Saturday, September 8, 2012
An officer and a Muslim Zionist
"From the age of zero I was told that Israel stole Palestine from us, but when I was 14 I woke up. I discovered that Jews are not bad," says Ala Wahib, an operations officer at a key IDF training base, and the highest-ranked Muslim officers in the Israeli army.
Michal Yaakov Yitzhaki
Maj. Ala Wahib, one of only two Muslim officers currently serving in the IDF.
Photo credit: Ziv Koren
Maj. Ala Wahib: ""From the age of zero I was told that Israel stole Palestine from us, but when I was 14 I woke up."
Photo credit: Ziv Koren
Maj. Ala Wahib in the field.
Photo credit: Osnat Krasnansky
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“I am the operations officer at the IDF ground forces training base at Tze’elim,” Ala Wahib says at the start of our conversation, his eyes twinkling with excitement. “I am like the mother and father of that place,” he adds. “The only thing is that I don’t really have anyone to share it with, so I make sure to pat myself on the back every now and again, and say ‘dude, you’re awesome. Look how far you’ve come.’”
The truth is that he deserves these accolades. It is not every day that a Muslim Arab, hailing from a village whose residents largely do not recognize Israel’s right to exist, comes to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. And he doesn’t only serve: Major Wahib, 32, is currently the highest ranking Muslim officer in the IDF. He is enormously patriotic, a true Zionist. Precisely the kind of person we like to see lighting the torches during the national Independence Day ceremony every year.
But still, Wahib came to this interview with immense trepidation. Even today, after 12 years in the Israeli military, he still doesn’t feel comfortable openly discussing his views. For years he struggled on all fronts: he fought against the residents of his village, who to this day refer to him as a traitor, and he fought the military institution that never fully understood his motives.
“In my village, they can’t understand what could possibly motivate me to protect a country that is not my own. In the army there are people who know me and would go all the way with me, but there are those who don’t know me and don’t really know how to relate to me,” he says.
So why did he decide to give this interview, with his face exposed and his full name in print? “Because it is important to me to show the Arab public what they are missing. There are quite a lot of people [in the Arab community] who want to enlist, but they are afraid and they don’t know if they will be accepted by their environment. It is important to me to show them the road I’ve traveled, and to make them understand that it is possible.” Regardless, he doesn’t take his hand off his gun for a second during the entire interview. “It is my security. It is my only means of protecting myself,” he says.
His Hebrew is fluent, without a hint of an accent, and he could easily be mistaken for an average Tel Avivian. A map of the training grounds hangs on his office wall, and his green eyes constantly sweep it, making sure again and again that everything is under control. Every once in a while a soldier will knock on the door, asking permission for this or that mission, and one of them, noticing the newspaper crew, can’t resist and says “write that he is the best commander there is.” Wahib tries to hide an embarrassed smile and tells the soldier to get his backside back to the field.
He describes himself as a “Zionist Israeli Arab.” Four years ago he went on a tour of Nazi extermination camps in Poland, together with his fellow officers, as part of the IDF’s Witnesses in Uniform program. “As a child,” he says, “I grew up in a society that denies the Holocaust. When I arrived in Poland I was shocked. I cried a lot. It was difficult to contain this thing called genocide. There was something very powerful in the fact that I was standing on Polish soil, holding an Israeli flag and donning the uniform of the Israeli army, but this time from a position of power. It was proof that we can’t be broken.”
When Wahib says “we” he means the Jewish people. “I believe in the Muslim faith, and I will never abandon it, but I think that Zionism is more than a religion. It is something that fully represents my sense of belonging to the State of Israel and to Israeli society, and the immense commitment I have to protecting and guarding the country of which I am part.”
Hold on a second. Doesn’t protecting Israel’s security mean fighting your own people?
“Look, I served in Lebanon, in Gaza and Judea and Samaria and I took part in plenty of clashes where my life was in danger. I never, not for a second, ever thought of leaving. I never asked myself ‘what am I doing here?’ As far as I am concerned, there is no other way.”
I never threw rocks
He was born in the village of Reineh in the Galillee, which currently houses some 17,000 residents, more than 80 percent of whom are Muslim. His father was born in Syria, and had two wives. Each wife had four children. Wahib is the second son of the second wife. Today he lives alone in the village, in a huge house that he built himself. The dichotomy that characterizes his life can easily be seen in his house: modern Israeli furniture side by side with traditional Arab pieces. Two statues of dogs welcome guests, perhaps as a warning to ill wishers to keep their distance.
