Arafat's Guards
Hey Folks!

Well, I’ve been out of touch with the world the last couple of days, as we have relocated to Be’er Sheva, south of Tel Aviv, near the Gaza Strip.  We have been working for the last two days in Gaza, and it’s nothing like I have ever seen before.  I would never in my wildest dreams have imagined that such a place not only exists, but that people actually live there.  It’s difficult to describe in mere words the poverty and desolation of the place.  It’s like a city of 1 million people living in surroundings that are no different than that which can be seen at the Bexar County landfill.  There are endless rows of ruined housing, piles and piles of rubble, rocks, broken bricks, garbage, junk cars, and animal carcasses.  It’s one huge dump on the sand of the desert.  People live behind walls there, built up around their shanty to protect them from gunfire (and a lot of those cinder-block walls are full of bullet pockmarks and shell holes).  There are armed guards to be found on every street and many roadblocks and checkpoints on the way through, most of which we get through unimpeded because of U.S. Embassy status.

We have been working at a television station, which is where the tower is located, inside a cinderblock compound with a huge steel gate that is posted with guards of the PLO.  These guys have been very good about sharing tea and Turkish coffee with us throughout the work day, but one thing is for sure, they don’t share food (although some of their cooking smells very good, food seems to be in rather short supply).  I should mention that the compound includes a small kitchen and housing for the troops, so you’ll understand what I’m saying…there is also a small garden there, and the soldiers grow radishes and other stuff there to cook.  Several times a day throughout the city, huge loudspeakers blare out prayer chants, and the people pray in the streets, shouting out their prayers as loud as they can.  The soldiers take turns, sort of like praying in shifts, always facing east and alternately standing and kneeling on mats.  They change into traditional robes from the soldier’s uniform before beginning their prayer.

Israeli jets scream overhead all day, sometimes 4 or 5 at a time, and they come from all directions, flying low and dropping flares, or flying way high, where you can see them flying in loops and practicing dogfight maneuvers.  There is no speed limit here for them, and quite often their appearance is preceded by a sonic boom, causing us contractors to drop our tools and soil our pants!

Construction never ends here, the people work on their houses and buildings all day and all night, yet very little has the appearance of being close to completion.  Some people live in shelled-out buildings, some in sheet metal lean-tos, and some in crude cinderblock houses, but they all have walls around them.  There are many open sewers around here, and parts of the city just smell like a zoo.  There is also a lot of livestock running around here…mostly goats, horses, and camels, and the people literally live with their animals…horses, donkeys, and camels are used for transportation, chickens and cattle are eaten immediately.

At night, you can really see the way these people live.  You can see entire families gathered around a single light bulb in some sheet metal shanty that you would not even recognize as inhabitable in daylight.
There is a lot more movement at night; people sit outside on mats in the sand, or stroll up and down the alleyways…everything is sand here.  The astonishing thing is, these people are happy to be in what they consider their homeland.  They are happy to live the way they do; it’s just beyond my comprehension.

One thing I can say is the Embassy has been very good about tracking our movements.  We have been riding in an armored Suburban, with 2-in. bulletproof glass.  We stopped at one checkpoint yesterday where a boy scout parade was just beginning, and just as we cleared the checkpoint, the Embassy called and wanted to know how we were doing and if we needed an escort to get by the “demonstrators” at that checkpoint!  Our driver explained to them it was just a bunch of boy scouts, so I guess they are watching our every move, just as they said they would.

Anyway, that’s about all for today.  Man, what a strange place this is…everything is going OK, though, will talk to you later.

Well, we made it through day 3 in Gaza, today we went through Gaza City proper, and the poverty level isn’t quite as bad as it was in the North Camp areas where we had been working the last two days.  We got to see Yassir Arafat’s house, and it’s nothing spectacular from the outside, however it is notable inasmuch as there are many black tanks surrounding the place, each complete with a tanker crew of about 5 soldiers dressed in black uniforms and these black hoods that cover their entire faces except for an eyeslit.  I gathered that these were “the serious dudes”…I don’t think I would want to make a charge on the ol’ compound!

