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Paintballing with the IDF

A response to this, inspired by this

We figured they’d cheat; they were Israelis, after all. But none of us – a team of four Arab journalists – thought we’d be threatened by nuclear weapons when we initiated this ‘friendly’ paintball match.

The battle takes place in a field that used to be a Palestinian village, ethnically cleansed to pave  way for progress, democracy, and a Jewish state. Being threatened by a nuclear weapon when you merely have a paintball gun to defend yourself sure is stressful.

As I struggled with this conundrum hiding behind a barrel on the cusp of wetting myself, I could hear two IDF soldiers bearing down on me. I shot wildly, not daring to hit them lest they unleashed radioactive hell on my teammates and I.

I expected them to conform towards the accepted norms of international law, or at the very least follow the rules of paintball. Instead, they shot the referee.

As he crumped over, they proceeded to unload their steel-coated paintball bullets. The blue paint and red blood mixed together made an interesting violet color. I must admit, I grimly thought that such a shade was alluringly trendy. The referee’s muted yelps snapped me back from fantasizing and I began to fire wildly again.

David’s in here. Somewhere.

Admittedly at the time, I was confused and slightly in shock. I wasn’t expecting them to go all out, but they mumbled something about not giving an inch to anyone or it’ll be ‘the Samson option’.

Yes, I reminded myself, this is really happening: Four Arab journalists, plus one former Iranian IRCG -turned- resistance expert, are playing paintball with members of the Israeli military army frequently described by the Israelis themselves as “The most moral army in the world.”

It took nearly half a century to pull together this game, and all along I’d been convinced that things would fall apart at the last minute. Not actually killing someone is hard for the Israeli top brass to accept, so to arrange this match I’d relied on a man we’ll call David, one of my lower-level contacts within the IDF.

“David, what the fuck?!” I ask out of earshot of the men he brought. “This guy is named Justice?”

“No, of course not,” he answers. “Nobody is giving their real names, man.”

“Is he, ummmm, in the military? If he’s not, that’s fine. The other guys oiling their guys creepily look legit. But I need to know if he’s real for the story.”

“Oh, they’re all real, ya anti-Semite,” David says in his deep-voice he uses whenever I challenge anything he says. “Wait and see.”

Now, after the death of the referee during our second match of the night (the first ending with them taking spectators sitting on the side as human shields), I’ve little doubt that all of the fighters are the genuine article.

I was still in the game, another teammate was taken in for administrative detention (I don’t know when he’ll be out), and a third (who was on crutches) had been pulverized by an Israeli air strike. The fourth member, a Saudi, kept on telling the Israelis where we were hiding.

That left the Iranian former IRCG member, Ali Ali Ali. When he’s not playing paintball on top of a bygone Palestinian village, Ali Cubed flies off to Beirut to advise Hezbollah or spends time writing sonnets with phrases like “Your eyes, my throbbing member” somewhere in there. He also heads a website for single resistance fighters looking for love. The main thrust (no pun intended) of Ali’s strategy is to always listen to your significant other. Tonight, however, as the IDF soldiers continued to bear down on us, Ali makes little effort to listen to anyone. He kept on wailing about being within the boundaries of the NPT and how Khamenei had persistently said  that nukes were ethically and religiously wrong. This delights our opponents, who appear to appreciate the utter abasement shown by the Iranian warrior. Finally, they relent – no one can doubt that they “won” – and backed off.

The survivors on my team convene back in the arena’s cantina, where ‘Israeli’ snacks (like pasta, pizza, and stir-fry) were placed for us.

One of Israel’s main goal is the annihilation of Palestine. While that stance has not softened since the radical days of ethnic cleansing in 1948, things seemed to be getting worse. And every once in a while, they bomb someone else for kicks. But for all the attacks targeting civilians, it bears mention that sometimes they feel really sorry about it.

If the initial introductions between the two sides had been slightly tense – the deaths on my team loosened things up. The Israeli guys all laugh when Ali joked miserably about going to the UN for compensation. And they respond – pointing at me- that after the next game, “the UN will have to have another resolution for this one.” It’s a somewhat sick inside joke.

Arial – my Israeli girlfriend, who agreed to serve as a translator/liaison – decides that Team Israel’s use of nukes, air strikes, and assassinating the referee means that the rules need clarifying. She has a few words with the arena’s confused manager, who five seconds into the first match realized that he was hosting a very peculiar party tonight and who, for the first two games found himself barricaded in the bathroom, was too intimated to remind the four Israeli soldiers to adhere to common rules. So it’s up to Arial to badger both him and the Israeli boys so that they quit it with the cheating. They shot her too.

When setting up the game, it occurred to me that such an agreement may fall afoul of betrayal. The Israelis after all have a history of this (refer to Palestine, Syria, Egypt, etc). No matter how I justified my intentions, something about enjoying some faux-combat fun with members of Israel’s military described as the “Rottweiler” of America – a military responsible for decades of attacks on Israel’s neighbors and one of the longest occupations in modern history – just seemed plain wrong.

One of Israel’s main goal is the annihilation of Palestine. While that stance has not softened since the radical days of ethnic cleansing in 1948, things seemed to be getting worse. And every once in a while, they bomb someone else for kicks. But for all the attacks targeting civilians, it bears mention that sometimes they feel really sorry about it.

Right after lunch.

