Talking to the Enemy
Before the radio had even reported the news, Nitza called me from the kibbutz to say that there had been a disaster: three terrorists had sneaked in and barricaded themselves in the children’s nursery. “They . . . they’re there right now,” she said, her voice cracking.
I swept all the papers off my desk, including the insurance form I was filling in for the new client who sat before me, his eyebrows joined in displeasure.
“Is Ilan there, inside?” I asked.
Ilan was our five-year-old boy. He had stayed with Nitza on the kibbutz after we’d divorced three years before, when I moved back to Tel Aviv.
“Y. . . yes,” Nitza said, her harsh weeping echoing through the long-distance crackle.
“I’m coming,” I said.
I knew I wouldn’t make it in time—it was a three-and-a-half-hour drive to Kibbutz Sha’anan, practically on the border with Lebanon—but all I could think of was that last week, when it was my turn to have Ilan, I’d canceled because I had work to do.
“Where you going?” asked the client. He was an old yekke, a German Jew, who had come to see me about insuring his jewelry store. (I had opened my agency after leaving the army.)
“I have to go,” I told him.
Without answering I grabbed the car keys and, like an idiot, the .22 Beretta from my desk drawer—only later in the car did I notice the magazine was empty—and ran out.
All the way north I kept thinking that maybe if I drove fast enough I could still get there in time. But when I arrived of course it was all over.
Whether the rescue attempt had been botched or whether there was never any chance of success was never made clear, and was anyway irrelevant. From the moment the three terrorists raced through the almond orchard, passing Hanan Berkovitch, the old Bible teacher, on their way in, it almost seemed preordained. Sweeping by him they shouted—in Hebrew, no less—that they were on a military exercise, and the fool—he was returning from guard duty in the avocado field, with a loaded Uzi, two extra magazines, a walkie-talkie, everything—let them pass; even with their Russian RPGs slung in plain sight across their backs, with the green Syrian ammo boxes they were lugging between them as they ran, with the AK-47 Kalashnikovs swinging at their hips, he let them pass.
But a minute later there was a shot, and the children started screaming inside the nursery—the bastards had killed the teacher, Miriam Goldin, with a single bullet to the head the instant they burst in—and by then everyone knew, and all the men on the kibbutz raced pell-mell to the rescue, grabbing whatever they could find: Uzis, Kalashes, MAC-10s, Galils, even rusty Mausers and British Lee Enfields that had been stashed in the armory since the war of ’48. The terrorists (no one knew yet how many there were) had in the meantime barricaded themselves inside the nursery, pushing cribs and beds against the swinging doors, and began shooting out the windows without pause—they must have brought thousands of rounds with them. The first to get it was Hanan Berkovitch—he rushed forward as if asking for it—then Micha Barzel, the manager of the cowshed with whom I used to play ping-pong. And by that time a patrol from the army’s Golani brigade that was in the area, mapping some wadi, took over until the Sayeret, the Recon Commando unit, arrived by helicopter. It had taken them only 40 minutes, I’ll give them that.
Later I was told that two of the children had probably died right away when the bastards bound them too tightly, or something—they had brought large spools of copper wire and pliers for the purpose. I didn’t ask if Ilan was one of the two. What did it matter? When I arrived, the burial society was already there. The moment I saw them, three stooped old men with black skullcaps and flapping black coats through which the fringes of their prayer shawls flickered, I knew; even before I saw them dragging the small coffins into the nursery, trampling the asters.
“Don’t go in!” Musa Hartov shouted at me. He had been my second-in-command when I left the Sayeret two years earlier. He rushed to my side and grabbed my arm. “I’m telling you, don’t go in!” He was still dressed in his black Nomex coverall with the kevlar vest and tight kevlar helmet on his head, looking like a spaceman with all these objects hanging from his back and belt, radios, flares, magazines, syringes, knives, nylon ropes, clusters of grenades. He smelled of cordite and blood, his Patuga canvas boots grimy with blood and brains.
