West Beirut, the eve of Rosh Hashana, September 18, 1982 – We moved toward the
corner, going into the dawn’s light battle. It was like walking down any city
street, with the sidewalks and the doorways and the storefronts. Only now our
combat boots crushed the crunchy shards of broken glass. Live wires dangled from
above, sizzling and crackling. A few parked cars were smoldering wrecks. Dust
filled the Mediterranean air, filtering the sun as it rose over Mount Lebanon
into the port of Beirut. There were some bright flowers at the door of a house,
growing profusely, the grit of the summer’s battles vainly trying to smother
their sturdy petals and leaves.
We shuffled along in single file, our
assault rifles loaded, fingers on the triggers. One of our 43-ton Merkava battle
tanks rumbled along in the road next to us, its thousand- horsepower engine
coughing like a sick Ford pickup truck. The monster shook the ground and made
the walls shudder.
Its visceral power calmed me.
But the thick air
choked us. The heaving rat-tat-tat of our comrades’ guns sounded nonchalantly
from somewhere down the block. But when the distinct guttural sound of a
Kalashnikov rifle spraying its thick 7.62mm rounds echoed above, we knew our
Palestinian enemy was real and he was waiting for us. This wasn’t going to be a
Louisiana snake hunt.
Half a dozen Israeli jet fighters streaked across
the sky visible above between the multistory buildings. The warplanes were very
high, and howling away into the gray haze toward the Mediterranean Sea. Yellow
streaks of anti-aircraft fire followed but did not quite reach them.
scuttled up to the corner of a huge boulevard. This was it. My 21-year-old
lieutenant Yoav led the way, followed by the radio man. Then Yehuda, a
linebacker of a man heaving his heavy machine gun and then me with my rifle and
grenades. Inside my webbing I had tucked my Confederate battle flag, which I
carried with me throughout this miserable little war. I’d picked it up at
Gettysburg when I was 12 years old on our way to Israel for the first time in
1973. Now I kept it close, perhaps because I saw it as a superstitious lucky
charm, but really out of a mixed sense of pride and pluck.
I looked back.
Behind us was the rest of my platoon and behind them my 906th battalion, fresh
from non-commissioned officers’ course. And behind them an entire brigade or
more of the Israel Defense Forces, all waiting for the battle to begin. It was
as if this mighty juggernaut was waiting... for me. I turned back around. The
sergeant was signaling with his hand: “Forward.” I lifted my booted foot. I
turned the corner and literally stepped into my war.
WE STARTED trotting
quickly down the street, from doorway to doorway, scampering from cover to
cover. As we ran down the road the sun was getting brighter. We crawled into
doorways and the doors would crack open. Anyone could be a gunman who could mow
us down. But they were not.
They were just families. Men, sometimes kids,
staring out at us. Were they angry? Were they grateful? No one threw any rice on
us in a sign of liberation, as they had when the Israeli invasion of Lebanon
began two months before. No one said anything.
No one ululated. They were
scared, like us.
We moved on. At one point I slithered at the curb,
taking cover behind and partially inside the carcass of a bloated cow. How in
the hell did a cow get into the middle of downtown Beirut in the midst of a war,
I wondered. And then I asked myself the same question.
Across the street
the second platoon advanced. We covered each other. Their short sergeant, Nini,
led point and stayed pretty far out front, sort of like my uncles told me they
did in Vietnam. A few soldiers back was Lee James Stocker. American born-and-
bred like me, Lee James was nearly two meters tall with a Burt Reynolds
He chewed tobacco, Skoal, a habit we shared but our fellow
Israeli company mates could never comprehend.
A FEW weeks before we had
been enforcing the siege on West Beirut until Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat
shipped out with the bulk of his forces under UN protection. The future looked
good for Lebanon and Israel.
