'I have to swallow this poison'
For decades Rafi Peled developed all sorts of devices for the army, the police and his farmer-friends - until a current-events program on Britain's Channel 4 portrayed him as an arms merchant. His neighbors have stopped talking to him since he became a criminal suspect, and despite the fact that the police apparently don't intend to have him tried.
The next time you go by a police roadblock, pay close attention to the chain of spikes on the road, with the sign "Roadblock" or "Accident" posted on a triangular tripod next to it. Until Rafi Peled invented this roadblock, which opens almost instantly out of a box that is 20x40 centimeters, the police used a far larger crate that contained a heavy, clumsy device which could only be opened by two people after a few minutes of work.
If the police roadblock was set up as part of a pursuit and your car accidentally crosses the spike-chain that was thrown out of the police van and immediately straightened itself on the road, you might want to aim a juicy curse at Peled. By the way, such a scene appears in the action film "Heat," in which, together with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, you will witness the inventions concocted in Peled's workshop in Bnei Atarot, a farming village just north of Ben-Gurion International Airport.
Peled, a Zionist and Israeli patriot, is a bit of a naif, of the type one rarely encounters nowadays. There is no doubting his sincerity when he talks about his love for the country. But his glory days are past, and he is now trying to cope with the hallucinatory situation in which he finds himself. In an instant, Peled, who for decades came up with inventions for the police, the Israel Defense Forces and his farmer-friends, became a criminal suspect who was questioned by the Israel Police's international investigations unit about whether he took weapons out of the country without authorization. Many of his neighbors have stopped speaking to him, the men in blue have changed from clients to interrogators, and officers from special units no longer ask him to solve technical problems they have encountered.
Peled is angry at the British journalist who turned him, willy-nilly, into an arms merchant, but what he really feels is deep hurt. "I am torn inside," he says. "When one of the police interrogators told me that I 'shamed the State of Israel,' my guts turned over and I wanted to cry. But I said to myself that I have to swallow this poison, because I have no answer for him."
A limo for Mr. Peled
On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, Peled does not seem to be preparing for the holiday. Dressed in his work clothes, with his wife Dina and son Nimrod, who work with him, by his side, he offers me a glass of water and immediately starts to rave about one of his latest inventions: a device that looks like a manual juice squeezer, but is used to compress plastic cups. "Think about the garbage bag that fills up with disposable cups that take up so much volume. Instead of stepping on the bag, you put the cup into the machine and crush it," he explains, his eyes sparkling. "Now I am working on a device that will crush plastic bottles."
One of Peled's best-known inventions, a small stone-thrower used to disperse demonstrations, which he developed during the first intifada, is also the device that has complicated his life over the past year. "In the first intifada there was a stone-thrower on a halftrack, and when you gave the order, 'Stone-thrower, come out,' it took a long time, and by the time it came out it was no longer needed. Besides that, there are narrow alleys in Gaza and with a halftrack you can't give pursuit or do anything. So the guys came to me and said, 'Make us something that will go on a jeep, so we can give pursuit.' My stone-thrower is the secondary solution to the big machine. It is actually an agricultural device, and will scatter whatever you put into it. Whatever you put inside it will throw - if you want tennis balls it will throw them, if you want candies it will scatter them."
Lieutenant Colonel (res.) Zvika Shimoni: "In the first intifada, when I was on security duty at the Qalandiyah refugee camp, we used the mini- stone-thrower for the first time, on an experimental basis. It was extraordinary. The faces of the rabble that were on the receiving end were amazing. They couldn't believe that the IDF was throwing stones back at them and they scattered every which way."
Sixty units of the stone-thrower were sold to the IDF and 30 to the Mexican police. Since then it has appeared on the Internet site of "R.D. Peled" - the initials are for Rafi and Dina - www.rdpeled.co.il (in English), where it is called the "mini-canon [sic] stone thrower." However, in recent years there was no demand for it. Then, about a half a year ago, a tempting e-mail arrived from Ireland. "One day an e-mail showed up from a civil defense company," Peled relates. "They told all kinds of stories and said they wanted a great many stone-throwers and asked if we could bring one as a sample."
Did you ever go abroad before to demonstrate stone-throwers?