I tried to push past him, but he stiff-armed me away. Four medics stumbled by, carrying three soldiers piled on a single stretcher, all dead. One had his neck torn off; the head lolled to the side, hanging by a thread of skin, the mouth moving. The medic slapped it back onto the stretcher and threw a gray blanket over the three corpses.
The crowd of kibbutzniks stood frozen, whispering in shock. Only the crackle of radios and the slow whirr of the copter blades could be heard, and a distant chirp of sprinklers, probably in the avocado fields.
Nitza stood a little way off, her red hair flying in all directions, hands to her mouth, with Yossi, that husband of hers, at her side. He was carrying a ridiculously long Nagant, a Russian pistol as long as his thigh and maybe 50 years old. He probably got to the armory last and that was all that was left. The two of them were in their pajamas. They’d probably been in bed, screwing, when it happened.
“I came as soon as I could,” I said.
Nitza rattled her head violently from side to side as if to say, don’t talk to me.
Her husband said it had just ended. “They got them,” he said. “Finally.”
“But the children?” I asked. I couldn’t see how we could talk so quietly. The sun was shining on the wet grass, somewhere a merry tune came from a forgotten radio. The sprinklers still chirped.
“Nine of the eleven,” Yossi said. “Nine. Including Ilan.” He began to curse in Arabic, at length. I didn’t see what that would accomplish now, cursing.
Nitza chose that moment to start screaming, and at the sound of her voice all the other women began to scream, too. I looked at her and all at once, without thinking, I turned around and barged into the nursery, pushing Musa aside. This time he said nothing, and let me pass.
The inside of the nursery looked like a broken dollhouse splashed with ketchup. There was more red than white on the walls. Two unshaven characters looking like hippies, their black T-shirts spattered with dark brown, were slumped against an overturned crib, under a large cardboard drawing of the Evil Haman leading the Virtuous Mordechai on a horse, with Queen Esther looking on. The holiday of Purim was two days away, and the older children had probably made this drawing for the younger ones, for the party. Soon they would have begun making their Purim masks. The two terrorists looked calm, as if sleeping. Gray stuff dripped from their heads. A third was lying face down in the doorway, his head a mass of red and yellowish gray. In the other room the three graybeards were bending over some small heaps. I began moving in their direction but at that moment Musa caught up with me and dragged me back by my belt, with both hands.
“Don’t be a donkey,” he hissed.
I heard myself ask, “PLF?”
The Palestine Liberation Front had a training camp in the Bekaa valley in Lebanon, not 30 miles away. Twice before they had tried to get in, but each time a Golani patrol had gotten them. This time they didn’t.
“No, PLO. They had their papers on them.”
The three old men went by, single file, each carrying a little box. I made to follow but Musa, one hand still at my belt, hit softly at my jaw with the open palm of his other hand, turning my head away.
“No,” he said.
I said, “I want in on the retribution.”
“Don’t be a donkey,” replied Musa, releasing my belt, and he was gone. But in a second he was back. He punched my shoulder, hard. “Goddamn,” he said. “They got three of my guys, too.”
Again he grabbed my belt and this time I let him pull me out; on the way I saw the old men going in again. Outside, on the grass, were six cardboard boxes, not very large.
“I want in,” I said.
“They got them with RPGs through the walls.”
“I want in.”
“Your mother. Once you’re out, you’re out!”
I opened my mouth to argue, but just then the Prime Minister arrived, and the reporters, in two large Super Frelon helicopters, and also a Cobra Medevac with a red Magen David on its tail. The Prime Minister nodded at me, curtly. He used to visit our apartment in Tel Aviv and talk to my father in the kitchen, over a glass of tea.
Yaro Peleg, the chief of staff, stood beside the PM. He said, “The bastards got three of ours in the first two minutes, with RPGs.” Someone standing behind said that as usual the terrorists had wanted to bargain: the kids for some imprisoned Fatah guys. “But don’t they know by now? That we never talk to them?”
