A Job Well Done

Colonel Harel Knafo, who has been commander of the Samaria Brigade for the past two years, left his position two weeks ago feeling very frustrated. So many military successes, and so little public recognition and prestige.

Avihai Becker
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Avihai Becker

Colonel Harel Knafo, who has been commander of the Samaria Brigade for the past two years, left his position two weeks ago feeling very frustrated. So many military successes, and so little public recognition and prestige.

"In the fighting units that have passed through this district there were dozens of Meir Har Zions," he declares, referring to the legendary commando who fought alongside Ariel Sharon in the 1950s. "Twenty years ago, books would have been written about the amazing operations carried out here by the elite units of the Paratroops, Haruv, Egoz, the naval commandos, and Duvdevan. Today? There's not a word about it in the newspaper. It isn't newsworthy. I don't remember a single instance of messing up or of cowardice under fire. I've been in the army for 21 years and I don't remember as glorious a period. The achievements are tremendous. The tragedy is that the feeling among the public is the opposite of what the army itself feels."

His paean to his soldiers goes on and on. "There has never been professionalism such as that demonstrated by these young soldiers. They say that the motivation of the young people is declining, that they are no longer imbued with a sense of mission, that volunteerism has disappeared - and I find that the exact opposite is true. Any way you look at it, whether we're talking about esprit de corps or about standards, if I compare them to the outstanding company in which I grew up in the Paratroops - they're far better. If only I as a platoon commander had reached their level. The conclusion is clear: The generation is becoming increasingly stronger, but the country doesn't know it."

Who is to blame? First of all the media, of course. "The story that the media present emphasizes the negative," says Knafo. "We, too, as an army, haven't really learned to tell the whole story. The result is that the picture that is presented to the nation, which makes it seem that there are more mishaps than achievements, is distorted and is costing us a high price as a society. It prevents the legitimization of our actions and leads the public to form opinions on the basis of partial information."

Knafo often entertains a heretical thought, along the lines of "What do they actually understand there in the bubble of the home front?" with a division into "us" and "them."

"A number of times," he says, "we have succeeded in neutralizing a suicide bomber who was already on his way, without his sustaining even a scratch. In effect, we saved his life. Did you read about that anywhere? Of course not. On the other hand, more than once we've been described as storm troopers."

This is not the first time that Knafo has felt this way, and he expressed his feelings in a conversation with a journalist. Six years ago, when he was an enthusiastic brigade commander in Lebanon, Knafo said to a Haaretz reporter: "I am familiar with quite a few examples of guerrilla warfare. Vietnam, Afghanistan, Belfast, the British Mandate in Palestine - nowhere else did the ruling side achieve results like ours against Hezbollah, which is an unsuccessful organization. But for some reason, the public doesn't know that. We are shooting ourselves in the foot. We have had enough high-caliber operations here that could have been turned into good stories in the media, it doesn't happen. If someone gets hurt, that immediately makes the headlines and brings whining in its wake."

This atmosphere, he implies, without saying it outright, led to the withdrawal from Lebanon, which was unnecessary.

"Thanks to organized thinking processes, excellent intelligence, amazing work on the part of the Shin Bet security services, high-quality units and commanders, and a little bit of luck and miracles, too, we have managed to be one step ahead of the enemy," says Knafo, proud of the achievements in the campaign against the Palestinians in his district.

"We have improved steadily, slowly but surely the heads of the [terrorist] organizations have disappeared - today's commanders are those who two years ago were No. 6. Our achievement in terms of prevention - almost zero terror attacks - is above and beyond my most optimistic assessments. We did that while simultaneously we are gradually reducing the size of the forces at our disposal, and in spite of that we are maintaining a high level of security. At the end of the period, I made do with less than half the number of forces that the brigade had when I began the job. For my part, the unbelievable has happened. Things that I didn't even dare to dream about have come true."

That's a picture of a decisive victory, but Knafo knows that the struggle isn't over yet.

