Journey Back to the First Intifada

Twenty years after his army service in Deheisheh refugee camp, and 25 years after the start of the first intifada, Shay Fogelman returns to the camp in search of the girl whose life he saved.

A large black iron cage stands at the entrance to Deheisheh refugee camp, on the outskirts of Bethlehem. It was placed there in the mid-1980s by Israel Defense Forces soldiers as part of the only entry gate to the camp. In the center of the cage there was a revolving iron door, which barely allowed one person at a time to pass through.

Twenty years ago, I served as a soldier in Deheisheh. For days on end I watched the gate – or “carousel,” as we called the passage through the iron cage – on the military communications network. Our instructions were to prevent crowds from forming, prevent sabotage of the gate and, of course, prevent stone-throwing at cars on the highway, which passes right next to the camp.

On days when a closure of the West Bank was imposed, we might be sent to shut down the carousel. Thus, with nothing more than a small lock, we imprisoned thousands of people behind the iron fences that sealed the camp.

But the carousel was also our lifeline to Deheisheh. We went through it every day to make arrests, carry out searches or conduct foot patrols. The supplies and meals for our observation sites, which were scattered on the roofs of the high buildings, passed through it. The carousel was the most prominent and most important datum point in the sector. The on-call forces would gather there to respond to an incident. The mechanized patrols stopped next to it for coffee-and-cigarette breaks.

Last month, when I went back to Deheisheh for a visit, I heard for the first time that the camp’s inhabitants had dubbed the carousel “ma’ata,” the Arabic word for the machine that plucks a chicken’s feathers after it has been slaughtered.

I went back to Deheisheh to look for Salam. We had met there once, by chance, exactly 20 years ago. Since then I had wondered, more than once, what became of her. “The people in the refugee camp call the officer who saved a little girl ‘Captain Doctor,’” the newspaper Maariv reported in June 1992. “Lt. Shay Fogelman was on a routine patrol when he saw a girl fall from the second floor of a building and treated her,” the story said, alongside a portrait of me with a bewildered look, wearing an army uniform and armed with a rifle. Salam was 3 years old, the article said, and lived in the camp’s southern section. The report added that she had suffered a chin injury in the fall and broke both her legs.

Sewage in the streets

Deheisheh refugee camp was established in 1949 for Palestinian refugees from some 40 villages that once existed, mainly in the Beit Shemesh area. For a few years the refugees lived in tents; it was not until the mid-1950s that UNRWA, the United Nations refugee agency, built them small stone houses. Each home was less than 10 square meters in size, without a shower or toilet. Living conditions in the camp were always atrocious; poverty and squalor are still the camp’s chief feature.

The overcrowding is unspeakable: 10,000 people live in an area of less than one square kilometer. The refugees’ UNRWA houses are gradually but relentlessly crumbling. They were never intended to last 60 years. Infrastructure is meager and deteriorating. When I was a soldier there, sewage still ran in the streets.

I first came to Deheisheh in the spring of 1992, as a young officer in an IDF company that had been created especially to carry out lengthy routine security activities in the camp. It was the fifth year of the first intifada, the Palestinian uprising against the occupation. More than 800 Palestinians had already been killed by the IDF, about a quarter of them minors. Deheisheh had already lost 10 of its sons. Hundreds of inhabitants were bruised from being battered by truncheons, or wounded from being shot by rubber bullets or live munitions. Thousands were in jail. In the year before my unit arrived, the camp was under curfew for 71 days.

Deheisheh was one of the paramount symbols of the first intifada. Hence the decision to send a full company to the camp. The name of the camp was often in the headlines during that period. Its location, on the main road from Jerusalem to Hebron and the Etzion bloc of settlements, meant daily friction between the camp’s residents and the settlers and army forces. Israeli vehicles were routinely stoned. Sometimes tires were burned and firebombs thrown. The camp’s proximity to Jerusalem just two bus stops from the city center helped place it in the forefront of the Palestinian struggle. For the same reason, it attracted worldwide media coverage.

We served eight months there. From sunrise to sunset, we were inside the camp. Often we also cruised the streets at night. We were familiar with every house and every alley. We knew the names of all the wanted individuals by heart. The camp’s fences were our sector perimeter. Deheisheh was our whole world.