The PM asked, “Our guys had these American suits on? That cost us $500 apiece? Now look.” He gestured with both hands toward the empty stretchers flapping on the Cobra’s skids, in the rotor’s wash.
“They can only stop 7.62 mm,” said the chief of staff, abashed. “Maybe 9 mm.”
The PM looked at me.
“Yes,” I said. “Maximum.”
There was a short pause. The reporters began to inch forward.
“How’s your father?” the Prime Minister asked.
“Alive,” I said. “My son got it.”
He nodded, his mouth pinched, and immediately turned on his heel and left. He probably knew I was going to ask him the same thing I’d asked Musa.
I didn’t get to see Nitza, or Ilan’s body, or any of the other bereaved parents, before I returned to Tel Aviv. I only sat down for a few minutes with Yossi, who said he’d see about everything and would let me know about the funeral. It was painful for both of us, this conversation: the betrayed husband and the new husband, the winning fornicator. But we made the most of it, like civilized people. He brewed some coffee, and I didn’t find it in me to refuse. I was amazed how numb I felt. Nine children dead, one of them mine, also three old friends, and the only thing I felt was an odd sort of heat in my stomach, and a tingling in my nose. No tears; nothing.
I asked Yossi, belatedly, whether any of his own children got it. “No, thank God,” he said. “Last month they were transferred to the older children’s house.” His freckled face vibrated as if a fan were blowing air through his skin, from the inside out.
“That’s good,” I said.
He, too, had been married when he began carrying on with Nitza behind my back while I was away in Egypt or in Jordan, in deep penetrations or ambushes; two of the children from his first marriage, the twin boys, were still on the kibbutz. The third, a girl, had left with her mother, to live in Haifa.
He offered me a bed in the spare room.
“No,” I said, “I have to go back.”
He didn’t even try to persuade me.
Back in Tel Aviv I called my father. He was seventy-two then, no longer active in anything, but he still had his contacts in the army, and also in the government, where he was once a minister without portfolio, “minister for shmutz,” as he once put it. Dirty things.
“I heard,” he said. “Ilan went.”
I said they got them in the end. “But I’m sure we’ll do something, to retaliate.”
“Sure,” said my father. In his younger days he had been one of the founders of the Sayeret, in a way.
“I want in,” I said.
“How’s Nitza?” my father asked.
His calm in disasters used to infuriate me, but by now I was used to it. Or maybe I was becoming more like him. It’s not something to be proud of. My only son just got it, and not one tear.
“So-so,” I said.
“Yossi with her?”
When I didn’t answer, he said, “Nu, barukh dayan emet,” blessed be the True Judge. A Jew is supposed to say this when someone dies, to show he’s not mad at God, or anything.
I said, “I want in on this.”
“Don’t be a donkey,” my father replied. “Leave it to them.”
“I’m not old yet,” I said. “I want in on this. Call Dada, tell him I want in.”
David (Dada) Shlomovitz, another Tel Aviv boy, was the current commander of the Sayeret. He’d been three classes below me in the Alliance high school. Used to play the violin, too, and also soccer.
“You go to sleep, Mickey,” my father said. “Tomorrow we’ll both go see Nitza. You want me to drive?”
I said I didn’t want him to drive; I didn’t want to see Nitza; I wanted in on the operation.
My father said, “Even if I made the call, they’d never take you, you know that. You didn’t do what you were told the last time.”
“This time I’ll do anything,” I said.
Two years before, I had left the Sayeret—was let go, really—after refusing to give the go-ahead in a little operation in Lebanon. Two months it had taken to plan. A local chieftain of the Hezbollah, a good mechanic who specialized in delayed Katyusha rockets. All his sons helped him, all six of them, none older than eleven. We were outside his yard already, but he had three of them sitting in his lap. Maybe he knew we were near. I took everybody back. Two of my guys got it on the way back, from snipers. Finally a sniper of ours, from the Paratroopers Recon unit, got him.
“No,” said my father. “You can come here, if you want; you can sleep in your old bed.” Then he hung up.
