Illustration Yael Bar
Photo by Yael Bar
Text size

Three or four faint shots were heard through the window at the far end of the El Balua neighborhood in the eastern section of El Bireh, in the West Bank. A nearby pistol? A distant Kalashnikov? The layperson's ear couldn't be sure. About eight months had passed since the start of the second intifada. Every afternoon, the same ritual - dubbed "exchanges of fire" in Hebrew newscasts - was played out anew in the Ramallah area, creating the impression of two armies clashing. It was therefore obvious that our forces would soon respond with stronger, faster and louder sounds of weaponry. And, indeed, within a short time the usual boom-boom and tak-tak were heard. Tank shells, the layperson's ear figured. Let's only hope there are no casualties.

A few hours earlier - this was Sunday, May 20, 2001 - a briefing for Israeli reporters by Jibril Rajoub at his luxurious headquarters in Bitunya had ended. It was another desperate attempt by a few ranking Palestinians to depict a reality different from the one that was formed in the minds of Israelis - that a Palestinian offensive was threatening the state's existence.

In the briefing, I asked Rajoub how he explained the fact that of all the heads of the Palestinian security agencies, he was the only one Israel had not attacked: he had not been assaulted verbally, and none of the centers of his Preventive Security forces in the West Bank had been shelled. The question rankled Rajoub. "This is not a personal matter," he said. "The whole Palestinian nation is a target of Israeli shooting."

The provocation hadn't worked, though implicit in it was a compliment to Rajoub, who refused to play the game and be swept along with the current. In the briefing he did not say explicitly what his confidants and other informed sources in Ramallah were saying: that he was against the militarization of what had begun as a popular uprising, and that he knew nothing good would come of it.

A few minutes after the start of the booms and the taks, journalists' pagers reported that Rajoub's house, in the center of El Balua, had been shelled. Five of his aides were wounded; he was unscathed. The Israel Defense Forces Spokesman's Unit reported that the Israeli troops had responded to gunfire by Rajoub's security guards aimed at the settlement of Psagot. In addition, the report stated, the IDF position at Ayosh Junction had also opened fire. Afterward it was claimed that the firing originated from the area of the house. Later it was related that a soldier in Psagot had been wounded that afternoon by a sniper. That a bus carrying children from Psagot had come under fire. That Ayosh Junction had been subjected to light-arms fire. More versions than you could shake a stick at.

Someone in the IDF said the army hadn't known it was Rajoub's house. Erez Weiner, at the time a lieutenant colonel and commander of the Duchifat reconnaissance battalion and the force that had opened fire, said he had actually known very well that it was Rajoub's house. Others in the IDF said he hadn't known, and claiming he did damaged the army. In short, a snafu.

If it hadn't been Rajoub's home, it's unlikely that newspaper space or broadcast time would have been devoted to the facts and the logic: The guard post was a small glass cubicle; Psagot cannot be seen from there or from the house, much less shot at; the Ayosh or City Inn junction, after a nearby hotel, is close, but buildings block the line of sight. Had it not been Rajoub's house, the original Israeli version would not have been called into question, as in hundreds of other incidents.

In the end, though, everything went smoothly once again. Weiner, who had ordered the shelling, was promoted to colonel and appointed aide to Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi. And those who hoped this snafu would stop the escalation, which was interwoven with the unequal competition in cocked weapons, were disappointed.

A tale of restraint

Those were long, frightening, exhausting months of becoming familiar with the boys' "toys." Week by week, sometimes day by day, the toys got bigger before our astonished eyes. It would be ridiculous, if it were not so lethal.

From September 29, 2000, until that day, May 20, 2001, the Palestinians killed 86 Israelis - 32 members of the security forces and 54 civilians (including one baby and four children under the age of 16 ). Forty-five were killed in the West Bank, 14 in the Gaza Strip and 27 in Israel. A total of 423 Palestinians were killed in those eight months - six by Israeli civilians, 13 Palestinian citizens of Israel at the hands of the police in the demonstrations of October 2000, and 404 killed by the military forces. Of the latter, 235 were killed in the West Bank, 168 in the Gaza Strip and one in Israel.

The Palestinian dead included five children under the age of 12, 62 between the ages of 12 and 16, and 48 between 16 and 18. Seven women, including girls, were also among those killed. According to B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, which analyzed the data for Haaretz, 223 of the 404 "were not involved in the fighting" and 26 "were involved in the fighting" at the time they were killed. Not enough information exists about 140 of those killed to know whether they took part in what the army termed "low intensity fighting."

The pattern was set in the week after Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount on September 28, 2000. It consisted of civilian demonstrations at sites symbolic of the occupation, particularly at intersections of roads leading to settlements and checkpoints; stone throwing; Israeli shooting; casualties among the demonstrators; Palestinian shooting (though not at demonstrations ); reports on the Hebrew news that the Palestinians had opened fire; funerals; more demonstrations; and so on and so forth. It was the same in both the West Bank and Gaza.

"Excessive use of force," Amnesty International said, talking to the wall. Two or three years later, when it was too late, a few Israeli officers began using similar terminology.

