Whalid


Originally published by Consequence Magazine, Spring 2016


The Palestinian who almost killed me in the fall of 2006 was a sixteen-year-old boy named Whalid.

*

In November that year, I infiltrated Gaza for the last time. I was twenty-three years old and had served in the Israeli Naval Commando for four years. My crew and I were on foot, and despite the heavy equipment I carried, I was relieved not to be in an armored personnel vehicle. One of my greatest fears, always, was burning alive in that tank-like carrier. During our previous mission in Gaza, we left in one of those vehicles and an Israeli tank accidentally shot at us but missed. If I was going to die, even by friendly fire, I’d rather it be in the open air.

Our mission in Gaza was to diminish the amount of Qassam rockets being fired into Israel. We were a crew of twelve people, and had been together since the day we enlisted. We’d gone through training together, where we started with twenty-two others who didn’t make the cut. Apart from our commander, a twenty-four-year old lieutenant who’d been with us four months, we were all twenty two or twenty-three-year-old staff sergeants. We walked in formation, spread out in pairs, moving with care and silence from cover to cover. My partner was always Goldberg. Going through almost two years of training with a dozen guys created bonds that were almost impossible to break. But Goldberg was my best friend even before the military. He’d been there for me during my breaking points and I would’ve been there for him had he reached any. Goldberg was big: almost six and a half feet tall, and strong. He always preferred the armored vehicles because he felt that he stood an equal chance of survival. Out in the open, towering a head and a half above the rest of us, he believed he made the best target for a sniper, and tried to crouch when he walked as much as possible.

Our crew reached Beit Hanoun, a city on the northeast edge of the Gaza Strip, a few kilometers west of Sderot. We made our way to a three-story concrete building needed for cover, and barged into apartment number five, that belonged to a Palestinian whose name I don’t remember. He’d been a physicist in Russia, he told me later, and had moved his wife and five-year-old daughter to Gaza out of nationalism. But now he was taking them back to Russia. The constant fighting and harsh living conditions had proven to be a failed experiment.

While we shot from the windows of his living room and bathrooms for more than a day, we kept him and his family in their bedroom so they’d be safe from the retaliating bullets. After hours of staying on watch and looking out of a bathroom window, Goldberg and I were finally relieved by two crewmates. We walked to the living room and Goldberg lay on the floor and stretched out his legs and arms. He took off his helmet, which had left his light brown hair in the shape of a mushroom. Then he sat up and scooted his back against the wall next to me where we had time to rest and reload our ammunition. Goldberg and I were both movie buffs and we quietly quizzed each other with movie lines as we snapped rounds into our M-16 magazines. Goldberg started.

“You walk in alive and you come out dead! And it’s your best friend that does it.” 

“Donnie Brasco,” I said, as I blew a few grains of sand off one of my rounds. “Your Pacino is getting better.” 

“Hoo ah!” Goldberg said, raising half a lip into his best Pacino face. 

“Of course, you sound less like Al Pacino and more like Kevin Spacey imitating Al Pacino.” Goldberg laughed.

We hadn’t heard gunfire in a while and this bothered Goldberg, who was always suspicious of silence. He placed the magazines in his vest, put his helmet back on, and stepped toward the window. He drew the curtain back a fraction to take a stealthy look outside. He turned to me and shrugged. Seconds later, a rocketpropelled grenade blasted through the window and into the living room, embedding itself in the chair against the wall where I sat. It didn’t explode. 

This was meant to be the moment of my death, and if I were writing a movie scene, I’d describe it with various clichés like how my eyes bulged or how I ran for cover or how my mind went blank, with no last thoughts about how devastated my family would be. How I wasn’t angry or sad my life would be cut short, or relieved I wouldn’t have to wonder anymore how it would all end. Or how instead, I just froze and stared at the RPG and waited for the explosion that would end me.

