Apocalypse Then

"Mibeirut Lejenin: Milchemet Levanon 1982-2002" ("From Beirut to Jenin: The Lebanon War 1982-2002") by Irit Gal and Ilana Hammerman, Am Oved, 155 pages, NIS 64.

"Mibeirut Lejenin: Milchemet Levanon 1982-2002" ("From Beirut to Jenin: The Lebanon War 1982-2002") by Irit Gal and Ilana Hammerman, Am Oved, 155 pages, NIS 64

This is a modest book in terms of both its dimensions and its layout. However, the naive exterior belies a disturbing document that will unsettle - and, first and foremost, be a real eye-opener for - the reader. So much of an eye-opener, in fact, that despite, or perhaps precisely because of, its subversive content, had I been a member of the committee deciding who should be awarded the Yitzhak Sadeh prize for military literature, I would have given my vote to this book.

On the other hand, this is not the sort of book that you should read before going to sleep after a long, tiring day. "From Beirut to Jenin" is the story of how an entire generation woke up to a somber reality - a generation that had gone off to war with trumpets blaring and returned home, in the best of instances, with many questions and much confusion. Thus, this is a book that should be carefully read only in the afternoon.

Irit Gal and Ilana Hammerman have a thesis that they want to promote: A single thread directly connects then and now, and nothing has changed in the past two decades. This is the raison d'etre for the book's title and the meaning behind its subtitle. This is also the reason for the photograph on the cover - whose central figure, surrounded by soldiers, is Ariel Sharon, then defense minister and today prime minister. However, the thesis is only a recommendation. Even if readers do not adopt the position of the book's editors, even if they do not accept the relevance of Israel's immediate past involvement with Lebanon to the country's present situation, they will still find this book a thoroughly gripping read.

"From Beirut to Jenin" is based on 14 testimonies by Israeli fighters from the infantry, armored corps, artillery and the Israel Air Force. The witnesses include both conscripted and reserve soldiers, from the rank of sergeant to that of lieutenant colonel. Each testimony in itself is a good reason to spend some time with this book.

A skilled scriptwriter and a skilled film director - the thought suddenly crosses my mind - could link all the monologues, weave them into something akin to director Robert Altman's film "Short Cuts," and thereby turn them into electrifying action-packed cinema.

Name, military occupation, rank, year and place of birth, address, number of children and present occupation - this is the meager information supplied to the reader about the characters who tell us their story. The narrators themselves are not important; what they say is. This book is very different from the one that came out after the June 1967 Six-Day War, in which the soldiers who fought in that war talk about their experiences and feelings. Unlike those monologues, what we have here is a book in which all the narrators are telling their own personal story; furthermore, the testimonies were recorded two decades after the events and not immediately afterward. One would have thought that the time gap would be a stumbling-block; however, it must be said to the book's credit that, in most of the depictions, the sense of authenticity has been preserved and the fighting is still continuing, as strong as ever.

This is not a book about the generals who determined the war's progress, nor is it a book about the military forces that were involved or about the war's missions or stages. The added value of "From Beirut to Jenin" is its ability to focus the spotlight on the individual, on the rank-and-file soldiers. This book wants to know what they experienced, is interested in learning about the truly difficult hours, but does not ignore the inspiring moments. "From Beirut to Jenin" carefully examines the feelings of soldiers, analyzes the mechanics of heroism as well as those of fear, and takes a close look at the war's implications on later stages in the lives of its participants.

Although the editors do not consider the war in Lebanon to have been a justified military engagement, they do display considerable empathy for the young men who participated in that war, even if they did go off to war with gung-ho sentiments. Gal and Hammerman are even empathetic toward those individuals - a small minority - who, over the years, have not changed their views and who believe now, as they did in the past, that this was a thoroughly justified war.