Bashir Gemayel, the young, charismatic
Maronite commander, had just been elected president of Lebanon. He was
courageous enough to engage with Israel and prime minister Menachem Begin
ordered the IDF to pull its troops back. The last thing Israel wanted to do was capture the capital of an Arab county.
like a march of the follies, this is exactly what our orders were when Gemayel
was assassinated before he could take office and implement his treaty with
Israel. Enter Beirut from the north, march through the port and open the main
north-south artery and meet up with a division heading from the southern
“Bashir’s just been assassinated,” said one of my platoon
buddies while we were on maneuvers in the Galilee.
“What does that mean?”
“We’re going in. We’re going back to Beirut.”
I was filled with a twisted
sense of guilt over an inexplicable inner urge to go to battle. It was like
waiting for a hurricane.
It’s difficult to explain the thrill of
anticipation of combat or a storm to healthier minds. I wasn’t feeling any pangs
of objection about heading back innocently into a war zone we had absolutely no
idea about; quite the contrary.
The city was swarming with armed
Christian Phalangists and Druse militias, not to mention the castrated Lebanese
Army and the remnants of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Didn’t we
just chase the PLO out of Beirut? And didn’t they leave amid an amazing
fireworks display made of tracer bullets streaking across the sky as we sat on
the rooftops of the shacks in the Burj el Burajne refugee camp watching it all,
actually believing then that the war, dubbed by the government “Peace for the
Galilee,” might actually be over? And now, Bashir Gemayel was dead.
ordered the Israeli army to conquer West Beirut. I was on a rickety passenger
bus commandeered by the military, driving at night to the front line. I watched,
incredulously, the Beirutis in their lit-up living rooms watching TV and eating,
totally oblivious of the columns of Israeli soldiers flowing by their front
doors. I kept wondering when we were going to get off these vulnerable buses –
the old kind with short back seats – and get into the safer APCs? We never
We could see that we were heading north, circumventing the city to
All we had was our webbing and battle gear: flak jackets,
helmets, ammo belts, the one uniform we were wearing and boxes of ammunition. We
had no personal equipment. In my webbing I stuffed seven full ammo clips. We had
two grenade pouches. I took one out and latched it to the back of my belt. In
its place I put the small Kodak Instamatic camera I had bought three years
before in some Mississippi River town when working on the Delta Queen steamship.
I started humming one of my favorite Phil Ochs songs: “There’s a man who comes
from Mississippi And he’s waiting with a rifle in his hand And he’s looking down
the road for an outof- state car And he thinks he’s fighting for his land Yes,
he thinks he’s fighting for his land.”
WE WERE gathered at the port of
Beirut between towering cement grain silos. The wharves were empty of ships. The
silos served as a sort of wall protecting us from mortar fire from the west...
Some soldiers loaded up on extra grenades, others stuffed
their pouches with candy bars. Across the bay the port of Junieh was lit up.
Jets screamed by overhead. The other battalions of our NCO brigade – the crack
Golani and elite Paratroopers – started rendezvousing with us. Downtown Beirut
was spread out before us with its scores of multistoried buildings and
We had a final briefing from a battalion commander,
and then the division commander Brig.-Gen. Amos Yaron showed up on the front and
our filthy battalion gathered around him. Sitting atop a few tanks, leaning
against ammo crates, we heard him out.
This was the final drive to ensure
the “Peace for the Galilee,” he told us in his hoarse voice. No one ever called
it that, and this summer 1982 war would be later known as the Lebanon War, and
then after history repeated itself, the First Lebanon War (there was a Second
Lebanon War in the summer of 2006).
The general warned tough fighting
awaited us in a city, but said it was necessary.
And then something
remarkable happened, which revealed the unique relationship between the ranks in
the Israeli army, where strict hierarchies and unwavering obedience to superiors
crumbled as part of the undisciplined Israeli culture.
“Go to hell,” said
one of the company commanders. “You are sending us to our deaths.”
you,” another officer told the general to his face.
“We haven’t even trained in
taking two-story houses, let alone 12-story buildings,” said a
“It’ll be a death trap.”
