For every Israeli triumph over the past 70 years, there was unspeakable loss. The Jerusalem Post has dutifully chronicled those victories and defeats and their inevitable accompanying anguish. As such, here are reflection pieces from our reporters on the ground who literally dodged bullets so that we could understand the decisions being made, what was at stake, and tell the stories of people whose very lives were on the line. It was spring 2002, one of the most difficult times in the history of the state. Besides the fact that everyone’s Seder was disrupted by the massacre bombing at the Park Hotel in Netanya that killed 30 people, we found ourselves living a life where every day we had at least two or three deadly bombings by Palestinians. Tens of thousands of men were being called up.
It was war, but not like any I had ever covered. There weren’t the sirens. It was so close to home, and it didn’t matter how strong our divisions and tanks were. Our rear, our families, were never so vulnerable to the wave of Hamas and Fatah suicide bombings in supermarkets, restaurants, buses.
March turned out to be the bloodiest month of unrest with the Palestinians, with 125 Israelis and tourists killed.
My beeper summoned me to the general headquarters in Tel Aviv, where chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Shaul Mofaz briefed the small cadre of military reporters that an operation dubbed Defensive Shield would thrust the IDF into Ramallah, quickly capture the Palestinian Authority’s Mukata presidential compound and cut off Yasser Arafat in his office. Four divisions would repeat the blitzkrieg across the West Bank cities and villages, demolishing the terrorist infrastructures.
It was a Saturday. I joined a force of paratroopers blasting their way through the Balata refugee camp in Nablus.
I was wearing my father’s old bulletproof vest because I hadn’t had time to get to the Jerusalem Post building to pick up the flak vest and helmet and the IDF didn’t have any to spare. Taking a lesson from the Battle of Stalingrad, soldiers were knocking their way through the cinder- block walls with sledge hammers to avoid exposing themselves to gunfire and homemade pipe bombs in the narrow alleyways.
“Certainly it’s frightening to have bombs exploding next to you, but we move forward,” says Eli Spitzer, a platoon medic, a veteran of numerous operations in the Palestinian areas. “The combat in Balata raised the morale because we feel that this battle has a purpose.”
“I don’t enjoy standing in this s***hole, but we had a job to do and we did it,” says fellow paratrooper Ilan.
They show me a tiny Kassam rocket factory and, nearby, a room with seven explosive belts ready for use.
Paratrooper Brigade commander Col. Aviv Kochavi, who had gone to Harvard and who was destined for greater command, tells me the message his forces were delivering was clear: “We will get to all sources of terrorism.”
“This place, the tiger known as Balata, has turned out to be a pussycat,” Kochavi smirks. But later, opposition became fierce here and in the Casbah, where troops killed over 30 Palestinian gunmen. He never liked to be reminded of that statement.
I find Palestinian Hassan Hashash huddled with five children, three women and an elderly blind man, and he complains to me that the soldiers ransacked his house.
Spitzer, the paratrooper, says he felt a little sorry for the innocent residents who gave sanctuary to the Palestinian terrorists, but in the end they felt that, through the operation, they foiled more bombings. “And that’s satisfying.”
A FEW days later I’m in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, crouching near an IDF M-60 tank, its hatches down, broken ammo boxes, empty cartridges and dozens of unexploded homemade pipe bombs strewn about the once-holy city.
Soldiers of the Jerusalem Brigade are laying siege to the ancient Church of the Nativity, where 180 hungry Palestinian gunmen, some of them planners of suicide bombings, had barricaded themselves alongside 38 monks and priests.
Palestinian snipers are still taking pot shots at the troops as we cautiously hopscotch our way from doorway to doorway, until we reach a souvenir shop.
“Keep close to the wall,” says Sgt. David Gamliel, a 32-year-old high-school biology teacher in civilian life.
“And don’t step on that!” he says, pointing to a pipe bomb lying in the street.
The army has barred all journalists, especially the foreign media, from Bethlehem, but allows a few military journalists to embed with the troops. Lucky me.
Skipping around a Fiat 127 rigged to explode with two gas canisters wired to the battery, we reach the massive walls of the Armenian monastery. Its tiny but thick solid wooden door, hundreds of years old, has been blasted off its hinges. At least a dozen Palestinians were killed in the battle for Bethlehem, and the bodies of four gunmen still lie in the street.
“We are very sensitive to the religious sites,” says brigade commander Col. Rami. “In the battle, one of my officers asked for permission to open fire at a church from where Palestinians were shooting at his men. I told him ‘negative.’ I’ve no intention of getting entangled with the Vatican.”
The army said it collected the 60-mm. mortars and heavy machine guns used to fire on the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo.
The Jerusalem Brigade has a rich history. It conquered Jerusalem’s Old City and Bethlehem from the Jordanians in the 1967 Six Day War and fought the Egyptians along the Suez Canal in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Now, the unit is made up of former members of crack infantry units, many of whom were not even born in the previous war.
The brigade had been called up in the midst of the suicide bombings. Motivation was high. Men had returned from abroad to serve, and over 90% had shown up for duty.
There was no security barrier then, and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) had intelligence that suicide bombers were headed toward Jerusalem. Before they assaulted Bethlehem, every man of one full battalion literally linked hands in a human barrier between Har Homa and Beit Jala.
“We feel like we are fighting for our own homes,” says the brigade commander.
WITH THE world media focused on Bethlehem and the besieged Arafat, I get word that 13 reservists have been gunned down in an ambush in the Jenin refugee camp.
I am in one battle zone, trying to cover another with a clunky mobile phone and intermittent connections. I worry about a close friend serving there and elsewhere.
There were no smartphones, no WhatsApp, no Facebook Messenger, then. I have a thick laptop that I connect with a thick wire to my mobile phone, and pray for a connection, and wait anxiously for the stories I write to be transmitted ever so slowly, like an ancient telex, to the Jerusalem Post building. And I sigh with relief when they do.
And this war is so close and so far. Most every night I finally make it home to my house in a moshav in the Eila Valley. I try to listen to my son practice his violin, notice my daughter’s haircut, be a good father, a decent husband; but deadlines beckon, and too often the beeper summons me to join another general in his Blackhawk, flying from battlefield to battlefield.
As a military reporter, I never know how my day is going to turn out, how many people will be killed.
Few know how I live, choppering with Mofaz, pausing to pick up OC Central Command in Jerusalem and then off to Nablus or Ramallah or some other command. It isn’t really something I can brag about.
I just keep thinking, am I doing enough to get this story out? My friend David Horovitz, then the editor of The Jerusalem Report,
tries to stroke my ego, and I tell him to stop patronizing me.
He says, “Arieh, I just sit in this office and make phone calls. You are out there.”The writer was military correspondent for The Jerusalem Post from 1996 to 2006.