In praise of unsung heroes

By Robert Sarner, Canadian Jewish News, Oct. 4, 2001

JERUSALEM - A white van pulls to a sudden stop on Jaffa Street in downtown Jerusalem. Two men emerge, wearing blue helmets with thick plexiglass visors. They are dressed in green, heavily padded vests and pants. Only their lower arms and hands are exposed.

Ten minutes earlier, police halted traffic in both directions and ordered pedestrians away from the area where a suspicious-looking object in a shopping bag had been left beside a bus shelter. As a precaution, merchants near the site evacuated customers from their stores. With the area cordoned off and cars backed up for blocks, thousands of people faced a major disruption.

The men from the van confer with a policeman who points them in the direction of the dubious bag. They attach long cables to the object in question, retreat a safe distance and then manipulate the cables to eventually blow up what may or may not be a bomb. They don't take any chances. The drama ends nearly an hour after it began as police give the all-clear sign and downtown Jerusalem springs back to its animated self.

Such a scenario, with slight variations, unfolds around the country many times a day. Bomb scares are so common as if to be almost a banal part of life in Israel. It's, of course, anything but banal.

Few if any Israelis have been unaffected by the past year of Palestinian violence. Most devastated of course are the families and friends of the 180 Israeli men, women and children killed and the 2,000 others wounded in the Arab terrorist campaign that began late last September.

Logically, those numbers should be much higher. It's not for want of trying by Palestinians hell-bent on murdering as many Israelis as possible. The casualties would be far greater if numerous attacks had not been thwarted through a combination of luck, terrorist incompetence and most importantly, the efforts of a group of fearless men.

When it comes to planning bombing attacks, Palestinian are nothing if not prolific - and imaginative. They plant explosives in cars, garbage cans, bags, guitar cases and watermelons and then place them where they hope to cause the most carnage. In buses, shopping centers, supermarkets, pubs, discos, parks, cinemas. You name it, they've probably tried it.

The only thing often separating a planted bomb from a scene of mass murder is a sharp-eyed passerby who reports a suspicious-looking object to the police. The last line of defense is the police's bomb disposal unit whose members are known as sappers. On a moment's notice, they must race to a site, calmly assess the situation, determine if there's a bomb and if so neutralize it or conduct a controlled explosion. All this while knowing that with one wrong move they could blow themselves - and others - to smithereens.

Even at the best of times when the Palestinians are not waging a concerted terrorist war against Israel, sappers have one of the most dangerous, high-pressure jobs in the country. Since the Intifadah began 12 months ago, they have worked around the clock, dismantling countless bombs of every size.

The sappers are also called in immediately after a bombing attack to check for other explosive devices possibly planted in the vicinity by terrorists. Against suicide bombers, there's little sappers can do if the terrorist is not caught before he detonates his deadly charge.

Sometimes the sappers are helped through the use of a special robot. But more often than not, they can rely only on their nerves of steel, delicate hands, laser-like concentration and unyielding courage to save scores of lives every day. Much of this goes largely unreported, barely making it into the national news. A check of the archives at the Jerusalem Post for articles published over the past 10 years on Israel's sappers turned up little except the odd reference to them in news stories.

Such is the reality in Israel that we usually take the sappers for granted. As the country now sadly marks the first anniversary of the Palestinian terrorist war against Israel, it's seems long overdue that we salute those who risk their lives to make our lives less dangerous. Prominent among these unsung heroes are the sappers who deserve our profound thanks.

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