Suddenly, all the officers
“Just call in the artillery.”
“Why don’t we just poison
the water supply?”
“What about our air force, Yaron?”
This was an egalitarian
army where even generals are addressed by their first names and where every soldier was
drilled that if you see something wrong, you say so. It came, I suppose, from
the abhorrence of Germans saying they were only obeying orders when they
murdered innocent Jews.
Yaron – who would in two days’ time face the
dilemma of ordering military support for Christian Phalangist militias as they
rampaged through the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla – tried to
speak, became flustered and finally muttered something about it being a “Zionist
and national mission” to clear the PLO scum from this gorgeous city once and for
all. This was insane, I thought. Yet despite all this, something manly deep
inside me was highly aroused and urged me on to battle.
The last thing a
conventional army wants is to engage the enemy in a city. It robbed us of our
overwhelming advantages in weaponry and technology.
Radios often did not
work, and the best surveillance equipment cannot always find enemies in
The placards with plastic-covered aerial photos of downtown
meant nothing to us. Dawn was coming.
We set out.
We followed one
of the other battalions. Our captain, Ilan, tall and blond and with a chiseled
face like an Aryan, led the way. My platoon took the left (south) side of the
street. We walked a bit along an overpass, which I thought was silly, because we
were exposed. I was also surprised that the city was modern enough to have an
overpass. Lt. Eran, the deputy company commander, was running back and forth
between sides of the road (he would later be killed by a dud round during
training). “Keep your head down,” he urged. We headed west along a main
Here and there were vehicles that had been run over and squashed by
A man, maybe in his 30s, quietly clutched the steering wheel of a
white two-door compact Renault. The top of his head was missing from right above
“Wrong place, wrong time,” Lee James said.
point, leading what I found out later was a brigade column. We started moving
quickly down the street, leapfrogging from doorway to doorway. Cover to cover.
It was getting brighter. A Merkava tank in the street advanced and occasionally
let off a round. No one else fired.
The wiry, crazy battalion commander,
his long, biblical beard split into two by his chin strap, walked down the
street, back and forth, cool as a cucumber.
Who was this fearless guy, we
wondered. Then the RPGs started hitting.
We were moving into a heavily
built-up area and the rockets whooshed down. Some hit the street and exploded.
One blew up and its fins sailed off, as if in slow motion, toward the other side
of the street. Lee James saw it coming and ducked. A split second later a hunk
of shrapnel the size of a pelican smacked into the telephone pole behind him. He
saw me and I swear, he spat out tobacco, grinned and gave me the thumbs
JUST ABOUT this time we had come to a small T-junction.
down the street flashes of light sparked out of dark windows. Simultaneously
there was the distinctive crack of bullets passing overhead and splattering on
the wall between myself and Nir, the soldier behind me. We both jumped down and
out of the way. The soldiers on the other side of the road returned fire.
Someone had decolorized the world.
Everything was gray. The sky was gray.
The buildings were gray. The streets were gray. The smoke was
Before we had time to think about this near miss too much, the
lieutenant called us forward. We had come to a large junction. Someone in the
buildings across the street was firing RPGs at us. Two Merkava tanks advanced
with us. One would drive into the kill zone in the junction and brake. As it
swung down and came to that pause, before it would spring backwards, it let go a
round into the second story of the buildings and then reversed like crazy. As it
was reversing, the second tank would come up adjacent to it, turn its cannon and
fire another round. It was pure synchronicity.
The CO called up Yehuda
and ordered him to open fire into the windows kitty-corner to us. He took some
shots himself. Whoosh! An RPG hit the tank, slipped underneath it and exploded.
The hatch opened and the soldier inside calmly tossed out spent
Amazing. This Israeli invention, I thought, is totally impervious
to Soviet-made RPGs.
