Freeze Frame

In February 1988 CBS cameraman Moshe Alpert filmed four soldiers carrying out Yitzhak Rabin's "break their bones" order against two Palestinian teens. Their bones didn't shatter, but Israel's self-image and its international image did. Now, 23 years later, one of the victims speaks out.

Shay Fogelman
Shay Fogelman
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Shay Fogelman
Shay Fogelman

Everyone's personal story is made up of moments, of brief images, of small, very specific flashes that are etched in the consciousness. An entire childhood cannot be recalled, but a certain toy is vividly remembered. A special friend. The look of a street. A lone poplar tree. A puddle and an electric coil heater on a cold day. The collective story, too, needs symbols to encapsulate complex processes and events. The Holocaust - the gate at Auschwitz. The Six-Day War - paratroopers weeping at the Western Wall. The first Lebanon war - soldiers singing "Red Elenu Aviron" and packing Yasser Arafat off on a boat to Tunisia.

The first intifada barely etched any symbols of the kind in the collective consciousness. The relentless pace of events, coupled with mechanisms of suppression and denial, has almost completely erased one of the most significant and formative periods in our recent history, and that of our neighbors, and of the relations between them. So many bullets had already been fired that hardly anyone was fazed by bones broken by clubs. Few icons from that time were etched into the Palestinian consciousness, too. "The leadership that came from abroad afterward sought its own symbols," explains Wa'al Hassan Jawda of Nablus. "But I have no complaints about that. For me, it was a formative event in life. And I've come to terms with the idea that it's been somewhat forgotten because I didn't start it, I didn't do anything heroic or special, so I wasn't looking for any reward or recognition for it."

Wa'al Jawda could have become a Palestinian icon for the first intifada. He and his cousin Usama Jawda were filmed, from a distance, being brutally beaten by four Israeli soldiers on a Friday afternoon in late February 1988. The footage, which lasts nearly half an hour, has never been broadcast in full, but just a few minutes were enough to send an entire nation reeling and to provoke furious reactions from all over the world. It was a hitherto unknown spectacle. Sheer savagery. The images broadcast that same evening on Israel's main television news program, "Yoman," brought the violence occurring in the territories sharply into the Israeli public's consciousness.

The head of the Israel Broadcasting Authority at the time, Uri Porat, previewed the tape and ordered that it not be aired in its entirety. Porat was later quoted as saying that after viewing the footage he consulted with news department director Yair Stern and "Yoman" editor Yael Chen, and that they had decided there were "horrors that needn't be broadcast on television." In the weeks that followed the images became the focus of public debate, newspaper headlines and clashes between Knesset members.

Wa'al Jawda at the site of the beating.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

The international response was unprecedented. "Angry viewers are calling Israeli embassies around the world with curses and threats," the main story in the edition of Maariv that followed the initial broadcast reported. Finnish state television warned viewers before showing the film: "Sensitive people and children are kindly requested not to watch this report." The top headline in Britain's Daily Mirror was "Israeli Torture Unit Captured by Television Crew." Le Monde led with "Fame and Shame," while a Spanish newspaper article titled "Sons of Hitler" was accompanied by a cartoon depicting the Fuhrer envying Israel's achievements. The Israeli embassy in Nicosia was attacked by an angry mob that Cypriot police barely managed to hold back. In Bonn, swastikas were painted on the walls of a building where Israeli embassy staff lived. A delegation of 180 Swiss reservist army officers announced that it was canceling its planned visit to Israel. In Amsterdam, angry graffiti was sprayed on the walls of an El Al office. The next day, Elie Wiesel said in an interview with the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, "I have never seen such intense hatred for Israel in the world."

Merciful rocks

"We are a family of farmers. We weren't involved in the demonstrations and events at the start of the uprising," Wa'al Jawda said last week at his home in Nablus. Now 40, married and a father of four, he works for the Palestinian income tax authority. His cousin Usama, three years his elder, lives nearby. He is married with three children and owns a computer shop in town.

