Oli and Alex, born in Ukraine, protect the Holy Land from the homemade Qassam rockets and operate a Guardium, an unmanned, all-terrain surveillance vehicle.
Ukrainian-born Oli Berniker and Alex Fisher serve on the Kissufim military base in Israel not far from the Gaza Strip. Cactuses and palm trees dot the road from Jerusalem to Kissufim. The Negev desert stretches further to the south. Adjacent to the desert and Kissufim are irrigated fields of wheat (the first crop is harvested in early May) and peanuts, as well as olive gardens. Water, treated after being used in Tel-Aviv, is used in the irrigation process.
At the entrance to Kissufim your eyes immediately spot the propaganda posters which remind that: “The enemy is on the watch!” Dogs roam the military base, while fully equipped soldiers stroll in, what appears to be at first, a chaotic manner. The mess hall, also used as a lounge, is simple, with a billiard table and television. In the centre stands a large round table set with dishes in a buffet style. Hummus and bread (which is a must) is served along with stewed and pickled aubergine. Kosher food is provided for those who need it. And there is a synagogue on the base.
From Ukraine to Gaza
Photography is generally allowed, including the infamous Israeli Merkava and Sabra tanks. The exception is the signal tower – which looks like a mobile communications tower and overlooks the barracks.
Ania Ukolova, a former resident of Kharkiv, is our guide at Kissufim. She works primarily as a press-secretary for the Russian-speaking department of the Israel Defense Forces. Ania serves in a nine-year programme, three years of which are devoted to studying and obtaining a bachelor's degree, three years of mandatory military service, and another three years of military service on a contract basis. Ania speaks Russian confidently with a slight Moscow accent:
“All young men and women in Israel have to do military duty. Nearly 92 per cent of the positions are open for women. It's not the gender, but a person’s qualities and abilities which are examined.”
She convinces us that there is no bullying in the army: “Nobody makes you clean the toilet with a toothbrush. What’s more, the commander cleans the toilet along with the soldiers, as he also uses the toilet! In fact a soldier has to be able to clean up after himself. There is no sense in bringing a cleaning crew here.” Kissufim is the smallest among Israel’s military bases, so it does without any extra personnel.
Twenty-year-old staff-sergeant Alex Fisher was born in Ternopil, but spent most of his Ukrainian childhood in Yakymivka, a small town in the Zaporizhia Oblast. He remembers only “dyakuyu” (thank you) in Ukrainian, but speaks Russian fluently – it is a family tradition. Alex doesn't want to stay in the army; he wants to study.
Oli Berniker has served already for a year and eight months. Her roots on her mother’s side go back to the Krymchaks, the Turkic people which adopted Judaism. On her father’s side she is Jewish. Her grandfather, a businessman, escaped from Romania to Crimea after the war. Oli visits Simferopol and Yalta often, as compared to Alex, who has not been to his homeland since the age of 16.
Oli serves in a unit servicing the Guardium, an all-terrain unmanned patrol vehicle. It is operated by a pair of two girls: a chief and an operator from the base where the steering wheel and pedals are installed. There is a mine field between Kissufim and Gaza. The all-terrain vehicle is equipped with nine cameras for video-surveillance. Guardium scans any movement within the area which surrounds Gaza. Oli demonstrates the features of the unmanned vehicle, which replies to her in a female voice. While the young woman prepares to start the vehicle, a truck with a Merkava tank on board heaves into sight from the direction of Gaza.
“I didn't think twice. I knew I was joining the army, and I wanted to serve in a position which is considered to be difficult for the women,” Berniker says. “I felt I was going to protect my country. Recently, when missiles were fired, one of them destroyed the barrier near Gaza, and we guarded the barrier with this vehicle for around 100 hours so that soldiers, like Alex, wouldn't have to be on watch out there in the dark and cold for anybody sneaking in from Gaza.”
“To command a man not only at home”
I ask about the joint service of males and females. “Guys have an advantage here, because there are bases where only men serve,” Oli gets a little nervous with her Russian, but continues. “And there are many girls here apart from us, there are girls operating the cameras. So the guys have fun here, but it is the most dangerous place in the country. The girls get to Kissufim through their own choice, while the guys are transferred from other bases. The girls also do a lot of hard work and are able to shoot any of the weapons, for example the Tavor assault rifle.”
The press-secretary, Ania Ukolova, doesn’t hide her pride. “Our girls are not physically weak. We even have separate female combat units.”
Moscow repatriate, and now a representative of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress in Jerusalem, Chaim Ben Jacob served his duty in the early 1990s, and got a specific impression of the women in the army during those times: “Women commanders in the Israeli armed forces are stricter and more demanding than the men. It seems to me that this can be explained on a psychological level: a woman always dreams of commanding a man not only at home!”