My motivations for brokering the match was largely driven by the simple journalistic need to better understand the Israeli military mind. The IDF press office is usual nice when they threaten news agencies for not providing ‘balanced coverage’. They eagerly take meetings and repeat the same Israeli line to official outlets: whatever Israelis did, it was either an accident, a few bad apples, or the Arabs deserved it. Requests to access low-level soldiers, however, are always ignored. Even the idea of such a meeting happening is taboo. Partly, it’s a Zionist thing. Top Israel boss BiBi Netanyahu liked to joke about how brilliant his soldiers can be, once explaining that when Israel soldiers were caught photographing bound-up Palestinian civilians for Facebook they quickly claimed the camera was anti-Semitic, and in fact it was the bound-up Palestinians who were taking pictures of the Israelis. Worked like a charm for the BBC.

After decades being shot at by Israeli soldiers on the other side, I’d never once found a way to interact closely with Israeli soldiers. So I thought to myself: What might I learn if I could get them out of their tightly disciplined environment of slaughter, into a place where they might relax and trust me, of all people, to reveal a sliver of truth or humanity behind their rough exterior? The rest of my team is composed of seemingly similarly minded correspondents.

Our collective reason for the game was simple: bragging rights. Israel’s military is considered in the West as the most amazing killing force in the world, colonialist machine par excellence.  Over the decades, the West just keeps on giving. If I could get them to play a simple paintball game, and follow the rules, I could witness a glimmer of a heart firsthand. And if our team could beat them fairly, as they fight fair too, we could walk around calling ourselves “the most moral army on the planet.”

In the days leading up to the match, Ali Cubed and I developed our strategy. We (correctly) assumed that our opponents would not follow the rules, and we would attempt to follow the rules to-the-T in blind hope that could somehow connect with the Israelis in a primitive-form of monkey-see monkey-do.

From the start, that strategy failed miserably. Team Israel just giggled at us as they loaded their steel-covered paintballs.

Justice especially loves the humiliation. “Look at them!” he tells Arial. “Trying to follow the rules. They’re so adorable.”

“For god’s sakes, man!” Ali cried back. “The rules are right there in block letters! Why are they holding that baby hostage? What the fuck is going on?!?!”

Justice turns out to be the most talkative of the bunch, especially when he’s chatting with Arial. “This is the best war I’ve ever been in,” he says in between bursts of gun fire. “There’s the sweet smell of blood. And girls.”

“Have you guys played paintball before?” Arial asks. The soldiers laugh.

“We’ve played in Lebanon, we’ve played in North Africa, we’ve played in Europe – just not with paintballs,” Justice replies.

Eventually the other soldiers warm up to us a bit, too. Samuel is funny, social, and a stone-cold fighter; despite being lanky. I’m told he’s a member of some ultra-cool killing squad, with years of training and secretive rituals of some sort.

Jacob, a fatty who took one of our teammate into administrative detention, is shy and deeply religious. He hails from New York, and at first, the scene makes him a little uncomfortable, as if enjoying himself in this company is somehow sinful (compounded by the fact that it’s currently Saturday). He closes his eyes every time a photograph is taken of him, even though he never removes his game mask, just in case someone recognizes him through the blood-drenched visor. I later find out his Israeli duties include commanding a battalion tasked with raiding the West Bank if the Palestinians dared to raise their heads there.

Then…there’s “the Guy”. Dark-haired with piercing black eyes and black lips, and darkly fuckable even to straight men, he entered the arena after the others and scanned the room intensely, just as we were about to begin. He’s wearing dark pants, dark under ware, dark socks and at first glance looks just like a nice person. Up close his twitches makes me feel dirty, and is confirmed by his chilling self-introduction: “I am the Guy.”

Us, before the paintball game.

For the first few matches, the Guy watched silently from the sidelines, overseeing his team beat a bunch of Arab journalists senseless. Before the third match, he called for a huddle. They instantly called in the air strike and prepared the nuclear weapons. Still, they overlooked the fact that Ali and I were still alive. As they approached us, I popped out on to my knees, begging them to have some sense and to put down the baby they were using for cover. This prompted Samuel to rip off his mask and wipe a tear. The tear drop flickered unheard into the blades of grass as he shouted, “Marvelous! Marvelous!” in Hebrew and cocked his gun.

The terror is soon over, Arial holds me up – both knee-caps blasted to shreds – and she picks up on a little whisper campaign about me. She tells me Justice and Jacob want to know why she’s hanging out with us Arabs: “So how do you know these guys? How are you friends with them?” A secular Jew, Arial knows we’re entering territory loaded with cultural land mines. And although the soldiers seem to have taken a peculiar liking to me (since they let me live), the fact that I’m dating a local Jewish girl is counterbalancing that impression; I’m also the one attempted to show them the importance of rules. There is pride at stake, and to my surprise, they suddenly seem more intent on shooting me than Ali Cubed.

I didn’t want to play anymore and anyhow we didn’t have much of a team left.

In Jewish cultures there is a custom known as ‘Jewish’: the moment at anytime and anywhere when Jewish things happen.  I added that part to sound intellectual and culturally sensitive. Language barriers are overcome between the tit-for-tat laughter and wailing.

At the very end of the evening, things take an even more chilling turn. The Guy walks over and takes what’s left of our guns and proceeds to shoot the rule board, squarely hitting each letter each time while chanting “Israel” on each pull of the trigger. He seems to think it’s funny, but no one else laughs.

Almost a month after the game, I’m still in the hospital bed back home. I’m watching the news and I see The Guy standing next to an Israeli general.  In the weeks following the ‘paintball match’, I’ve decided to stay away from him completely. He still leaves uncomfortable wall posts on my Facebook – he doesn’t give a shit who reads it.

The last one said: “Neither you nor the UN or anyone in the world can stop me.”



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