I called Dada Shlomovitz myself, at his home in Tzahala, north of Tel Aviv, where all the married officers lived. He picked up the phone on the first ring.
“It’s Mickey,” I said.
“No,” he said. “I talked to Musa. I . . . I’m sorry about Ilan, but no.”
He said a few other things—about Ilan, and about Nitza, and about how in a month or so he would come see me, if I wanted, when everything was over. In the background I could hear several men’s voices, gruff, curt, talking in low tones. No women.
I said, “I speak French, Arabic; come on, Dada.”
“No. I said no.”
There was a pause. I knew I was being foolish. This was an open phone line.
“Please,” I said. “This one, I have to—”
He hung up.
Next morning my father called. I put my album with old photos of Ilan back in the drawer and we spoke for a while about nothing: the heat, the synagogue where he was now a trustee (he had inexplicably become religious when my mother died), my failing insurance business. Suddenly, out of the blue, he said, “Get married again, you donkey, you can have more children.”
I told him I didn’t need his advice.
“I talked to Musa,” he said, as if continuing the same line of conversation. “They’re afraid to take you, you never do what you’re told.”
What never? Once. I said, “I’ll swear on the grave of anyone they want.”
“I tried,” said my father.
I got the keys to my car and drove straight to Tzahala to see Dada Shlomovitz.
There was the usual white Subaru with curtained windows parked outside his small villa, under the tzaftzafa trees. As I got out, the door of the Subaru opened and a young Moroccan emerged, his right hand at the back of his belt. He seemed vaguely familiar, although I couldn’t place him. But he, apparently, knew me. Probably someone from the Shin-Bet with whom I’d worked on something. There were so many things, I couldn’t remember them all, nor did I want to.
“Oh, shalom, Mickey,” he said, lamely. “I. . . I heard about it, about your boy. . . . You going to see Dada?”
I nodded and climbed the bare concrete steps. The door wasn’t even locked. Inside the living room were Dada and Musa, talking and waving their hands in the air, and three men: Yaro Peleg, the chief of staff, tall and thickset, and two others, one short and bald, the other tall and curly, both leaning on the wall. Probably shoo-shoo: hush-hush guys from the Shin-Bet or Mossad. New guys. A lot had changed in the last few years, after the foul-up of ’73, and I hadn’t kept in touch.
Musa and Dada stopped talking. “What’re you doing here?” Dada snapped.
I sat down on a chair without being invited.
One of the shoo-shoos said, “That’s Mickey Ben-Atar?”
“Hada hu,” Dada said in Arabic. That’s him.
“I want in on this,” I said.
Another man came through the kitchen door, looked in, and went back to the kitchen.
I said, “You’re shy three men now, anyway.”
“Four,” Yaro said. “One died an hour ago.”
“So you have a few vacancies.”
Musa spread his arms wide at Dada, as if to say, I tried, or I told you so.
Dada looked at me and shook his head. “There’s no way I’ll—”
The phone rang and Yaro picked it up. After grunting into it for a minute he put down the receiver.
There was a pause. “What do you want from my life?” he said to me.
“Who was it?” asked the taller shoo-shoo.
“Himself,” said Yaro, looking at me. “Your father called him, too.”
I said again that I wanted in on the operation, like a broken record.
The shorter shoo-shoo said maybe I’d better leave; I said no, and he said I’d better, and I said he could try and make me—just like two idiot kids in a Tel Aviv schoolyard. “OK, I will,” he said, and Yaro told him to keep his hands to himself, that I was a bereaved father, and other crap like that. There was some shouting between the two shoo-shoo guys and Dada, and then Musa joined in, and the chief of staff too, who said it was up to Dada. At last Dada said, “But you never do what you’re told.”
“Once,” I said. “Only once.”
I could see I was in, so if they wanted me to grovel, all right, I would grovel. I said I would do anything.
“Two guys,” Dada said. “One of them a sergeant, with three children himself. And for what? For a bunch of lousy baby Arabushim? They’ll grow up, they’ll get RPGs themselves, for their birthdays.”