"Is the situation likely to be reversed? Of course. Easily. Nablus is still a terror capital, although much less serious than in the past. At present, it's the source of almost 60 percent of the advance warnings of terrorist attacks in Judea and Samaria."

We were in the middle of this interview two weeks ago, sitting on the lawn of his home on the day after he had formally left his demanding post in the Israel Defense Forces. Suddenly, his mobile phone rang and Colonel Knafo was informed about a shooting attack on the outskirts of the settlement of Itamar. The security coordinator of the settlement had been injured by three bullets to the chest and was in critical condition, Knafo was told. Itamar's first response team had responded quickly, killing the Palestinian who fired, and thus preventing him from infiltrating the settlement. Twenty minutes later, Knafo received an update about the death of the injured man, Shlomo Miller.

"God takes the good ones, it's lucky that I'm bad," he responded. "Only yesterday, at my farewell ceremony, he received special mention."

Toward evening, at the funeral that took place on the Mount of Olives cemetery in Jerusalem, Knafo was among those who eulogized Miller. Twenty-four hours had not even passed since he had transferred command of the Samaria Brigade to his successor, Colonel Yuval Bazak. He didn't have time to feel the burden of responsibility lifted from him.

"No relief, just the opposite," says Harel Knafo. "I feel completely helpless. Not that things would have developed differently had I been there, but the thoughts that are running through my head are: Why am I here and not in Nablus?"

The gates of death

A senior officer compares Nablus to a cannon that sends tennis balls in all directions at a dizzying speed: "In order to keep up with the pace, you need a determined player who will send the balls back without getting tired, and will under no circumstances let them pass him by. It must be said to Harel's credit that he did the job with great skill." In the competition for the Chief of Staff's prize for 2003, the Samaria Brigade was ranked in first place.

Sixty wanted men were killed in the Samaria district during Knafo's term; during the same period, two Israeli citizens were killed there, in addition to five soldiers during defensive operations, and another five during offensives. Knafo is proud mainly of the fact that since the beginning of 2004, the home front has not been hit by any attack originating in Nablus, and that in 2003 only eight of the 166 warnings they received ended in attacks. The last mass suicide attack that emerged from Nablus, with 24 dead, was the massacre at the old central bus station in Tel Aviv in January 2003.

At midnight, on Knafo's last night in the district, he went out with Bazak for a last tour. Their convoy of armored vehicles first entered the narrow alleys of the Balata refugee camp. Outside, there was not a living soul to be seen, aside from some rats that scampered across the road and were caught in the headlights. Out of fear of them, the soldiers joke, cats walk around Balata only in pairs. The walls of the buildings that border on the market street, the main artery of the horribly crowded camp, are adorned with portraits of dozens of shaheeds (Islamic martyrs, including suicide bombers), with local casualties especially prominent. Knafo pointed out the staircase next to which Major Shahar Ben Yishai, a company commander, was killed in May, in a routine operation. In contrast, next to the alley where the schools are located he described in detail the operation in which "we brought down five armed men."

The patrol was marked by a relaxed atmosphere, as though it were no big deal, in clear contrast to the situation he encountered when he received the command of Nablus and its outlying towns.

"When I arrived we had incidents here left, right and center," he tells his replacement, Bazak. "Every entry into Balata required positioning three to four tanks in a row and massive firing on the camp, whether or not an enemy was identified. Only then did we storm the area, but by the time we got to the wanted men, half of them had already managed to escape."

Although the top echelons of the terrorist organizations were0 harmed in Operation Defensive Shield, continued Knafo, Nablus was still a center of resistance: "In Balata and in the casbah they had an organized defense system that included observers, armed men and bomb operators, which greatly limited the freedom of operation of our forces. Traveling as we are doing now was of course impossible. We neutralized all these threats. First we took care of Balata, and later we dealt with the casbah. Today we are in total control of the alleys.

The convoy of commanders traveled from the refugee camp to Faisal Street, in the heart of the city.