We were an independent company, with hardly any connection to other units. As long as no stones were thrown on the highway, no one bothered us. We pitched our tent camp in the middle of a small pine grove on a hill that overlooked the camp. Like the inhabitants of Deheisheh, we too were isolated and cut off behind barbed wire. We were surrounded by the houses of the camp. Power was supplied by a generator. Water was brought in twice a week by a tanker. The toilet was a hole in the ground. It could have been the 1990s version of the iconic Israeli comedy “Halfon Hill Doesn’t Answer” if we hadn’t been in the middle of an intifada and in the middle of Deheisheh.

A road accident in the Gaza Strip on December 8, 1987, is usually considered the spark that started the first intifada. An Israeli tank transporter collided with two Palestinian cars, killing four passengers. The funerals that were held the next day in Jabalya refugee camp turned into tempestuous mass demonstrations. The army’s response, which included the firing of live ammunition at the demonstrators, only heightened the rage. Within 10 days, the unrest had spread across the whole of Gaza and the West Bank.

But in the unwritten history of Deheisheh refugee camp, the history of the intifada begins long before the accident in Jabalya. Already at the beginning of the 1980s there was a popular uprising in the camp that led to work strikes, mass demonstrations and, above all, to the throwing of stones at settlers’ cars. The camp’s old-timers still remember the pride they felt when they listened to the “Voice of Palestine from Deheisheh,” which was broadcast via Palestine Liberation Organization radio from Algiers. Every week there were reports about acts of resistance to the occupation in the camp.

In retaliation for the stone-throwing, settlers often carried out violent raids on the camp, accompanied by indiscriminate shooting at houses and people. The newspapers of the time described the raids as “pogroms.” Amram Mitzna, the GOC Central Command at the time, termed one such raid “a despicable act.” In response, MK Rabbi Meir Kahane, head of the Kach party, stated in the Knesset in February 1985: “I hope to see revenge against these Arabs, and it’s not just a matter of using a hard hand against the terrorists and a soft hand with the inhabitants. That’s the imbecility of this government. They are all terrorists. They all hate. Deheisheh refugee camp should be razed. Liquidated. Sent to Jordan, at long last.”

The army reacted sharply to the disturbances that erupted in Deheisheh in the early 1980s. A few young people were shot and killed. Hundreds of people were arrested. Homes were demolished. The camp was placed under curfew dozens of times. Half a year before the start of the intifada, a high iron fence was erected as a barrier between the camp and the highway. Alleys were blocked with cement-filled barrels. Barbed-wire fences went up. The carousel was installed. When all this failed to stop the stone-throwing, a large army base was established just opposite the camp. Two months later, when the intifada erupted, both sides in Deheisheh were manning their posts.

Stone and truncheon

The first intifada will be remembered as one of the most meaningful chapters in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its impact still resonates strongly in the region. It led to the Oslo Accords and the creation of the Palestinian Authority. Hamas was founded on the day the intifada began. The intifada cut off the inhabitants of the territories from Israel, from Jordan and at times from the Palestinian leadership in exile. The inhabitants of the territories succeeded with stones and slingshots where others had failed with Kalashnikovs.

Of course, the intifada also had a powerful impact on Israeli society. Besides causing economic harm and eroding personal security, it created a tectonic shift between right and left in the country. In its wake, the occupation lost its legitimacy in the eyes of large segments of the Jewish population. In 1992, after a decade of extensive settlement building under right-wing governments, Yitzhak Rabin was elected prime minister, with the promise that he would bring peace.

The intifada also severely undermined international legitimacy for the continuation of the occupation. Images of Israeli soldiers beating or shooting young Palestinians were broadcast on the news all over the world. Condemnations came from almost every parliament and from the UN General Assembly. For the first time, world public opinion inclined saliently toward the Palestinian side. Unprecedented crises occurred in Israel’s relations with the United States.

The intifada was a popular uprising, and its features especially the stone-throwing became its symbols in the eyes of the Palestinians. Shooting incidents and the use of explosive devices were rare. Suicide bombers had yet to enter the picture. There were only 41 cases of shooting by Palestinians in the first 18 months of the intifada.

