Commentary Magazine


Eyewitness in Gaza

This past May, I rode in the back of a small open jeep as Roni, the captain of our Company A, roared down a sandy side street in pestilential Jebaliya, pursuing a mob of stone-throwers. He tore through a twenty-yard-long putrid-smelling puddle in this rat-infested Gaza refugee camp where the Palestinian uprising, the so-called intifada, began.

Jebaliya is a teeming hellhole, generally regarded as the most violent and nightmarish place of the Israel-occupied territories. Spent silver gas candles and black gas grenades and Palestinian and Islamic flags and black mourning banners and assorted junk tied with string to a rock had been lobbed up to the electric and telephone wires and dangled above the streets—the voodoo look is cultivated, and adds to the ominous atmosphere. The jeep parted the waters of the big puddle, splashing both sides of the shantytown street; and it all came back down on us. Pure liquefied shit—open sewage—and we were covered in it. It seemed to be a perfect commentary. It was also the only time I had ever seen our captain, a grim young ex-paratrooper, crack a smile.

Certainly, there had not been much to laugh about since the first day Company A moved into the fortified post (I called it “Fort Apache”) in the center of this densely populated square mile—60,000 people, about six to a room. The first day, two Palestinians were killed as we were attacked by frenzied mobs whipped up by Muslim fundamentalists and PLO nationalists alike. The “natives” test each new reserve unit immediately upon its arrival, and our somewhat panicky reactions were duly noted. They could see that some of our company—the potbellied men pushing forty or even fifty—were not like the paratrooper reservists we were replacing. Stones and rocks were raining down on us, and it was sometimes truly terrifying.

Ya Maniac!” the Arabs yelled at the soldiers looking out from Fort Apache. “If you’re a man, come out here without your gun,” one said in fluent Hebrew—40 percent of Gaza’s men commute to work in Israel. Taunting is constant, though no Israeli seems to take it personally, and words are not what bring the soldiers out—the officers respond only to the erection of burning barricades across the roads, or large groups of youths stoning Israeli vehicles. The defiant youths encourage the chase, the cat-and-mouse game. They have laid traps all around—on one occasion, a bomb had been planted awaiting the arrival of our patrol.

Our adobe-like fort is really just a police post. It was manned by four soldiers and a few policemen on the December day in 1987 when the intifada began, right here, after four local people were killed in an auto accident at the Jebaliya intersection near the entrance to the village and camp area and three miles from Gaza city. The rumor swept the camp that the Israelis had murdered the four. That falsehood, along with the successful attack on an army post in the north a week earlier by a single Palestinian glider pilot, is what triggered the uprising.

The scores of men in the reserve company I serve with, and the hundreds of men in our battalion, and the dozens of paratrooper, border police, and other regular-army units who also patrol Jebaliya, are portrayed by the media—within Israel and throughout the world—as part of the Goliath machine versus little David with his puny stones (even the great biblical king becomes a Palestinian in the continuing and relentless cooptation of Jewish history). In addition to being seen as David vs. Goliath, the Palestinians are called protesters, and likened to the followers of Martin Luther King and Gandhi, or the peaceful Russian peasants who marched on the czar’s Winter Palace. We Israelis are cast as the Nazis, shooting out the eyes of nine-month-old babies.

The truth is that with a number of exceptions Israeli soldiers are typically restrained and decent men under attack by people who openly yell not “We Shall Overcome” but “Death to the Jews” and who punctuate their chants by throwing Molotov cocktails and pipe bombs and lethal building blocks from the roofs. (Our battalion has had 25 injuries, four men hospitalized, but such information is rarely mentioned in media reports.)

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In Gaza I saw with my own eyes (and through powerful binoculars) how grown Arab men send children to the “front,” pulling the strings from behind, quite willing to sacrifice others, knowing that the nine-month-old baby who is wounded by a rubber bullet will make headlines around the world, and that no one will question the responsibility of the infant’s mother, or of the Palestinians who actually invite such incidents. No one will mention the hysterical religious fanatics in the refugee-camp schools who preach holy war and suicide—martyrdom.

The founder of the Arab Legion, Sir John Glubb, writing about events in the 1950′s, noted in his book, A Soldier of the Arabs:

When the schoolmasters received the word from the extremist politicians, they turned all the children into the streets. On some occasions, the teachers had written on pieces of paper the slogans which the children were to call out. A mass of children, shouting and singing, waving flags and throwing stones, blocked the traffic. It was difficult for the [Jordanian] police to disperse the crowds of big girls or even little boys and girls. . . . When confusion had been created, the roughs took over the riot.