"There is a group of wanted men in Nablus, from the Al-Awda Brigades," explained Knafo to Bazak. "They are parallel to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, only younger and less organized. We removed their names from the lists, on condition that they don't have blood on their hands and subject to a certain commitment that they took upon themselves after conveying to us, via the coordination and liaison administration, the message that they want to stop being part of the cycle of terror because, and I am quoting them, `the gates of death have opened.'"

Putting up a mirror

Knafo has a permanent smile on his face and his behavior is stoic, free of mannerisms. He is 39 years old, married to Narkis, a teacher, and the father of three daughters: Tzlil, Shaked and Noga. As opposed to brigade commanders who boast of never being home, Knafo always took his vacations. He never missed his daughters' celebrations.

"Don't let Yuval tell you that it's impossible to get to a school graduation ceremony," he said from the platform at the farewell ceremony to Carmit Bazak, the wife of the incoming brigade commander.

Knafo was born to a Moroccan family and grew up in Mitzpeh Ramon. Fossils, snakes and scorpions served as his toys, the canyon was his playground. His family was religiously observant, but Knafo hung around with the secular children in the neighborhood. During high school he studied at the Kiryat Noar yeshiva in Jerusalem, in a framework that combined Jewish studies and instruction in electronics, but in 11th grade he stopped observing the mitzvot (religious commandments) and in 12th grade he removed his skullcap.

Knafo was drafted into a pilots' training course and when he was rejected, he chose the Paratroops. He joined the November 1983 company of Brigade 202, stood out from the beginning and was considered absolutely crazy about the army. He'll be the chief of staff one day, they wrote in the yearbook. Company commander, marriage, a year-long trip to South America, a return to uniform and to South Lebanon, commander of the brigade's engineering company, a slight injury in an encounter with a Hezbollah unit, commander of Brigade 890, operations officer in the Northern Command during the term of Major General Gaby Ashkenazi - these were the stations in his life until the present intifada. At the beginning he sat on the sidelines. But then Knafo, who was commander of the northern reserves brigade of the Paratroops (after serving as deputy commander of the regular Paratroops Brigade) at the time, signaled to everyone possible that he was ready to be posted in the territories.

"This is only the beginning, this story is not going to end tomorrow," he and other colonels who wanted to join the campaign were told. "Take a deep breath, wait patiently, we'll need you very much when things approach a showdown. There will be enough for everyone to do," he was assured by Brigadier General Yitzhak Gershon, the previous commander of IDF forces in Judea and Samaria.

While he was waiting for his turn, Knafo took advantage of all the free time he had to practice rock-climbing, both on the wall in Yarkon Park and in Wadi Shilat, not far from his home in the Modi'in area. Toward the end of August 2002, four-and-a-half months after the conclusion of Operation Defensive Shield, he was appointed commander of the Samaria Brigade in place of Colonel Yossi Adiri.

Recently the head of Central Command, Major General Moshe Kaplinski, invited Ilana Dayan of television's Channel 2 program "Fact" to a meeting with the top commanders, who are at the forefront of the battle against the Palestinians. "Put a mirror up to our faces," he requested, in the wake of a program she had broadcast about Nahal Brigade soldiers who put on an exhibit called "Breaking the Silence: Soldiers speak out about their service in Hebron." After prolonged duty in Hebron, the Nahal group provoked condemnation of the injustices of the occupation, and of the alleged corruption and moral obtuseness that is part of the activity in the territories. Knafo, who was present at the meeting with Dayan, reacted sharply to things she said. Dayan got the impression that he was in favor of belligerency.

"She repeatedly used the term `innocent Palestinian civilians,' which I don't accept at all," he replies. "They are not innocent, I argued, they're passive. Although they don't take an active part in terror, surveys conducted by the Palestinians themselves indicate that most of the inhabitants, about 90 percent, specifically state that they support the suicide attacks. In light of these statistics, I have difficulty seeing the Palestinians as an innocent population, whose only wish is to live with us in peace."

