Becoming Israeli 101

When he watched the way members of Arik Sharon's mysterious commando unit comported themselves, the author knew he wanted to be one of them. They cut corners, and crossed red lines - but the army was ripe for a revolution in its norms of combat.

In the summer of 1952, I reported to the Israel Defense Forces intake base, even though I was not yet 17 years old. A year earlier, a few months before completing 10th grade, I had dropped out of school at Kibbutz Ramat David and started to work full-time in fodder. Later I was employed in mucking out the cowsheds and the poultry coops.

Mucking out was not among the more highly esteemed occupations on the kibbutz. It did not enjoy the nobility of field crops, the importance of the dairy or the fragrance of fodder. From Zvi Hayut, an older immigrant from Poland whose feet had frozen during his escape from the Germans, I learned the art of building large-sized blocks of manure. Anyone can throw together a pile of manure that is broad at the bottom and comes to a point at the top. Zvi Hayut knew better than anyone else how to built a block four meters high and more, with right angles and sides that will stand up to rain. Practical wisdom, Hayut taught me, is to combine straw and soft manure in the right proportions at the corners of the rectangle, to build it up from the walls in and to strictly maintain the perpendicular lines of the structure.

Eventually I learned that it is impossible to do this without a feeling for perfection and without a tendency toward aesthetics. I also came to understand that aesthetics is connected neither to smell nor to material. It is in the mind. For Zvi Hayut, it was also in the heart. What one has in one's head is forgotten with time; what there is in the heart remains forever. Of what there is in me today, there is also something of Zvi Hayut.

In the tent that was allotted to us until the completion of the intake process, I met Yitzhak Rosenstein from Kfar Baruch, a locale on the other side of the old train tracks in Afula. He proposed enlisting in the navy. I insisted on free access to the air. For a similar reason, I rejected the artillery corps. Closed places make me feel bad, I explained to him. The Golani Brigade and the Givati Brigade looked to us like corps that were too dull. We wanted something that would satisfy our adventurous urges. We agreed on the paratroops. When I was asked by the induction squad why I wanted to volunteer for the paratroops, I replied: personal challenge.

At that time there were only two kibbutzniks serving in the paratroop battalion: Uzi from Ramat Hakovesh and Mishka from Yif'at. I became the third. Kibbutzniks move in herds. At that time the kibbutz herd was flocking to the Nahal, a brigade that combined settlement with military service, perhaps wisely. Yehuda Harari's paratroop battalion was not suited to the kibbutz upbringing. At that time it was a magnet for athletes, especially boxers from the Maccabi and Betar associations, soccer players and quite a few young men with police records.

There was something of the Foreign Legion about it: individualists, adventurers and scrappers. Every morning Sukenik would walk among the beds in the long barracks from the days of the British army and collect the output of the morning's masturbation in a mess tin. The paratroop base and the girl soldiers' Training Base 12 were separated by a thin barbed-wire fence, trampled along almost its entire length. Soldiers would sneak into the girls' barracks most every night and cause riots. The night's rest was regularly disturbed by the shrieking of the duty officer's whistle every time she discovered boy soldiers in the girls' showers or in their barracks.

Those who were caught in the act were sentenced to a punishment of up to 35 days' detention in the battalion's holding cell. Most of them preferred Prison 4, because of the preferential treatment they had won from the jailers there after several violent confrontations. The thought of the battalion's holding cell was a source of terror for the soldiers in the unit. A run until the point of exhaustion, with a rifle held over one's head, or crawling through the mud with a backpack full of stones - these were the light punishments. Especially tough prisoners got a treatment in the interrogation room, from which they emerged bruised.

Harari, the battalion commander, a short, slim and springy man, was a believer in the concept of action in small squads behind enemy lines. He had enlisted in the British army during the war, won a citation for bravery in battle, joined the "Avengers" unit that assassinated Nazis after the war, and secretly organized the illegal movement of Jews from Hungary to Italy.

As a disciple of the British school, Harari took a very stern approach to matters of discipline, spit and polish, a short military haircut and personal courage. A paratrooper who was required to parachute behind enemy lines and act there on his own or in a small squad, held Harari, needed a large measure of courage. He believed in the settlement of disputes between soldiers, including complaints against commanders, in an orderly boxing match, in an improvised rope ring. Harari himself accepted the invitation of one of the soldiers in the battalion to a "fair fight," and knocked him down in the first round.