But the truth was, we sat there for probably two hours without even knowing that an RPG had entered the apartment. The windows shattered and I can’t remember what happened after that, whether we opened fire or where Goldberg went. But when we later left the apartment to move to another complex, we noticed the RPG in the chair against the wall where I’d been sitting. We stopped for a moment. Most of the warhead was in the wall, and only the cylindrical piece jutted from the chair and hung firmly in the air. I traced my finger along the RPG, feeling the cold metal of the cylinder, and grazed the base of the warhead so slightly I couldn’t even feel it. Goldberg yelled at me not to touch it. Then we cleared the apartment, and left the Palestinian physicist and his wife and little girl with an RPG in their living room. They stood in their doorway, not angry, not hysterical, just resigned. We promised we’d call the engineers to remove the RPG, and the physicist nodded and thanked us—I imagine for his daughter’s sake—but I knew he didn’t believe us. We moved on to the next house and continued our mission but we never called the engineers. I still feel bad about that.

*

Almost nine years later, this event continues to weigh on me. I’ve spent time thinking of how I almost died, but not about who it was that tried to kill me. It has become important to me to understand who it was that shot the RPG and why. There’s no way for me to know. I will never know, so I’m left to imagine.

In my mind, the Palestinian who shot that RPG was a sixteenyear- old boy named Whalid. Before that morning, he’d never held a weapon that could take a life. He had once thrown stones from an overpass, but his father beat him for it and he never did it again. And one time he’d asked his brother Fuad to let him hold a gun, but Fuad refused. Now both his father and Fuad were dead, and his older brother Afzal hadn’t been home in five days—he was either with his girlfriend, Neha, or more likely with his Hamas friends, planning or executing attacks. Whalid’s mother didn’t like Neha, but she disliked Hamas more and disapproved of Afzal’s involvement with them. She had no daughters and held on tight to Whalid.

Half an hour before dawn, while the sky was still black, Whalid went into Afzal’s room and retrieved a sleek dark military bag from under his bed. He unzipped it and took out an RGP launcher. It felt cold and heavier than he expected. Whalid opened his school backpack and placed the RPG components inside. To avoid suspicion, he wore his school uniform—jeans and a blue cotton shirt with three black buttons leading to a stiff collar. The ends of his short sleeves were also black, and the left side of the shirt had a breast pocket. He wore his sandals, which weren’t allowed for school, but he’d already outgrown his other shoes. In his room, Whalid passed the bag through the window and rested it on the ground, then remained still. He listened for sounds coming from his mother’s room but heard none. He knew what his plan would do to his mother and their relationship, but felt he didn’t have a choice. He glanced at his made bed and bare walls—he’d torn down posters of Ronaldo and Messi and other admired soccer players after Fuad died—lit by a dim streetlamp, before he slid out of the window and shut it from the outside.

He began his eight-kilometer journey east from his home in the Al-Shati refugee camp to the city of Beit Hanoun. Even though the sun wasn’t out, a streak of orange emerged from the horizon through the eastern sky, breaking up the darkness. Whalid passed fishermen—either on their way to bed after a night out at sea or early risers about to start their day—and vendors heading to market. There were fewer people out than usual; Israeli attacks in the area over the previous week had forced many to stay home. Imram’s cart was destroyed by an Air Force bombing; Nabil’s fishing net was shot to shreds by the Navy; a number of people had jobs in Israel but weren’t allowed to enter because of what to Israelis was tightened security, but to Palestinians a siege.

Whalid walked close to the sea, the salt water smell reminding him of following his father to the shore each morning as a child, and helping him push the fishing boat into the water. Each morning carried the same ritual: Whalid begged his father to let him miss school and come on the boat, but his father replied, “You will go to school so you will do great things. Fishing is not a great thing.” His father kissed the top of his head, revved the motor, and sped away from Whalid, who turned and walked to school.

Whalid reached the street where he knew from his best friend that Israeli soldiers were in the corner building. Hamas was planning an ambush, but Whalid saw this as his opportunity to get Hamas—and Afzal—to notice him. He snuck into an abandoned building that’d been stripped of everything—doors, windows, tiles— and smelled like burnt rubber and rotten fish. He climbed to the third floor, knelt down, and took out the different RPG parts from the bag. He’d spent two weeks hiding in Afzal’s closet, watching him practice putting the launcher together and taking it apart. Afzal seemed to have perfect posture when he practiced, and as Whalid scrutinized him from behind the closet door, he wished he had Afzal’s grace to do such things so effortlessly. Whalid took two cylindrical pieces and screwed them on tight to the warhead. He loaded the rocket into the muzzle, which was just a tube with a handle and trigger. He put the launcher on his shoulder and waited.