Peled: "No. But we said, 'Ireland is a beautiful country - we will combine business and pleasure.' We got there and they pulled a fast one on us. We were in a hotel, and one day a limo showed up looking for Mr. Peled. We were told they had to take us to a certain place. We arrived at this God-forsaken site, in the middle of a field. Someone comes out of the yard of a house, wearing camouflage fatigues, seemingly accompanied by his mother, and says he wants to buy hundreds of stone-throwers. We started to show him how it worked and we saw nothing unusual. On the contrary, [it even seemed like] something that is humane, because the stone-throwers would be acquired in place of weapons. Besides that, it is an inexpensive item, not like a water cannon, which costs $250,000."
When the "merchant" asked them whether they had an export license from Israel, Dina Peled replied that there was no need to obtain such a document. The "merchant" told them that he intended to buy a few stone-throwers to sell to a third country, but was concerned that the Irish authorities would make trouble for him, because the machine was painted green and looked more like a weapon than an agricultural tool. Dina Peled said it could be painted a different color.
"Suddenly," Rafi Peled relates, "a group of girls wearing school uniforms appeared and started to ask questions." Accompanying the girls was a television cameraman, and so, in the middle of a green field in Ireland, the Peleds realized that the visit would not result in a huge deal to sell stone-throwers: The so-called civil defense company turned out to be something that high-school girls had set up as part of a project to prove that in the absence of proper legislation, it was easy to introduce weapons into Ireland. The would-be buyer and his mother turned out to be actors, and the TV cameraman documented the events for "Dispatches," a Channel 4 current events program.
A citizen-lawyer complains
The film was broadcast a few months ago, and the scene in which the Peleds appear is mostly pitiful. Rafi Peled makes a truly desperate attempt to speak English, and his wife does not really succeed in translating what is going on for him. "What can you do when you find yourself in a situation like this?" he reflects. "I wanted to get it into their heads that the machine is meant to save people, not kill them. I told the actor that he was a bastard and that I did nothing wrong, because the point of the machine was to prevent people being killed. He did not know until the last minute under what name I took the machine out of Israel. Who is he anyway, to ask me whether I had a permit or not? That is between me and my country."
But the stone-thrower was taken out of Israel as an agricultural implement, wasn't it?
"We wrote that it was a spreader. In the past we had authorization from the Defense Ministry to conduct negotiations, and we were never told that it was classified as a machine that was not allowed to be sold. Besides that, when you have an authorization you have a list of countries that are not enemy states with which you are allowed to conduct negotiations. Afterward you get authorization to sell. Second, what is an 'expired authorization'? And besides, even if I had had authorization, wouldn't that journalist have pulled the same stunt?"
Without business, without pleasure, but with plenty of anger, the Peleds returned to Israel and got on with their lives. They did not even known when the program was broadcast in Britain. Then, just a couple of months ago, a police car showed up at their home in Bnei Atarot. Peled was asked to accompany the police to the station, where he was told that he was suspected of forging documents. "I had no idea what they were talking about," he says. "The policeman asked, 'Did you sell a stone-thrower to Ireland?' and I said 'Ohhh ...,' and then I understood."
What happened was that after the broadcast, the Defense Ministry and the police received a citizen's complaint against the Peleds. The citizen in question is Nicholas Kaufman, a senior attorney in the Jerusalem District Prosecutor's Office. The complaint was referred to the police unit for international investigations. The Peleds were suspected of trying to sell security equipment without a permit. Peled's main problem was his customs declaration, when he took the machine out of Israel, that the item in question was a "spreader." Peled claims he does not need a permit to remove the stone-thrower from the country. "No one informed us that it is under supervision and is prohibited for sale."
In a conversation, Kaufman said he submitted the complaint in the wake of the Channel 4 broadcast: "It generated a public furor in Ireland. The film shows the people [the Peleds] effectively admitting to a criminal offense. If people commit a criminal offense, a complaint against them has to be filed with the police and they have to be tried. If they go to Ireland, and in order to bypass the need for authorization of the Israeli or Irish Defense Ministry, they say what they have is a machine to spread manure, that is a criminal offense. The question is whether to deal with the matter at the criminal or the administrative level."
Added Kaufman: "The case of the Peleds is not one of the worst. Still, the purpose of the supervision order is just that: to supervise transactions in the security realm that are carried out by Israeli citizens."
