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Battle for the Shekem

Looking out for the enemy ... Mike Porter during the Six Day War

While paging through Ephraim Kishon's short stories (in English) which my grandson had left in the living room, I started to cogitate on 'what a different Israel it is today'. This led me to recall the 'Battle for the Shekem' to which I was a witness during the Six Day War. This, and the Six Day War itself, marked the turning point for me between the old and the new Israel.

Our platoon was supposed to be more or less "front line", but by the time we came marching in, the Jordanian towns were already flying white flags. Occasionally the sound of guns going off reached us, and once or twice a bullet fired from a distant hilltop buzzed by high overhead, but that was the closest we came to action. We were more like extras in a Hollywood film – creating a backdrop of strength. Otherwise all seemed fairly normal.

That is – until we reached a Jordanian army camp lying somewhere beyond Ramat Rachel.

The fenced-off camp lay quietly enough before us as we entered the gates. The Jordanian army had left in a hurry, and the only signs we saw of the previous occupants were the odd shoes scattered here and there and articles of clothing which had been left strewn on the floor or lying on unmade beds in the barracks.

After "reserving" our beds in the long barracks, a few friends and I went walking outside. I felt as if I was on a "tiyul" in a Jordanian army base – this was a curiosity, something new to me.

Suddenly, as our small group walked along the lanes and lines of buildings we heard the sound of shouting. From somewhere ahead of us we heard a loud noise - of people under stress. We saw soldiers running towards the noise. What was happening? My group hurried over, guns at the ready – just in case. The shouts came from behind the half-closed door of a large building in front of us. Cautiously we pushed the door open and warily entered the building.

We were greeted by a scene of utter chaos. Soldiers were running wildly up and down, hefting boxes of varying shapes and sizes. Some of them had bits of new clothing and cloth items slung over their shoulders. They shoved, shouted and snatched goods from each other … "I saw it first, it's mine, give it back, no… yes…" and so on. The noise and confusion was indescribable.

We had walked into the Jordanian camp's "shekem" (general supply store).

Goods, in and out of boxes, were stacked in the back below the high ceiling; behind the counters uncovered shelves were crammed with smaller wares: chocolates, selections of sweets and toffees, biscuits and cakes (inside and outside boxes) and other unknown delicacies; I hazily remember other substances, including bottles containing assorted liquid delights. In its sudden and obviously unprepared flight the Jordanian army had left this Aladdin's cave completely untouched.

I contemplated the scene in disbelief – soldiers were frantically running around grabbing items off the shelves. Their pockets and shirts were stuffed with goods and, like little children in a frenzy, they were tugging and shouting at each other over every delicacy.

Some of our officers, hearing the uproar, arrived on the scene and quickly brought order to the chaos. They came to a decision: each soldier had to return to the barracks, wait on his bed, and there would be an equal sharing-out of the "prizes" to everyone, in rotation. They were successful and soon the building was quiet. The soldiers returned to the barracks, where each one obediently sat down at the foot of his bed, waiting for his share of the loot.

For a fairly new immigrant, however, this behavior had been unacceptable. I was in shock. I lay on my bed, face buried in the pillow. Around me the soldiers received their "gifts" in a rotation that seemed to go on forever - each kitbag was soon filled to bursting, and they had to use their powers of inventiveness to cope with what was still to come. .

The soldier next to me, in great dismay, pleaded with me to join in and accept the goods being handed out, but I either could not or would not move.

In retrospect (years and years later) I understood the excitement, the loss of control. After all, many of the soldiers were barely out of their teens. They had been thrust into a different world – a world of "to the victor the spoils". And they came home bearing gifts for their families, thanks to the Jordanian army! 

Shuafat 1967: The villa of Hussein’s physician
 

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Saturday, 29 January 2022

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