Over 150 Israelis were killed throughout the whole of the first intifada compared to more than 1,000 during the second intifada, which began in 2000.

The army lacked both the operational and moral capability to quell the uprising. But within weeks of the start of the intifada, its forces were already deployed in full gear across the territories. Two new divisions were created to deal with the unrest. All the members of the generation of combat soldiers born between the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War were sent to reap the harvest their parents had sown 20 years before.

If stones symbolized the generation of the Palestinian uprising, Israel was symbolized by the truncheon. That was the most dangerous new weapon we were issued at the time, but no one explained how to beat people with it. Which organs to hit? How much force to use? Every day we went into the streets of Deheisheh armed with a heavy wooden club. We regularly carried out two observations and a foot patrol in the camp. A mechanized patrol accompanied us on the main road outside the fence. Each foot patrol consisted of an officer and four soldiers. For eight hours we wandered the alleys of the camp, clad in helmets and protective vests. We also had a heavy radio, a rifle that propelled tear-gas grenades and a knapsack filled with crowd dispersal means. We were heavy and clumsy. We rarely managed to catch stone-throwers.

During the foot patrols we occasionally entered homes to carry out searches, usually for wanted individuals. We concentrated everyone in the house in one room and combed through the closets, spilled the contents of drawers and overturned the pots and pans. In certain periods we raided the same homes two or three times a week.
Sometimes we went back for a surprise raid in the middle of the night. We were also instructed to look for propaganda material in the houses. None of us could read Arabic, but we checked the bookshelves, went through the drawers looking for documents and examined the most personal photo albums. We were looking for something we couldn’t even describe or define.

On almost every patrol we ordered people to carry out “public works.” That was our epithet for the task of taking down Palestinian flags that were hung overnight on electricity poles or erasing slogans that had been scrawled on the walls.

Anyone who refused to obey the orders or argued with us was liable to be arrested or simply beaten. Those who did what they were told unhesitatingly were left alone, even if they only sprayed a bit of sand mixed with water symbolically on the wall to remove the slogans.

We didn’t really care if the slogans were removed. We knew they were deeply implanted in the consciousness of the camp’s inhabitants. We knew that the next day they would reappear in exactly the same place. But that was how the system worked.
Our feeling was that if we gave in to one person, we would have to give in to everyone. We knew that the occupation could not allow anyone to stand firm. All we wanted was to keep going and erase the next slogan. We wanted to finish the patrol, go back to the tent, wash Deheisheh out of our hair in the field shower and hit the sack until the next day.

Horrible screams

On the day I met Salam, Deheisheh was under curfew. From early morning we walked the streets and prevented people from leaving their homes. Wanted individuals did not dare come out during the day, so we spent most of our time chasing children and old people who could no longer stand to be cooped up between four walls. In the end, we arrested mostly the hardscrabble people who went out to earn a little money.

My heart was torn with pity many times, especially when we had to take the “Black Sunday” T-shirts from children. They were colored T-shirts on which seven bloodstains were printed, in remembrance of the Palestinians murdered by Ami Popper two years earlier in Rishon Letzion. The T-shirts were a big hit in the camp, particularly among young people, but they were classified as propaganda and our orders were to confiscate them.

Many times we chased urchins wearing a banned T-shirt and pulled it off them in the middle of the street. The children’s begging rarely helped them, though there were cases in which the crying made me violate the order, turn a blind eye and let them run back home with their beloved T-shirt. Every gear in the system could sometimes become unhinged.

In the early afternoon of that day, as we walked through the camp’s southern section, we suddenly heard two horrible screams. We didn’t know where they had come from, but something terrible was obviously going on. We ran through the alleys toward the source of the screams. We had no idea what to expect. Our weapons were at the ready. When we reached the site, huffing and puffing, we found a little girl lying on the ground. A little boy was standing in the second-floor window of the adjacent house, screaming at the top of his lungs.

For a few minutes we stood around the girl, helpless. No adult came out to help her. Not one window was opened. She was unconscious. Blood trickled from her mouth, and her eyes were closed. At first I thought she was dead. I bent over to check her pulse. It was very weak. I was glad to see that she was still breathing. One of the soldiers took out his personal first-aid pack, but there was nothing we could do with it. The girl was so small that the dressing might suffocate her. I picked her up and we started running fast toward the carousel.

