1989--Outbreak of a prolonged Palestinian uprising, the "Intifada," in territories occupied by Israel.
In short, it is not an enviable situation.
In accordance with the normal policy regarding draftees whose number comes up when they are older than the normal draft age, I was assigned to a "Stage 2" unit. There we were given four months of standard G.I. combat training (in my case, for the Engineering Corps) without the usual full three years of regular service.
The "Stage 2" units consist mostly of immigrants and can serve as a reliable index of the status of aliyah at any given point in time. Our unit had representatives from 21 different countries.
Our first actual mission (during Hanukkah 1983) involved patrolling in a refugee camp near Bethlehem (a frustrating fifteen-minute drive from my house). Much of our job consisted of marching through the alleys waiting for someone to fling a rock so that we could chase after them. We never caught anybody.
Whoever was not on patrol had to find ways to keep busy. Popular pastimes included housekeeping, endless rounds of "Trivial Pursuit," and a circulating copy of Playboy supplied by somebody's considerate wife.
One evening when I returned from patrol I noticed that some of the fellows had set up some tin cans on a rock wall and were competing at trying to knock them down with stones. The game quickly lost its interest when it became clear that one of our soldiers had an infallible aim. He just never missed.
Desta's distinctive expertise became evident again at a later stage in our training when we were stationed "Somewhere in the Judean Wilderness" practising at using mine-detectors. This was the sort of exercise that only a few can undertake at a time, while the rest stand idly by. Desta employed some leisure moments by taking a stray piece of rope braiding it in a special way, placing a stone in it, and hurling it as a sling at various targets.
As expected, his accuracy was still infallible.
This aroused the interest of our commanding officer, who started asking him some very specific questions about the extent of his abilities. Desta replied as best he could, with his infectious and proverbial grin. (Our standard instructions when going out on night patrol were to remove all shiny objects so that "nothing should be visible except Desta's smile").
Desta showed our commanding officer how to tie together a sling. He showed him how to swing it so that it made a swooshing sound. He showed him how to turn off the sound.
The CO joked that this would be a great way to throw grenades. Desta replied with a perfectly straight face that in the Ethiopian army, that was how they three grenades!
The CO could not control himself any longer. He ordered a quick halt to the mine-detector practice and started issuing strands of rope. Everybody was to gather an arsenal of appropriately sized stones and we went off to the "stone-firing range" for target practice.
Needless to say, none of us came close to Desta's achievements, but some (not I, to be sure) did demonstrate some potential.
At the time, I wondered idly whether we might in fact be seeing the beginnings of a turning-point in Israeli military doctrine: the founding of a "Rock Corps." Could it be that under the leadership of a new generation of Ethiopian shepherds, this "Rock Corps" might present an appropriate response to challenges hurled by opponents in Gaza, the West Bank or Me'ah She'arim?
As the years have elapsed and no such Corps has been formed by the Israel Defence Forces, I still cannot help wondering occasionally how such a special military force would be accepted by the shapers of world opinion.
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First Publication: JS, May 27 1988.