My god, what did we do?
They wanted to be part of the action and found themselves in an impossible situation. One had the task of washing corpses, another was embittered and abused prisoners, and the third told families that their dear ones had been killed. A new film reveals the trauma of the female soldiers of the intifada.
One night, Tamar Yarom was awakened by one of the soldiers in her unit. He said he wanted to show her something in the basement of the abandoned building where they were staying. "Before we opened the door, I heard this awful noise from a generator and there was a strong smell of diesel fuel. I saw a middle-aged Palestinian detainee lying with his head on the generator. His ear was pressed against the generator that was vibrating, and the guy's head was vibrating with it. His face was completely messed up. It amazed me that through all the blood and horror, you could still see the guy's expression and that's what stayed with me for years after - the look on his face."
Yarom, now a film director, made two films following her army service as a mashakit tash (welfare officer) in an infantry company in the territories. She was drafted in 1989 and served at a basic-training base near Jerusalem until her unit was transferred to Gaza. She accompanied the recruits from their first day in the army and felt close to them, and they told her about what they did in the territories. "I tried not to judge them. Mostly I was glad that they were feeling good and finally had self-confidence." That's how it works, she adds: "When you're told things that you don't see with your own eyes, you can prettify them in your mind." But then she was taken to that basement.
Why did the soldier take her there? "He wanted to share the horror with me," she says. "Maybe he hoped that I'd do something, that I'd raise an outcry. I don't remember how we left there or what happened afterward. The next day I asked one of the commanders what happened in the basement and he politely explained to me that I mustn't interfere in things that were none of my business. That detainee I saw taught me something about myself that I would never have learned in years of university. And he's imprinted in my memory, engraved in every cell of my being. I saw a person in the lowest, most suffering state. A victim of cruelty I didn't know existed. And I stood there unmoved, apparently."
Sandler cleans bodies
In 2002, 12 years after completing her military service, during the second intifada, Yarom directed the drama "Hatza'it dema'ot" ("Sob Skirt" - a nickname for a female welfare officer), based on her experiences during the first intifada. It won the best drama prize at the Haifa Film Festival that same year, but Yarom felt she hadn't yet given full expression to the trauma - "the real thing," as she calls it.
Now Yarom was ready for the real thing. Her second film, "Lir'ot im ani mehayekhet" ("To See If I'm Smiling"), is a documentary. It focuses on the testimonies of six female soldiers about their service in the territories during the first and second intifadas. Yarom spent four years working on the film - to be aired on November 15th on cable Channel 8 - which won the best documentary award at the most recent Haifa Film Festival.
"I wanted to make a film that shows admiration for these girls, who are coping with crazy pressure and have daily responsibility for human lives. I got to know female soldiers who served as lookouts, operations sergeants, whose job was to apply make-up to soldiers going undercover as Arabs. A whole world of women on the 'second' line, in 'combat support.' I was impressed by the way they grappled with the difficulties and the psychological pressures. One of the comments I most identify with was by Meytal Sandler at the beginning of the film: 'Sometimes I think that I'm insane, because I have memories that are not connected to reality and maybe never happened. But I know that they did happen because of the intensity with which I feel them today.'"
Meytal Sandler has gone to Cologne, Germany to do a master's degree in linguistics and Jewish and Islamic Studies. In the army she chose to be a medic, because she wanted to learn a profession. She was also an idealist, she says in the film. She was posted in Hebron as a medical organization officer, responsible for evacuating the wounded. Sandler was the only person who declined to be interviewed for this article. She now has another life and is "okay," she says, but in the film she is the most fragile, the most touching. She says that during the filming she drank every day "to forget the horrors of Hebron."
In the film she says she didn't tell anyone what happened to her in the army because Hebron operated by its own rules. The first time she encountered death was when she was handed the baby Shalhevet Pas, killed in 2001 by a Palestinian sniper. "There was a baby girl who was wounded and we couldn't treat her very well and there was a feeling that she was in my care because I was the local commander. The next morning I saw the baby's picture in the paper. People said: 'Congratulations, you've had your first dead person,'" she says in the film.