I remember that she was light. Her body was completely limp. Her face was pale. With each step I took, her little arms flailed every which way. I cradled her tightly in my arms and supported her head, to stop it from flopping back.

As I was running, I asked via the radio for an ambulance to be sent to the carousel. I remember I also asked for a helicopter. I didn’t know how serious the injury was, but she looked bad.

The reservist who answered my radio call said he had no idea how to order a helicopter; he promised to find out where there was an ambulance. We kept running toward the carousel, in the hope that an evacuation vehicle would come there. Blood continued to trickle from the girl’s small mouth. At one point she started to gurgle. I really did not want her to die in my arms.

The commotion in the street brought people to the windows to see what was going on. In the circumstances, the sight of a soldier carrying an injured girl could have been given any number of interpretations. Despite the curfew, people started to come out of the houses. Whistling and shouting filled the air. A group of young people gathered at the end of the street. I was afraid they would start throwing stones. I kept running, the girl in my arms. I protected her with my body. For a moment I felt like the world’s most enlightened occupier.

On the way I tried a few more times to summon an army ambulance via the radio. The reservist did not answer. It wasn’t until I reached the carousel that he informed me the doctor was too far away and there was no chance he could get there.
There was a closed UN compound near the carousel. We were forbidden to enter it no matter what, but this time there was no choice. We broke through the door and entered the building with the girl. The staff there was frightened. We were equally hysterical. They led us quickly into another room. I placed the girl on the only treatment table. A doctor was called in. He and two nurses started to treat the girl.

We were not needed; we were interrupting them with the rifles and all our equipment. We left the clinic. A civilian ambulance, siren wailing, arrived at the carousel and took the girl to a hospital. We went back to enforcing the curfew.

Within a few days, the story reached the officers of the Civil Administration, who were in charge of ties with the Palestinian population. They summoned me to their office and said it was “a confidence-building event with the camp’s inhabitants” and we had to find a way to leverage it. For a moment I believed peace was at hand.

The Shin Bet security service coordinator responsible for the camp also called me in for a meeting. He wanted details about the girl’s family. Afterward I learned that incidents like this were an excellent platform for recruiting collaborators. Shin Bet personnel often made medical treatment for Palestinians conditional on their handing over information. But there was nothing I could tell him about the family. He showed me an aerial photograph of the camp, but I couldn’t locate the house.

From there the story made its way to the IDF Spokesman’s Unit. A week later it was broadcast on the Voice of Israel’s Arabic-language service. A few days later, a photographer and a reporter from Maariv showed up at our tent camp. In the weeks that followed, the story made the rounds in the camp. Passersby occasionally stopped our patrol to ask for details or thank us. Many of the camp’s residents knew all the company’s officers personally. They addressed us by our first name, preceded by “Captain.”

For weeks after the event they added the title “doctor” to my name. At least once a woman came up to our patrol and asked for medical advice. She told me her son had diarrhea. At the recommendation of the Civil Administration officers, I did not turn her away. I recommended that she boil the water in the house and take the child to a pediatrician.

Swollen from blows

I didn’t like “doing intifada.” No one did. Before and after Deheisheh, I did exactly the same things in Hebron, Jenin, Tul Karm and dozens more Palestinian cities and villages. It was hard, frustrating work. Sometimes also very hazardous. Every day in the territories confronted us with complex situations that we had never been trained to cope with as soldiers.

The orders were not always clear. The equipment was never suitable. Every soldier had a Rules of Engagement pamphlet in his pocket. We could recite the rules from memory. In reality, we did what we liked.

We used a lot of tear gas and stun grenades. There were periods in which we emptied all the ammunition we were carrying in our knapsacks on every patrol. We also had two types of rubber bullets for short-range targeting. The plastic bullets that had been intended for longer ranges were taken out of use: they turned out to be as lethal as live bullets.

On one occasion, what was then the crowning glory of Israel’s military industry was used in our sector: the hatzatzit, or gravel thrower. The purpose of this clumsy machine, which was installed on armored vehicles of World War II vintage, was to hurl stones at demonstrators at a range of 100 meters. It was as grotesque as it was ineffective. The Palestinians’ slingshots were always more accurate.