Blood-chilling confession

One could think of any number of reasons for staying glued to "From Beirut to Jenin." However, one extremely powerful reason for the book's fascination is the blood-chilling confession of Ofer Braver (this is his real name), who today owns a computer company in Hod Hasharon. Rarely does one come across such a high degree of frankness. Givatayim-born Braver was a real "goodie two-shoes" - a "true patriot" who only wanted to serve his country. He grew up in a home that was thoroughly permeated with Zionist values, he was active in the Scouts movement, and he considered "self-fulfillment" not just a Zionist motto but rather a way of life. At induction time, he went along with his Nahal Corps nucleus of friends to serve at Kibbutz Holit in the Kidmat Sinai region. In the first election campaign in which he could vote, he cast his ballot for the right-wing Tehiya party. He regarded being sent to the officers' training course at the Israel Defense Force's training base No. 1 as a perfectly natural stage in his life.

Here we have all the makings of a great biography. The only problem was that Braver was a weak-kneed platoon commander whose failures, in the context of the war in Lebanon, were awarded a seal of approval. In the capture of the Rashidiya refugee camp, he was placed in charge of the unit in his battalion that was responsible for pinning down the enemy forces and providing cover for those participating in the battalion's offensive actions. Regrettably, he had no sense of direction, he had not seen the maps and he was not even familiar with the village he was supposed to be capturing. As he puts it, he did not know whom to cover or even why. When a figure was suddenly spotted on the roof of a nearby building and the soldiers under his command begged him, "Let's just take him down," he gave the order "Fire!" - feeling at the time that he had no other alternative. Two people were hit. His soldiers went delirious with excitement. Not surprisingly, it quickly emerged that they had fired upon Israeli soldiers, one of whom was seriously wounded.

Braver makes no attempt to let himself off the hook. He describes a naive young boy whom he had fired at but missed, much to his regret. He mentions a frightened old man whom he had ordered to be fired upon, with a rifle-launched anti-armor grenade, on the pretext that the man was a walking bomb. He talks about a routine morning parade that was interrupted when a shell fired by IDF troops fell among the ranks, killing five of his soldiers. He notes the extreme pleasure he derived from smashing a television set with the butt of his rifle. He mentions blunders that followed each other in rapid succession.

In his testimony, he does not leave out the practice of looting that spread like a contagion throughout his battalion; or the soldiers under his command in Beirut who got bullets between their eyes because he had not positioned them properly behind their shelters; or the ambush that he was placed in charge of and which fired upon imaginary terrorists. As if all this were not enough, at the end of the ambush incident, all the soldiers who had taken part - including himself - were wounded because of an accident. And that is how "to my good fortune," he takes pains to point out, he and those wounded soldiers finished their role in the war.

Living a lie

When he returned home and his friends expressed their admiration for the combat duty he saw in Lebanon, he would merely nod his head without bothering to correct their false impression. When he wanted to "start up" with a woman, he would blandly describe in great detail his exploits. All those who knew him or of him considered him a hero. For years, he knowingly lived a lie until one day, he just could not bear the shame any longer. He chose to tell the truth, no matter how grim it was. That was the only way he could free himself from his horrible burden. He later learned, to his utter amazement, that the events in which he had participated had already become exemplary incidents in his battalion's "combat saga." Not one word had been mentioned concerning the chain of scandalous actions in which he and others had participated.

Braver's story is only one of many examples that could be cited. Contrary to what readers may think, his tale is not an isolated incident. Israelis who served in Lebanon will recognize many of Braver's experiences, although their own particular stories may be slightly or even considerably different. I am talking here about Israeli soldiers who went into Lebanon with strong patriotic feelings and who may even be very courageous individuals. For Braver, Lebanon was a watershed that drastically changed the way he thought about war. For Braver, the luster of glory on the battlefield is now much dimmer.

Many of those who offer their testimony in this book report similar changes in their own perspectives. The smell of gunpowder no longer arouses them. Quite the opposite: In the wake of the war in Lebanon, their attitude toward the State of Israel has changed. Braver and those like him, whose stories are just as emotionally charged, constitute one aspect of "From Beirut to Jenin."

