We were stationed in an armored truck fitted with a gigantic, bulletproof, Hollywood-style floodlight mounted in back. It moved like an anti-aircraft gun, by means of a bucket seat that swiveled, while the operator’s feet moved in a kind of shuffle step, from side to side. The great white beam pierced miles of bare wilderness. While I sat behind the light, Sayla, stretched flat on the ground on his belly and hugged close to one of the truck’s front tires, manned a Belgium Mag machine gun. A third soldier, Rami, the driver, hid in “ambush” in the ditch that ran near the foot of the border fence. He was our crossfire.
This, then, was “G-Beat.”
Of course, the Egyptians shot at us. Yes, we had a peace treaty but every night there were so-called “infractions.” Violations of a large or small nature, even if just short of total war, were still and always just “infractions.” Because of the treaty, nothing short of peace was admissible. Every bullet fired by Egypt, every mortar round, RPG , grenade rocket, was peacefully launched and dutifully recorded by us and processed by our intelligence. Then, on the morning after, an Israeli liason officer armed with a complete and detailed log of the night’s infractions crossed the border at Rafiah and handed the data over to a waiting Egyptian intelligence officer, who passed it up his chain of command. Certain actions were then taken against the offenders.
So, say that the three hungry, unsheltered Egyptian soldiers just over the fence from us and outfitted with little more than Kalatchnikovs — assault rifles with eight clips of twenty nine rounds each, plus all sorts of portable anti-tank and anti-personnel ordinance — began their shift in typical fashion: building a fire not only to ward off jackals, whose hump-backed shapes lurk at the edge of their encampment, but also in a pathetic effort to warm up against the frigid desert night, a cold so raw it froze your canteen to your lips.
They hugged themselves in those tattered brown fieldcoats with flapping Chaplinesque sleeves. Their faces, lit by flames, looked devilishly peeved. They hopped from foot to foot in unlaced boots with soles bound together by tape. Bored, they sang Egyptian rock tunes. Heaving a big sigh for the trouble I was about to cause, I flipped on the searchlight’s toggle switch; the generator humming to life. Sayla tore the canvas coverlet away. He laid down again, his squinting eye sighting his weapon.
“Okay,” he shouted. I hit ON. An immense tubular beam shot like a muzzle flash from a tank round, deep into their territory, probing.
Moving my boots along the round metal grid underfoot, I swept the beam from left to right, and back again, illuminating trees and bushes frozen in fearsome silhouettes suggestive of everything from Arab djin spirits to Goya’s countrymen impaled by Napoleon’s dragoons. The beam alerted every Egyptian infantryman, aircraft, artillery battery, tank unit, wild beast and poison insect for a hundred miles to the fact of my existence.
And what is the purpose of this?
I asked myself that question as my boots did their seated desert dance.
I had no answer. I did my senseless little suicidal tango with a mounting sense of impending doom while Sayla, looking up, called out “Why are we doing this?!” and shrieked with glee for the absence of a sensible reply, and sighted his Mag again.
No one ever really explained to us the purpose of “G-Beat.”
We vaguely understood that we sought squads of terrorists traveling on foot, or gold and hash smugglers, or Egyptians seeking a quick way to visit their relations on the other side of the randomly drawn border slicing right through the center of the city of Rafiah. No Arab could cross to our side who did not have a return ticket to fly home. There was also some sort of exit tax imposed by the Egyptians that most could not afford to pay and, in addition, we Israelis had our own tax waiting for them once they crossed over.
Apparently, avoidance of this tax was well worth the risk of getting shot.
At any rate, we never spotted a single intruder. Not long into the night, discipline on our side would quickly erode.
Rami, our ambushing crossfire man, stood up from his hiding place and trudge up to the truck with a disgusted look on his face. After hours spent watching the Egyptian soldiers on the other side of the fence dance around their pathetic fire to keep warm he declared “Fuck this shit!” and reaching into a toolbox, removed a boom box, which he plugged into the truck’s portable generator. Suddenly, “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” boomed through the night and the excited Egyptians broke into a kind of disco warpath step around the flames, the Kalatchnikovs slung from their shoulder swinging back and forth. Rami stood a few feet from the truck with a look of grim satisfaction, clapping his hands and occasionally screaming out snippets of the lyrics in poor English:
“Is twenty years a dog to gay
Sergeant Pepper make he go away …!”
and so forth.
Then they began shouting “Yacobi! Yacobi! Ochel! Ochel!” Hebrew for “Jacob! Jacob! Food! Food!” This posed another riddle that I could not successfully answer: why they would use as euphemism for us Jews the name of a biblical figure who wrestled with an angel and, laying his head on a rock for a pillow, dreamed of seraphim climbing and descending ladders between heaven and earth?
At this point we broke out our food supply, which was considerable. Israeli soldiers eat well. Chicken cutlets. Mashed potatoes. Salad. Bread with butter and jam. Fruit. We made a stack of jam sandwiches, put them in a bread sack, and swinging it over our heads as David and his slingshot, tossed it over the fence.
With no thank you, they fell to it, sat cross-legged on the ground and stuffed the sandwiches into their mouths; their cheeks puffed like squirrels. They ate so fast that like snakes they had to stay perfectly still to swallow the big lumps I feared they’d choke on. Then they jumped to their feet and shouting “Beatles! Sergeant Pepper!” danced for as long as Rami cared to keep the music turned up. At one point we were all gyrating in place, Jew and Arab, with dreamy, moonlit expressions. “G-Beat,” said Sayla softly, undulating next to me. “Huh, cutey? How you explain this?” I didn’t know then. I still don’t know. There are things I don’t quite know how to communicate: how, for instance, as the music faded, the scale of desolation that its absence unveiled revealed the pitted blue face of the watching moon, like some forlorn desert God; the sense of deep loneliness we all felt I’m sure, Israeli and Egyptian both, as the cold night drove into hiding most of those things that make the desert day a hell, but at least a living one, the flies, scavenger birds, soldier ants, scarab beetles, scorpions. We were but for ourselves utterly alone in a void. It was like sleeping awake. The desert night, impossibly, frigidly pure, was a temporary form of living death. Nothing moved. Only the scrub brush writhed like witches risen from the dust and the leering demonic snouts of the jackals ringed the campfire of the Egyptian soldiers, who pelted them with rocks.