His family lives on the other side of the village, and has no contact with him. “It is not because I went to the army,” he rushes to explain. “It would make sense for my family not to accept my enlistment, but that is the one thing they could actually live with. My father even supported me. The problem was that after he died, I met a Christian girl. My mother forbade the relationship, and the entire family exerted heavy pressure on us to break up. There were a lot of confrontations. I didn’t want it to become violent, so we had no choice but to split up. The way things look now, I don’t see how we could ever be together. That is why I severed ties with my family. The only family member I am still in touch with is, of all people, my father’s other wife and her children. They are now my only family.”
The price he pays for serving in the IDF is dear. It is a price he pays daily. He has no contact with any of the people in his village, and the only friends that ever visit are his colleagues from the army. “In Arab society it is customary to be involved in each other’s lives, there is no privacy,” he says sadly. “I often prefer the company of the cows that graze down here. They don’t judge me, they let me live my life in peace. I built this house to show everyone all that I’ve achieved – in our society the size of your house is a social status symbol. But today there is nothing tying me to this place. When people ask me where my home is, I immediately answer that my home is my room on the base.”
Why don’t you leave the village?
“I lived in Jewish communities for several years – in Yavne’el, Korazim and She’ar Yashuv. A year ago I returned to the village. I suppose I will leave again soon. You have probably noticed that I haven’t worked on the yard yet, and as long as there’s no garden, the home is a temporary one. I decorated this house with my Christian girlfriend. It is difficult for me to leave this house now – I have so many memories.”
The overwhelming majority of residents of Wahib’s village do not recognize Israel’s right to exist on “Palestinian land.” Wahib says that “from the age of zero I was told that Israel took Palestine away from us, so naturally I referred to myself as a citizen of Palestine. I didn’t recognize the Israeli flag, and I certainly didn’t see myself as part of the country. Every once in a while I would take part in an anti-Israel demonstration, but I never threw rocks.”
He woke up, he says, when he was 14 years old and began studying at the technological high school in Nazareth – a Christian boarding school. There he was exposed to the modern world for the first time. The distance from the village and the family, during these teenage years when one develops an identity, took its course.
“The Christian Arabs’ culture is similar to the Europeans'. They are less fanatic and far more modern than the Muslims. The lessons at the school followed Education Ministry guidelines, and I suddenly discovered a world that I never knew existed. I discovered that the Jews weren’t as bad as I was told growing up. I discovered that they have a good side that I am drawn to. I identified with their principles and the way they protect one another. I felt that I wanted to become a part of this country.”
At the age of 18 he approached a human resources company, looking for a job. He was sent to the Rabintex factory in Beit She’an to manufacture defense gear. “I would manufacture helmets and flak jackets and I would sew bulletproof vests. That is where I began to see things differently, to think differently. That is also where I began speaking Hebrew. You could say that I really emerged from the bubble I had been living in. My eyes were opened wide and when that happens, it is very difficult to close them again.”
The call up
Wahib put in a request with the IDF to enlist. “Once every few weeks I would travel to the IDF recruitment office in Tiberias to find out why I wasn’t being called up. The only answer I received was ‘you have to wait. There is no answer yet.’ At one point I gave up. I decided to register for automotive engineering studies at a college in Haifa.
“Suddenly, one bright morning, after two years of waiting, the army called. I will never forget that moment. They said ‘get to the induction center in two days.’ I had no idea what an induction center was. I didn’t know what to bring. I didn’t have anyone to ask, either. I said goodbye to my parents, threw some underwear and a towel in a bag and took off.”
As a volunteer, Wahib requested to serve in the Nahal. Not because he knew what the Nahal was, but because he had once heard a friend say it was a good unit. “When I was at the induction center, I thought that those commanders would determine my future in the IDF so I thought it was important to impress them. For a whole week I did everything the drill sergeant could possibly ask, I volunteered for every kitchen duty, I cleaned up cigarette butts without even being asked to, just so they would let me go to Nahal. I refused to go to any other unit. I don’t know if that is what did it, but ultimately I was sent to Nahal boot camp. There was no one happier than me.”