He wondered if anyone lived in that apartment, though he knew someone had to. But he pushed the thought away. He spotted a tall soldier with light brown hair pull at the curtain. In his room, Afzal would always count down from five, then say fire. Whalid counted down from ten. In those ten seconds, he wasn’t thinking about what it would mean to take a life; he just didn’t want to miss.

He held his breath and pulled the trigger. The noise of the rocket leaving the launcher was sudden and deafening, and he was so surprised by it that he dropped the launcher. He fell back as smoke surrounded him, and needed a few seconds to orient himself again. He rolled over on his stomach and crawled toward the opening in the wall. He looked out at the street and his eyes followed the trail of smoke that led to where the RPG hit. There was no explosion, no flames, no screaming. Before he had time to realize or come to terms with his failure, Israeli soldiers fired at him from outside the building. Whalid panicked, stood to a hunched position and ran, leaving the launcher behind. He tripped over a pipe and felt the skin come off his knee. He lurched up, ran out of the house, turned the corner, and kept sprinting block after block, his loose sandals slapping the concrete.

Whalid didn’t stop running for forty minutes until he reached the beach by Al-Shati. The motor oil used by the fishermen’s boats, along with other pollution, had long replaced the blue water with a green and murky coating. But the beach was still beautiful; it was where Gaza and the world ended and infinity began, and the boundless horizon filled Whalid with both the hope of possibilities— medical school, money, taking his mother and Afzal away from Gaza and its constant war—along with the fear that those longings, like the horizon, were unreachable. 

Whalid took off his shoes and walked toward the water as the shore changed from individual grains between his toes to wet sand. He folded up his pants legs, then stepped shin-deep into the water, which was still warm for November. The fading sun sent slivers across the water and the fishermen out at sea. The blockade kept them from fishing more than three kilometers from shore, so most came back each day empty handed—except those who dared to venture out, but they ran the risk of losing their nets if caught. Even the fish had learned not to enter Gaza.

Three hundred meters south, Whalid could still see the burnt-down shack that the Israeli Navy had accidentally shot down two years before, where, instead of weapons, there was a twelve-year old boy who was burned to death. Whalid’s mother knew that boy’s mother. He went to the funeral, where once more he grasped that a mother who has lost a child makes the most heartbreaking noises of any creature alive.

His mother had not made any noise at Fuad’s funeral. Fuad, Whalid’s oldest brother, was taken from their house in the middle of the night. The Israelis returned his body four days later with an apology. They claimed that Fuad had been killed in a feud within the prison, but neither Whalid nor his family believed it. Even though Fuad seemed menacing with his heavy breathing and hefty mass—a stark contrast to Whalid’s wiry frame—he was not one to feud with his own. He’d masterminded an attack in Haifa that left four Israelis dead, including a three-year-old girl, but any argument he had in Gaza, even within Hamas, he knew how to diffuse. Whalid and his family believed Israeli interrogators killed Fuad for not answering their questions.

Fuad had joined Hamas three years earlier, after their father drowned. Desperate for fish, he’d ventured past the border, and when an Israeli naval gunship tried to shoot his net, they hit his boat instead. The Israeli soldiers pulled his body onto their ship and tried to resuscitate him but couldn’t. Another accident. Again an apology. Whalid’s mother had begged Fuad not to join Hamas and threw him out of their house when he did.

“They don’t care about you, they’ll just use you,” she’d said. During the funeral, she kept muttering a Bedouin proverb: “Fire only burns he who approaches it.”

Soon after, Afzal took Fuad’s place. He was enraged beyond consolation, and the anger that had simmered for years after his father’s death couldn’t be contained. Hamas waited with open arms for the brother of their martyr and provided an outlet for that anger. This time their mother didn’t throw him out. Once, as she helped Whalid with his homework, she said to him, “I have lost Afzal already, he has made his decision. I should enjoy his presence while I can.”

Whalid wanted that same Israeli brass to apologize to Israeli mothers. He wanted them to feel what his mother had felt. Whalid yearned not only to kill, but to destroy the lives of those left to grieve.