The method, over thirty years later, remains the same.

The mother of one of the two nine-month-old babies who lost eyes in two separate incidents in Jebaliya in late May and early June 1988 proudly announced to the press that her daughter would become “the Moshe Dayan of the Palestinian revolution.” One Jebaliya father told us frankly that he was prepared to sacrifice a couple of his nine children because there “is no other hope,” and the PLO will compensate all martyrs.

As for the soldiers in our company, many of them felt that their hands were tied. They were warned that they would face imprisonment if they used live ammunition against stone-throwers in any but a life-or-death situation. Even the use of rubber bullets and tear gas was strictly controlled, though there were cases when a newcomer to a patrol failed to hear that day’s orders, or someone loosely interpreted the “immediate danger to life” rule. Accidents happened, or misjudgments—as when tear gas was fired into a closed housing compound. One of our men, an exconvict from Russia (not a refusenik or “prisoner of Zion” type), fashioned a Molotov cocktail of his own, and might have thrown it if an officer hadn’t heard about it and taken it away from him. But I doubt whether any other army in the world, or police force, would act with more restraint than the Israelis have done: the figure of fewer than 200 Arab fatalities in six months of a widespread violent uprising is amazingly low.

In Jebaliya, stronghold of a Khomeini-like Muslim fundamentalist revolution, I did witness some instances of Israeli brutality during my month of duty, which coincided with Ramadan (when Muslims fast during daylight hours). But the worst beatings I saw were by Palestinian militants of their own people—for example, the face of an old man (a “collaborator” because he tried to stop his children from stoning soldiers) had been pummeled into bloody hamburger by the young men who were staging the daily disturbances. With the aid of one of his sons, he called to us for help. “The Jews are better than our own people,” he cried bitterly to his son. “You throw stones at them, but it wasn’t Jews who did this to me.”

I also saw several of our soldiers stop hot-headed fellow Israelis from hitting bound and blindfolded prisoners. The kibbutzniks were the best about this—they simply would not allow it. The worst incident I witnessed was when a strapping corporal with a sadistic grin threw a blindfolded, bound prisoner into the grill of a truck parked just outside the Ansar 2 prison compound in Gaza. But even that was not so bad—during the Vietnam war I myself experienced a worse beating by San Francisco police for simply being in the vicinity of a peaceful demonstration (by people who were demanding an end to war, and who were not throwing bombs or big rocks).

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And so here I find myself—a past supporter of Journalists for Amnesty International, an anti-Vietnam war activist of the 1960′s, and a present supporter in Israel of a political solution based on territorial compromise—condoning a certain amount of beating.

During one week in the middle of my 30-day service in Jebaliya, our security forces, backed by the army, rounded up three different terrorist cells in and around nearby Gaza city. These 20 or so men had automatic rifles, grenades, and explosives. Although on one occasion they had carried out a mission against an Israeli patrol, all their other actions had been directed against Israeli civilians, bombing a city bus in Rishon le-Zion, for example. Now one of these groups was about to launch a suicide human-bomb attack on the throngs of people at the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station. Hundreds of lives might have been lost if the Israeli security forces had not managed to press the arrested men to reveal the terrorist plot.

I found that many of the left-wing or Left-Center reservists in my unit, who believe as I do that we must arrive at a territorial compromise with the Palestinians, had no “psychological problems” about arresting suspects or pursuing people whose aim is to kill or maim as many Israelis as possible. Yet one reads constantly in the Israeli media, with its Left-liberal slant, that many Israeli psychologists are alarmed about the growing risks to the country’s mental health, that it is not the same army it used to be, that its actions are “inhuman.” In contrast, one simply never sees praise for the army, for the average soldier or reservist who is doing what has to be done. It is all terribly distorted by people—whether journalists or psychologists—who do not mind stretching the truth in order to get their political views across.

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Indeed, all of us in Company A—Left, Right, and Center—were astonished at the difference between what we saw at first hand, and what the media were telling us about it. I was the only writer-journalist among the men, who, as in any reserve company, came from all walks of life. But we all felt that the media distortions were immense, and that they were as sinister as the worst instances of very real Israeli abuses (such as the now-famous incident of four soldiers beating two detainees, filmed by Israeli CBS cameramen).

On our last day of service, the colonel in charge of our battalion and three others in Gaza ranted against the Israeli media. He told us how they cut and distorted, and he cited examples of Israeli journalists who tapped into the army internal network radio for their scoops, or who impersonated army officers in order to obtain information from secretaries at military headquarters in Gaza. Many of the reservists—leftist and rightist alike—nodded in agreement with the commander.