More RPGs hit and the lieutenant, apparently
wounded, skipped back. The captain on the other side did the same. The heavy
machine-gunner on the other side of the road started walking back, very
As he walked, the front of his fatigues at thigh-level started
getting really, really dark and the color just started fading from his face. He
was walking slower and slower, and in slow motion he fell to his knees, and then
on his face. A chunk of shrapnel had cut into his femoral artery and he was
bleeding out quickly.
Someone grabbed him and seconds later an APC
whipped up the street, snapped a tight U-turn, dropped the back ramp and medics
dragged him in. It couldn’t have taken more than 60 seconds.
A soldier a
few guys back started to freak out. He yanked off his helmet, sat down in the
alley and just started crying his head off. The sergeant slapped him a few
times. I saw it was that big talker from the other platoon, the gung-ho geezer
who was itching to go to war.
I knew I definitely did not want to cross
We tossed a bunch of smoke grenades and ran like hell,
across and into the courtyard of a large building on the other side. The
adrenaline was flowing so hard I leaped/flew/danced across and didn’t feel the
weight of the equipment on my back. We jumped behind walls till we got to the
lobby of a shell of a building. Inside were gathered troops from the Lebanese
Army. Why we didn’t shoot them I don’t know. We were all very cautious about
An English-speaking officer from the Lebanese Army
approached us and asked, “Are you taking many casualties?” He sounded almost too
compassionate, I thought. I wasn’t sure what he wanted to hear. Yes, the Jews are suffering? Or
not? And why were they not fighting? What was their role in all of this? Was he
a Christian or a Muslim or a Druse? They watched us come in. It turned out that
Ilan had radioed that he, the lieutenant and some other soldiers
had been wounded, slightly. We had confidence in him; not that he would win the
battle, but that we would make it home. The battalion commander angrily switched
our company with another company.
We were ordered to climb the building
and take over its top floor. It was a shell. No elevator. We started climbing.
Five floors, 10 floors, 16 floors. It was getting tiring. Thirty-nine floors
total, the tallest building in Beirut. The view from the top was tremendous. It
offered a bird’s-eye view at all the street battles going on below. Smoke
billowed up from various quarters of the city. To the north was the port we had
started out from. To the south were endless streets.
“Keep away from the
edges,” the lieutenant scolded us. He had a slight shrapnel wound in his leg and
was spoiling for action. We took up lookout posts. I noticed the building next
to us had a huge red cross painted on the roof. A hospital? From this hospital
my officer said he detected a sniper. He pulled out his M- 16 and took a couple
of shots at him. And the guy on the next roof scrambled for cover and then lay
still in a pool of blood.
A few hours later we got orders to continue
moving out. We came all the way down the stairs. It took a long time. We parted
with the Lebanese soldiers. The officer wished us luck.
By now the
fighting was a few blocks southward.
Troops were spread out along the
both sides of the street. Tanks were moving back and forth. I was amazed at the
beauty and wealth of this city. The buildings were faced with marble and the
cars were all fancy, mostly German made. Occasionally we’d come upon a crushed
vehicle or a blown out shop front.
And most bizarrely, with the shooting
going on just a couple of blocks ahead, an enterprising Lebanese man came out
and set up a table with cigarettes and other luxury items like cologne and
liquor for sale. It was surreal. One could see the effect living in a war zone
for years could have on people.
Apathetic isn’t the right word. They were
just no longer frightened of the battles anymore. It was like Mardi Gras. People
began to line their porches and sidewalks as if to watch Rex or Como or some
other carnival parade pass by. I found myself dodging not only the burning cars
and blown up shops, but also the crowds of women tossing rice on us, a sign we
were finally seen as liberators. The people cheered us as we scrambled past. I
felt it was like in the old movie reels from the Second World War when US troops
liberated Rome. I just didn’t understand. Were these the same people who had
been defying us not two weeks before? At one point kids started coming out. We
shooed them away. And then a man came to us bearing a platter full of fruits and
a pitcher with ice water. Yes, ice.
Where did he get ice from in this
war-torn city? He held it above his head and proclaimed in perfect English “The
Lebanese people are a very hospitable people, a very friendly people. But you
and everyone else must leave our country.”