An Israeli sniper told me in early November 2000 that the order was not to shoot at children under 12 who took part in "disturbances": throwing stones and Molotov cocktails. He was certain that this was enough to prove the IDF's restraint. Here's what that restraint looked like on the ground. Saber Barash, 15, took part in the daily demonstrations against the IDF at City Inn junction. He did not balk at throwing stones, possibly also Molotov cocktails, at those whom the Palestinian consensus and international law define as a foreign occupier. But when he was killed, on November 14, 2000, it was after he had fled from teargas to a hill located 180 meters from the junction where the demonstrations were taking place. At that moment and from that distance he threw no stone and endangered no IDF soldier. A residential building was between him and the soldiers at the junction. A car carrying ammunition - stones and Molotov cocktails - ascended the hill and stopped next to Barash. Then the shooting started. The driver ran for his life. Barash and a friend hid behind a metal container. The two children bent down. But a bullet sliced through the container, struck Barash in the head and exited from his back. A military spokesman's report stated that "firing had been executed" at the wheels of the car.

Generation X

"Childish, games, stupid" are some of the epithets used by former soldiers to describe their behavior and that of their buddies to interviewers from Breaking the Silence, an organization that collects testimonies by soldiers about their tours of duty in the occupied territories. They talked about the large-scale unnecessary shooting, about Israeli shows of force for no good reason. In fact, we, the observers, the participants against our will, waited every day for a grownup to come and put an end to the games, but no such grownup arrived.

"In the first month of the confrontation ... before the period of the suicide-bomber attacks," Noam Chayut, a former officer, writes in his book "My Holocaust Thief" (Am Oved, Hebrew ), their commander informed them that "the initial result ... was 100-0 ... that is, we killed a hundred Palestinians and not one of our soldiers was killed ... We were very proud ... His talk was very much in 'officerese' and included sentences like 'Our operations were conducted in perfect synergy in the face of the sporadic fire from the other side.'"

There was competition not only against the Palestinians, but between soldiers and units, too, as shown in dozens of testimonies to Breaking the Silence. Chayut: "The guys, and me like all the rest, were occupied counting X's (kills ) ... Some units engraved the X on the clip from which the bullet was fired. I remember clearly that I envied the guys [who were drafted after me] ... All their bullets already had X's ... When soldiers younger than you ... who have been serving a shorter time, kill and run to tell the guys and you are bored next to an APC wearing a protective vest and on alert, that's a big humiliation."

One of the soldiers who gave testimony to Breaking the Silence related that some soldiers took the killing of children hard, but others laughed and said, Okay, now we'll draw a balloon or a Smiley instead of an X.

In the first weeks, the feeling that even the children were targets drove the whole Palestinian public crazy. A child was buried nearly every day, sometimes more than one. Children who had demonstrated and children who had never demonstrated, with Molotov cocktails or without. The lynching of two Israeli soldiers on October 12, 2000, is cited in Israel as a turning point, but it is totally disconnected from the context of the Palestinians killed by IDF soldiers.

In the two weeks before the lynching, Israeli soldiers killed eight Palestinian children under the age of 16 and nine between the ages of 16 and 18. (They were among the 73 Palestinians killed by IDF troops in a 14-day period, during which the Palestinians killed five Israelis, including three soldiers. ) In October 2000, the IDF killed 15 children aged 12 to 16 and 15 youths aged 16-18; in November, 23 and 17, respectively. In the first six days, until October 4, 2000, 1,780 Palestinians were injured in demonstrations: by rubber-coated metal bullets, by live fire, by teargas and so forth. Of them, 52 percent were under 18, according to the PA Health Ministry.

Three years after his army service, Noam Chayut called one of his squad buddies to get his testimony about the X's for Breaking the Silence. The friend refused to submit a statement, but under pressure said, "You are dealing with checkpoints and curfews and humiliations and nonsense - we had nothing to do with all that. The stories I have to tell are about human beings. Do you even understand what I am telling you? I am talking about murder, murder."

The events that brought about the army buddy's unspoken agonies of conscience forged among the Palestinians a rage that mounted relentlessly and fed on itself. This rage was certainly fueled by the phenomenon of the checkpoints and roadblocks. The pamphlets published by Breaking the Silence are filled with such testimonies, collected over the years, about delays, humiliations and abuse of Palestinians without any operational reason other than boredom and frustration because firearms were not in use.

Take all this, multiply by 3.5 million, day by day, hour by hour: Without taking into consideration all the Palestinian children who were killed and the checkpoints and their routine humiliations, all the learned analyses of the suicide bombings (most of which took place starting in mid-2001, against the civilian population inside the Green Line ), are worthless.

Shooting at the sun

Much of the rage was aimed at the Palestinian Authority and was mixed with resentment of Fatah, the governing movement. Fatah did not live up to its promise to bring independence, and developed a privileged nomenclature, as if independence had already been achieved. More directly, the rage was directed at the security agencies, the salient representatives of the failed self-governing authority. At school, the children of the security men were ridiculed. Sons were ashamed of their fathers, who possessed weapons but did not defend their people.

