Night of the Broken Truncheons' Redux

The population of Ariel includes more than a few 'old-school Israelis,' who are incensed when others stick them with labels like 'bloodthirsty' when it comes to Palestinians. I turn to these decent people: Why would you place this dubious character as your leader, who would only stain all of you?

Usually I am not really interested in who will be the mayor of Ariel. As far as I'm concerned, it is on the other side of the mountains of darkness. But the choice this time has tremendous public and moral significance which is, in fact, of extreme interest to me.

One of the leading candidates in the election campaign now under way is a man named Yehuda Meir. On this page 15 years ago, during the first intifada, on May 4, 1989, I wrote an article entitled "Night of the Broken Truncheons," which sent a shock wave through the country. I doubt it would shock the country today.

In the article, I related an "incident" that took place in Hawara, a village near Nablus, in late January 1988. The auxiliary company of one of the better-known battalions was given an order to gather 12 people in the village. They were gathered by the mukhtar (village chieftain) at night, without putting up any opposition. The soldiers cuffed them - hands and feet - walked them out to a nearby orchard, and had them lie down on the ground. Then they stuffed their mouths with "flannelit" (cotton strips usually used to clean rifles), so they would not be able to shout. And then the soldiers obediently followed orders: "Break the Palestinians' two hands and two legs with truncheons. Without any blows to the head. After breaking their hands and legs, leave the cuffs on and leave the people out there in the field. And leave a "local" with broken hands but unbroken legs, so that he can run to the village and call for help." During the operation, several of the wooden truncheons used to beat the Palestinians were broken.

After the violent incident was exposed here, retired judge Amnon Strashnov, who at the time was the army's Judge Advocate General, determined that a "blatantly illegal order" was given in Hawara, "the refusal of which was obligatory," but he nevertheless decided to try the lieutenant colonel who gave the order in a disciplinary tribunal, and not a criminal trial.

While all this was going on, the officer was even promoted to the rank of full colonel. Then-chief of staff Dan Shomron meted out a "severe reprimand," and the army some time later lent him to the Shin Bet security services, without reducing his rank or privileges.

The High Court of Justice had this to say about the ignoble behavior of the army: "What could be unclear about this sort of blatantly illegal order, which as the Judge Advocate General put it, has a `black flag flying over it' and even an obligation not to obey it?"

It was only after the High Court's comments that the colonel was placed on criminal trial, busted to private and discharged from the army. It is important to note that this hooligan in a uniform was not sentenced to even a single, symbolic day in jail.

The name of that senior officer is Yehuda Meir, and he is now a candidate for the exalted position of mayor in the occupied territories. In those days, 15 years ago, people still spoke of "exceptions" and "bad weeds." Today we know the truth: the bad weeds have taken over the garden. Not a day goes by in which another act of abuse doesn't come to light, and one can only guess what we never find out.

Nevertheless, I still believe that the night of the broken truncheons in Hawara was the blackest night in the annals of the intifadas, and for one simple reason: the faces of the auxiliary company were no different than the faces of the entire country. The company included veteran Israelis and newer immigrants, city dwellers and kibbutzniks, Sephardim and Ashkenazim, and not a single one of them got up and said: I will not carry out this war crime, I am not a part of this.

In an interview recently given by Yehuda Meir to a local newspaper in his city Ariel, he does not express - heaven forbid - any remorse. On the contrary, he claims that he is in good company: with Ariel Sharon, who "got in big trouble," as he puts it, in Sabra and Shatila; with Ehud Barak, who "escaped by the skin of his teeth," he says, from the Tse'elim B affair; with Ehud Yatom, whose "name was linked to the manslaughter of an Arab in the Bus 300 affair, received a pardon and is now a member of Knesset;" and Effi Eitam, "who was a commander parallel to me during the first intifada, in the Gaza sector, and whose name was linked to issuing blatantly illegal orders, and who has served as a cabinet minister. My conscience is clean."

He also accuses groups of the left, and their leader Yossi Sarid, "who saw to it that the affair was publicized through the media." I confess my guilt, of course.

There is more than a little truth to what Meir says, and I doubt that Israel could find itself a more credible and expert "state's witness" than he. Perhaps someday he will be prepared to give this same testimony to The International Court in The Hague, and it is not hard to guess what verdict would be given there, or in any other court, to anyone that Yehuda Meir sits together with on the defendants' bench.

The population of Ariel includes more than a few "old-school Israelis," who are incensed when others stick them with labels like "bloodthirsty" when it comes to Palestinians. I turn to these decent people: Why would you place this dubious character as your leader, who would only stain all of you? Why would you once more sully the good name of an entire country by having others say: look who those Israelis are electing? I am certain that there are among you also upright, upstanding candidates. Vote for one of them - which one I don't care - and you will have voted well.