“Absolutely,” I agreed. “Just
give us the ice water.”
But I was leery. I suspected it might be
poisoned, so I made him drink it first. He seemed insulted, but he did it, and
we all followed.
Night was falling and the Lebanese were retreating back
to their apartments. Soon enough the streets were empty again and only we
Israeli soldiers were left in the dusty dusk. We entered an apartment building
and chased the people to their neighbors upstairs and commandeered a floor for
BEFORE DAWN we were on the streets. Word came down we were to
take over a headquarters of the PLO.
Intelligence said it was abandoned,
but maybe boobytrapped.
My squad was the first in. We quickly rushed to
the top of the six-story building, as the urban warfare manual said, and worked
our way downward. The top floor had a plush boardroom with a huge walnut table
and fancy leather chairs. There was a poster or photo of former Egyptian
president Gamal Abdel Nasser on every floor.
This was the headquarters of
al-Mourabitoun, a Muslim socialist militia linked with the PLO. A few of us
gathered around the boardroom where terrorist raids were likely planned and
posed with some of the booty: a PLO flag, photos. Someone held up a framed
picture of Nasser upside down, just like in the Life magazine photos of the
victorious Israeli soldiers in the 1967 Six Day War. Snap.
was filled with supplies. We hadn’t eaten for two days, at least. All we could
find were cookies and Balkan honey. I immediately ripped open the cellophane and
stuffed them into my mouth.
They were thankfully still fresh. I shared
them with the rest of the platoon.
Shooting was sporadic in the city now.
Someone mentioned it was the eve of Rosh Hashana. The company master sergeant
mysteriously showed up at dusk.
He didn’t have any rations. Instead, he
managed to present us with a crate of apples, of all things. I brought up the
Balkan honey from the basement. In an inner, windowless room, the platoon
gathered. Our uniforms were so filled with dried sweat and mud they could
probably have stood upright by themselves.
Benjy, the only religiously
observant soldier in the platoon, miraculously produced two candles and lit them
for the new year. We tried to sing some New Year songs, but there was a place in
every soldier’s mind where he’d rather be.
We sang: “The whole entire
Is just a very narrow bridge
And the most important thing is
Not to be
afraid at all.”
THE MEMORIES of Rosh Hashanas past ran through everyone’s
mind. How ironic it was for this symbolic holiday of transition to fall just at
this time of bittersweet transformation in our lives. Our Lebanese apples dipped
in Balkan honey assured us of the sweetness of the coming new year. But could we
be sure? Here we were crossing that bitter stage in life from a soldier to
veteran; from untested, wound-up trainee to proven fighter. On this New Year’s
we almost let ourselves be called “soldiers.” Perhaps we were more survivors,
but then, what’s the difference? With everyone lost in their own thoughts we put
out the candles lest their light give us away to the night snipers and drifted
to our posts.
Tradition called for a Jew to blow the shofar for this
holiday to welcome in the new year. The only shofarot we heard were the cannons
of the tanks firing as we leaned our crusty backs against the wall of this
terrorist headquarters in Beirut, eating Lebanese apples dipped in Balkan honey
confiscated from the PLO.
Tekiya! Terua! The New Year began with a long,
I had my transistor radio with me and somehow got it working
with old batteries from the walkie talkie. I tuned in to Radio Monte Carlo. The
sky filled with flares. Occasionally we’d hear the crash of a fin of a 120mm
mortar flare hitting a parked car or something in the streets. There were so
many flares it became to too dangerous to stay on the roof.
know what was going on. At one point the radio station began playing that
spiritual “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” interspersed with news clips
from the 1960s, including Senator Robert Kennedy getting shot. The song seemed
to go on for a long time. I hummed quietly along. I used to sing it back in
elementary school in New Orleans, pretending I was a black gospel Baptist. The
flares, it turned out, were being fired by the IDF to give light to the Christian Phalangist militia, operating in two refugee camps a few blocks away.
