GUSH KATIF, GAZA
FOR years, Israeli Lt. Gal Ganzman helped impose Israeli rule over Palestinians here. Now he serves alongside them.
"They call us the soldiers of peace," says Lieutenant Ganzman, finishing his day with one of the joint Israeli-Palestinian patrols that is helping cement the 1993 peace accord.
Ganzman's counterpart, Algerian-trained Palestinian policeman Lt. Abu Mazen Mitlak, sees the patrols as a means to an end: "These patrols are an important step on the way to achieving a Palestinian state."
Pitted against each other for decades in a war of terror over a Palestinian state, the troops of both sides are now forced to cooperate in patrols in Gaza and those areas of the West Bank where Palestinians and Israelis share control.
What makes the joint Israeli-Palestinian patrols unusual is that neither side is in charge of the other. Differences in the interpretation of the security accords are settled by negotiation.
The patrols defuse potential conflicts between Palestinians and Israelis, and try to prevent Islamic militants from perpetrating acts of violence.
The joint Israeli-Palestinian security base on the outskirts of this Israeli settlement of Gush Katif is built around a common yard where officers mix in a relaxed way that would have been unthinkable even two years ago. Israeli and Palestinian flags flutter side-by-side in the center of the yard.
Israeli and Palestinian troops travel separately in two armored jeeps, conducting patrols together under the distinctive orange flag of the joint patrols.
As there are no internationally accepted borders between Israel and the Palestinian self-rule areas, they must agree on a precise division of responsibilities and carry out politically sensitive tasks, such as helping Israeli settlers travel through the Palestinian self-rule areas.
With four armed men in each vehicle, the patrols cover clearly defined areas where Palestinians have administrative authority, but within which Israel retains overall security responsibility.
It is a largely routine and tedious task with few incidents. But danger is never far off. Last month, several soldiers were wounded when a land mine exploded close to a joint patrol.
"The fact that we travel together with a Palestinian vehicle does not make it safer," says Ganzman, the soldier in charge of the Israeli vehicle in the convoy. "Here, you never know who the enemy is. It could be someone in the middle of a crowd, and you cannot shoot at him."
Foes to friends
The joint patrols often find Israeli soldiers coming face-to-face with former Palestinian guerrillas they once hunted or jailed as wanted terrorists.
"It's a different world now," says Ganzman, a former conscript now serving in the regular Army.
"Before, we were the bosses. Now we sit down and eat together and talk about all kinds of things such as girls, marriage, and soccer. Everything we do, we are together."
The personal bonds being created between the two sides helps the difficult reconciliation between Arab and Jew.
"We have become like one family," says Lt.-Col. Yossi Michael, the Israeli commander of the District Coordinating Office in this joint-patrol area surrounding the largest Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip.
"We have arguments and feuds, but we understand that we have to live together for the sake of the children," says Colonel Michael, who has a photograph on the wall of his cramped office of himself shaking hands with his Palestinian counterpart.
The joint patrols, which began 21 months ago in Gaza and Jericho during the first phase of the agreement, provided a model for similar patrols in seven urban centers of the West Bank, which were granted autonomy toward the end of last year in the second phase of the accord.
"The joint patrols have become the main flag of this agreement," Michael says.
Israeli-Palestinian cooperation in the fields of intelligence and joint operations have already averted about 80 attacks against Israelis, according to Israeli intelligence sources.
The patrols have helped to soften attitudes on both sides.
Israeli settlers, who once threatened violent resistance against the presence of Palestinian police on the West Bank, have come to accept the patrols as a mechanism that helps avoid friction.
In several recent instances, where Israeli settlers on the West Bank ended up in Palestinian self-rule areas by taking a wrong-turn, the settlers have been safely cleared.
The presence of Israeli soldiers in the patrols is an insurance policy for the Palestinian police against the threat of attack by right-wing Israeli activists.
To Palestinians, the presence of their police alongside Israeli soldiers helps dispel the widely held notion in Palestinian ranks that any form of cooperation with Israelis means collaboration - a loaded word given that Israel acquired most of its intelligence about the Palestinian resistance from a formal system of collaborators that were set up and paid for by Israel.
Dealing with common threats
The joint patrols also help both sides in defining a common threat.
When Palestinian bombmaker Yehiya Ayyash was assassinated by suspected Israeli agents in January, the two sides hastily agreed to suspend patrols in areas where there was a high risk of attack from Islamic militants.
"Before the agreement, the Palestinian [exiles] had little knowledge of democracy, Israel, or the territory in which they are now operating," Michael says.
"They had a very demonic image of Israelis, and we had a similar image of them ... so it was essential for them to go out [on patrols] together," he adds.
Michael says that Palestinian police often feel inhibited to act according to the agreement in front of their own people, because they are mindful of the prevalent view among Palestinians that they are collaborating with "the enemy."
"It seems to be very difficult for Palestinian officers to act in accordance with the agreement when we are around," says Michael, who addresses and converses effortlessly with his Palestinian counterpart, Lt.-Col. Khaled al-Ola, in fluent Arabic. "The image is of collaboration, not cooperation with the Israeli Defense Force."
Colonel Ola appears completely at ease with his Israeli colleague and says there is "excellent cooperation" between the two sides at the base.
But Ganzman says Palestinian police tend to be more lenient on Palestinian civilians they pick up. "The Palestinians want to let them go, and we have to intervene and insist they are interrogated properly."
Michael says that friction between Israeli and Palestinian officers dealing with such conflicts can invariably be resolved once they are back in the relatively sedate atmosphere of their base camp.
"It becomes a very intimate and personal relationship here. They invite us to their quarters, and we feel very comfortable to go with them into the Palestinian autonomy areas," he says.
The Palestinian policemen are also hopeful that the joint patrols are leading to a better deal, but their goal looks beyond mere cooperation with the Israelis.
"It was my dream to come here to Gaza, and I am very happy to be here," Lieutenant Mitlak says. "I think we will have a Palestinian state in two to three years."
But the military cooperation between the former adversaries is exposing former Palestinian guerrillas, often hastily trained abroad, to the precise and demanding standards of the Israeli military.
"You see them trying to be more like us," Ganzman says.