The manly code that prevailed in the battalion attracted scrappers who were looking for an excuse to defend the honor of the unit. A suitable opportunity came their way in a large IDF maneuver in 1953. A paratroop force infiltrated the headquarters room of the "Greens" or the "Reds," but the military police hastened to spoil their fun. Harari was not long in reacting. An unofficial order gave everyone who beat up an MP a 24-hour furlough.

For Harari, esprit de corps stood on three legs: personal courage, daring and pride in the unit. In return the soldiers benefited from the turning of a blind eye in certain areas, such as the recruiting of improvised means of transportation in order to return to the base on time. Dozens of stolen cars left along the road to Tel Nof every Sunday were included in the blind-eye agreement.

Charlie was especially proficient in esprit de corps. On one of the few occasions he chose to return to the base by bus, he asked the driver to stop at the Tel Nof junction. The driver explained to him that the Tel Aviv-Be'er Sheva express line did not stop en route. Charlie was not persuaded and insisted on alighting at the intended place. As the bus approached the Tel Nof junction he opened the back door and jumped out. He knew that the passengers were looking out the back window to see whether he would get up. So, Charlie picked himself up, straightened his back, waited until the bus disappeared around the bend to Moshav Kidron. Only then did he allow himself to flop back down on the roadside. He explained to the driver of the military vehicle who picked him up that for him a man's word was his word.

Basic training was relatively easy. The emphasis was placed on physical fitness and personal courage. In a compulsory exercise for rookies, two soldiers were made to stand facing each other a few meters apart and were ordered to light a firecracker and pass it back and forth between them until it exploded. At that time there were no protective gloves and goggles in the IDF, and if there were, they were not intended for basic training exercises. In any case, the firecracker exercise was just openers for the real thing: maneuvers with live ammunition. The instructor would advance behind the crawling soldiers and fire from the hip into the ground, about a meter in front of their heads. Advancing on a fortified target was done in a frontal line, with the machine-gunner firing rounds of bullets two meters ahead of the attackers' feet. Good cover was measured by the number of holes in the attackers' pants caused by shrapnel from rocks that shattered in the shooting.

Unfortunately for Harari, the live-fire maneuvers and personal courage did not yield the hoped-for fruits. Crossing the Green Line (the 1948 armistice lines that constituted the border until the Six-Day War) in the reprisal actions that were delegated to the battalion drained the courage from the soldiers' veins. The assaults on the villages of Beit Likia, Idna and Rantis ended in searing failure. A paratroop force that set out for Beit Likia had to turn back, because it had forgotten to take along sappers. At Idna, the force was discovered, it came under fire and it retreated with one man dead and a second soldier missing. At Rantis, the village watchman fired into the air and thwarted the attack of a special assault force on the house of the village mukhtar. A company of rookies, which was supposed to have paralyzed the village with 2-inch mortars, took up position beyond range of the village. In the retreat they laid explosive charges under a terrace on the slopes of the village and blew it up successfully. The code of honor, which worked wonderfully well in crisply ironed dress uniforms, evaporated from the sweaty battle dress.

Rumors spread of a mysterious commando unit that was about to be seconded to Paratroop Battalion 890. People in the know related that the command of the battalion was going to be put in their hands. One day the 101 band appeared at the gates of the camp. They were wearing a ragtag mix of civilian clothing and military items, most of them had sandals on their feet, some of them had grown wild hair and few of them were shaven. Their appearance was analyzed that evening in the sergeants' and officers' bar. Anyone with eyes in his head could see that the glory of the paratroop battalion could not be entrusted to this barefoot bunch. The analysts determined that this strange episode would be erased from the battalion's history even before the ink dried on the seconding paperwork.

The 101 soldiers were lodged in a number of barracks at the camp's edge. No one saw them holding morning parades for shaving inspection and weapons cleaning, but the sharp-eyed did observe that their Tommy guns and Schmeissers were always clean and oiled, their personal battle gear was organized and before every sortie they did a weapons check inside the barracks. Their marches, navigation exercises and assault maneuvers were always longer and more exhausting than any that had ever been held in Battalion 890.