The second emphasis in the book concerns the Sabra and Chatila affair from an angle that neither the media nor the IDF nor the Kahan Commission that investigated it touched upon. The thorough and penetrating research that Gal and Hammerman have engaged in was certainly painstaking work. They devote six testimonies to that topic and this large number is certainly justified. After reading them, even those who up until now have found it difficult to understand how Israel could be held accountable for a massacre of Palestinians by Christians will no longer be able to remain indifferent.

It is doubtful whether, since its creation, the IDF was ever itself in such a situation. "When we returned to Israel," recounts the executive director of the development company responsible for the Modi'in district, Asher Fahan (one of the company commanders in Armored Corps Battalion 429, which was commanded by former director of Military Intelligence in the IDF, Major General Amos Malka, and which surrounded the two refugee camps while the massacre was being carried out), "Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan arrived and called a meeting of all the officers in the brigade from the rank of company commander and up. The meeting was held in the clubhouse in Yitav, which was the unit's permanent base. We saw before us a chief of staff whose voice was choked with emotion and who was telling us what he had done in the past and what contribution he had made to the State of Israel. Now, he told us, people were trying to blacken his name and to present him as a war criminal. He wanted the deputy battalion commander who had leaked the story to journalist Ron Ben-Yishai to stand up. No one did."

Ultimate statement

The dynamics noted in Malka's battalion are astonishing and should be subjected to close analysis in a course on leadership. Ilan Hauser, the owner of a print shop who was a headquarters company commander, was consumed by doubt - so he states in his testimony - on the direction the war was taking. On his first furlough, he went to see the then education minister, Zevulun Hammer, in his home in Bnei Brak. Hauser, nervous, knocked on Hammer's door. He told Hammer what was happening on the battlefront, stage by stage, and told the minister that the government had been deceived and that someone was responsible for having misled the cabinet. It was late Friday afternoon and the Sabbath was about to begin; Hauser therefore asked permission to leave. Hammer replied that what he was reporting could be placed in the life-and-death category (the Sabbath can be violated to save a person's life, according to Jewish law) and therefore said that Hauser could stay a little longer. This is just one picture of many.

A third company commander, Ilan Friedland, a senior executive in a communications firm, describes the moment that dramatically changed his outlook. He relates how things that had previously not bothered him suddenly began to set off all the alarms in his head. That moment was when he and his battalion commander simply wanted to report what was happening in the two refugee camps and were met with utter indifference. The response they received was "We have heard nothing, we have seen nothing, we are looking into the matter, thank you, you can go now, you are dismissed."

To this very day, Friedland cannot understand why he and the battalion commander reacted the way they did. They demanded to see the division commander. He was not in. They therefore demanded to see the deputy commander. The conceit and arrogance he displayed when he talked with them only strengthened their resolve and they set off for the media center at Baabda in search of a journalist to whom they could transmit the information they had on what was going on in Sabra and Chatila. That is how the leak happened.

However, Friedland does not stop there and goes on to describe in detail what precisely took place in the battalion when the Kahan Commission was appointed: The entire senior command of the IDF began to visit the base every day, engaging in what could be interpreted as matching testimonies and cover-ups. He also describes how he was deliberately not summoned to testify before the commission although he had seen with his very own eyes what had happened. Even those who are not "true-blue liberals" will be shocked by what Friedland has to say.

The material in this book drives its point home in a relentless manner. Along with the testimonies, Gal and Hammerman offer their readers introductions, a diary of events, maps, and the text of the minutes of a session in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in which the members of Knesset approved, by a majority of 94 to three, Prime Minister Menachem Begin's announcement regarding the decision to launch the war in Lebanon. This wealth of information, which blends facts with personal experiences, makes "From Beirut to Jenin" the ultimate statement on that war. To what extent does the Israeli public want to know the facts in order to at least arrive at some concrete conclusions? This point is unclear.