As part of her job, Sandler also had to handle the corpses of Palestinians. "I was in the office with my medics and my doctor-commander asked, 'There's a body, who wants to come see it?' It was a cell they'd pursued for a while and one member was killed. I immediately said: 'I want to see!' I remember riding in the ambulance [with the body] and sitting across from Uriel (one of the soldiers), who looked at me and wanted to throw up the whole time," she says in the film.
"I wanted to throw up, too, but I couldn't say that. And the body stank. I gave him a blanket and I took one, and we wrapped them around us to keep out the smell ... They then come and take the body to the clinic and tell us that before it's returned to the Palestinian Authority, we have to clean it, so there won't be any signs of blood on it, so they won't see what we've done to it. This was my task. Because he'd been struck in the head, but didn't die right away, and only bled and died slowly, he lost control of his bowels - that's what happens ... He's just lying there with his eyes open and I close his eyes because Uriel tells me he's afraid.
"I close his eyes and keep on cleaning and scrubbing and at some point the eyes open up again. It's automatic, and it's a very frightening moment. It's like he came back to life. Giving me this stare. People say to me: 'What did you do? You cleaned a corpse?' and they're disgusted. I can't allow myself to be disgusted by it."
Dealing with corpses became routine. Sandler describes another incident when one was brought to her and was taken to be rinsed by the bathroom: "Something very funny happens: He has an erection. A corpse with an erection. And people laugh a little because it's awkward. Anyone can come and see, and a few female soldiers come in - girls I know. One has a camera and without thinking, I say: 'Hey, take my picture.' And I sit next to the body and have my picture taken."
Sandler is embarrassed by the photo, and told no one about it. "Who wants to deal with the evil within himself, the alienation?" she says. But then she wanted to see the photo again: "I wanted to see if I was smiling."
Abramov gets revenge
Was Sandler authorized to deal with bodies? The IDF Spokesman's Office says: "Care of bodies is not included within the framework of the medical organization officer's job; such a procedure is unknown. The likelihood of this being done systematically is small, and if it was done - it was an aberration."
Libi Abramov served as a Border Police officer at an Israel Defense Forces checkpoint. In the film she describes her friend Hani Abramov (no relation), who was shot in the jaw and skull in October 2001 during an operation near Tul Karm - the first female Border Police officer to be wounded during the intifada. Libi was so upset that she decided to take revenge on Arabs who passed through the checkpoint that day.
"With every Arab I see, I see Hani in my mind. In one shift, there were as many as 70 or 80 people whom I delayed. I stood them in a line and decided that they would stay with me for the whole 12- to 14-hour shift, in the sun, in the heat. I made them stand there with me and had them do all kinds of exercises. I stood them in threes, as if they were my soldiers. I started shouting at them and asked them 'Why did you do that to Hani? What did she do to deserve it?' No one else was around except my fighters, and they accepted this; it didn't seem strange to them."
One night Abramov was sitting alone in an armored vehicle and saw an Arab staring at her. "I stared right back and he started making obscene gestures. I took a good look at him. I wanted to remember what he was wearing and how he looked. And I can still remember: He was wearing three-quarter-length red pants, a white shirt and short black hair. As soon as he saw that my soldiers were coming back, he ran away. As soon as they got in the vehicle, I was ready to go. I drove really fast. When we found and caught him he realized who I was and what was happening. We took him to one of the alleyways and I started screaming at him. I made him look me in the eye and repeat in words what he'd done, and he of course tried to ignore me. He kept his eyes down. We stripped him until he was only in his underwear and just abused him."
Behar regrets to inform you
Education in the territories was also a whole different story. Education officer Dana Behar says she dealt "only with death." She grew up in Nes Ziona; her father was a doctor and her mother led youth trips to Poland. Before her enlistment, Behar did a year of service leading hiking trips for youths. She looked forward to enlisting because she wanted to "continue to contribute." She enlisted in the summer of 2001.