Now he’d had his chance and he failed. That the soldiers were alive didn’t anger Whalid. It humiliated him. He sat on the sand until the sun came down behind the water, then walked home. He was about to reach the door of his house when an arm grabbed his collar from behind and threw him against the wall, his cheek scraping against the rugged bricks. He felt a sting across the other cheek and he could tell by the feel of the metal ring that the hand belonged to Afzal. Whalid turned to face him and his brother slapped him again.

“Where is it?” Afzal asked.

Whalid mumbled something incomprehensible, a nervous tick he had developed when he was six, and Afzal knew what that meant.

“Damn it, Whalid.” He kicked at the wall. “Fuck!” He attacked the wall again. Afzal was tall and had strength, and with his next kick, a brick came loose.

The front door opened and their mother leaned out. “Afzal! Have you lost your mind?” she said. She was a small woman, but had a face that showed no weakness, only weariness. She had lost physical stature over the years, but her chin always jutted forward, her teeth grinding—she could never relax.

Afzal studied the ground and apologized. Their mother glared at Afzal, then looked at Whalid and her eyes softened. Whalid gazed down. He regretted not having hugged his mother in over five months; he’d thought it was time for him to grow up.

“Come inside for dinner,” she said, and closed the door.

Afzal rested his forehead against the wall, tilting his head from side to side. He took a deep breath and relaxed his shoulders as he exhaled.

“I need that launcher, Whalid.” He turned and leaned against the wall and lit a Noblesse cigarette. Afzal’s black beard was the same length as his short thick hair, both of which he trimmed daily. He wore a sleeveless, black cotton shirt which revealed muscular arms, and when he brought the cigarette to his mouth, the vein in his bicep seemed to pop. Whalid had been jealous of Afzal’s body for as long as he could remember, and now at sixteen, he feared he would stay scrawny forever.

“Take it as a sign from Allah,” Afzal said. “This isn’t for you.”

“I almost killed somebody today,” Whalid said.

“But you didn’t. Instead you’re standing here without my RPG launcher. A lot of things almost happen. I almost fucked Neha. We almost have a country. Fuad is almost alive.”

Afzal picked up Whalid’s chin with two fingers and turned his face. He rubbed the scratch on his cheek. “Join Hamas and Mom will kill you before the Israelis get a chance. And me as well.”

Whalid looked towards their house and then away. He scratched his nose.

“There wasn’t much that was expected of me, you know,” Afzal said. “I wasn’t exceptional with school, or with anything really. But you . . .” his voice trailed off. “Find another way to help the cause. Do well in school and be a diplomat or something. You’re good at that sort of thing, aren’t you?”

“I’m good at math and science.”

“I know you are,” Afzal said and smiled. “Promise me, no more. Mom will kick me out if you end up in Hamas and Neha sure as shit won’t take me in.”

Whalid smiled. Afzal put his hand out and Whalid shook it.

“And Mom doesn’t need to know any of this, yes?” Afzal said.

Whalid nodded. Afzal kissed the top of his head and they walked inside.

*

I need to believe this story is true, believe it affected Whalid like it did me, that he stayed true to his word and never picked up a weapon again, that he became a doctor and did good things with his life, like I have tried to do with mine. But I know it might not be true. Maybe that wasn’t the first or last time Whalid fired an RPG. Maybe it was his single attempt at warfare and an experience he conjures often. Or maybe it was just a snag among the many RPGs he fired and the many Israeli soldiers he killed—a misfire he hardly remembers.

For me, there were many times I could have died, but that experience remains the most significant. There’s just something plain fucking sad about being blown up in Gaza. About not just dying, but being killed.

Had that RPG exploded that day, I’d be a statistic, a monument, a memorial. A picture on a wooden log at my base; a shrine in the corner of my family’s home; a twenty-minute movie on Memorial Day; a newspaper article with red and black headlines; a toast to raised glasses; a story told with tear-glazed eyes at gatherings with family and friends.

I still stop sometimes—at weddings, during Shabbat dinners, while fucking—and think: how did that RPG not explode? I wonder if Whalid has the same thought. How he almost killed. What would that have done to him? For him. Whether he wonders how that would have changed the trajectory of his life. I wonder if it haunts him.

