variety of ages and occupations. The program has been so successful that the IDF is now expanding it.

In a time of severe budget cuts in the IDF, this is one of the very few units which is getting personal backing from the IDF Chief of Staff.

Working out of a small office in Tel Aviv, program director Col. Triber Bezalel is constantly on the telephone. He supervises all of the Humanitarian officers who are posted in Jericho, Kalandia, Bethlehem and Ariel.

"Many people in Israeli society have discovered how important this program is," Triber tells The Jerusalem Post. "One of the very few points of contact between the Israeli and Palestinian populations is at our check posts.

"We can't allow a young 18-year-old soldier who has no understanding and experience of family and business obligations to set policy at these check posts. We get some very special and mature volunteers coming here to serve and they come not only from Israel, but from North America and Europe," said Triber.

"Our volunteers leave the safe, comfortable air-conditioned environment of their homes for a very dangerous but rewarding mission on our borders. They assist our young soldiers with security and provide an understanding, helping hand to the Palestinians. Their job is to make life easier for those who cross the borders. To assist women who are holding babies and children, aid the elderly and sick and provide an open ear to Palestinian professionals who have special problems. These are Israel's ambassadors to our Palestinian neighbors and they perform brilliantly."

Triber states that the success of the program can be seen in the smiling faces of the children who pass these harsh check points. Both the Palestinian children and their parents are able to see a human and warm side of Israel as opposed to the hateful and violent propaganda they are taught. Both Israelis and Palestinians are offered a rare personal glimpse of hope for the future of these two societies.

The program is far from a public relations gimmick, that the IDF Spokesperson's office has no connection to it whatsoever. "When you see one of our humanitarian officers in a newspaper photograph giving out water or even taking out his own personal food for a child, that image does not come from a carpeted PR office it comes from a sincere and caring heart," said Triber.

"I must finish my written request to the IDF Chief of Staff," Triber concludes. "The program is expanding, we are adding more volunteers and we critically need more money to keep this program going. We have done a lot of good so far, but we have a long way to go before we can turn the lights off in this office."