Middle East

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Tour of Duty in Tulkarem

Lt. Uri Binamo headed off a suicide bomber when he stopped this Palestinian taxi at a flying checkpoint south of Tulkarem in late December, but was killed when the bomber detonated a hidden explosives belt. (Photo: Ofer Vaknin / AFP-Getty Images)

It takes less than five minutes to drive from Nachshon Battalion headquarters to Post 104, an Israeli infantry base at the easternmost edge of Tulkarem. Here, in this tight, little square of concrete bunkers and armored vehicles, Panther Company keeps watch on the security barrier separating the northern West Bank from Israel proper.

The barrier — in some places fence, others places wall — runs close to the fort, which, in turn, sits on the Palestinian city and an Israeli-owned factory overflowing with wooden pallets. "A suicide bomber could easily cross into Israel," notes Captain Nati Keren, 24, surveying the area from his jeep, "but the fence does its part and the battalion does the rest."

Still, Keren knows full well that there are other, roundabout ways into Israel.

For nearly two years, Nachshon has patrolled the city and neighboring villages. The infantry battalion has arrested hundreds of Palestinian militants and cut down some senior operatives who refused to surrender. But it now finds itself playing a game of cat and mouse with an Islamic Jihad network responsible for five suicide bombings — including one that killed a beloved officer.

The best hope is to arrest the suicide bombers before they leave their homes. Back in his office, Keren reviews with his lieutenant aerial photographs of a city block. The young company commander points to one building marked in red; goes over some last-minute details, and then sends the intelligence officer on his way.

The Panthers go hunting tonight.

Tulkarem: Home and Battlefield

Beginning in the mid-1990's, the Israeli Defense Forces (I.D.F.) created six special infantry battalions and assigned them to territorial commands in the West Bank and Gaza. The idea was, and still is, for each unit to master moving in and around one Palestinian city. So, for instance, the Haruv ("Carob") Battalion keeps to the Nablus area, while Lavi ("Young Lion") patrols the southern Hebron hills.

Founded as a company in November 1998, Nachshon grew into a battalion in little over a year. Its name is a tribute to Nachshon, son of Aminadab — all in all a minor character in the Book of Exodus, but according to rabbinic lore, this prince of Judah believed so firmly the Red Sea would part that he plunged into the waters ahead of the other Israelites.

"Our motto is 'Be first, Nachshon.' The connotation is one of daring, of rushing towards danger," explains battalion commander Lt. Col. David Obermann.

For the past two years, Nachshon has covered the Tulkarem area — which, when viewed on a map, proves to be a diverse region: There is the security fence running north-south; to its east the city and two refugee camps, and behind them, rising into the hills, the villages of Anabta, Baala, and Dir al-Azun, to name just a few.

Finally, for good measure, there are the Israeli settlements of Einav and Avnei Hafetz.

"I think, out of the whole I.D.F., we best know how to fight in Tulkarem, in the Nur al-Shams camp, or in the general area, because we live here," says Obermann. "Our commanders have been in many homes; they know which streets are lit, which roads are wide enough for vehicles."

Intelligence and Improvisation

The Shin Bet, Israel's domestic intelligence agency, provides the battalion with information gleaned from electronic surveillance or Palestinian collaborators. No doubt, these tips help sharpen the focus of a raid, but sometimes improvisation is required.

"One time, acting on a tip, we knocked on the door of a house in Tulkarem," recalls Panther commander Keren, "but it turned out that our suspect — let's just say, not a well-liked man — did not live there."

The troops tried to find the right place, but their Palestinian resident did not seem to speak Hebrew. Finally, trying scraps of English and, absurdly, Arab-accented Hebrew, they managed to pry from him the correct location of the suspect. However, the soldiers were now entering a building without knowing its layout or having drilled on it.

They caught their man anyway, says Keren with a satisfied smile.

"The battalion has arrested hundreds of militants. It's really hard to count them all because it happens nearly every night," says a spokesman for the Ephraim Territorial Brigade, under whose command Nachshon operates. "The unit also participated in the arrest of Luai Sa'adi and Majid al-Ashkar."

Well, attempted arrest.

The two local Islamic Jihad commanders were actually killed in a standoff in Tulkarem last October. Al-Ashkar died trying to ambush troops who had surrounded Sa'adi's hideout; then Sa'adi, perhaps spooked by the noises outside, ran out of his building with guns blazing, and was killed soon afterward.

Nachshon infantrymen likewise cut down a senior Hamas operative while he tried to escape arrest early Tuesday.

Casualties of War

Like the other newbie battalions, Nachshon was blooded during the 2000-2004 al-Aqsa Intifada, but its losses have tended to be top-heavy: Four of the six killed in the unit were officers. Two lieutenants died trying to head off suicide bombers, the most recent fatality being Lt. Uri Binamo.

Acting on an intelligence tip, Binamo stopped a Palestinian taxi at a flying checkpoint south of Tulkarem in late December. The officer's suspicions soon fell on one of the minivan's passengers. The young man in question refused to open his coat, even at gunpoint, and a stalemate ensued, ending only when the Palestinian detonated a hidden explosives belt.

Binamo, the suicide bomber and two other Palestinians were killed in the blast.

That same Thursday, soldiers from Binamo's Roller Company picked through the soil so all his body parts would be buried, according to Jewish tradition. His funeral took place the following day at the Haifa military cemetery and by Saturday, the battalion returned to action, arresting five in Tulkarem.

"He was the best quality officer," says a soldier who knew the slain lieutenant.

"We lost a dear friend but we accomplished the mission," Lt. Col. Obermann emphasizes. "The suicide bomber did not intend to detonate at a checkpoint. He was going south to bypass the fence and to enter Israel during the Hanukah holiday. Binamo stopped that from happening."

An Elusive Enemy

It boosts morale to congratulate the troops for a job well done, but the fact remains that all five suicide bombings in 2005 — from February's attack on The Stage, a nightclub in Tel Aviv, to the one that killed Binamo in December — were committed by Islamic Jihad members coming from the Tulkarem region.

Where is the much-vaunted security barrier and Nachshon's street smarts?

"They didn't get past the fence," says Obermann. "They went by way of Jerusalem. If they had gotten past me, I'd be banging my head all day."

He admits that Islamic Jihad is quite resilient in the northern West Bank, but it does not have the number of operatives one would expect. Rather, there are only three or four hard-core cells, with a few individuals each, dispatching the suicide terrorists. What makes these cells so hard to crack is that they are very compartmentalized.

"They don't speak on the telephone. You don't run into them. They live off the land," says the battalion commander. "Except for the time with Binamo, there was no intelligence tip-off."

Since January, the Israeli Defense Forces have cut the West Bank into three zones. According to Ha'aretz military correspondent Amos Harel, the idea is to make it harder for the cells to get explosives from Jenin and to travel south to Jerusalem.

But the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights has slammed the draconian policy as a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. More, says Harel, it shows that the I.D.F. is getting desperate in its hunt for the Islamic Jihad.

Holding the Line

The troops at Post 104, by contrast, seem almost nonchalant about the situation. Perhaps it is because they do not decide what to do with the West Bank or when the security barrier around Jerusalem is completed. They just have to hold the line as best they can.

Looking out at Tulkarem from a protected position, an infantryman swaddled in a black scarf and ski cap offers the lay of the land: "There's a cemetery behind those buildings. Over there, a college is being built. Sometimes, they shoot at us from there …"

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