"That day we took the sheep up on the mountain," Wa'al Jawda related. "From afar we heard the sounds of gunfire and shouting from the demonstrations in the center of town. In the afternoon, when we began to head home with the flock, we were surprised by four soldiers. They were about 100 meters away, and then they started running toward us. We didn't even try to run away. We didn't do anything. The sheep ran off. We just stood there until the soldiers grabbed us," recounts Jawda who still insists, 20 years later, that he was not involved in the disturbances taking place in the city that day.

A still from the 1988 video.Credit: Archive

The film documenting the minutes that followed that surprise encounter on a Nablus hill, between Wa'al and Usama and four soldiers from the Duchifat Battalion - then an independent anti-aircraft battalion - is still difficult to watch. In the middle of the frame are two Palestinians, sprawled on the ground and surrounded by the four soldiers. At times only three of them can be seen. All of them kick the teens vigorously. At least two of the soldiers take big rocks and mercilessly smash them against the two cousins. At one point a soldier holds one of the teen's arms as another soldier savagely hits it repeatedly with a large rock. The soldiers do not seem to be in any danger, nor do they seem disturbed by the events. They are utterly focused on meting out the beating, 25 minutes of which was recorded. Wa'al and Usama are seen lying on the ground, submissive, pleading for mercy, clutching their heads, writhing in agony, curling up in a desperate effort to shield at least part of their bodies from the soldiers' cathartic rage.

"The Palestinian rocks had mercy on us," Jawda says jokingly, trying to explain how he and his cousin somehow escaped the attack with only minor injuries. "I was bleeding from wounds on my shoulders and elbows, but my face hurt the most, from one of the kicks. The injuries from the rocks didn't hurt. Afterward the soldiers took us in a jeep to the Muqata, the old Civil Administration building. That evening they moved me to Fara'a Prison and left Usama because he didn't have an ID card. At night an officer came and took me back to the Muqata. No one said a word to me. They put me back with Usama, took us to eat and treated us relatively well. After that they put us in a detainees' tent. Then this senior officer entered - I later realized it was Amram Mitzna, the GOC Central Command. He told us everyone thought we were dead or seriously hurt, and a few minutes later he brought in about a dozen reporters and photographers. After they talked to us and asked how we were, Mitzna said we were free to go. We didn't quite understand what was happening, but we left the compound, we walked right out of the gate of the Muqata and couldn't believe it. I remember Usama telling me on the way that he thought they were pulling one over on the reporters. And I was afraid that we'd be arrested again the moment the cameras were gone. It was only when we got home that we understood that our story had been reported on television and the pictures had been seen all over the world," Jawda related.

Break their bones

The public uproar was intense. The soldiers were quoted in the press as having told their families that they were just following orders. "We were told to break arms and legs," they said, quoting Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin and, they claimed, their direct commanders too. They stuck to this claim in court. They received support and backing from friends and relatives, as well as from MKs and ministers, mostly from the right.

"If they need to shoot, they should shoot," Minister without Portfolio Yitzhak Moda'i said at the cabinet meeting following the event. "It's ridiculous to distribute instructions to IDF soldiers as to what's allowed and what's not allowed, and to ask them to take these instructions with them in their pocket during disturbances. When there's justification, it is proper to open fire." Industry and Trade Minister Ariel Sharon said, "There are methods for acting successfully against the Arab rioters," and he also protested the arrest of one of the soldiers on a Friday night, during Shabbat. "Is he a criminal? Would he have fled?" MK Rafael Eitan went so far as to say: "If you're going to send an army to impose order in Judea and Samaria, you have to treat them like an army. The Arabs that threw rocks ought to thank God they weren't shot at."

The soldiers - Saguy Harpaz, Aryeh Mualem, Yehuda Angel and Ronen Sasson - were said to be "good boys caught in an impossible situation." A mark in their favor was the fact that one was a kibbutznik: Harpaz (whose arrest was straight out of an action movie: Mitzna's helicopter landed at Kibbutz Gesher and Harpaz was whisked out of Friday night dinner in the communal dining hall by two military police officers ). The others were also said to be from good families. "I know my son is a decent person, he's a sensitive boy," Mualem's father, from Petah Tikva, told Maariv. "Why did they take him? To torture us? For weeks they were under a barrage of rocks. On the one hand, you've got Rabin saying to go after them with force, and others who say no. The soldier is trapped between the media and the army, and now they've made a total wreck of Aryeh." Aharona Angel from Rishon Letzion, said: 'The boys did their duty and they're the ones paying the political price." Shaul Sasson of Herzliya, said: "We feel humiliated. Ronen has become a victim of government policy. We do not hate Arabs and we never taught Ronen to do so."