Similarly, when Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin was asked by an Israeli radio reporter about the wounding of the first nine-month-old baby, a group of our soldiers at Fort Apache listening to the broadcast moaned in unison at the reporter’s loaded question, at his obvious attempt to bait or embarrass Rabin: “Doesn’t this incident show the inappropriateness and danger of using rubber bullets against the civilian population?” Rabin, accustomed to this kind of questioning, answered simply that he thought non-lethal weapons were preferable to live bullets.

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The problem arises from the fact that the media are part of an Israeli Labor-oriented establishment that shares the view of other establishments in the West and in the Eastern bloc and in the. Third World who want Israel to withdraw in favor of an autonomous Palestinian entity if not a state. (I am one of the minority within this majority of journalists, favoring the Allon plan which involves returning no more than 60 percent of the West Bank to the Arabs.)

These journalists are political animals who put their stamp on every sentence they submit about the territories. They are the ones who shoot the footage for American TV, work as stringers for all the major newspapers in the world, and often provide most of the story an American or a Norwegian reads under the byline of a well-known American or Norwegian reporter. One rabid Peace Now supporter (nicknamed “The Snake” by some of those who work under him) is in charge of a news-service bureau, manages the news of a major Israeli daily, is the representative of a large Canadian newspaper and an English Sunday newspaper, and is a favorite commentator for the BBC, CBC, and ABC (such is life in Israel—everyone needs at least two incomes). No one says anything about possible conflict of interest, or monopoly. Nor is he shy about getting his opinions across.

Twenty-one Israelis have refused to serve in the army reserves in the territories. One of them is assistant managing editor of a major daily newspaper (he selects the stories that go on page one, oversees the headline writers, fashions the story in a way he sees fit). Yet his newspaper, which ran a long, very favorable magazine piece about the group of 21, mentioning some of their leaders, never reported that he was among them, or that he had spent thirty days in prison rather than serve in Gaza.

A reporter who covers the West Bank for Israel Television—a very decent man who, like all of his predecessors, eventually arrived at the position that Israel must withdraw immediately from the territories—greeted the news that I was going to serve in Jebaliya with the comment: “So you’re going to beat up Arabs?” He happens to be one of the more balanced journalists—and there are others like him who have done an important job in covering the intifada, and revealing Israeli abuses along with Palestinian ones. But the impression they convey of a once-noble Israeli army turned into brutalizers of children and freedom fighters is simply false.

As for foreign journalists, of the 800(!) covering the Palestinian uprising, practically all of them also believe the Palestinians deserve support as underdogs searching for national identity and deprived of many basic human rights.

The Washington Post has already run 300,000 words about the intifada. One cannot help contrasting this with 1942, when the paper totally ignored the systematic extermination of millions of Jews—in November of that year, Rabbi Stephen Wise’s press conference confirming State Department findings of two million Jews systematically murdered rated about four inches on the inside pages of both the New York Times and the Post.

Thus, the foreign reporters and the Israeli media form a community of interest, and they are constantly rubbing each other’s backs, financially as well as politically. Some of them, like the novelist David Grossman, are eloquent, and the New Yorker will rush to publish their work (that famous magazine also published the lengthy “Reflections” of Jacobo Timerman after he had spent all of twenty-four hours in Lebanon shortly after the 1982 Israeli invasion). Grossman’s book, The Yellow Wind, is sympathetic to and understanding of the Palestinians; such a book from the other side, by a Palestinian writer/ reporter attempting to understand the Israelis, is all but inconceivable.

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One of the many “bleeding heart” reporters in Israel is a very solid young American who unfortunately knows or cares little about the background of the Israel-Arab conflict. He believes that the root of the whole problem is Israel’s presence in the territories, and that if the troops would only refrain from responding to every tire-burning and barricade, and withdraw to the periphery, the casualty rate, at least, would go down to a more acceptable level. In Jebaliya, I found that there was constant debate among the soldiers, and the officers, about this point. But the view that prevailed, and to which I now subscribe, is that there can be no “withdrawal” in the face of violence—every incident must be responded to, or there will be ten more such incidents within minutes.

Furthermore, there are large numbers of Palestinians who might pay lip-service to the uprising but who want to live under Israeli sovereignty, and who know that a Lebanon-style bloodbath will be the first fruit of a Palestinian state. I watched small Jebaliya children stoning cars with local Gaza license plates and demanding “protection money” from the drivers, who eventually chased them away and cleared the road of this peanut-sized version of the revolutionists we frequently faced.