As fate would have it, Wahib’s first days in the IDF were during a particularly tempestuous time in Israel – the Second Intifada. Riots broke out in his village and neighboring villages across the Galilee. “The fear was insane, and I had quite a few doubts about even staying in the army. One of the dangers was going home in uniform. I remember that the army suggested that I change into civilian clothes at the bus station to avoid confrontations. But it was very clear to me that I was going all the way with the truth I believed. I still used side roads, however, so as to run into as few people as possible.”
“I still remember, to this day, the looks I would get. Children would follow me around calling me ‘Jew’ and ‘traitor’ and very quickly I realized that it was better to be smart than to be right. I tried to come home late at night, to draw as little fire as possible.
Do you still avoid walking around the village in uniform?
“Yes. I don’t want to stir up trouble. I sometimes come home late at night, starving, and I want to stop at the convenience store to buy something to eat but I don’t dare do it in uniform. By the time I go home and change I don’t have the energy to go out again. I remember one time when I couldn’t resist and I came into the village with an Israeli flag attached to my car. I was sure that someone would take it down, but it was still there in the morning.”
And how were you treated by the soldiers?
“There were always those who were afraid to get close to me, and didn’t speak to me, calling me ‘Arab.’ But anyone who served with me knew that I was with them all the way. At the end of the day, these people who slept next to me on adjacent beds were my family. They ate with me, and they shared with me all the goodies they got in care packages from home.”
Wahib, for his part, still with very little Hebrew and a heavy Arabic accent at the time, realized that he would have to work much harder than anyone else to be accepted into this family. “I worked my ass off. I carried people. I spit up blood. I completed almost every level of the army with honors. Suddenly I heard that people were talking about me everywhere. I realized that I was good.”
Despite his successes, he knew that wherever he went, and as many honors as he got, his ethnic background would always be with him and never let him go. Instead of going to the Nahal’s reconnaissance platoon, which is considered more elite, he was sent to the Granite Battalion. That is where he first learned about his security clearance, and what a huge obstacle his background posed. “I completed boot camp with honors, and guys who weren’t nearly as good as me were accepted into the reconnaissance unit, and I wasn’t. I was deeply insulted, demanding answers from my commanding officer, and I refused to back down until he told me that it was because of my security clearance.”
He completed his preparatory officer’s training third in his brigade, but again, because of security clearance, he was not allowed to go to the officer’s training course. His feelings were hurt and he asked for some time off. He sat at home and waited. “I had a major crisis,” he says, and the scars are still evident. “I almost gave up and got myself discharged. I couldn’t understand how I was giving my all and getting nothing but endless obstacles in return. I couldn’t understand why I kept having to prove my loyalty over and over again.”
Wahib sat at home for a week and waited for answers. Finally, he was given the go ahead for the officer’s training and he was over the moon. After he completed the officer’s training course he went back to the Granite Battalion to command over boot camp at the same base where he got his start. Knowing that he would have a hand in shaping the future generation of IDF soldiers gave him immense satisfaction. “It was the first time that I had fighters under my command, 56 guys, and I learned the true meaning of leadership. I got soldiers who just enlisted, and I groomed them and raised them to be the type of soldiers that I want them to be,” he says proudly. “I actually left my mark on them.”
No one will ever catch me off guard
In the various command posts that he has filled, Wahib has found himself in complex situations many times. One such situation occurred when he was appointed operations officer of the Southern Gaza Territorial Brigade (Katif Brigade) just as the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza was underway. “I would stand in front of Jews, and they didn’t believe that I was there to protect them. The situation was extremely charged. In retrospect, I think I managed to get through it without any extraordinary clashes.”
After a year and a half in the post, Wahib left the Nahal for the first time and served as a trainer at the National Urban Training Center (known by its Hebrew acronym MALI). This is where he first became acquainted with all the different units that use the facility for training. After another year and a half, he served as an operations officer in Judea and Samaria.
“I found myself in Judea and Samaria, dealing with a fanatic Arab population and a Jewish population who was there because of their beliefs, and they both hate each other. I think that it was there, of all places, that the fact that I was Arab gave me an advantage. I was often able to accurately assess the situation thanks to my understanding of Arab mentality.”