After taking a course to be a mashakit hinuch (education officer), her main job was to work with commanders to make sure that whenever battle orders were given, about 10 minutes were first devoted to discussing values and humanism. She was assigned to the 50th Nahal paratroops battalion - "quality people, kibbutzniks and so on. An elitist population that's known in the IDF as 'the yellows': Ashkenazim, who are soft in comparison to the 'blacks,' who are not just punks, but also violent."
In her second week, she just wanted everyone to like her. "There were 500 guys and 10 girls. One day the soldiers from the company came back from Qalqilyah. The bus let off all these dusty soldiers and I'm walking around there, wanting to hear their experiences, and they see a new girl, fresh meat. So they boasted that they had souvenirs - prayer beads and little Korans that they took from the houses. It shocked me. I was taught that this was plundering."
Two days later, she had her first meeting with the battalion commander. "This was in Hebron ... and he asks me how I liked being an education officer. I said it was fine, but that I'd seen things going on. Horrified, he called up the company commander in my presence, who said: 'The girl's a liar. I don't know why she's making this stuff up, probably to impress you.' The battalion commander promised to take care of it and I kept on in my job."
A few days later, soldiers from the same company came to the area and recognized Behar. "They said: 'Oh, you're that bitch who ratted on us to the battalion commander?' I said I didn't rat on them, I just told what I'd seen. From that moment the ostracism began. I wasn't allowed to enter their company, which was the most humiliating thing. Whenever they saw me, they spit on the floor and cursed ... A few months later, when the company commander who led the revolt against me was replaced, the treatment I got from about 100 soldiers finally changed. Today I know something that I didn't know then: Hardly any IDF soldier is without a souvenir from some Palestinian house."
Subsequently she decided to go to an officers' course because she wanted to work with more senior commanders, and says, "I also wanted to stop washing dishes in the battalion. The women soldiers always get stuck with the dishes."
In the film Behar recalls coming out of the kitchen all wet when she heard shouting, and saw soldiers who'd returned from an operation taking pictures with the bodies of two Palestinians.
"At the time it didn't look strange. The territories are a crazy place. The big strong IDF just killed some terrorists; it's the soldier's job to take down an important terrorist. It's the 'highlight' of his service. Now it's clear to me that these were the most sickening pictures I ever saw in my life."
She thrived as education officer for the brigade. "The first two months in Hebron everything went well. My assignment was nice for my ego. It's considered an important assignment, and only strong and assertive women are sent there."
In November 2002 she left on a weekend furlough. She was at home and her mother suddenly knocked on the door and told her the news was reporting a terror attack in Hebron. "I came out of the shower and called my commander, and he yelled, 'Get to Hadassah [University Hospital in] Ein Kerem right away!'"
Why? You were just an education officer.
Behar: "Yes, but he insisted so my father drove me and on the way I learned that the brigade commander, Dror Weinberg, and 12 others had been killed. I got to Hadassah and found that in this emergency situation, all of a sudden, I'd become an adjutancy officer and it was my job to relay information to the families of the injured. I was ordered to go into the rooms and bring lists of those who were seriously injured ... and those who had died from their wounds. I was in the hall waiting for a doctor when I suddenly heard a shout - 'Clear the hallway!' I got out of the way and then, like in a movie doctors rushed by with the wounded on stretchers, all cut and bleeding ... One of them was the boyfriend of a friend, and I had to tell her that he died of his wounds."
Behar returned to the brigade in Hebron. The death of Colonel Weinberg, the most senior officer killed in the second intifada, sowed terror and chaos. "I prepared large memorial boards on which to hang texts and photographs, and memorial candles are placed beside them, for the brigade commander and the other casualties, and I asked the commander's permission to put them up. He screamed at me hysterically, 'No! No! Go into your room where no one can see you, and stay there until you're called.' There was no point trying to explain. Anxiety had taken over and there was also fear of another assault."