“I speak Arabic and French,” I said, “if you’re going to Tunis.”
“You’re fat now,” Musa said. I could tell I was in.
“Your mother is fat,” I said. Now that I was in I could say anything I wanted.
“Your mother,” Dada shouted. “Your mother! You’re not the only bereaved father in the world.”
“Yes,” said the shorter shoo-shoo, tightly.
There was another pause, of a different quality.
“I’ll be at the base tomorrow at noon,” I said.
“Tonight,” said Musa. “Your mother, tonight.”
The man in the kitchen came in with coffee. Dada said, “Tomorrow, after the funeral, is good enough.” Stiffly he offered me a cup. But I saw they were itching to talk about me, so I left.
The funeral took place the following day in the small cemetery of Kibbutz Sha’anan. Nine little coffins, none larger than a big ammo box, and three large ones, one for Hanan Berkovitch, one for Micha Barzel, and one for Miriam Goldin. I stood near Nitza all during the service, my father on her other side, Yossi behind her, as if she were liable to bolt and we had to hem her in. Yossi was dressed in his blue air-force uniform with all his medals and campaign decorations. He had been a Mirage pilot. A good one, I’m told. My father and I were in civilian dress.
As the coffins were being lowered into the ground (a whole Golani platoon was there and they lowered them by rope all at once, on a signal), Nitza said, “You going with them, to Tunis?”
I didn’t ask how she even knew there was going to be an operation. She was no longer with the shoo-shoo herself, but so what. She only had to ask.
I hoisted my shoulder, to indicate maybe.
“If you want me there, I’ll go too,” she said.
“No, no,” my father said. “We have enough people.”
Yossi, behind us, said something about keeping our voices down.
“Yes,” she said after a while. “I’m finished with this. You go.”
Nitza used to be stationed in the Mossad’s Beirut office. That’s how we’d met; on the Beirut coast. She had been in charge of the convoy that was supposed to wait for us at Mua’alamiya beach. I went with the naval commandos, as the Specialist. Nothing came out of that operation—intelligence had screwed up, as usual, and the guy we were after, some Libyan with plenty of Qaddafi’s money who was running around trying to launch another group, had gone to a whore for the night, or maybe to his family; something. So Nitza and I ended up waiting on the beach until just before dawn, side by side in a cramped overheated Peugeot, talking about jazz and movies and soccer in French in case someone overheard us. She was a kibbutznik, I from Tel Aviv. But she had played the piano when she was young, and I had played the violin, and after a month we were married. It lasted three years. She left the shoo-shoo and returned to the kibbutz after Ilan was born to work in the greenhouses, and I joined, too. But I was rarely home, and soon she began screwing around. In the Mossad it’s no big deal. That’s how they relieve the stress, I’m told. But I couldn’t take it, so we got divorced and I returned to Tel Aviv.
The funeral took no more than a half-hour. When the cantor Finished, the soldiers loaded wooden bullets and fired into the air, and that was that. As we were walking back to the dining room, Nitza said, “Musa said it’s Abu Salaam, for sure, that it was his operation.”
“Probably,” I said.
“His son is Arafat’s lover boy, that’s how he got to be chief of operations.”
“Well, he’s not bad,” I said, speaking professionally.
“No,” she said. “He’s good, the bastard.”
Afterward Musa gave me a lift back to the Sayeret‘s base near Jerusalem where we would train for the next two weeks. A team of carpenters was already building a mock-up of Abu Salaam’s villa. Like most PLO bigwigs, he lived in Sidi Bousseid, a posh suburb of Tunis, not far from the old port city of Carthage.
We divided into two teams. Musa was head of Team B, I of Team A. By then the Mossad had confirmed that the project had indeed been Abu Salaam’s, and we went into high gear. We trained at night and at odd hours during the day when no satellites were flying overhead. Once my father came by, stayed for the night, watched a whole test-run, had a talk with Dada, then left in the morning without even speaking to me. Whether he was in on the operation, or had just come for a look-see, I couldn’t tell. He was retired, after all. The PM came too, once, and the chief of staff, but not many others.