Oli Berniker does not see any harm in having women performing combat duty. “At the beginning, my mother was absolutely against it, and rather opposed my serving at Kissufim. And now she proudly talks about me with her friends from Kyiv. They ask her if I shaved my head because I joined the army. The truth is, hair has to be neatly gathered, we are not allowed to wear earrings and no more than two rings.”
In the beginning, a recruit undergoes basic military training. During basic training, the discipline is rather severe, later the soldiers have more freedom. Alternatives are allowed. If someone adheres to a certain religious belief (for example young men from orthodox Hasidic families), he can obtain permission to wear a beard. But in this case it should grow freely, no trimming is allowed. Mobile phones are not used at Kissufim due to the lack of signal and duty is performed in 12-hour-shifts. Nine days on the base, five days at home. The remaining time is usually devoted to sleep.
Once she finishes her duty, Berniker is not going to continue on a contract basis. “Two years is not that much. As all my friends or relatives abroad hear of it, they wonder ‘You are wasting two years of your life for the military?’ But I do not feel that I am wasting my time.”
Her words about friendship in the army are consistent with conduct of the soldiers at the base. The ladies are lively discussing where these “outsiders”, i.e. us, came from. Alex walks up to greet the soldiers who have just arrived from other military bases and were sitting on the armoured personnel carriers. Among them are also Russian-speaking soldiers, commonly known as “Russians” irrespective of country of their origin.
Rifle under the pillow
The Kissufim base is located approximately in the middle of the eastern border line between Gaza and Israel. Slightly to the north, at a point where the border turns to the sea, lies Sderot, the largest city in the region. A number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union live there. Several documentaries were shot about the city. The best known are “Sderot: Rock in the Red Zone” and “Encounter Point”. Sderot lives under permanent danger of bombing: within two weeks in 2007, 293 Qassam rockets launched from Gaza fell on the city.
“This part of the Gaza Strip is also called the ‘Officers Block’” says first lieutenant Sharon Banian in Hebrew. “When Hamas took power in the Gaza Strip in 2007, they gathered all the officers of the Palestinian army from Fatah who were in opposition to them, and threw them off the roof of skyscrapers. Rockets launched from Gaza originate in areas containing kindergartens and schools, as they are afraid of any responsibility.”
Both the “Officers Block” and the Israeli surveillance blimp are clearly seen from the hill not far from Sderot, where the monument to the Fallen for Israel is located. It is difficult to conceive the dangers of the coastland in the flames of the sunset. Gaza is one of the most populated regions in the world: 1.7 million people live within a 360 square kilometre area, which makes approximately 4,000 people per square kilometre. In Ukraine’s most densely populated oblast, the Donetsk Oblast, it is only 202 people per square kilometre.
Anna Ukolova calls the Israeli missile defence the “iron shield”. “Immediately after a Qassam is launched from the Gaza territory, ‘the shield’ fixes it and identifies its flight path, to see if the rocket will hit a city or kibbutz. If yes, the siren turns on and each resident has 15 seconds to run for a bunker. The kids are also trained to do so. The bunkers are placed throughout Sderot. The city council has placed free internet cafes in some of them, in order to attract people to stay there. And, naturally, the ‘iron shield’ tries to bring the rocket down.”
In Israel, cities located within long-range rocket coverage mandate that new houses are constructed with a “concrete room”. Each accommodation has to be facilitated with a room capable of withstanding a military attack. Ania Ukolova has one, and doesn't close the door as it is too heavy. She keeps her clothes in that room. Yevgeniy, the other guide from Ukraine, has decided not to equip his. Although Jews from the former Soviet Union often joke that all state funds are spent on the “militarists”, they understand that there is no other way out.
Upon returning to my hotel in Jerusalem, I meet a former resident of Kyiv, Bina Smekhova. She is a writer and a publisher. We speak in Ukrainian. I ask about her attitude to the army and the security situation in Israel. “Such a beautiful country, and yet how long can a person sleep with an assault rifle under their pillow,” Bina asks rhetorically. She tells me about her younger son, who joined the army after his first year at Jerusalem University, announcing that he had to serve his duty. After the army, he continued his studies in Oxford, and now works in television in Paris. Her oldest son stayed in Kyiv.
Translated by Olena Shynkarenko
Roman Kabachiy is a Ukrainian historian and journalist and a regular contributor to the Polish bi-monthly Nowa Europa Wschodnia.
All photos courtesy of the Eurasian Jewish Congress.