Gaza City is getting ready for the upcoming visit Thursday by our illustrious Mr. Clinton.  There is a lot of rehearsal by the police and military forces here, and today there was a huge demonstration downtown only a couple of blocks from where we were working.  We had an armed PLO guard who escorted us everywhere we went, even just outside the walls of the compound to our truck.  It was a little unnerving, as the roar of the crowd just two blocks away was tremendous.  We got a call from the embassy telling us to keep alert, but the police had the whole thing under control in a couple of hours.

Today we traveled the same route the president will take when he comes to visit, and boy, is he in for some serious culture shock!  But, the TV crews are already staging things and setting up, so I’m sure he will come out looking like a hero, even though the Israelis have already declared they wish he would stay home!  Ha!  The Palestinians, however, are preparing to welcome him with open arms.

Yesterday in the West Bank, three other employees of a microwave contractor were mobbed and stoned in their vehicle.  The fracas ended when their driver opened fire with an Uzi submachine gun.  There were no injuries, and the police determined the use of force by the driver as “justified”.  Here we go.  Things may be getting “hot” here, fellas, and if they do, we will be coming home early.  If not, I look forward to having that shot of Tequila on the Riverwalk!

All is going well, got to climb my first “real” tower today, a 180 ft. self-supporter…I made it ok, just a minimal amount of pain in my back, have been taking ibuprofen which seems to help a lot…will know for sure when it’s time to get out of bed in the morning!  See y’all later.

Hey, guys!
I am trying to create this document and then attach it as an email file, as there is no way to stay connected long enough to do it online.  What follows are notes and observations about Israel, the people, land, and the job we are about to embark on.  I will try to assign some chronological order to the events, but it will be largely random observations:

0630: am looking out my balcony window, to the left is all of Tel Aviv, apartments stacked upon apartments, and high-rise hotels to the left and center.  We are on the 15th floor of the hotel, a damn nice hotel if I do say so, at  $143 per night.  Breakfast: three sardines with the heads on, two boiled eggs, a waffle and coffee.  (stomach bomb, eh?)

0800: we set about to gather tools and supplies, but it is the Shabbat (Sabbath) and all the warehouses are closed.

1000: downtown Tel Aviv to pick up some cell phones, the sidewalks are bustling with European tourists, and locals.  Open-air coffee shops abound here, people sit at tables on the sidewalks sipping away.  At noon, all coffee brewers must be shut down, all cooking ceases and only instant coffee and cold food is available.  (Shabbat)

1200: we arrived back at the hotel and I am looking out my balcony again, the Mediterranean sea is on the right, and with the sun directly overhead, it is impossible to guess the depth of the water, as it is purely clear and the bottom can be plainly made out for several hundred yards from shore…a few beachcombers and sunbathers, but the city is shutting down for Shabbat.

1210: a group of approximately 35 men come running down the avenue, carrying banners and chanting in unison, they appear to be protesting something, and many motorists pull over and honk in apparent support…

1400-1823: I was asleep, but was awakened by three distinct gunshots coming from the south side of the building, which my balcony overlooks…I stayed inside with the curtains drawn…

0000: Mario and I venture out into the night for a walk…the Shabbat is ending, and the people begin to ascend upon the town in droves…mostly young kids, the girls wear mostly tight and revealing clothing, spandex pants, tube tops, …it just boggles the mind!

0100: to the disco, which is a full-contact event, there is standing-room only and much pushing, shoving, and bumping…this is not the place for the timid or the easily offended…people will give you a shoulder block in a heartbeat if they want through…

0130: Israeli women dance on the bars in full clothing, but often exposing their navel, other than that, it’s pretty much the same moves as American dancers…it’s so crowded, the girls gyrate up and down on the floor in a kind of upright lap dance…they are not shy!

0200: we went to another bar, this one was much more subdued, the clientele a little older, had a few drinks, there is a door that has a keypad lock, and occasionally young men are allowed to pass by the door guard.  I suspect this place is a brothel, as they emerge with great smiling faces!