In the term "passive" he includes a "large community in Nablus. If things depended only on it, we would long ago have had Israeli-Palestinian coexistence, but their leaders behave otherwise and for their part, they do nothing to bring the leaders down. Ilana Dayan mistakenly concluded from my words that I had implied that they are not civilians at all. God forbid that I should claim such a thing. In my job I did everything possible to enable the Palestinians in my district to enjoy a reasonable way of life.

"When I took over responsibility for the district, the city was extinguished, the residents had taken out their last savings to survive, schools and the university were closed, the situation was completely intolerable. My first step was a request to remove the curfew, which had been imposed for nine months already. When I arrived, only 22 factories were open, now there are already 1,000. I'm happy that the economy is recovering."

The rate of unemployment has declined in comparison to the previous year, 37 percent as opposed to 50 percent, according to the statistics provided by the director of coordination and liaison. "The fact that there are thousands of residents of Nablus who go out to work, some of them even in Israel, and that security is maintained in spite of them, is a terrific success from my point of view. I personally am dying to get to the end of the conflict, the moment when the soldiers leave the checkpoints and the Palestinians can come and go without any limitations."

Index of exceptions

At the checkpoints, which are in effect the main point of friction between the IDF and the Palestinians, the ugly face of Israel has been revealed quite a few times in the form of harassment, maltreatment, wickedness for its own sake, bullying and the use of force. Now it's not only the left that says so. "Checkpoints are the weak point in the area of preserving human rights," Judge Advocate General, Brigadier General Menahem Finkelstein finally admitted in his appearance last week before the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

"Checkpoints are a bad solution, but they're still the lesser evil," says Knafo, defending the system. "The alternative to checkpoints at this stage is imposing a total curfew. In order to enable the population to enter and leave Nablus, I have to make it pass through a checking system and at the same time, with the help of forces that operate in the open areas, prevent it from infiltrating where there are no crossings. Nobody argues about the efficacy of the checkpoints. Of 547 wanted men who were arrested during my term, 237 were caught at the checkpoints."

The problem there, adds Knafo, is the rate of crossing. "The more time the Palestinians spend at the checkpoint, the more they suffer and the more the soldiers go crazy. This means that my clear interest is to improve the infrastructure and the work methods, and to enable them to pass through as quickly as possible. Otherwise they'll try to return to the option of infiltration, and then my ability to monitor terror will decrease."

I understood the logic. How much of that filters down to the last exhausted private who needs to find a release for his frustrations? The facts are that in your district, the number of complaints filed by the Palestinians is much greater than in any other area.

Knafo: "When it comes to ethical purity I have no feelings of inferiority vis-a-vis any nation in the world. It's true that every second complaint in the Judea and Samaria area comes from Nablus, but whoever gave you the statistics forgot to mention that the number of people who pass through the checkpoints here is many times greater than in the other districts. Another index is the number of incidents that we define as `exceptional.' During my tenure, we discovered 30 such incidents. That's just a drop in the bucket compared to what would have happened had we not reacted aggressively to the incidents. Soldiers were removed and punished severely.

"In the previous intifada, 30 exceptional incidents was a figure not for a brigade, but for a company. I'm not being naive about the problem, nor am I making light of it. I agree with the words of the judge advocate general, and that's also why I welcomed the women from MachsomWatch [a group of women who observe and report on the behavior of IDF soldiers at the checkpoints]; they are doing important work.

"It's clear that 19-year-old boys are less fit for carrying out this task than 40-year-olds. We as commanders are doing everything possible to improve the manpower posted at the checkpoints. Soon a permanent unit of the Military Police, which was specially trained for this task, will enter Nablus. Of course that's preferable to a platoon of infantry soldiers who are replaced once a month. Does the Samaria Brigade deserve a medal at this stage for the situation at the checkpoints? No. Does that mean that their ethical level is low? Absolutely not."

During that meeting with Ilana Dayan, when the discussion of the checkpoints became drawn out, it was obvious that Knafo was impatient, and that the direction of the discussion was unacceptable to him.