Within two weeks, there were more casualties. "We knew there was no point trying to sleep or shower, that there were be another event, more death and grief. I organized memorial displays, albums, ceremonies and movies about the fallen and also had to go to the parents' homes. My women soldiers were falling apart, and I - without any support from the officers or anyone else, including the main education office - dealt with this hell all by myself."
Once, during her service, she asked a friend who was an information officer if she could come with him to the home of a bereaved mother, an immigrant from Russia whose only son was killed. "We come to this fairly poor neighborhood and go in the apartment, and he tells the mother what happened and how her son was killed. She fixes her gaze on me, caresses my hand, and says, 'You're so pretty, you won't die, you shouldn't be there.' It was all I could do to keep from falling to pieces."
In the film Behar describes how she realized that she had to save herself. "I understood that something bad happened to me. I told my mother to find me a psychologist and I went to therapy. Now I'm a third-year psychology major at the University of Haifa, and I see how right it was to try to save myself."
What mark did your military service leave on you?
Behar: "I've become a very light sleeper. Every little noise wakes me up and I think it's an alarm and that I have to rush to the war room in Hebron. I've vowed never to enter the territories again, because I want to forget."
Why did you take part in the film?
"Because it's important for people to know that something bad happened there. The IDF makes great efforts for it not to happen and I've never seen such big efforts made anywhere else, but still it happens. Because the reality is horrible. I want as many men and women soldiers as possible to talk about what happens there, for it to be a part of the discourse. I served there because my parents brought me up on the values of Zionism, on the idea that wherever I'm most needed is where I should go. I wanted to make a difference and I'd do it again despite everything."
Ben Sira-Morag gets a club
In Golani, they salute blondes, and Tal Ben Sira-Morag was then a blonde soldier. In the film she says her army service was not without humor: "We were next to a muezzin, next to a mosque, we were always next to a mosque. And suddenly we hear coming out of the mosque, instead of 'Allahu Akbar,' the song 'I've Got the Power.' [The soldiers had] taken over the place and switched the tapes!"
Today she's married, a mother of two who lives in Kfar Vitkin. Her father is Tnuva chairman Naftali Ben-Sira. As a 10th-grader, Ben Sira-Morag was active in the founding of the Democratic School in Hadera, which she attended. She enlisted in February 1990 and wanted to be a welfare officer, and just as she'd hoped, "I got a Golani basic training base in the Jenin sector. Everything was great. I was a queen. The atmosphere was amazing. I did an officers' course and since I'm leftist I didn't want to serve in the territories, but I was convinced since I didn't have much choice and was assigned to a brigade in the Khan Yunis area."
The base overlooked an entire sector in which were located the Shimshon Battalion, the civil administration, Shin Bet security people and other battalions. "It was a 'hot' sector and there was a high concentration of wanted men and they brought a Golani brigade there. Then two Palestinians disguised as women - because they didn't search women - managed to open fire and a soldier was killed and others were wounded. Then we got an order that a female officer with a weapon would be added to every operation."
On her 20th birthday, Ben Sira-Morag set out on an operation that lasted about 14 hours. She sat in a Jeep with senior officers and waited in the dark. The objective was to blow up two houses. She heard over the radio the word "Now!" and the commander ordered her to move to a Border Police Jeep as rockets and RPGs were whizzing around. The Border Policemen were asking if she wanted them to bring her flowers from the wanted man's house, but then they got a call that they had to break up disturbances in the Tel Amal quarter.
"We drove there quickly and got to an area that was full of people of all ages running everywhere and throwing rocks. The noise was terrible and the fear that a rock would smash you was just as bad," she recalls. She stayed in the vehicle until one of the soldiers came back with a club that had cracked in two after it was used to beat a woman. "Grab a club, put on a helmet and come out to hit," he told her. "I came out but I certainly wasn't going to hit anyone. I saw a baby crying in fright and my instinct was to go pick him up, but then his mother came and gave me the worst look I've ever seen in my life. That's when it really dawned on me: I understood that I was the enemy in uniform."
