Army duty in the territories is
anything but fun. I served there throughout the first intifada, when my reserve
unit was called up on numerous occasions and assigned to control widespread
rioting in places like Hebron, Nablus and the Gaza Strip.
disliked every moment. The major reason is that we had little or absolutely no
expertise in putting down civil insurrection. Some units did, learning from
years of putting out the occasional fires that flared up. But there had never
been anything quite like the intifada – the Palestinians had never exploded with
such sustained rage – and the army quickly ran out of what passed for qualified
So it began turning to units like mine, a combat engineering
battalion trained to dismantle explosives and lead other soldiers through
minefields in wartime, but not to confront wild-eyed young people doing battle
mostly with stones and rocks (and also with firebombs and the occasional hand
grenade and rifle, and even with the odd washing machine shoved off the roof
onto a passing patrol).
You learned quickly enough about the army-issue
rubber bullets and shotgun-like tear gas launchers – mostly their shortcomings –
and about the myriad rules of engagement, especially for the use of live
ammunition, that tied your hands tighter than those plastic zip-lock strips we
used to handcuff prisoners. It was frustrating, to say the least, and after the
first few wounds it began getting downright difficult to control our
FROM THE BEGINNING of the intifada, much was made of Israeli
brutality – the institutional brutality of curfews, mass arrests and
deportations, and the individual brutality of beatings and shootings.
not a psychologist but I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that many if not
most instances of individual brutality were a direct result of the brutal
environment. While there were soldiers with either a true sadistic bent or an
appetite to avenge things real or imagined, some of the gentlest of men, when
confronted by a violent situation such as a riot, could also step over the
To romantics, that teenager darting from an alley with fire in his
eyes and a rock in his hand might be a freedom fighter. But if you are the
target, that rock can send a lot of very personal pain racing across your
synapses. And when this happens that teen is no Hollywood rebel – he’s a son of
a bitch and all you want to do is get him.
Maybe you fire rubber bullets;
it’s allowed if that’s what it takes to slow him down enough to catch him. But
maybe he doesn’t give up. He screeches like a banshee and claws like a panther,
going for your eyes with his fingers and your crotch with his knees. He inflicts
more pain. So you punch him. Maybe you thwack him with your truncheon. Force is
allowed if that’s what’s needed to subdue him.
Yet still he fights. If
you’re the sporting type you admire his determination. But he’s hurting you, so
you lean in with the stick and go for the face. And still he doesn’t give in –
anything to keep from winding up in some sand-blown prison camp in the middle of
the burning, God-forsaken desert. So you lean in harder, until the son of a
bitch’s resistance, or face, turns to mush.
Once the zip-locks are on,
the regulations say the force has to stop. Most soldiers can turn it straight
off. (I once jumped up with my arms in the air the second I had finished tying a
rock thrower’s hands – apparently my way of turning it off – and was told I
looked like a rodeo cowboy in the calf-roping event.) However, many cannot flip
The rage sometimes stays with you like a black cloud that
plants itself in front of the sun. Things go dark. There’s a chill in the air.
So you come back to the son of a bitch, who is now bound and officially “in
custody,” and give him another smack. Maybe a truncheon across a kidney. Maybe
you grab his throat and squeeze. Maybe another soldier tries to calm you down –
so you punch him. You’re easygoing and quick to laugh, but here you are,
thrashing around, foaming at the mouth, lashing out at the enemy and at your
THE ARMY has come a long way in riot control since the first
intifada, and the standoff with the Palestinians and other cyclists in the
Jordan Valley two weekends ago was nothing like the Fellini sets I encountered.
Yet I can identify with Shalom Eisner, the man at the center of the latest
storm, whom many loudly support while calling on his detractors to “keep things
But there are two problems.
First, I was in a unit
that was thrown headlong into a maelstrom no one quite knew how to handle. We
learned from experience – meaning from our mistakes (and there were plenty, one
of them fatal).
Eisner, on the other hand, was part of a specially tasked
brigade that emerged from the lessons of both that intifada and the more violent
one that came a decade later, and was much better trained and
Second, 200 or so Palestinians and internationals ostensibly
out for a Gandhi-like bike ride against the occupation can be a royal pain, and
judging from the video camera and Red Crescent ambulance already at the scene,
they might well have been looking for a standoff.
As I wrote in a diary I
kept during riot duty in Rafah in the summer of 1988, “...we soon found that the
Palestinians wanted the confrontations, and if we didn’t go to them on our own
they’d do everything they could to draw us in. It was kind of like getting the
mountain to come to Mohammed.”
But I was just a sergeant. Eisner was a
senior officer, a lieutenant-colonel and, at least until the Jordan Valley
incident, deputy commander of that specially trained brigade. People like Eisner
get where they are because they’re supposed to know how to act rationally and
responsibly, even under direct fire.
An M16 to the face or body of people
who might or might not have been insulting him, but certainly weren’t pummeling
him at the moment, was way out of line. It was not worthy of a soldier of
Eisner’s rank and responsibility. Worse, it might indicate a serious shortcoming
in his ability to lead and make important command decisions when the real lead
is flying. He suffered broken fingers? History books are full of stories of
seriously wounded soldiers of all ranks who nevertheless kept their heads and
continued to do their job well and effectively.
Another thing. Many of
the same people lining up behind Eisner today would be excoriating him had the
exact same sequence of events taken place during the evacuation of an outpost,
if instead of a bunch of snotty internationals the players had been hilltop
youth. In that case you can be sure that Eisner, in the eyes of these people,
would be Hitler reincarnate.
So yes, let’s keep things in