"We are torturing ourselves unnecessarily. If we're already touching on the subject of bankruptcy and ethical distress, I feel bad not because of what's happening now, but because of our behavior before Operation Defensive Shield. Hundreds of Israeli citizens were killed, and the State of Israel didn't react to the threat and didn't occupy the Palestinian cities that served as bases for terror. Of course we'll take care of the problem of the checkpoints, but as part of the overall picture it's a marginal issue, and not the main thing," he emphasized once again.

A national treasure

Another issue that leaves Knafo with a bad taste in his mouth, not to mention a sense of failure, is the unfinished business of Joseph's Tomb. "From the ethical point of view, the State of Israel should return there," he says. "And I'm not referring to the religious aspect, because that interests me less, but to the national aspect. We began the war with this asset belonging to us according to the Oslo Accords, we evacuated it at the start of the conflict, but here - although we have reached a situation where we have the upper hand - Joseph's Tomb is still not ours."

On this issue he blames himself. Unfortunately, he says, he was one of those who pushed to allow the regular monthly entry of worshipers to Joseph's Tomb, 10 buses each night, 15 trips during his tenure. From the moment that he turned it into a routine procedure, the infiltrations of the Bratslav Hasidim, which had caused his predecessor quite a headache, ceased. Ironically, even the fatal injury of Hasid Moshe Berber who was shot at from an ambush after prayers at the site in December 2003, helped Knafo obtain a permit to arrange the visits.

It is claimed that you have been captivated by the settlers.

"In my opinion, they are being done an injustice when they are described as lawbreakers. If you examine the rate of crime among them - murder, robbery, rape and drugs - in comparison to the population as a whole, you will discover that this is a community that has no parallel when it comes to obeying the law. Fifty years ago they would have been called heroes. Take for example Shlomo Miller, the security coordinator of Itamar, who was killed in the recent terror attack. He was one of the most level-headed, thoughtful and respectable people I have ever met. When we weren't strict enough with Jewish groups that were operating illegally in the area, he got angry at us.

"The 300 extremists in this camp, those who are living in illegal places and engaging in illegal activities, are a minute percentage. I didn't pay attention to them, I didn't have any contact with them, and using my authority as brigade commander I denied them help as much as I could - from the distribution system for weapons in the district to refusing to issue them a permit for their own security coordinator. When I was required to evacuate the synagogue in the settlement of Tapuah, and the outposts of Mitzpeh Yitzhar and Ein Horon, I did so with full force."

Knafo was correct in his contacts with the settlers, and because of that, they were fond of him. At his farewell ceremony, in addition to IDF personnel, rabbis and heads of local councils from the settlements were in attendance. In his speech he addressed them warmly, saying, "I am amazed at your ability to withstand all the difficulties and the upheaval," while in the same breath he called on them to show self-restraint and to stop those who are eager to provoke the IDF.

Knafo is embarking at present on a year at the Royal College of Defense Studies in London, where he will live with his family. There he will be waiting tensely to hear whether he has been chosen for one of the two jobs for which he is competing: commander of the Paratroops Brigade or commander of the Bahad (training base) No. 1 officers' training school. He dismisses out of hand the option of a "bronze medal," as commander of the Nahal or Givati Brigade. He is confident of his abilities, and is going for the gold. The first appointment was already in the bag for Colonel Haggai Mordechai, the outgoing commander of the Hebron Brigade, but it was canceled in the wake of an incident in March 2003, in which two security guards were killed by friendly fire at an outpost near the settlement of Pnei Hever. Now he is again being considered as a leading candidate.

Knafo is just as eager to get Bahad 1. In addition to the military challenge, he also considers the job a bonus, because it means returning to the landscape of his childhood, to Mitzpeh Ramon, his beloved hometown. When he left, like most of the members of the group among whom he grew up, he explained that he was leaving to spread the word about Mitzpeh to the world. From his point of view, that mission has been accomplished.

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