0300: back to the hotel, tomorrow, we leave for Gaza, and I was told by a young woman that I met from Ohio, this is going to suck!  She has been working in Israel for 15 years, and I suspect she knows what she’s talking about!

Well, guys, that’s pretty much the gist of what’s been happening, hope you get this email, and I will write with more adventures soon…Israel is what it is, all we can do is deal with it!  Later…

More news from Be’er Sheva…
We had today off, and last night we partied hearty with a fellow from Australia and some kid from Ft. Wayne, Ind.  They are contracted by another company, but we are all working at the same site.  Tomorrow we will install dishes at North Camp, in the heart of the slums of Gaza.  Thanks to the visit by Mr. Clinton, our armored Suburban was recalled by the Embassy, and we have been assigned a Palestinian driver with a Volkswagen van which looks like he purchased it from some hippie at the original Woodstock!  Now, before things start to sound bad, I must tell you, our little Palestinian driver is SHARP!  Remember what I’ve always said about veterans who have been in combat, that they have an instinct which is just a little sharper than most?  This guy is amazing, he is like Radar O’Reilly, he KNOWS what’s going on around us at all times.  I really trust this guy, his name is Sami, and his level of awareness is astonishing.  I have an idea that if any trouble breaks out, he will have us evacuated a long time before any danger.

Yesterday in downtown Gaza there came a caravan of protestors in buses, shouting with bullhorns and waving the Palestinian flag, about 8 busloads of people, some angry as hell, others smiling and waving the flag.  Sami told us that they were protesting the Israelis holding Palestinians as political prisoners…this is what led to the shooting incident in the West Bank day before yesterday.  

Everything is going well here, tomorrow we have a 300-ft. self-supported tower to climb, and I’m sure that the ibuprofen factor will be high.  My back is getting better, though, just have to give it time…
I have also contracted a nasty cold, and am about to go soak off the chill in a tub full of hot water…with a Heineken, of course.  Talk to you later.

Hello, all, from the dusty, dirty, smokin’ Holy Land!

We have been finishing up the last site in Gaza for the past couple of days, and the intensity of the work has been ferocious.  We are all skinned up, bruised and without hardly a knuckle left, but we got all 6 dishes hung, and will complete the waveguide runs tomorrow, provided we can get into Gaza due to the visit by Mr. Clinton.  Man, I haven’t pushed it this hard since the good ol’ telephone company days.  Am about to have dinner with the contractors, they want to discuss logistics for tomorrow and the rest of the week.  We are supposed to pull out of here Thursday, and I am ready!  I want a steak and I want it now.  I am tired of eating these nasty Schwarmas, it’s about the only thing Palestinians eat, no wonder they are so hostile, they’re no doubt all “backed up”!

Monday, Dec. 14 – We finished our waveguide runs and are ready to dress everything in, align path and test the radios.  I don’t think I have climbed this much steel since I’ve been with the company!  We are scheduled to pull out on Thursday, with or without completing this phase of the project, but we are almost certain to be complete.  We are WAY ahead of the other team, and the customer is happy.

Saw Mr. Clinton arrive in Gaza today, but we got out early as he is scheduled to meet with Arafat and Mr. Netanyahu at Erez Crossing, where we go into Palestine every morning, so you can imagine the crowds.  We got out without too much delay, though, and that’s a hell of a lot more than I can say for the Palestinian workers who were trying to get back across.  The Israelis treat these people like absolute animals; you would not believe what they have to go through just to get back and forth into Israel to work every day.  They have to wait in these damn holding pens, just like cattle, until the Israeli soldiers check them all through, and all the while they are harassed constantly by the soldiers.  It is a helluva situation over here, guys, and I don’t think Mr. Clinton is going to work any miracles.  The way I see it, if these problems and prejudices COULD be resolved, they WOULD have been resolved a long time ago by the Palestinians and Israelis themselves…just my viewpoint.

Well, I’m going to go down and have a damn beer, as it has been a bruiser of a day, and then I have to get my expense report for the week done.  I may talk with you guys via email later, or I may just talk to you on Sunday, when I get back.

