Grumpy Old Man: An officer, but no gentleman

The confrontation with bike-riding protesters might not have been a picnic, but Lt.-Col. Shlomo Eisner and his M16 were way out of line.

Shalom Eisner strikes protester (photo credit: Reuters)
Shalom Eisner strikes protester
(photo credit: Reuters)
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.
Generally, I 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 men.
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 anger.
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.
I’m 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 line.
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 switch.
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 friends.
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 in proportion.”
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 equipped.
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 proportion.