Soldiers from the unit told reporters of their mounting frustration at their inability to cope with the civil uprising. A week before the incident, they said, Deputy Prime Minster Shimon Peres had visited the area, and it was Harpaz who asked, "Why aren't we permitted to use more force against the Arabs?" After the incident, Rabin met with the unit. "You gave us clubs. What did you think we would do with them?" one soldier asked.

Neighbors from the valley

The media came in for some harsh criticism. Labor and Social Welfare Minister Moshe Katsav called for the territories to be closed to all media coverage. "It has become apparent that the rioters in Judea and Samaria and Gaza are staging disturbances because of the media presence," he said. Other ministers agreed. Army Radio commander Nachman Shai suggested that the station hold "regular guidance sessions for soldiers on the issue," and Yedioth Ahronoth reported that Shai submitted a proposal to Rabin and IDF Chief of Staff Dan Shomron. Mitzna barred journalists from a number of "problematic" areas, especially on Fridays.

Television news cameraman Moshe Alpert, who was working for the U.S. network CBS at the time, was a particular target of critics who accused him of harming Israel's international reputation. In interviews to newspapers at the time he laconically described what he had seen and how he had filmed the events from around 300 meters away, using a telephoto lens. In an interview with Maariv, he practically apologized, saying that he used the long-range lens at demonstrations "to avoid making my presence felt in the field, so no one could say I was the cause of any agitation." He told Yedioth Ahronoth: "It may have been one of the biggest journalistic stories I've ever done, but I'd prefer to forget it very quickly. Unfortunately it was a crappy situation, but we live in a democratic state where the field is open to journalists. I was sent to fulfill my journalistic duty, and that's what I did."

CBS Jerusalem correspondent Bob Simon transmitted the footage to the United States. He and Alpert also brought the tape to Mitzna and asked him to watch it. "I'm not naive," Mitzna told Maariv. "I know this isn't the only incident, but it doesn't happen in sight of the commanders. This time we saw, and we were shocked. It goes beyond any gray area. This is pure sadism." The soldiers were arrested the same day.

"I happened to be there, along with a lot of other journalists. I saw it and I filmed it," Alpert told Haaretz last week, and then hastened to add: "I decided that I wouldn't talk about it. I've had dozens of inquiries over the years and I'm not prepared to speak about it, not even a sentence. I am not the story. You can call them how you see them," Alpert said.

Acquaintances say the incident was a significant factor in his leaving news work in favor of making nature documentaries. (His widely acclaimed "Land of Genesis" was released last year ). A close friend says that before the incident Alpert, who was born and still lives on Kibbutz Afikim, was very friendly with Harpaz' father. Kibbutz Gesher is just north of Afikim. "[Alpert] didn't recognize [Saguy Harpaz] during the incident," Alpert's friend says. "Afterward, when he realized who it was, he was very tormented about it." Another friend recalls that for a long time after the event, relations between the two kibbutzim were strained. Harpaz's family left Gesher, an event some members attributed to the fallout from the incident.

The four soldiers were originally given suspended sentences, but after the prosecution appealed the leniency of the sentencing they received brief custodial sentences, most of which were fulfilled by time served while awaiting trial. They returned to their unit but were prohibited from returning to action in the territories. Soldiers who served with them say at least one of the four did return to active duty of some type in the territories, but none were involved in any additional incidents.

Not even a phone call

Wa'al Jawda says he still vividly recalls the fury of the soldiers who beat him, and couldn't understand why they hated him so much. For years he was unable to forgive them, but today he is reconciled, he says. "They were basically enthusiastic kids who followed orders," he says in their defense, adding that as an income tax clerk he also sometimes has to follow orders that he isn't wholly comfortable with and which do not reflect his character.