Well, guys, I guess the fat’s in the fire!  Due to the U.S. military strikes against Iraq, the Embassy has shut us down and ordered us to stay out of Palestine, which has traditionally supported Iraq.  We are sending in a 3-man extraction team to retrieve what equipment we can, and then we will be out of here!  The State department has issued a travel warning advising Americans that now would be a good time to leave Israel.  They are in the process of evacuating certain Embassy personnel, and we will be heading for Tel Aviv in the morning.  The Israeli air force has really stepped up their operations, and the jets have been flying over us all morning shaking the shit out of us with sonic booms!  Although the military seems to be on full alert, everything else is normal and peaceful here.  Now all we can do is get everything ready to go, and believe me, I am ready to GO!

Yesterday we were forced by a storm to shut down hastily.  We were in the process of aligning a path and I was on a 160-ft tower when this thing blew through.  Suddenly we were hit with 60-mph winds, and I am willing to bet that at that dish level the wind was closer to 80mph.  I was hanging off the outside of the tower and when the wind hit, it just about spun me around!  My bolt bags were flapping around my waist like bat wings, and my tools went flying.  I have never gotten off a tower so fast in my life!  I was hanging on to the pipe mount and it was rocking back and forth, like riding a bucking barrel!  We left a lot of stuff undone in Gaza, and I hope the guys can get most of our gear out of there today.  I will say one thing; this trip has not been boring!

Well, it’s just a matter of packing it all up and getting out of here now, the plan is to have one evening of relaxation in Tel Aviv before heading to the airport and Customs Sunday morning…we have to be at Customs at 3:30 am.  Oh, will the joy never cease?  Y’all take care, and I’ll see you guys stateside!

Greetings again, this time from Tel Aviv.  The Embassy told us that things were getting too hot in Palestine, and we would be better off to leave the country as soon as possible, advice which none of us will argue with.  We withdrew to Tel Aviv this afternoon and have rescheduled our flight to leave Saturday instead of Sunday.  There’s nothing we can do about this.  At least the Embassy is covering our backs every step of the way.  The mood around here is pretty normal.  However, rather than going out clubbing, I intend to keep a very low profile while here.  I am just going to kick back, have some brews and relax until Sat. morning.  We should be arriving in San Antonio sometime Sat. night.

I’ll tell you, guys, I am not suspicious of Clinton’s motives in all this, I just think it’s a damn shame that I cannot trust him to make the right decisions in any military action, anywhere!  I think he is in the process of undoing all this peace he has proclaimed to sponsor in this region.  I do not like the feeling I get in the pit of my stomach when I think of the whole thing.  I just hope they get Mr. Hussein this time.  Only with his demise will anything improve in Iraq, and even at that, the Arabs are going to hate us.  It’s a no-win situation as best I can see…guess I have a new perspective on this, since I am over here!  I just cannot wait to get American soil back under my feet! 

On the good news side, I was asked to come back here in January, so I guess I passed the “audition”.  Of course, everything is tentative pending the ok from the Embassy.  I hope that when we come back things will have settled down.  It’s funny, only Monday the Palestinians in Gaza had their whole town decorated with American flags, and today, they were burning the American flag in the streets!  It’s truly the strangest place I have ever been...
Mike's Musings...
Radio Daze: The Strangest Trip
Ed. Note: Ten years ago, Mike worked in Israel and the Palestinian territory as a radio tower technician.  What follows are the notes and e-mails he sent to friends during that incredible experience.
"Today we traveled the same route the president will take.  Boy, is he in for some serious culture shock!"
"I was asleep, but was awakened by three distinct gunshots.  I stayed inside with the curtains drawn…"
"We have been assigned a Palestinian driver with a Volkswagen van which looks like he purchased it from some hippie at the original Woodstock!"
"The way I see it, if these problems and prejudices COULD be resolved, they WOULD have been resolved a long time ago…"
"It’s truly the strangest place I have ever been..."
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