We were supposed to get into the villa, take the guy down, and be out again in less than 30 seconds. The team that did it fastest without a screw-up would get the commission, the other would play back-up in the street outside. My team won, at 29.6 seconds.
Five days before departure, Musa and Dada and I flew into Tunis via Paris and Rome. Someone in the Mossad had picked up a rumor in a Tripoli bar that maybe the Israelis were going to do something, so the PM wanted us to check the place ourselves before we brought everybody in, to see if they had beefed up security, if there had been a leak. But there was nothing. We toured the suburb, taking pictures, accompanied by the Tunis Mossad chief and the second-in-command from Paris. It was nice. Trees, shrubs, flowers. The bastards certainly lived it up, what with all the money they extorted from the Saudis and the Kuwaitis. We saw Arafat’s house, and Abu El-Khol’s, the intelligence chief, and the villa of Abu Salaam, a pink stucco shoebox on the corner of a side street with a good view of the sea. We returned to Tel Aviv two days before D-day and went back into training for the final competition.
After my team won, Musa took me aside and gave me a little talk. “I’ll be just behind you,” he said. “You hear? When you see him, do it.”
I felt myself going red in the neck. “I was in this when you were still in high school,” I told him. Then I said a few other things, dredging up all his screw-ups, from basic-training days and even before.
But he didn’t retreat. “Not like with that sheikh in Lebanon. Children shmildren, women shwomen. You see him, you take him down.”
“Sure I’ll take him down,” I said, restraining myself. “What do you think, I’m going for a picnic?”
“Children they’ll kill here?” Musa snarled at me, as if I myself had been killing some, a minute ago. “We’ll cut their balls off and stuff them in their mouths, so they’ll know. Children they’ll kill here?”
“Go to sleep,” I said.
“No, really.” Musa said. “They want to fight? Man-to-man? Okay. But children?”
“Ya’allah,” I said. “Enough.”
“Peace they want us to make with them? You want to make peace with bastards who kill children?”
“Not me,” I said.
At last he went to sleep. Probably angry that his team had lost.
We left on a Friday night from Ashdod, the southernmost Mediterranean port in Israel. My father came to see us off, maybe also to see me. He looked lost in his frayed khaki pants and sweat-soaked nylon shirt, among the piles of ammo boxes, dismantled copter parts, irritable naval commandos with their heaps of odd gear, and just plain staff officers from headquarters in Tel Aviv who had come to see the culmination of their plan. There was also the obligatory rabbi who stood to the side, wrapped in a prayer shawl, mumbling into his book.
We were 32 men in all on two Dabboor missile boats, one of which carried the dismantled AH-1S Cobra gunship, just in case, its body wrapped in green tarp, the rotors and engine below deck. The other boat had a mini-hospital with 500 liters of blood, also in case.
The sea was calm all the way to Tunis, luckily—I always get seasick; but this time it almost felt like being on the Yarkon river in Tel Aviv, where Nitza and Ilan and I used to take a flat-bottomed dinghy, when we came to visit my father, and row to Seven Mills and back. I had brought a few old letters of Ilan’s—from the age of four he used to write to me, in large rounded script, telling me of butterflies, and clouds, and white cows—but I had no time to look at them now, on the boat. There was as usual a ton of stuff to check. The black Nomex coveralls with their thousand pockets—they tore so easily that each of us had a sewing kit; the thick kevlar vests, which we had to oil every two hours with green olive oil so they wouldn’t get stiff and squeak; the special night-vision goggles that would require tuning an hour before we went in; the face masks—these had to fit, and I had to check everyone’s; the radios; the emergency homing devices; the thousand-and-one weapons—Uzis, MAC-10s, Galils, Berettas. We had so much stuff it was ridiculous. I don’t know, in my father’s day, before the ’48 War of Independence, they used to go into Cairo or Amman with nothing, just an old Arab galabieh, one sharp knife, a pita and olives in their pocket, and come out after a week with the job done. I guess once you have a state everything gets more complicated, even this.