Later, she had to conduct body searches of Palestinian women. "It's a terrible experience. The women are wrapped in layers and the smell is strong, and why should I be prying around their bodies? I passed a metal detector over them, including their private parts. Two or three security guards stood with their backs to me, but nearby. I tried to speak gently, but was horrified by the way I had to intrude."
During one operation, while checking women, "I suddenly hear a scream and the soldier beside me has kicked the women who was supposed to pass through inspection. He'd noticed a knife that was sticking out of her sleeve. I was without a helmet and my neck was exposed. The knife went flying, they put the woman on the side and guarded her. When I finished inspecting, and the bullets were still whistling, I stood in front of the woman who was screaming in fear. The soldiers roared at me, 'Finish her off, she tried to kill you.'
"Time stopped and I felt like everything was moving in slow motion and at that moment something was erased from my memory. I think I also gave her a little kick, I don't remember. I shook her and shouted, 'Stop screaming!' I put handcuffs on her and took her away. It was a Saturday. They gave me the knife and said, 'Now call your mother and tell her to recite the 'blessing for deliverance' in the synagogue. I called. My mother asked the rabbi at the Kfar Vitkin synagogue and he recited the blessing."
Aside from that time, Ben Sira-Morag did not tell her parents about her experiences in the territories. "I was very unpleasant and aggressive then. My parents also weren't that attentive and couldn't absorb what I was going through. Once my father had occasion to come to the base and he told me it wasn't so bad." She knows that he told her mother, 'It's better you don't know." When Channel 1 did a report on her unit, her parents didn't watch it.
After the knife incident, Ben Sira-Morag became emotionally detached from her surroundings. Her requests to transfer elsewhere were rejected: She was told she was doing a great job and her contribution was vital, and so she stayed on until August 1993. After her discharge, she traveled to the Far East with a friend and in Vietnam she suddenly suffered an anxiety attack: "People in Saigon were running and jumping on buses, the buildings were pocked with bullet holes and there were lots of beggars. It reminded me of Khan Yunis. I went into a panic and said to my friend, 'I don't have a weapon! I don't have a weapon!' It took me a while to calm down. I kept a journal during the trip and sent my parents letters in which I did a reckoning with them and with myself."
In one letter, she wrote: "It was so hard for me after my discharge and you weren't able to deal with it. I understand; it's hard. One day I'll tell you everything I went through there, all the hard things I've been carrying, inside day in and day out, all the horrors I saw. In a while, when I'm better, I'll start to write and reconstruct what I went through for the sake of the future."
In 2005, Ben Sira-Morag did that: She mounted the play "Shovrim shtika" ("Breaking Silence") at the Teatronettto festival, based on her own experiences. Today she says: "I don't think I was shell-shocked. What happened to me was because of the burden of the job."
But she still suffers side effects. Crowded places make her nervous. She won't wear a watch or listen to the news or read newspapers. "My army service screwed up my ability to love," she says. "It took a long time until I met my husband. I have angry outbursts sometimes. I don't hit or throw chairs, but I scream and yell."
Michelzon gets a report
It should just not be boring - that's all Inbar Michelzon, from Karmiel, wanted out of her army service. Though her views were quite leftist, there was no question that she would serve in the army, and as a sambatzit (operations officer), because she was told that it's "the closest thing to the real thing" - i.e., combat.
"I was the commander of an operations room and an aide to an operations officer," she said this week. "There were seven companies under us. We relayed orders and managed things." The war room where she served was in charge of the Erez checkpoint, the Erez industrial area and the settlements in the northern Gaza Strip: Dugit, Nissanit and Elei Sinai.
She says she cried during her first month. Her brother, who had been a deputy commander in the criminal investigation division, had told her that it was hell on earth, but she ended up in Gaza, in October 2000. Her commander told her that only "the good ones" get to serve there.