The reprisal action against the village of Qibia, under the command of Ariel Sharon, afforded the first cooperation between the two units. The results were harsh. Radio Jordan reported 40 houses blown up, with their inhabitants inside. The total number killed: 69 civilians. The world sharply condemned the action, and in this country as well its reverberations caused profound shock. David Ben-Gurion believed Arik, who said that his soldiers had acted in the knowledge that the houses slated for demolition had been empty of people.

In the battalion, rumors spread about incidents of vandalism and acts of abuse on the part of soldiers of the B Company of the paratroops. There were those who were ashamed and those who were proud that the paratroops had proven to the 101 fighters that they were no less combat soldiers than they. If Arik had hoped that the joint military action would create fighters' solidarity and comradeship between the two units, he was wrong. The sense of alienation felt toward him by the officers of Battalion 890 only increased.

Neither did the Qibia action determine the question of the command of both units. For his part, Harari was convinced that Unit 101, which numbered no more than 60 soldiers at the time, would blend with his battalion, under his command. After all, he was heading a regulation unit that numbered hundreds of soldiers, operated an orderly administration and represented an organized chain of command. In addition to which, he was a lieutenant colonel, whereas Arik was only a major.

Counter to the general mood, my enthusiasm was for Arik and the 101, and not only because most of them came from the labor Zionist agricultural settlements. Their daring and their level of soldiering captured my imagination. Their incursions deep into Jordanian territory put to shame the mystical fear among soldiers of the battalion of crossing the Green Line and let the air out of the sanctified principle of surprise. In the doctrine of the 101, being revealed to the enemy before reaching the target was little more than a nuisance that could be worked around. The principle of surprise was replaced with the principle of sticking to the goal, and not returning before it is achieved. Their demonstrative scorn for external appearances captivated me.

They replaced the formal hierarchy of ranks with natural authority that was derived from leadership ability and uncanny knowledge. This emphasis on the essence was a fresh breeze in a battalion that had put its esprit de corps into neatly pressed uniforms, polished brass tabs, shined shoes and precision marching maneuvers.

My affection for 101 was not long in arousing criticism of me, especially on the part of the parachuting instructors, of which I was one at the time. Parachuting instructors during the period of Yehuda Harari were considered the nobility of the battalion. In his eyes, their occupation embodied both the supreme level of courage demanded of a paratrooper on the day of reckoning and the uniqueness of the paratroop battalion as compared to ordinary infantry units. It was only natural that the instructors lined up as one man behind Harari, especially as most of them, like him, came from Hungary. My private conversations with Arik struck them as acts of defiance, and within a short time I was marked as a fifth column.

Arik was aware of the opposition that had arisen against him among the old guard, apart from a handful of officers like Davidi, Conforti, Saguy and Bardonov. He knew that his appointment as commander of the paratroop battalion had not yet been decided at the command, nor at the General Staff, and it was important to him to show anyone who was watching him that the melding of the two units under his command was possible. For this reason he was pleasant to everyone who happened to be in his vicinity. He requited me by giving me permission to join a reprisal action as one of the fighters.

Five months after its establishment, Unit 101 was dissolved and merged with Battalion 890 - under the command of Ariel Sharon. The ceremony of transfer of command reinforced the sense of disaster among the battalion's veterans. On a Friday morning the soldiers of the battalion stood in formation on the parade ground facing the flagpole and the flag. When the battalion went to "present arms," lieutenant colonel Yehuda Harari entered the parade ground in a pressed uniform, cleanly shaven, stepping in time to the unheard sounds of a military march. In the presence of the silent parade Harari briefly read out the orders of the day and ended with an expression of his certainty that his separation from the battalion would be brief. He did not repeat MacArthur's words, "I shall return." He made do with "Until we meet again," but no one misunderstood his intention.

At the end of his remarks Harari read the names of the officers who had chosen, in a demonstration of loyalty, to leave together with him. Everyone whose name was called stepped out of the ranks of the parade and reported smartly to stand next to him. It was possible to hear the tapping of Major Marcel Tobias' heels in the nearby air force base. More than anyone else Tobias symbolized "the paratroop heritage." His gruff personality, his physical strength and his concern for his rookies had become legendary in the IDF of those days. With his line of loyalists standing beside him, Harari turned to Arik Sharon, who was waiting at the edge of the grounds. Arik ambled toward him in steps that were at half the pace of Harari's silent march. His shirt was not tucked into his belt and his hat was stuck carelessly on his head.