There was also a woman on board, a redheaded harridan from the Mossad’s Paris office who came to make a video of the whole thing, for training later. I didn’t like this part—once I threw up when I saw myself in such a movie, what I had done when I was in the heat of it—but there was nothing I could do. The Cabinet wanted it. I think she screwed at least three of the naval commandos en route, maybe even Musa. She reminded me of Nitza. They get so they don’t even think it’s something special.
After three days we arrived off Tunis. The coast looked just like the Herzliya beach north of Tel Aviv—white, with rolling sand dunes—but also with lots of palm trees like in Gaza. The water smelled the same, too, complete with floating turds and condoms. Civilization had come to the Arabs, too.
We lolled around just beyond the territorial waters for one more day, until Jerusalem gave final approval. They always do that, arguing about “advisability” to the very last moment. I’m told this time it was really close—some leftist kibbutz ministers got cold feet as usual. It seems there were peace overtures afoot—maybe even my father was involved. He used to serve as a go-between in such things, even when he was minister-without-portfolio for shmutz, because his word was good, for both sides. Apparently the overtures were supposed to be going through the king of Morocco, or so said the Mossad harridan (these shoo-shoo people always liked to boast how much they knew during operations), so a take-down almost on the king’s doorstep would make him look bad.
“Make him look bad! His mother!” Musa shouted. “Goddamned Arabush. Look bad! He lets them stay in Rabat, doesn’t he? Look bad!”
The Mossad woman said it was all crap anyway. Peace, shmeace. “No one will ever vote for a government that tried to talk to these bastards. Would you vote for them? People who kill children?” She addressed first me, then Musa, and without waiting for an answer launched into a political analysis of the next elections, and Musa and I excused ourselves. These Mossad people, once they’ve killed, they think they can tell the future, maybe even make it happen.
At last we got the green light. (“Light Unto the Nations,” I recall, was the code word.) The naval commandos went in first, looking like huge frogs bulging with malignant tumors everywhere, then piled into their ugly gray-black dinghies and rowed ashore; in about an hour they clicked back their OK. Finally we went in ourselves, in two rubber dinghies, eight men in each.
As we detached from the Dabboor boats I pulled out Han’s photo and stuck it in the breast pocket of my Nomex coverall. It was a breach of security, but I don’t know, he was my son, and I still hadn’t cried over him, not even at the funeral. I don’t know if it was because I had turned into a monster who felt nothing any more, like Nitza once said, or maybe simply because the moment Yossi told me the news, I knew I would be in on the retribution and already felt under operational rules. But then, in one way or another, I had been under operational rules ever since I’d joined up, nineteen years earlier, just as my father had been, ever since he had arrived in Palestine, more than a half-century ago.
It took us two-and-a-half hours to get to shore—we couldn’t use engines, not even the small electrical ones, so we let the naval commandos tug us in, swimming through the muck with their extra-large flippers on. On the beach at Ras Carthage there was already a short line of cars waiting with Mossad people, all smoking, all trying desperately to appear nonchalant. We got in and drove in VW vans down the coast, 25 miles south to Tunis, and arrived at Abu Salaam’s villa at 1:40 A.M. Then we waited, on a side street, lying on the floor of the vans.
Abu Salaam came home an hour later with his wife and son, in a long black Mercedes flying the Palestinian flag. His three bodyguards—two Libyans with curly hair, and a huge American black—jumped out and spread out in front of the villa, Kalashnikovs at the ready, like in a Charles Bronson movie. He dashed from the Mercedes into the house, followed by his wife and son. The month before, a splinter faction that had been voted off the Palestine National Council tried to take revenge on him, so I guess he was being extra careful.
For an hour after he went in I watched from the van through a little mirror on a stick, waiting for the light to go out in his second-floor window. Every fifteen minutes I clicked once on the radio, and Musa clicked back twice, just to let me know he was there and awake.
