– Ferne Hassan
The innovative Israeli Soldiers Tours (IST) program features two Israel Defense Forces (IDF) reservists, who relate their personal experiences upholding the strict IDF moral code while fighting an enemy that hides behind its civilians. Their stories have never been heard before.
Six teams of two IST participants spent two weeks this fall speaking throughout the United States, primarily on campuses, in high schools, synagogues and churches. They put a human face on the IDF uniform.
IST is one of the most effective counters to the BDS campaign and the annual campus Israel Apartheid Week. Although anti-Israel students protest the soldiers with accusations and lies, they simply can’t refute their eye-witness experiences. These are stories from the front lines, not the headlines.
Haitham (Tom), 30, one of the recent IST speakers in the Philadelphia area, is a Bedouin Israeli, born and raised in Bir al-Maksur, a Bedouin village in northern Israel. Although Bedouins are not required to serve in the Israeli army, many join. Tom was in the Israeli Air Force in the Iron Dome unit.
Stationed in the West Bank, he arrested a Palestinian in his home, who put up no resistance, as if wanting to get captured. On the way to jail, Tom asked the young man, “Why? We are both Muslims and the religion forbids murder.”
His answer shook Tom and revealed the reality of the situation:
You are free; you have a decent life in Israel. We don’t have that; no one from the Palestinian Authority cares how we live or what we need. I did this for my family. Yes, I will go to jail, but the Israelis take good care of us in jail, and because of this terror attack, I will be a hero and my family will be heroes, and they will get money on a monthly basis from the Palestinian Authority — more than we can get even if I work the whole month back home.
Tom is getting his degree in Law, Government and Management at the Academic College for Science and Law. He works for Acharai (“Follow Me”), a nonprofit that prepares teens for their military service, and guides them to be more socially involved and responsible.
Karen, 24, the other IST speaker in the Philadelphia area, is studying politics and government, Middle East and Israel at Ben Gurion University of the Negev. Raised in New Jersey, she experienced anti-Semitism when a swastika was drawn on her school locker. Karen made Aliyah at age 16, on her own after finishing high school. Her goal was to enlist in the IDF and defend Israel, as her parents and grandparents had done.
Karen served as a Basic Training commander and later on with the paratroopers. She was stationed on the Gaza border near the Erez crossing. She explains how Hamas steals from its own people — its leaders living in luxury, while the people suffer.
Hamas continuously launches rockets into Israel’s southern towns, and one night, the siren went off, giving everyone 15 seconds to run to the bomb shelter. It was a night of constant shelling, yet in the midst of the fear, the 200 soldiers made the best out of it and created a strong bond. This bond lasted. Although already released from service, Karen was quick to help her fellow soldiers by raising money and bringing them food when Israel entered Gaza to destroy the underground terror tunnels.
During her free time, Karen rescues street animals and finds them caring homes as a volunteer at shelters.
Ferne Hassan is associate director of StandWithUs in Philadelphia.