These territories were the price paid by the Arabs for their constant war against Israel. Should the territories now be conceded because the Arabs are burning tires, or burning down forests in Israel proper, or because they have become darlings of the world media? Or perhaps because of an increased willingness among Palestinians to die for their cause? But what is that cause? The New York Times may think that the name “Abu Jihad” (the nom de guerre of Khalil al-Wazir, Arafat’s top deputy, who was recently assassinated, apparently by Israeli agents) means “Father of the Struggle.” But everyone in the Middle East knows that jihad means not “struggle,” but “holy war,” and that a “holy war” against the entire Jewish state is what many Arabs believe they are engaged in.

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A good friend of mine, when he heard that I would be going to the Gaza Strip for my spell of reserve duty, said, “Of course, be careful; but try also to take a very close look at what is happening there. Open your eyes. Open your third eye.”

Eyes, or the lack of them, are automatically associated with Gaza. The Philistines took Samson there, putting out his eyes and binding him with fetters of brass and placing him in the prison house to work. Blind John Milton, in Samson Agonistes, wrote about the Israelite judge being “Eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves.” The ancient rabbis said that the eyes are the agents of sin; Samson’s eyes had lusted for Philistine women. Samson took vengeance for his eyes, slaying thousands when he brought the house down on the Philistine lords and himself. The Palestinians are now vowing to take vengeance for their own lost eyes. Many commentators have said that modern Israel suffers from a “Samson complex” rather than a “Masada complex,” that it will end up destroying itself along with its Arab enemies.

My own feeling is that places like Jebaliya are festering wounds that must be eliminated. For years, the PLO resisted any change in the status of the refugee-camp inmates—when a new neighborhood of well-built homes was erected alongside Shati refugee camp in Gaza (a place second only to Jebaliya in horribleness), the refugees, or rather their leaders, refused to budge. These miserable camps are a hothouse of insurrection, and the PLO wants them there until Jerusalem and Jaffa are “liberated.” If I had my way, the camp would be bulldozed, and its residents sent to nearby Gaza city or a few miles away to the West Bank. Samson tore out the Gate of Gaza and carried it on his shoulders for forty miles to Hebron—why not now? Because it would be called “transfer,” or “a second Lidice.”

There are so many myths about Gaza—in a 1971 PLO booklet, Gaza’s 140 square miles with a population (at that time) of 450,000 was termed one of the most overcrowded places on earth. What about Los Angeles, or Mexico City, or Tokyo? They, and a thousand other cities, all have a much higher population density. Yet just about every journalist repeats this ridiculous claim. What is true is that the Jebaliya and Shati camps are desperately overcrowded—though, again, I have visited refugee camps in Sudan, such as Wad Kali, which are twice as densely populated as Jebaliya.

In any case, Jebaliya has become, for the Palestinians, the symbol, the very essence, of the intifada. That is why I think it may yet become the site of some horrible climax to the passion play which has now passed its half-year mark. But in the meantime those Palestinians who a few months ago beamed with the glow of victory and revolution in the streets, now know that Israelis are going to be more hard-nosed than ever about making territorial concessions, and that the intifada is being slowly but surely suppressed. The Palestinian euphoria is over. And some of the myths about the uprising’s moral and political costs to Israel are also dissipating.

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The Israeli army chief of staff, Dan Shomron, announced a few months ago that every able-bodied Israeli male between the ages of twenty-two and fifty would be spending 62 days in the army reserves this year, instead of the usual 35-40 days, and that this was the cost of holding on to the territories. My own feeling at the time was that this would swell the number of Israelis voting for Labor, the party willing to “trade land for peace.” What I found in Gaza was that none of the soldiers, even after 30 days of being “up against the shit of Jebaliya,” had changed their political views, but that all were prepared to do what must be done to break the intifada.

The spirit among the men of this battalion, whose average age was about thirty-five, had not been higher in years. Our three young lieutenants, who ranged from an extremely cautious man to a slightly reckless daredevil, were all superb: honest, straight, courageous, tough but compassionate, businesslike. When I thought of the newspaper articles I read about the “psychological traumas” affecting just about every soldier in the army and the “dangerous consequences of the renewed violence” to Israeli society, it seemed to me that as compared with those psychologists and journalists, we much-abused and supposedly unhinged soldiers, splashing through puddles of excrement, were the real models of sanity and balance.

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