If Harari had planned the parade in advance to demonstrate the gap between the British school and one of the bastards of the Palmach school, he could not have chosen a better representative of the latter than Sharon. I do not remember that Arik spoke. And if he did speak, it was an anti-climax, like the salute he gave Harari, which was the most embarrassing thing I had since since my conscription.

Within a few weeks it became clear to everyone that Unit 101 had not melded into Battalion 890, but rather Battalion 890 had melded into Unit 101. If in Harari's day, the veteran soldiers had been treated to easy desk jobs prior to the end of their service, with Arik Sharon the worst punishment was the transfer of a soldier from a combat company to command headquarters. The flow of kibbutzniks to the battalion led to a cultural revolution, albeit a partial one. Without anyone noticing, two schools existed in the battalion in parallel: The mostly kibbutznik school, which was given its unique expression 10 years later in the book "Siah Lohamim" ("The Seventh Day") in which soldiers spoke about their feelings after the Six-Day War; and alongside it a blunt soldierly school, exempt from soul-searching in its encounters with the enemy. Each of these schools shut its eyes to the existence of the other.

Like most people, on the occasion of the transfer of command to Sharon I felt a pang in my heart. Yehuda Harari was a decent person of impeccable integrity, courageous and a man of honor. I assume that he was a good commander, but for a different time and different circumstances. The IDF of those days was in need of the blunt determination of people like Arik Sharon and Meir Har-Zion, even though they cut corners and crossed red lines time after time. The army was ripe for a revolution of consciousness in its norms of combat; it needed a shakeup that would cause it to stand up inside the country's porous borders and restore to itself the confidence that it had lost in the failed actions at Tel Mutilla, Idna and Rantis.

This shakeup indirectly helped determine my Israeli identity. It eliminated the adventurous element from my military service and replaced it with a recognition that someone had to defend the borders of the country and its sovereignty, and that no one was going to do this in my stead. My national roots were short, but long enough to ensure my loyalty to the country in which I had grown up, whose language I spoke and in which I was destined to raise my children.

Despite the shallowness of these roots, my total commitment to the state was not dependent on its size, was not based on ancestral rights and was not conditional on a return to the historical boundaries of the kingdom of Israel. Perhaps from the point of view of the late Rechavam Ze'evi (in his speech to the Knesset of July 24, 1995), my place is not here. A Jew who is prepared to relinquish the tombs of the patriarchs, or has no roots in Jewish tradition, or is not faithful to the Land of Israel, asserted Ze'evi, is here by mistake or by chance. And because he is not prepared to fight for the homeland, it is better for us that he get up and leave.

As someone who does not have roots in the Jewish tradition and is also prepared to relinquish the burial places of the patriarchs, I am one of the proofs of Ze'evi's error. I am aware of the hardships that the Jewish people has endured, I acknowledge its national-religious connection to this land and I feel profound empathy toward it for what it has been through. I believe that the persecutions it experienced at the hands of the nations of the world after it was exiled from its land entitle it to a state of its own. A Jewish state, whose people will not face persecution because of their religion and their origins.

The injustice that the return to Zion has caused the Palestinian people is not a trivial matter. But it could have been immeasurably less traumatic had the Palestinians not rejected the United Nations partition resolution of 1947 and had they not headed a coalition of Arab states that tried to wipe the State of Israel off the map. The continuing misery of the 1948 refugees is above all a result of their political decision to perpetuate their temporary status in the neighboring Arab countries and to prevent their settlement in sister countries in conditions far better than those given to the millions of displaced persons from the Balkans and Central Europe after World War II.

The ball is still in their hands. The establishment of an independent Palestinian state, vibrant and flourishing in the territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, depends on two conditions: the relinquishing of the demand to return the refugees to the area of the State of Israel, and an end to the violence. All of the rest is solvable, including the issue of Jerusalem. I feel sorry for the Palestinian people, but I do not feel a need to apologize to it.

Zvi Yanai's book "Yours, Sandro" (Hebrew) was published in 2006 by Keter Publishing House.