The air force developed an airborne version of the gravel thrower. It was installed on the skids of a helicopter and cast the stones from a height of hundreds of meters. The machine’s developers were awarded a prize by Rafael, the armament development authority, for innovation and gained the esteem of the chief of staff.

There were numerous creative inventions. In our sector, for example, we sometimes had a “homeland bus.” It looked like a regular bus, but the inside had been revamped to hold a team of quick-response soldiers to deal with stone-throwing incidents. A second pair of doors was cut into the left side of the bus, allowing the soldiers to launch hot pursuit from both sides of the vehicle. We traveled a great deal in the “homeland bus” on the main road next to Deheisheh. That was a mission we liked. It gave us the opportunity to go out for an “after” in Jerusalem when the bus returned to base. But mostly it allowed us to break the grinding routine of the refugee camp.

Another routine-breaking task that the soldiers really liked was escorting Palestinian detainees to Shin Bet interrogation or detention facilities. For the soldiers, that was a half-day’s trip in a tiyulit, or touring vehicle. On one occasion when we sent a squad to carry out an escort assignment, we got an urgent call from the Shin Bet interrogator who was in charge of the camp.

“I can’t receive them for interrogation like this,” he said about the Palestinian detainees. “They are swollen from blows.”

When the escort squad returned, about two hours later, they were summoned to the company commander’s tent for a debriefing. The squad commander said he had not seen or heard anything. He said he had been in the cab of the vehicle the whole time and had been busy talking to the driver.

Three soldiers were left in the back part of the vehicle to guard the detainees. The clarification with them was short. One of them confessed immediately. “They cursed my mother,” he said, explaining why he had mercilessly kicked, slapped and punched the bound and blindfolded Palestinians.

The other two soldiers in the vehicle did not take part in the festival of blood, but did nothing to stop it. They stated that the Palestinians had indeed cursed the soldier, but were unable to say why they hadn’t stopped him from beating them. The company commander said he took a grave view of the incident and canceled the insubordinate soldier’s Shabbat furlough. The squad commander and the two other soldiers were not punished. Our protest at the lightness of the punishment was too quiet and feeble. The next day the three soldiers were already back patrolling the streets of Deheisheh.

In the past few weeks I was able to locate and contact a few of the soldiers and officers from our company. I wanted to hear their memories of that time. In conversations with them, whenever the name of the brutal soldier was mentioned, stories came up about other cases in which he abused and maltreated Palestinians.

Twenty years later, one of my interlocutors told of an incident in which the soldier was in the carousel and “for no reason bashed everyone who went through.” Another told of an event in which the same soldier stuck his rifle into the bottoms of a group of young Palestinians whom he had lined up facing a wall.

One of the officers I talked to remembered reprimanding the soldier when he saw him picking fruit from a tree in the camp. The soldier retorted, “The branch is sticking out across the fence. That is known as being in the public domain. And in that situation I am allowed to pick fruit from the goyim.”

I located that soldier, too. He is now a rabbi and teaches in an education institution of the religious-Zionist movement. He refused to talk to me about his memories of Deheisheh.

Soldiers’ abuse of Palestinians was routine in the first intifada. Even those who tried to preserve their humanity were eyewitnesses, or at least heard about similar cases. Israeli society failed to address the phenomenon. It is still failing. Only the most extreme cases made it into the media. The punishments meted out to those involved were ridiculous.

‘Captain Shay’

It should have been easy to find Salam. The newspaper report stated that she lived in the camp’s southern section, which is relatively small. I remembered that her house was on a street that ran parallel to the highway. An aerial photo on Google showed that only two small streets fit the profile. A Palestinian fieldworker and journalist whose help I solicited was also optimistic. Ahmed Jaafri was born in Deheisheh and has lived there for all his 42 years. He knows the camp’s residents well. In our phone call he had already told me about a young woman named Salam who grew up exactly in that part of the camp. He did not remember the details of the event, as reported by Maariv.

When we met, Jaafri told me he was first arrested by the army when he was 12. He said he was interrogated for two weeks at Fara Prison and released in the middle of Nablus, alone and without any money. With the help of strangers, it took him two days to get back to Deheisheh. At age 15 he was arrested a fourth time for throwing stones and sentenced to four years in prison. Subsequently he spent another three years in jail. In 1992, when I got to Deheisheh, he was out.

