'We were supposed to enter quietly - instead we threw grenades'
IDF soldiers speak out about the climate of fear that overshadowed their service in the West Bank.
I was traveling abroad when a thunderstorm struck, but nevertheless the first thought that entered my head was, So whom are we shelling now? Local elders later said they could not remember such frightening thunder, but for me, the amazement contained no fear, that is to say, no feeling of danger. Despite my automatic thoughts, the scenery and time left no room for doubt that this was not man-made thunder.
Far from home, therefore, I understood that these primeval sounds, so full of power, had been permanently distorted, disrupted and spoiled. And this is just another conclusion for the week marking 10 years since the start of the second intifada - in Lebanon, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip there are hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps even more, who confuse the sound of thunder for something else. For them, the memories of Israeli shellings have wiped out the amazement over nature's wonders. Instead, they arouse fear.
I learned about the disconnect between fear and reality in one of the first months of the intifada (or rather, its suppression ) when an Israel Defense Forces armored vehicle suddenly appeared in our neighborhood, an eastern neighborhood of Ramallah. Everything was new and seemed unreal, and the soldier had his upper body and head sticking out of the vehicle, and was calmly speaking with some English speakers and a Hebrew speaker. Suddenly there was a muffled shot in the distance. Without embarrassment or a show of bravery, the soldier quickly ducked into the vehicle and shut the lid, to the surprise of all the bystanders. We who were exposed knew there was no danger. The shot was nothing. Perhaps the soldier was frightened, or perhaps he was following army instructions that soldiers take no chances. What was certain was that he had no idea what the real situation was on the ground.
Therefore it makes no difference that you cannot compare a Palestinian Qassam strike to an Israeli shell strike, to say nothing of a bomb. Fear is still fear, regardless of the proportions of the weapons and the quantity of ammunition. In 2003 or 2004, in the Shati refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, I came across two Hamas members who would fire Qassams. I asked them what that achieved, and mentioned a joke that was going around Gaza - that every Qassam costs NIS 1 million, the amount of damage the Israel Defense Forces causes in Beit Hanun after every Qassam. The two explained to me unhesitatingly that they wanted Israeli women and children to live in fear just like their own women and children.
The army veterans who testified to Breaking the Silence about their service in the occupied territories during the second intifada also told stories of fear.
One soldier, for example, related how they had gone to arrest a certain person "whom we had been told was the source of all evil in the world and that Hitler was like Mother Teresa next to him, and because of him we can't sleep at nights and he had fired at the command post of the battalion commander. All kinds of stories ... You lack proportion and you go to fight after the brainwashing, which is total, and they make you feel like you have something to fear.
"I went all agitated to the arrest ... (The family ) didn't open the door because they apparently hadn't woken up yet. After less than a minute, we broke down the door with a hammer, it was a wooden door. I expected to see terrorists and weapons but I saw a 60-year-old woman, an older man and grandchildren ...
"We were supposed to enter quietly ... We threw hand grenades and shot flares into the sky and this frightened the area residents."
Another soldier told how 14-year-olds are detained: They are put in a jeep with their hands tied and their eyes covered with a piece of flannel as passersby watch. "In another minute, you could be shot. The whole situation is frightening, like ... The guns are pointed at them ... It was strange to aim at children.
"At the same time, you also aim your weapons at everything around ... Apparently because you are afraid because you're in an unfamiliar situation and also because they tell you to do that ... When you don't know the situation ... you are no less frightened than they are."
And there is another soldier who suddenly understood, during Operation Defensive Shield, that "the tank is a crazy source of fire. You're moving around in (a populated area ) with all these refugee villages around and all these clumsy weapons, and you fire in a place like that. To fire with a cannon inside a neighborhood ... I felt bad.
"Defensive Shield is a complicated and hysterical story ... they constantly spoke in terms of war. It took me two or three months to understand ... that I hadn't returned from a war. I was in some campaign ... that was worthless in many senses.
"And all the time there was that terminology of shoot in every direction, at anything that moves, and all the time the word war was repeated. The mood among the fighters, among ourselves, even inside the tank, was as if we were in a time machine, as if we were in our tank in some kind of Six Day [war] ... To this day, I go around with the feeling that someone from the outside orchestrated the atmosphere."
Another veteran said: "When I was a soldier I thought there was logic behind things. When I became a commander I understood that there isn't really a logic. I understood that most of it was motivated by political reasons and if you have the forces, you find the action ... You go into homes, you see people peeing from fear ... or little children crying. Not something that shocked me too much at the time but ... not too many things shocked me at the time."