A Hero's Doubts (Extract)

Extract of an article in Issue 25, March 31, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Despite widespread criticism of the government's conduct of the Second Lebanon War and the highly critical Winograd Commission's report, the protest movement spearheaded by IDF reservists has died out while the politicans stay in power A single photo cata-pulted Tomer Bouhadana into the national spotlight. The Israeli army company commander reservist was injured in a battle during Israel's 2006 Second Lebanon War. He recalls feeling cold, short of breath and struggling to keep conscious as a helicopter flew him to Rambam Hospital in Haifa. A waiting photographer snapped the now iconic image: Bouhadana, lying sideways on a stretcher, his legs covered in a woolen gray blanket and his bare chest splattered with blood, an oxygen mask over his mouth, his face still smudged with dark camouflage paint, his eyes wide open towards the camera as a medic's gloved hand tries to stanch the blood pouring out of his neck, raises his right arm and flashes a two-fingered victory sign. "It's a photo that symbolizes courage," says Yagil Levy, a political sociologist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. "The Israeli public stood in support of the army during this war. But in the face of disappointment at the military's performance, people tried to hang onto images that reflected the army's past values." Bouhadana says he flashed the victory sign to show that Israel's spirit was intact. "In those few seconds I decided that I would not let Hizballah get what they want most - a picture of another piece of human meat being wheeled to the operating room," he says. "Our battle against Hizballah is a fight over consciousness, not over territory or a hill in southern Lebanon. I would not let them have the satisfaction of seeing one more Israeli soldier half dead." Indeed, Bouhadana hasn't wavered in his initial support of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's decision to go to war. Still, the one-time supporter of Olmert turned against the prime minister in the past year, becoming a leading force in a protest campaign calling for his resignation over the war's failings. But even as the campaign appears to have petered out, it may not have had its final say. Olmert's position appears fragile as a recent spike in violence has dealt a serious blow to his peace efforts, on which his popularity hangs. In early March, a Palestinian attacked a Jewish seminary in Jerusalem, killing eight students. That followed the killing of more than 120 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip during an Israeli army offensive against militants firing rockets on the southern cities of Sderot and Ashkelon. Bouhadana, 33, never antic-ipated joining the protest campaign. He recalls how eager he was to take part in what he anticipated would be Israel's massive military response after two Israeli soldiers were kidnapped and three killed by Hizballah in a cross-border raid on July 12, 2006. He knew his experience would be useful. Israel had withdrawn its troops from southern Lebanon in 2000, after an 18-year occupation of the region, and before his discharge from active military service in 2001, Bouhadana had spent most of his seven-year service in southern Lebanon, ending up as a company commander in the paratroop brigade, with the rank of major. Bouhadana, who lives in Tel Aviv and is working toward a master's degree in diplomacy, strategy and security, waited impatiently. He says he phoned his battalion commander every day to ask when his company would be called up. The call finally came on July 21, and he says he sensed he was about to reach a "peak" in his life. On a Saturday, one day before joining his troops up north, Bouhadana - who enjoys competing in triathlons - recalls going on a 180-kilometer bicycle ride before joining his family to watch the last day of the Tour de France cycling race on television. Now almost fully recovered - although his shoulder remains paralyzed - Bouhadana vividly recalls his final mission as he sits and talks to The Report in a trendy Tel Aviv cafÖ¸. It involved the taking of the village of Merkabe in the eastern sector of southern Lebanon on August 10, four days before the war ended. He recalls the tension and the black humor as a bus drove him and his troops to the border in the middle of the night. Once in Lebanon, religious soldiers mumbled prayers quietly amid the din of the canons and gunfire from helicopters overhead. Bouhadana was injured when a bullet hit him in the back and exited from his neck as the unit attacked a suspected Hizballah hideout. The now famous photo appeared in major Israeli newspapers under headlines such as "The Courage of the Company Commander." At first, he felt awkward at all the attention it drew. "I don't view what I did as heroic," he says. "I see it as something private between me and [Hassan] Nasrallah," he adds, referring to the Hizballah leader. On Independence Day in April, 2007, Bouhadana exchanged hugs and handshakes on TV with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Israeli media reported that one mother named her newborn son Tomer, after Bouhadana, because of the way the fragile baby fought to survive. Bouhadana tried to keep his personal life private, even choosing to get married in a synagogue in Rome, instead of in Israel, to avoid the press. And in the first few months after the war, he pointedly refused to join protests by fellow reservists who had also returned from battle in Lebanon. Those reservists, many of whom were calling for the resignation of Israel's wartime political and military leaders, were claiming that inadequate training, insufficient supplies and unclear, repeatedly changing and contradictory battle orders had contributed to Israel's failures in the fighting. "From the day I entered the hospital these reservist groups turned to me," says Bouhadana. "But I didn't want to join them and I even defended Olmert. I told them I believed Winograd should have its say," he adds, referring to the government-appointed investigative commission headed by former justice Eliyahu Winograd that was charged with assessing the Israeli political and military establishments' conduct of the 34-day conflict. The reservists' campaign that he refused to join was scattered at first, with various groups of reservists expressing different messages. What was to become the main campaign was born during a television interview a few days after the war ended with Roni Zwiegenboim and Assaf Davidoff of the Alexandroni Brigade, a reserve infantry unit. "They didn't even know what they were going to talk about," says Lior Dinmaz, a 30-year-old reservist who helped the two lead the protests that ensued. "They just vented their frustration and then declared that they would go on a protest march the next day. It snowballed from there." Dinmaz, an industrial engineer from the southern city of Ashkelon, adds that he and other reservists "felt the frustration" during their service but as soldiers they didn't disobey orders and waited until they returned to civilian life to speak out. The day after the television interview, Davidoff and Zwiegenboim were joined by dozens of people in a march to the Prime Minister's Office. They held signs saying, "Olmert, Peretz, Halutz - Take Responsibility" and "Citizens of Israel, Our Brothers, We Must Get Out of the Bubble." At about the same time, reservists from the Hod Hahanit - Hebrew for spearhead - Paratroop Brigade published an open letter in the major newspapers, calling for an inquiry into the conduct of the war and claiming that poor leadership had prevented the army from winning and that the government's indecisiveness and frequent cancellation of missions had led to prolonged stays in enemy territory and may have increased casualties. The first protests were spontaneous. "We got up in the morning and said we're doing something," says Yakir Segev, 30, former chairman of Hebrew University's student union and a reserve infantry platoon commander. Segev heard about the planned march on the radio. "It was clear to me that there were a lot of things to fix," he says. He supported Israel's decision to go to war with Hizballah, but began having doubts about the military's conduct during the fighting. "We got contradictory orders, many changes of orders every week; officers talked to us and we saw that they had no answers. We saw the prime minister say one thing on television and we saw another thing on the ground." The campaign gathered pace through phone calls, e-mails, and media coverage. Hundreds of young reservists showed up at a protest tent set up in front of the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem. They signed petitions, marched, published open letters in newspapers criticizing the war's management and calling for Olmert's resignation and stuck their banners on top of main highway ads in the middle of the night. Segev declined to specify who paid for the activities, saying only that it was from "businesspeople and other individuals." This was not the first time that reservists had demonstrated against Israel's political and military leadership. The most successful such protest occurred following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, led by reserve officer Moti Ashkenazi, who started a one-man hunger strike that is credited with eventually bringing down Golda Meir's government in 1974. Extract of an article in Issue 25, March 31, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.