“I was arrested a few times in that period, but always released on the spot.”

Maybe we were a merciful company?

“No,” he says. “You just weren’t quick enough to catch me throwing stones.” Walking with Jaafri through the alleys of Deheisheh brought to mind many memories: “This is where we threw stones from”; “This is where we started to chase you”; “I once hid in this courtyard”; “We did all kinds of searches in this house.” Just about every corner in the camp evokes memories of violence for both of us. In my case, it was a passing episode of eight months; in his case, a lifetime.

Much has changed in Deheisheh over the past 20 years. Additional floors have been added to many houses. Infrastructure has been upgraded, roads built. The graffiti scrawls have been replaced by spectacular wall drawings of Palestinian leaders and shahids (martyrs) from the camp. The iron fence that enveloped Deheisheh was demolished long ago, along with the concrete walls that closed off the narrow streets. Of the carousel, only the cage remains.

After the heritage tour of battle sites, Jaafri took me to Salam’s house. It lies on one of the two probable streets I found on Google’s satellite images. Outside the house, we met her grandmother and an uncle. The old woman sat on a plastic chair and complained of leg pains. The uncle was playing with one of the grandchildren. They said Salam was at work. In the meantime, we decided to go over the details with them.

From the very first question it was apparent that the story they remember is not the one that appeared in the newspaper. They said Salam had never fallen from the second floor and had never been saved by an Israeli patrol. “On the contrary,” they said, “she was once hit by a soldier’s club.” Jaafri pressed them with more questions, but Salam’s relatives rejected the existence of any connection between them and the story.

We tried to stir their memory with events and names from that period. They persisted with their denials until Jaafri mentioned the name “Captain Shay.”

At these words the uncle jumped up and said excitedly, “Captain Shay! Of course I remember him. I remember him well. He was a real bastard.”

I was stunned. “What did this Captain Shay do?” I asked with concern.

“Ah...” the uncle sighed, looking me in the eye. “He was a real troublemaker. He did searches and turned the house upside down. He also hit people. More than once. Sure I remember. I remember Captain Shay very well,” he declared.

Something about the uncle’s account was off-kilter. Salam’s house, too, didn’t look as I remembered it. Her house was on the other side of the street and had two floors. I suggested to Jaafri that we continue the search on the parallel street. On the way we stopped a few elderly people to ask if they remembered a soldier who saved a girl in the camp 20 years ago. No one remembered anything. For a moment, at least, I had the impression that Jaafri, too, no longer believed me.

The parallel street looked exactly as I remembered. In its center, on the right side, was a two-story house. The window from which the girl fell also looked exactly the same. A man and a woman were standing outside the house. Jaafri asked them if they remembered the story. There was no need to wait for the translation to grasp that they were the parents. The Abu Ajimas related that their daughter had fallen out of the second-floor window in the summer of 1992. They pointed to the window. But they said their daughter’s name was Majid and that the mother had saved her with her own hands after the fall.

The soldiers, she said, were not involved. “In fact,” she continued, “they detained me along the way. They let me go only after I begged and they saw Majid’s condition.”
When Jaafri pressed for more details, the account changed. This time the soldiers took the injured Majid from her mother’s hands and helped her get to the clinic. The more questions Jaafri asked, the sharper the mother’s memory became and the more the account matched the newspaper report.

I asked him to stop. For sure, I thought to myself, the mother has been telling her daughter for the past 20 years how she saved her, and the story constitutes telling testimony about what a good mother she is. I didn’t want to undermine her story. I asked about Majid. I was happy to hear that she had recovered from the fall. Her parents said she had been in hospital for three months with a serious head injury and then had undergone rehabilitation. She is now married and the mother of a son, is a schoolteacher and lives near her parents in the camp.

They suggested we visit her. I declined. The mother made coffee. We stood outside the house and talked about peace.

From there Jaafri took me to the carousel, which is now a popular monument commemorating the Nakba. Inside, on the corroded latticed iron, hang rusting keys, all that remains of the homes that were left behind before their owners went into exile and became refugees.

Tal Cohen