Although I tried not to, I couldn’t stop myself from taking out Ilan’s picture. In the dark his face was a mere blur, just as it was in my memory. The last time I had seen him was five weeks before. I’d been neglecting him lately, mostly because I couldn’t stand seeing either Nitza or Yossi, how contented they seemed together—and also because I was sick of saying no to her importunities every time we met. “Yossi doesn’t mind,” she said. “He told me so when we got married. In the kibbutz everybody screws on the side.”
“Not me,” I said to her. “I’m from Tel Aviv.”
“I thought they screw in Tel Aviv, too, on the side.”
“So maybe I don’t know,” I said, meaning I didn’t want to know.
She wasn’t the first woman I had known; but then I didn’t know that many.
You would think she’d give up after a while, but no; she persisted. So after a while I visited as little as possible, maybe once a month. Also I didn’t miss Ilan too much. Except in our letters, we never really got along well. He was a brooding child, wild at times, otherwise a silent loner. On more than one occasion we would sit together, drinking boiled milk in the kibbutz dining hall, not looking at each other, saying almost nothing, waiting until it was time for me to go.
At 3:50 A.M. the light in Abu Salaam’s bedroom finally went off. I waited five minutes, listening to the silence, then clicked four on the radio—go. Musa gave a five-click response, and the vans’ doors slid open.
As Musa’s team deployed on the curb, nearly invisible in their light-absorbing Nomex suits, the Mossad girl strolled over to the Mercedes and shot the sleeping driver with a silenced Beretta in the forehead; then she nodded to us pleasantly, proudly, but we were already racing up the red-tiled stairs of the villa—the door had been blown off its hinges with white plastic under a kevlarstyrofoam limpet (it’s amazing how silent this is)—and we were in. I got the two Libyan guards who were dozing in plush green chairs at the foot of the staircase and as we raced up the oak stairs to the second floor (behind me my second-in-command shot the black American, who had appeared from the basement), the door to the bedroom opened and Abu Salaam emerged, his bald head glistening with sweat, a pistol in his hand, a Tokarov. But before he could shoot, a boy rushed out of another bedroom and jumped into his arms, crying. It was his son, a thirteen-year-old blond boy. (Ilan had been a redhead, like Nitza.) The boy shouted something in French to his father, who tried to shake him off, shouting something back; I didn’t catch what it was. Intelligence had said the son was Arafat’s catamite, but I don’t know. He looked like just a boy. With freckles, even, and blue-and-white pajamas.
Musa’s voice shouted in my earphone, “Take him down, you donkey!” I felt myself reddening with shame. I was probably a whole five seconds late. I let out a long silenced burst and got them both. Just then his wife appeared in the bedroom door, a small blond with a pinched face, a Kalash in her hand, but my second-in-command got her. As we raced back down the stairs the Mossad team was already clattering up, with their huge suitcases, for documents.
We threw the suitcases and bags into the back of the vans and then the video girl scurried out—it emerged later I had only delayed a second-and-a-half, no big deal—and we scrammed. The entire thing took maybe 31 seconds, from the moment we blew in the door to the moment the last man left the house, a Mossad louse who had dropped his Beretta.
Three days later I rejoined the Sayeret, one rank below what I had before, but who cares. Dada and the guys gave me a little party in his villa, without wives, and after we finished all the Johnny Walker and the Stock 777 we watched the video. I didn’t get sick at all, this time. It looked pretty good. Even Musa said so. When Abu Salaam fell off the banister, still clutching the boy, Dada called to me jokingly that maybe now we should start talking to them, now that we could finally understand each other, and everybody laughed almost to tears, me too.
The next day I went back to the kibbutz to tell Nitza. (She had tried to pull strings to see the video, but the PM had said no.) Yossi wasn’t home, so after we finished looking at old photos we screwed on the sofa. It wasn’t like old times, but it was good enough. Times change, people change, you have to change if you want to live in this place. If you can bring yourself to share your woman, maybe one day you could also let yourself share your land.