For a number of years the Jawdas were minor Palestinian celebrities, and they were objects of admiration in the wider Arab world. "At the Arab League summit held a few days after the event, the Algerian president offered Usama and me a full scholarship to come and study there, but I was too young, I still had to finish high school, so it never happened," Wa'al Jawda says. He later went to Jordan for work, returning to Nablus only after the Palestinian Authority was established. Then he discovered that he and his entire generation, the rock-throwing kids of the first intifada, who did much to pave the way for the emergent Palestinian state, had almost completely vanished from public awareness.

"We never got a single phone call. No letter or message, nothing from any senior Palestinian official," Jawda says. "Honestly, we expected that somebody would contact us and say, such and such happened during the intifada, but there was nothing of the kind. People who meet me in the street and hear that I was involved in that incident are stunned and can't understand how the PA never gave us or the rest of our generation our due. The ones who came from abroad called themselves freedom fighters. What are they talking about? Them, fighters? Not a hair on their heads was touched during the struggle."

But it's also important to Jawda to emphasize that "the Jewish people deserve to live" and that he really wants Israelis to understand that "the Palestinian people deserve to live" as well. He is especially grateful to Alpert for exposing what happened and for preventing him from being detained falsely. Jawda says he would be happy to meet the former soldiers, and that he even hopes he could be their friend one day.

A wound that hasn't healed

None of the four former soldiers agreed to be interviewed for this article, nor did any wish to meet with Wa'al and Usama. Mualem, who now lives with his family in Shoham, said last week, before hanging up the phone: "It's far from me now and doesn't interest me. I have no desire to go back into this story. I see that things haven't changed and I see how Givati soldiers are being wronged just like we were. I have no need or desire to respond to or comment on the affair."

Yosef Angel, Yehuda Angel's father, says the incident was pivotal in his son's life, an event "that left a wound that hasn't healed. As far as I know, it's the same with the others." Angel says his son "was what was once called 'salt of the earth,'" and that he returned from his initial pre-enlistment evaluations "very disappointed because he was given a low physical profile. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of his big brother, who served in an elite unit, but his profile made him ineligible. Unlike many other parents, we believed the good of the child and his desires took precedence and we helped him to raise his profile. We appealed, we submitted documents. He was highly motivated, and his profile was raised.

"But after what happened, after the way they were treated and how they were arrested, like criminals, he felt betrayed and one of the first things he did after his discharge was to flee from here. He traveled the world and finally ended up stuck in America. It took a long time before he was ready to talk about it at all. We've spoken about it a few times over the years, but lately we've stopped. I'd say that to a certain extent we've come to terms with what happened."

The nameless affair

In the early days of the first intifada there were several similar incidents that were not filmed. The most famous of them was named after the Givati Brigade. Givati I occurred in January 1988, when several soldiers from the brigade beat to death a man who was resisting the arrest of his son, a wanted militant, in Gaza. The military court that convicted the soldiers ruled that an order to use violence as a punitive measure is clearly illegal. In Givati II, three senior officers were convicted for having instructed their soldiers to break the arms and legs of Palestinians. In their defense, the officers told the court that they received the order from their brigade commander, Effie Eitam and from GOC Yitzhak Mordechai.

Two other notorious incidents were the bulldozer affair, in which two Palestinians were buried alive, as punishment; and the Yehuda Meir affair, named for the Givati battalion commander who ordered his troops to beat Palestinians who were arrested in the villages of Beita and Hawara. Military Advocate General Amnon Straschnov decided to try Meir in a disciplinary hearing only, but the High Court of Justice accepted a petition submitted by four of the Palestinians and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and ruled that the alleged offenses were criminal in nature. Meir was court-martialed, demoted to the rank of private and discharged from the army.

The filmed incident in which the Duchifat soldiers beat Waal and Usama Jawda never got any particular moniker. At the time, the IDF Spokespersons Unit prohibited the disclosure of the units name. For a couple of days, the incident was referred to in the papers as the beating affair, but this soon lost its relevance. And the Palestinians recalled it as the breaking of bones, but that name, too, lost its uniqueness.



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