At one demonstration, perhaps on the second or third day after Sharon's visit to Al Aqsa, I saw an armed Palestinian policeman sitting at the edge of the crowd of demonstrators and watching the wailing ambulances returning from the junction. A couple of days later, he was among the shooters who ran alongside the crowds and aimed their rifles skyward. Imitation was a crucial factor here, far more so than orders from above, if there were any at that stage. Some Palestinians say that Yasser Arafat allowed those who were armed to open fire, because he feared the civilian character of the uprising at its inception, and the barbs being hurled at his regime.

Young people strutted through the streets carrying weapons, as though born with them. Palestinian men were photographed posing in intimate positions with rifles, for the posters that would decorate the walls of their home after they were killed. For Israelis who have done army service, intimacy with weapons will be familiar.

In contrast to the Israeli troops, who operated from within walled, fortified outposts, the Palestinians were exhibitionist in the use of their weapons in the initial stage, firing their rifles and pistols in front of all possible international, Israeli and Arab cameras. One afternoon, for example, a group of men appeared in our street, pistols and rifles held erect in their hands. They scurried about, ejecting their ammunition upwards - a phenomenon described as "shooting at the sun" by Osama el Ali, a military man and senior Fatah figure who returned from exile in 1994. El Ali meant to shatter the illusion; there was no chance that what was called an "armed struggle" would achieve a political goal. But no one was listening. The prevailing conclusion was that easier targets than the sun had to be found.

"We hear that the IDF spokesman is reporting exchanges of fire - and we laugh," the Israeli sniper told me in real time, in reference to the first weeks of the confrontation. The shooting skills of his adversaries were, he thought, pathetic. Years later I heard a similar opinion from a young Israeli whose military service concluded as the second intifada erupted. While the newscasts on the radio reported fighting, the soldiers in his unit amused themselves by mooning the Palestinian police officers at a nearby post.

The Israeli who told me this tried to explain to himself why he and his fellow soldiers pulled down their pants and exposed their backsides to the Palestinian policemen: "The bottom is the part that is penetrated, the part that is conquered. The female part. It's as though we told them: Please, it's all yours, but you're incapable of taking it with your rifles - you're impotent." The lesson: the armed Palestinians began working more on their shooting skills and to improve their performance.

"In what way am I better than others, who were killed?" young Palestinians said, explaining their decision to join an armed group. From momentary imitation they moved to realms of socialization that are not foreign to a state in which military service is sacrosanct. With two big differences: No one forces the Palestinians to enlist; and, in contrast to Israeli soldiers, their chances of being killed are far greater than their chances of killing.

 

The period from 2000 to 2008 taught us ironclad rules of competition in escalating intensity.

Rule 1: Construct a virtual reality. The Israeli side (the army ) always exaggerates the size of what the Palestinians have and is vague about the quantities of ammunition and types of munitions it has. The result is that the prestige of the commanders rises and all their requests are granted, the more so because they prove the validity of the thesis that there is no partner. First sub-rule: Exaggeration raises the prestige of the exaggerated in the eyes of their public.

Rule 2: The armed Palestinian side always understates, but not about the size of the weapons in the hands of the Israeli army. The Palestinian side feels on its own flesh the toys of the Israeli side, so that the lobby of armed individuals verbally diminishes the resilience of the Israeli side, both army and civilians. (The soldiers are cowards, they enter Nablus only with tanks, said activists of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades; the Jews are afraid of death, Israel is emptying out, Hamas operatives say "in praise" of the suicide bombing attacks. )

Rule 3: The competition is always also internal - not only between units and corps in the IDF but also among the Palestinians: supporters of Hussein al-Sheikh vs. supporters of Marwan Barghouti, the armed men in the Balata refugee camp vs. the armed men in the Old City of Nablus, the Jenin refugee camp vs. the villages of Jenin. All of them vs. the "Tunisians" and the "Ramallahns." And Hamas in competition with them all.

Rule 4: Seek revenge No. 1. Palestinians killed soldiers at a checkpoint? Seek out Palestinian policemen and kill them. Gazans pulled off a guerrilla action against soldiers in occupied territory? Encircle Rafah, pulverize Tel el-Sultan. Prove the IDF can do it better.

Rule 5: Seek revenge No. 2. If you don't have planes and tanks, and if the ambushes in the West Bank and Gaza do not produce enough Israeli casualties, there are explosive belts and volunteer suicide bombers. In the internal Palestinian competition, Hamas can do it better.

Rule 6: Examine whom the escalating intensity is serving. When the suicide attacks in Israel increased, causing most of the Israeli fatalities, an American woman who has an Internet site about the Israeli occupation told me: The present intifada is more successful than the first, because the ratio between the Israelis killed and the Palestinians killed is lower. Maybe she arrived at this doltish conclusion by herself, but what she said reflected the atmosphere that the lobby of armed individuals tried to dictate. They (the armed men, the American woman ) were not interested in the fact that the supposedly lower ratio did not put a stop to the Israeli policy that the intifada was supposed to terminate: continued takeover of the land of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, expansion of the settlements, the addition of new settlements, the severing of Gaza from the West Bank and the blocking of Jerusalem to the Palestinians.