According to a police source, Rafi Peled admitted to all the charges against him. The source says that the phenomenon whereby anyone can export security equipment is worrisome, but the Peleds' one-time act is not a representative case - particularly given that they are "normative" people, with no criminal record. The two can perhaps take comfort in the fact that the thrust of the police report is that they should not be tried.
A different approach
Peled was born in Izmir, Turkey, the third child of a Greek mother and a Turkish father, both of them Jews and Zionists. He absolutely refuses to reveal his age: "I am ageless. When you say someone is 70, you think of someone bent over with a cane who has finished his career. I do not see age as a conceptual or operational limitation. The limitation is in people's heads, and so I think that age has no meaning."
The family immigrated to Israel in 1949. His parents settled in the town of Binyamina, while he, having arrived within the framework of Youth Aliyah (immigration), was sent to Kibbutz Ein Hamifratz. "We were educated for two things: love of the country and love of the army, and it was drummed into our heads that without a state we were worth nothing. Even today, for the army and the security forces, I am ready to get up in the middle of the night and do what they need. The approach then was completely different from what it is today. What Kennedy said - 'Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country' - existed in Israel in practice at that time. We, as individuals, did not exist."
Peled was attracted to the farming life from childhood. "As a boy I worked in the fields and I was not allowed to work more than four hours. I really loved the work and sometimes stayed in the field for 10 hours. I remember my teacher running after me in the field, pulling me off the tractor, and taking me to the classroom."
Peled was drafted in the mid-1950s and served in the Munitions Corps in a unit that dealt with disabled tanks and heavy vehicles. After his conscript service he joined the career army and became a senior instructor in the same military profession.
It was in the army that he met his wife, Dina, who immigrated to Israel from Egypt in 1954. "Dina was then a cadet in one of the courses on the base. Today I probably would go to jail for it," he says with a smile. "But it was all with mutual agreement. The fact is that we got married. We loved the army so much that we married in uniform in a hall of the Soldiers' Welfare Committee in Dizengoff Square [in Tel Aviv]. In those days, everyone looked after the soldiers. Two years after we were married, in 1962, we looked for a way to contribute to the State of Israel and understood that it lay in agriculture. I could have done any kind of technical work, but we decided that we were going to be farmers. We found a plot in Bnei Atarot, which had been a frontier village. I knew the place from the army, because we did exercises there with disabled tanks."
Peled recalls the period in which he and his wife were farmers and grew cucumbers and tomatoes, and how he was away for long months during the Six-Day War and was delighted to discover, on his return, that the residents of the village had taken care of his plots during his absence. "It used to be a great honor to work in agriculture," he says. "You would go to places in your work clothes and you got respect. Today, if I were to show up somewhere dressed like this, they wouldn't let me in. Sometime during the 1970s a situation developed in which farmers started to be enemies of the state. People said they used a lot of water, that they were being subsidized, and so forth. That was my first disappointment, but I kept going.
"My death blow was my avocado grove. One year it did not give fruit. The year after, the grove was full but in May there was a terrible hamsin (heat wave) that burned the grove and all the fruit fell to the ground. The next year everything was full again, but then there was a frost that killed 90 percent of the avocados. 'Enough,' I said. 'I don't have the strength to go on with this.' I went back to my technical skills, and that has been the base of my existence ever since."
The 'Rafi roadblock'
Peled describes himself as a "street engineer." His formal training consists only of professional courses in the army. In his reserve service he did an officers' course, and in the first Lebanon War he was the commander of a forward technical company. He holds the rank of lieutenant in the reserves.
"Can I resist the temptation when I have the plan for an instrument in my head?" he asks rhetorically, and continues: "Developing is an illness. You are sleeping at night when suddenly you get an idea and you say, 'Okay, let's get to work.' You get up in the morning and can do nothing except that."
His son, Nimrod, 33, adds in confirmation, "If you throw something in the air, he won't leave it until he figures it out. There is nothing that goes by him that he won't take apart to see how it works."
Initially, Peled focused on developing items to facilitate agricultural work, such as a device that recalls a huge tent stake with a hook on top, several of which are capable of supporting a vine that bears grapes weighing a few tons. He also invented a machine that stretches the net on which grapes are grown.
