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On Guard Duty in Jerusalem, Volunteers Find Even the Slightest Doubt Demands Immediate Action Suspicious Minds

At 8:45 p.m. on a Thursday night, wearing a reflective yellow Israel National Police vest, I am walking with my partner, 18-year-old Yonatan, who wears a small knitted yarmulke, through the Paula Ben-Gurion elementary school in the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem. I am armed with a yellow plastic flashlight; Yonatan, a rifle. We turn the handle of each door, shaking to make sure it is locked securely. We peer under garbage-can lids. I shine my flashlight into narrow alleyways. We walk the perimeter of basketball courts, then peer through the window of the small booth that houses the school guard during the day. We check: The object lying near the entrance is just a forgotten umbrella. Having run out of small talk, we do all this lifting and pacing and encircling in silence.

This shmira, or guarding, is our weekly volunteer work for the Mishmar Ezrachi, Israel’s civil guard, a civilian service force of the Israeli police. The largest volunteer organization in the country, it mobilizes more than 50,000 members nationally in community patrols against criminal and terrorist activity, and in auxiliary units that help the national police with traffic control, criminal identification, rescue work and other areas of policing and emergency activity. Depending on their unit, Mishmar Ezrachi volunteers are trained in crime-control, first aid, police procedure and the use of firearms. My training, common for neighborhood volunteers, consisted of a 40-minute session with the commander of my local volunteer deployment center.

For many, training also includes instruction in the use of firearms, but Mishmar Ezrachi does not allow me to carry a rifle because I am not Israeli. I am an American living in Israel for a year to do fieldwork for my doctoral dissertation in social anthropology at the University of Cambridge in England. Yonatan, who will enlist in the army in April, volunteers with the Mishmar Ezrachi for the arms-training and license it gives him to carry a gun on youth movement hikes. Volunteers are commissioned as deputized police officers (while on-duty) and, under the supervision of police commanders, devote at least one evening per month to neighborhood patrols; in Israel for only a short time, I have chosen to volunteer once a week.

While we are armed with a rifle and flashlight, our essential tool is alertness for signs of potential terrorist activity. In our training session, we learn how to recognize what are called “samachim” in Israeli police jargon. This term, a contraction of simanim machshidim, or suspicious signs, includes any signal that may indicate suspicious objects, suspicious cars or suspicious persons. Our training seems to reinforce the stereotypes of a potential suicide bomber. A suspicious person, we were told, may look unusually nervous, carry a big bag, wear an unseasonably heavy coat or have strings sticking out from his sleeve.

While volunteers carry this vigilance with them along with their weapons, I suspect we function largely so that neighborhood residents will feel safer knowing that we are circulating through the neighborhood. We are the visible symbols of security, providing, at the very least, an illusion of protection.

Walking methodically with Yonatan through café-lined streets and residential roads, I am reminded of the obsessive practice of a friend who unplugs her dishwasher, microwave and cappuccino machine each night before she goes to sleep, lest they somehow burst into flames.

Tonight’s monotony is broken when the commander of our base, located nearby in a bomb-shelter-turned-office, calls on our two-way radio to tell us to look out for a stolen white Subaru. When we hear that all volunteers are to be on alert for a man with an electric cord dangling from him, we renew our vigilance. Yet all we see is an elderly man walking his dog and a couple in need of directions.

* * *|

The next week, things are less dull. My new partner is a secular, retired builder who began volunteering when he became too old for the military reserves but still wanted to contribute to the community. That night, we are assigned to Emek Refaim Street, a trendy area in Jerusalem and the site of two recent suicide bombings, one at Cafe Hillel and the other on the No. 14 bus as it passed Liberty Bell Park.

The first hour and a half passes without incident. But on our return to the base, we spot two white plastic bags, tied at the top and sitting on the sidewalk next to a telephone pole. The bags are not far from several crowded cafes. “Could those be suspicious objects?” my partner asks me in Hebrew. I nod, intrigued.

More experienced, my partner takes my flashlight and inspects the bags again. He concludes, “It’s probably just garbage.” I’m not so sure: During training we were taught to take seriously all dubious qualities. So we call our base commander. Within 10 minutes, a police car and bomb squad arrive.

Wearing a one-piece green uniform, the bomb-disposal officer takes a quick look at the bags and motions for us to cordon off one side of the intersection. I stand in the middle of the road, my body an impromptu roadblock. The tension of the moment somehow provides me

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