Michelzon remembers the first time she saw the Erez checkpoint: "It was like mouse cages. I was in shock. I'd never seen Palestinians from Gaza carrying sacks on their head, dressed in rags. The poverty stunned me. This is Israel's backyard. I had to change my skin to fit in there - everything was said there with shouting, everything's a matter of life and death."
Her fellow soldiers briefed her on the way things are done: "You say to someone: 'You want to pass through? Bring cigarettes.' Or [a Palestinian] would present an entry permit that took two months to get, and they'd switch it with another paper that they'd rip up in front of the guy's face, just to see his reaction, and then they'd laugh and hand back the original do0cument."
"Death to Arabs" was emblazoned on one soldier's flak jacket, she remembers, adding that the soldiers thought she was a spoiled little girl. It didn't take long to see that there was no one to talk to. "The guys would sit there laughing about how a sniper hit a Palestinian so that he'd be crippled the rest of his life."
But Michelzon felt that her job was important and that she was contributing, and there was a lot of action: "There was gunfire every night. I'd come out of the war room and all the girls would be running to the protected room and I'd run to the war room and feel like a heroine in a war movie. It was fun until our soldiers started getting killed."
One night, she recalls, "my commander found a 13-year-old boy sitting next to a Border Police outpost. He asked the soldiers what the kid was doing there and they said, 'We kept him here and played with him a little.' My commander returned to the war room and said that by the morning, he wanted an investigative report from their commander. The report was submitted and it said that the soldiers beat the boy and stubbed out cigarettes on him. I brought the report to my second commander. He reviewed it and said, 'Call the company commander and tell him that if he doesn't submit another report within a few hours to me, the police investigative division will be here."
And so Michelzon found herself roaming the base with two reports about the abuse of the boy: the original report and an "improved" version. She imagined herself calling up Israel Radio reporter Carmela Menashe: "I knew I had to do something so people would know what's really happening. I knew I had the proof, but I didn't do anything. It scared me. It was impossible for me to betray my comrades and my commander. It would be like betraying myself. I continued as usual."
Morality, she says now, "is a privilege of people who weren't in these places. It's very hard to look at yourself and understand that you're not the person you thought you were. I came to the army from a youth movement that touts equality and the value of every human being and I got a slap in the face. When I saw the film at the Haifa Film Festival I couldn't stop crying. I cried for what we did. Dear God, what we did."
The day she was discharged from the IDF she had to attend the funeral of a friend, Anatoly Kursik, whom, she says, "was killed in a stupid operation: A battalion commander decided to go into an area he wasn't supposed to be in to catch terrorists, and Anatoly was killed by friendly fire. That day I felt like everything was falling apart. I went through a tough period of depression."
What did you do about it?
Michelzon: "I didn't want to go to therapy. I ran away to India for six months and there I talked about it a lot."
She says she believes that not just she, but the entire public, must engage in some serious soul-searching.
At present Michelzon volunteers in the ALON organization for social involvement, lives in Tel Aviv with her husband, and is writing her master's thesis about how Mizrahi girls deal with the degrading "bimbo" image.
All the women in "To See If I'm Smiling" describe themselves as victims of circumstances. But of course that's just one way to see what they felt and did there, and what happened to them.
Asked what her film's political stance is, director Tamar Yarom seems momentarily nonplussed. Her film has no political stance, she says. "It's a mainstream film. Otherwise, people will switch channels. Because who wants to see a film that tells horror stories about military service in the territories?"
She adds: "The film is political only in that the Israeli viewer comes to this subject and projects a lot of his own political meanings onto it. The only thing that has value is the attempt to relate the experience of service in the territories, and women are good at describing emotional situations. Through them you can understand the psychology of the guys who serve in the territories. It's not different, it's just more extreme. It makes no difference what your job is. If you're in the territories you'll be sullied by this thing and come out a different person. I went into the territories with an excellent upbringing and came out a different person. I was afflicted by moral confusion there. That's my position, and the position of the film."W