“One day, a young Arab woman arrived at the checkpoint with a knife and tried to stab a soldier. When I was called to the scene she burst into tears and showed me her body. It was covered with black and blue marks. I understood that she had been severely beaten at home for having soiled the family’s honor and that she didn’t really want to kill a soldier. It was just her way of getting away from her family. She preferred to be in an Israeli jail rather than going back home, possibly to her death.”
“When I understood that, though I really couldn’t justify what she had done, I tried to help her. Her family came to the checkpoint to retrieve her, and I literally protected her with my body. They beat me and spit on me. At one point I had to call for backup just to end the incident. The girl was ultimately arrested, but I have no doubt that my interference had saved her. That is just one example of a situation that could have easily ended differently.”
About seven months later, Wahib began training to become a company commander and was appointed to a command post in the Caracal Battalion, which operates along the Egypt border. From there he made his way to Tze’elim. Since 2009 he has served as the deputy commander of the IDF’s Urban Warfare Branch. “All the IDF units, including reserves units, even the most elite, have been trained by me,” he says with unabashed pride.
Have you ever felt that the soldiers under you command doubted your leadership?
“Not even once. I think that I have excellent leadership abilities, and I see the bigger picture, precisely because of where I come from. I have always struggled and worked very hard not to let anyone ever catch me off guard. On nights before giving a lecture to soldiers I would sit at the base and study like crazy all night long, just so they would not catch me unprepared. I think I have also passed my tenacity on to my soldiers.”
Wahib was only appointed to the post of operations officer at Tze’elim last week. His seat is not even warm yet, but to an outside observer he looks like he has been sitting in it for a long time. He has a firm grip on every training area under his command, and he explains that “MALI is one of the bases with the most live fire training facilities. I am responsible for all the training facilities at Tze’elim where training and drills take place. I have to be fully synchronized with everyone all the time, to avoid a situation in which two units train at the same facility at the same time. That could be disastrous. And there are a lot of Bedouin here too who infiltrate the live fire training grounds to collect shells and sell them later, and I have to make sure that this doesn't happen during a live training exercise. It is a lot of responsibility.”
Wahib “is one of the best officers in the IDF,” says Lt. Col. Itzik Cohen, who currently serves as the commander of the Givati training base, but served as Wahib’s commander for the last three years. “He sacrificed a lot in order to be where he is today, went through a lot of anguish, and I will go out on a limb and say that woe is the IDF if it fails to hug him and welcome him and keep him in the army. I did, and will do, everything in my power to keep him in the system. We don’t let good people go that easily. Wahib got an opportunity to prove himself in a very important, key post. It is exactly the kind of post one gets promoted from. I believe in him.”
Wahib is under contract to serve for another year. During this year, he hopes to get promoted to a post that will keep him in the military. He wants to get as far as possible in the ranks, but the fear of disappointment lets him dream of only one achievement at a time. “I hope to make lieutenant colonel and continue in a core post,” he says.
His eventual discharge worries him. “My uniform, my rank, my officer’s card – these are my VIP ticket into Israeli society, they protect me. When I take off my uniform and go back to being a regular citizen, I will once again have to deal with the fact that I am an Arab citizen in the State of Israel.”
Do you believe that things will change in the future, and that you won’t need a VIP ticket to protect you one day?
“The State of Israel has a lot of different colors. There is a wide variety. Two peoples live here, and the sooner we recognize it, the faster we can minimize the damage. I think that the fact that I am an officer in the IDF communicates a positive message to the Arabs living here. I want to believe that the path that I chose will prove to them that there is another way. My nephew and my cousin enlisted in the Border Police this year, for example. I support them and I help them, with my experience.”
“I feel that I am on a mission. I hope that in the future there will be a lot more Muslim Arab officers in the IDF, and that by virtue of us being human beings we will find a way to communicate and find solutions for a shared life.”
In recent years, hundreds of individuals from ethnic minorities have enlisted in the IDF every year. The IDF personnel branch reports that the numbers have tripled in five years. Of the minorities that serve, 65% are Bedouin, 20% are Christians, and 15% (just a few dozen) are Muslim. The Muslim communities that yield the most soldiers are Nazareth, Dir al-Assad, Bi’ina and Reineh. According to IDF statistics, there are two Arab officers currently serving in the IDF, and only one, Ala Wahib, in a core post. A female Muslim officer was recently discharged from the Air Force. Fifteen Muslim Arabs and 14 Christian Arabs have been killed over the years while serving in the IDF.