Their names would be etched in Middle Eastern history forever: Sabra and
Dawn finally came. We were ordered to get ready for a foot
patrol. The sergeants were calling it a “capture patrol.” The idea was to go out
in full regalia and circle around a couple of blocks to show our faces; that
way, the Israeli army could say it had conquered the city.
Who makes up
these rules of engagement, I wondered.
This was suicide. Gunmen could
shoot us down like sitting ducks from any apartment.
But it was a time of
shock and awe, when the locals feared the mighty Israeli army. We set out. Going
from doorway to doorway, cover to cover. But it got to be ridiculous, since the
people started to crowd around us. Sometimes the lieutenant would yell at them
to get back. We were maneuvering around in a war zone on the ground floor, while
on the balconies above us hordes of people, families, kids and adults watched it
all like we were the featured floats in the Bacchus parade.
rumors started to reach us that there had been a “massacre.”
strolled by bouncing a football. In his hand was a newspaper with photos of
mounds of dead people.
“The Palestinians,” the young man said. “Good
The Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla were just
a few blocks away. We asked each other if it could be true. Were the Phalangist
really such animals? All I wanted to do was get out of this enormously
We returned toward the PLO headquarters, which was
now our base of operations. A brigadier-general showed up. A fat guy, he was the
commander of Nahal, that peculiar anachronistic branch of the Israeli army I was
serving in that combined military service with farming and settling the land. He
was more like a commissar than a combat general. We were on the street. Someone
had taken a potshot at us and we were leaning up against cars, safety catch off
and ready to blow someone away. Someone pointed up to a porch about four stories
up across the street. I aimed my rifle. A woman came out to take a dress off the
line, saw us and rushed back inside. The general slid up behind
“Someone took some shots at us. Better watch out.”
“And he sent out his lady to test you,” the general said. “If he
shows his face teach him what Nahal is all about.”
I imagined that was
his idea of boosting morale.
We withdrew back to the PLO HQ. Meanwhile,
someone had discovered a second basement underneath the first one, and it was
filled to the brim with weapons. It turned out to be one of the largest hauls of
contraband captured in the whole war. There were anti-aircraft guns, crates of
Soviet-made AK-47s and one or two crates of bayonets. The CO told everyone we
were allowed one each. “If the IDF doesn’t supply my boys with bayonets, then I
will,” he proclaimed. I took two.
We continued to pillage the
headquarters. Over a dozen semitrailers came in and we helped load them up till
they were bursting with weapons. They even took the wooden table and desk from
Which general was going to decorate his office with this,
Phalangist militiamen came by and we gave them some bayonets.
They were a sleazy-looking lot, longhaired and unshaven. Evil.
someone yelled a few days later. “They’re letting three of us go home for leave.
You’re one of them, you lucky bastard. Get your gear together. You’re
Only in Israel are the battle fronts so close that you can
find yourself at home after a few hours on a bumpy ride in the back of an army
truck. And so it was; one moment I was in an ugly urban war zone in some Arab
capital on Rosh Hashana, and the next, hitching a ride up the eucalyptus-lined
lane to my rural kibbutz in southern Israel, the returning hero.
had I showered off the literal layers of battle and Lebanese dirt than one of
the kibbutz girls yelled for me to hurry.
“We’re going to Tel
Aviv. To the protest. The antiwar protest.”
And so I joined 400,000 or so
other Israelis that night at the Kings of Israel Square in probably the largest
anti-war demonstration in the country’s history.
I was likely one of the
very few people there who had come almost literally from Beirut and Sabra and
Shatilla. And yes, we were appalled by the massacre of the hundreds of
Palestinians and yes, we had no business in this war and yes, Israel had to
But that night the words of Menachem Begin kept ringing in
my ears: “When the goyim kill the goyim, the Jew gets the blame.”
The writer, a former defense correspondent for
The Jerusalem Post is
currently at IBA English News.