A Death Wish

The report by Itai Engel, who joined soldiers in Lebanon, won high ratings but, more importantly, described the war as it is.

In a very risky endeavor, Engel accompanied a Nahal battalion early last week on a nighttime infantry operation in the village of Huleh. He returned with an extraordinary, one-of-a-kind report on a battle with Hezbollah fighters that included a heroic rescue under fire of wounded men.

Through Engel's report, to use his words, we got the clearest idea of "what lies behind a dry, 10-word report of an Israel Defense Forces skirmish."

The fact is that we got much more than that. In gruesome detail, Engel described a battalion operation against a single house, which by sheer luck ended with three Nahal injuries (and two dead Hezbollah fighters.) The difficulty and danger in facing guerrillas on their own turf cried out of every, single frame. Since South Lebanon is dotted with thousands of such houses, the report made it clear the kind of insane, Sisyphean, almost impossible mission the IDF troops were on.

As if in order to convey this message, Engel recapitulated the story of the battalion in the ongoing battles: On Saturday it eliminated 52 Hezbollah men in the village of Andoria, but suffered two dead. One of them, Ya'ar Ben Giat, was seen in the original report wearing a broad smile, six days before his death.

Who let the reporter join the soldiers?

The first question that came to my mind when watching the report was who, for the love of god, authorized a television reporter - one without combat experience - to ride along on such a dangerous operation. Past experience shows that Engel is prepared to charge, bare-handed and armed only with a camera, into every war across the globe. But his death wish does not obligate his superiors (and certainly not the IDF) to comply.

It is true that he didn't take part in breaking into the house (actually, why not? might as well go all the way), but the camera shots gave the impression he was running around fairly close by, within range of a random bullet or rocket. In fact, when battalion commander Avi Dahan left him behind to rush in and rescue the wounded, Engel remained under open fire ("we are being shot at," he narrated the sounds in the background.) With his height, this is no small thing.

But all's well that ends well, and in retrospect, the risk paid off. Not only because Keshet reports 26 percent rating during the broadcast, but because Engel's camera and microphone captured what a war movie director could never fabricate: incomprehensible battle chaos, the company commander shouting ("they shot my foot!"), the confusion on the soldiers' faces, cries of fear, orders shot at every direction ("relax! relax! everyone pull to the rear!"), a frightened injured soldier evacuated to the safety zone ("I can't breathe..."), the battalion medic combing his body to find the wound and calming him ("only your face is injured") and an injured soldier pleading with Engel for help ("can you please find out where my company commander is?") In short, images of battle scenes that are authentic and messy, and which have no equal that I can think of.

The operation's night conditions required extreme close-up shots of the warriors' faces, glowing in the dark, their eyes shining in the green light of camera night-vision. The forced aesthetics contributed to the horror movie-like setting, on the one hand, and the sense of disorientation on the other. Engel could not get any shot beyond half a meter in these conditions. He solved this problem by an animated reconstruction of the fighting inside the house, which provided a full perspective on the battle. The report closed with a scene worthy of Hollywood: The warriors march home in file towards Israel, and the battalion commander pats and thanks them one by one. Cut.