*

Like Whalid, I also know what it’s like to be on the firing side of a rocket. I spent four days on a rooftop in Gaza with Goldberg in the summer of 2006, armed with movie quotes and a Spike missile. Two Palestinians stood below in a field of green grass, wearing white t-shirts, and setting up a trip wire for an explosive device aimed to blow up an Israeli tank coming up the road. They hid behind a building corner, one of them still visible to us. We got the green light to shoot.

I’d been a missile expert for two years but had never shot one before. No one in our unit had shot this missile for years. Goldberg and I had trained extensively, on land and at sea, waiting for an opportunity for our training to culminate, and it came that day. I put my eye behind the viewfinder of the missile and found the target. I don’t remember his face, but half his body stuck out from behind the building, and I locked onto him. I filled my lungs with air and exhaled completely, then remained still. Goldberg gave me the command to fire and I pressed the trigger. The missile took flight, and through the viewfinder, with the joystick in my hand, I controlled its direction. I kept the missile on the target and aimed well enough so it hit the Palestinian in the knee. My viewfinder went black and I don’t remember hearing an explosion. I opened my left eye and could see the smoke in the distance.

At that moment, I wasn’t thinking about flag or country or taking a life. I just didn’t want to miss. I didn’t want to be the laughing stock of my unit. I didn’t want to be the warrior who had a chance to take out terrorists but missed with a missile from four hundred meters away. I was a twenty-two-year-old kid and I wanted to kill so that I wouldn’t be made fun of. 

The missile exploded and killed four men and injured seven. Three of the injured were deemed civilians, but in my mind, they should have considered the company they kept. Goldberg grinned and slapped my knee. I smiled and we fist bumped. I felt relieved. Then I felt nothing. Pop culture and films had taught me how I thought I should feel after killing, and on the way back from Gaza, I quizzedGoldberg with a relevant Clint Eastwood quote from Unforgiven: “It’s a hell of a thing killing a man. You take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.” Goldberg got it right away and laughed. But inside, that’s not how I felt. I had joined the military not wanting to kill and not wanting to die, only understanding the reality of the country I lived in. Things needed to be done and if I didn’t do them, no one would. That’s how my friends and I had grown up: we prepared and sent care packages for soldiers during the holidays when we were in elementary school. In middle school we learned about the heroics of the military in the 1948 War of Independence and the Six Day War of 1967. During our high school years, our extracurricular activities included training in the afternoons for the military. Our fathers told us stories about how they had stopped forty Egyptian tanks with only three of their own, and held the Suez Canal in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. We learned that service evasion is the worst crime imaginable. But all of this was based not on propaganda and lectures, but rather a deep-rooted love we all had for our country, and a desire to protect it and be part of the social contract that says, “You’ll protect me when I’m young and I’ll protect you when you’re old.” When we got back to base that day, I was a mini-celebrity. Fifteen hundred people there knew that Shayetet 13, the Israeli Naval Commandos, had taken out four terrorists and that I’d pulled the trigger. The quartermaster passed by me across the street and gave me a thumbs up. The unit commander slapped my back.

I never lost sleep over killing those people and never thought about who each one might have been. It could have been a sixteen-year-old boy, just like Whalid, who had a brother in Hamas he was trying to impress. Today, I do think about who tried to kill me and who I killed, and as far as I’m concerned, they’re all Whalid. He’s a sixteen-year-old boy with a baby face that doesn’t grow any facial hair yet, and will probably never provide him a full beard. A wiry body that doesn’t gain muscle mass no matter how many pushups and pull-ups he does. A thin stomach layered with baby fat he can’t get rid of no matter how many sit-ups he does. And this bothers him. Brown, slanted eyes, with a furrow in between them belonging to a person who carries the grief of friends and family lost along the way. Principled. Nationalist. Willing to fight for what he believes.

Whalid and I were born on opposite sides of a border, and that alone dictated our loyalties to whom and for what we would kill and die. Our lives were placed on a trajectory where every decision we made led us to face each other, where I remained alive because he didn’t win. I know he wanted for his people and country what I wanted and still do want for mine. He was willing to sacrifice everything, as I was. I need to believe it was Whalid because I want to believe he was good. Despite his ideologies and violence, I need to believe he was good.

*

The Palestinian I killed in the summer of 2006 was a sixteen-year-old boy name Whalid.

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