Moshe Ivler, a farmer from Bnei Atarot, bought these devices from Peled 17 years ago. "He is very well-known and highly regarded in the area of equipment for vintners," Ivler says. "On farms, 'Rafi Peled' is a brand name. Before his things there were all kinds of machines that worked in part, didn't work at all or stopped working after a time. His net stretchers have been working in my vineyard for almost 17 years, and he is still producing the same invention. He is in a league of his own, there's no doubt about it. He is not really a merchant, because he makes things that you don't have to replace, that will still be working even after our grandchildren - not like all kinds of gimmicks you can buy in other places, which I also sometimes got lured into buying."
One of the first times Peled worked on developing a non-agricultural item was at the beginning of the 1990s, at the request of an officer from the IDF's Judea and Samaria Division. "A fellow with the rank of lieutenant colonel showed up and said he had heard that I was a guy who solves problems," Peled recalls. "He said that they had held an exercise in which a roadblock had to be set up. The division commander saw it took about half an hour to open the roadblock, which was carried on jeeps, and told his officers that they had to find an immediate solution for the problem. The officer asked me to come up with a rapidly opening roadblock."
After a few months of work, the "Rafi roadblock" was born. It is still in use by the security forces. "The officer who visited me had connections with the police and he told them about the roadblock. They came to me and things started to move along. That's how people heard about me, by word of mouth. Every time there was something and then something else."
Lieutenant Colonel (res.) Shimoni, who was a battalion commander in the Armored Corps, remembers how in 1984 his soldiers tried to stop the No. 300 bus, which had been hijacked using the old roadblocks. "We threw down the regular roadblocks, which were made of honed tin, and the bus drove over them like nothing. Rafi developed the detachable hollow spikes. It's like the needle of a porcupine: It enters the tire, and the more the vehicle keeps moving the more the pressure on the tire grows and it is punctured. Until then the roadblocks were very clumsy. Today, all the police roadblocks use Rafi's systems."
Shimoni also made use of Rafi's services for other purposes. "I am an expert agronomist on medicinal herbs, and I had a problem. To squeeze medicinal herbs you need to apply heavy pressure on the pulp, in order to extract the maximum essence, which is very expensive. He built me a squeezing device that exploits far more than the essence of the herbs. Rafi is considered a genius in small, specialized inventions. Every two-three months I visit him to see what's the latest, and he always has innovations and inventions. He is bursting with ideas, like a pomegranate."
After leaving the agricultural sphere, Peled and his wife, who deals with the accounting side of their business affairs, opened "R.D. Peled." After the initial development of the roadblock, he developed different versions of his own, including one particularly long one that is intended especially for Ben-Gurion airport, and another, which can be closed from a distance, for the Japanese police. He also developed various types of spikes, flashing warning lights, roadblocks, warning signs posted on unbreakable tripods, devices which automatically count the number of hits on a shooting target and their quality, a recoilless system for forcing open locked doors, and more.
Currently, Peled, with others, is developing an electric machine gun for tanks which will be operated by a joystick from the turret. He has also developed various devices for IDF special units, which he declines to describe, citing secrecy. The officer in charge of the technical laboratory at the IDF's Technological and Logistics Directorate related this week that Peled developed for them a unique pressure-detection device. He developed it 10 years ago and still helps us with the maintenance - all on a voluntary basis. He is a very caring person, who invested a great deal in the development of the device, and apart from the manufacturing cost received nothing in return."
Three weeks ago, Haaretz reported that the Peleds had been questioned by the police. Since then, they say, their neighbors have been slighting them. "Most of the people in the village don't say hello anymore," Rafi Peled relates. "One neighbor came to me and said, 'They made a big man out of you - an arms dealer.' People here don't quite know what I did and do. Since the report in the paper, I feel that people have stopped talking to me, a kind of coldness."
Still, Peled is showing no signs of despair. Business is not what it used to be, and the country is also not what it used to be, but he is carrying on. "The money that doesn't go for our livelihood I don't put in a bowl, but invest in materials, in development," he says, and tells about another invention he is now working on, which will regulate the temperature in a parked car and match it with the temperature outside. Toward the end of the interview he wants to screen a video showing an experiment with a device that he invented to break open doors. The Peleds spend a long time trying to find the right television channel for video cassettes. There is something touching, and in a way encouraging, about the fact that even someone like Rafi Peled has trouble with a simple, everyday technological device that is familiar to everyone. W
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