Part IV - Days of Reckoning
January 29, 2000
Ofer's uncle, Ya'acov Bresler, never married, and devoted himself to a military career after tasting the triumph of the Six-Day War. At a time when the United States' military was wearing down -- casualty by casualty -- in Vietnam, tiny Israel's own IDF stood out in the world as a huge military success. Throughout the 1970s Ya'acov crafted his own personal success story by working his way up the ranks: from lieutenant, major and captain to lieutenant colonel and finally colonel, following the Lebanon War of 1982, for which he earned a Tzalash, or medal of courage and excellence in battle. Despite the controversy, Col. Bresler was tremendously proud of this…
Col. Bresler commanded an entire brigade, deployed primarily in or around the Gaza Strip, a thin stretch of occupied Palestinian territory along the Mediterranean coast. One morning, the Colonel went out with a young Lt. Herzog and his platoon to investigate local uprisings which had begun in December, 1987. The uprisings had marked the start of a major Palestinian movement in Gaza and the West Bank called the Intifada, which was to last several years. In Col. Bresler's eyes, these disturbances were the actions of lawless Palestinian youth. He made no attempt to understand the pure determination of the Palestinians, for whom this Intifada was a spontaneous "shaking off" of the shackles of 20 years of military occupation.
The Intifada brought chaos to the West Bank and Gaza, and Col. Bresler, following Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin's orders to "break their bones," was determined to smother it. But if the Lebanon War made it almost impossible to tell "PLO terrorists" from civilians, the Intifada was even worse. In the West Bank and Gaza everyone was Palestinian, everyone was a civilian and everyone was protesting the occupation in one way or another. Palestinian men, teens and boys gathered by the hundreds to confront soldiers in the streets, throwing rocks or anything they could get their hands on. Col. Bresler ordered his men to squash the demonstrations and arrest anyone throwing rocks. Injuring thousands at a time, soldiers fired rubber-coated bullets and tear gas into the crowds. Lt. Herzog told his platoon not to be stingy with metal canisters marked "Made in the USA," saying, "There's plenty more where that came from!" Babies, children and old people alike died from exposure to tear gas and from fires started by canisters tossed into their homes. The movement of Palestinians, a civilian population under constant curfew, was now being dictated solely by the army...
Watching the evening news during the first three years of the Intifada made Ofer sick to his stomach. In his mind, the army's occupation was wrong. As long as Israel held on so tightly to the Occupied Territories, she would never cut out this tumor of discontent within, he thought. Complete separation and Palestinian independence was to him the only solution. Deep down, Ofer strongly objected to joining a group which he'd always felt had caused his father's premature death during the 1973 War. He now blamed the IDF for Eyal's psychological wounds, too.
Several months before he turned 18, Ofer asked his uncle, Col. Bresler, to use his influence and connections to help him avoid the draft. His pleas fell on deaf ears. His uncle, assuming that Ofer, like other "conscientious objectors," simply wanted to steer clear of battle, replied coldly, "You'd never be sent for combat service or to the Occupied Territories because of the death of your father, so why don't you just contribute to the country by doing your three years like everybody else!" When Max, Ofer's grandfather, heard about his objections, he chuckled heartily and thought, "I wonder where this country would be today if every man who didn't feel like doing his service over the past 40 years was simply excused from his obligations?" But Max's generation had fought for ideals and for its own survival. He'd always known where the enemy was and which side of the line he fought from.
Ofer disobeyed his first order when his draft card arrived in the mail. It instructed him to appear at the Haifa military base on March 12, 1990 at 10 A.M. sharp. Instead of following orders, he followed his conscience and didn't show up. The military police did, though, exactly one week later at his grandparents' house. Yael begged the soldiers not to take her son, pleading that the army had already taken her husband. But no one could persuade the army to do with one less recruit, and Ofer was promptly sent to prison...
Violent clashes between Palestinians and IDF soldiers were now a part of daily life in the Occupied Territories. Palestinians learned how the IDF conducted its crackdowns, and the IDF learned to handle the demonstrators. In addition to mass round-ups of rock throwers, the IDF often went after specific individuals whom they considered particularly dangerous-or even terrorists. During a routine demonstration one afternoon in Gaza City, Col. Bresler ordered his officers to find and arrest a youth accused of threatening a soldier with a kitchen knife. Two of Lt. Herzog's men had described a 16-year-old with short, brown hair, wearing a red button-down shirt and blue jeans. The threatened soldier, who didn't use his rifle, was already being punished for his failure to act, allowing the suspect to escape. As if his eyes were now trained to see nothing but red, Colonel Bresler scanned the crowd of demonstrators in search of the boy. He was furious the boy had already escaped capture for five hours. In the crowd he saw many boys fitting the description of the suspect, and arrested them all. But one in particular caught his attention: one who, while throwing rocks, dared to look the Colonel in the eye, standing up to the occupation wearing only the bloody red of defiance and courage.
Seeing no way out, the boys picked up whatever rocks they could and braced themselves for their last stand. As the Jeep screeched to a halt in front of them the first rock was thrown, wide and missing its target completely. The second boy threw his rock toward the flashing blue light on top of the Jeep. It only bounced off the protective wire mesh. The boy in red smashed his rock through the windshield, shattering glass into the Colonel's lap. A fourth rock pounded into the hood. As if out of nowhere, a fifth rock -- and a sixth -- and a seventh began to crash against the Jeep's armor, until dozens of flying objects-rocks, bottles and trash-rained down on the soldiers. Countless teenagers emerged from rooftops above the Jeep-now sitting in its own trap. Amid the boys' screaming and cursing, Col. Bresler gave an order for the driver to retreat. At that very moment, two Molotov cocktails flew from above, exploding into the back seat of the Jeep. They killed Lt. Herzog and the soldier beside him instantly. The other soldiers all caught on fire. Col. Bresler fell out of the Jeep and onto the ground, where he lay, burning, stones dropping around him, until the eventual arrival of reinforcements...
The next morning, while eating breakfast at kibbutz Ginosar, Max and Rachel received an urgent phone call from Jerusalem, put through directly to the dining hall. Rachel listened carefully to the voice on the line. She gripped the receiver tightly, but remained silent. Nervously whispering only a few words, she hung up with tears in her eyes. The news from Jerusalem was that their son was being treated for severe burns to his face and limbs at Hadassah Hospital, where he was in critical condition. Images of his son writhing in pain flashed before Max's eyes, and the weakness of a fallen warrior overcame him. Unable to bear the news, he suffered a heart attack and fell to the floor. He could not speak and clutched his chest, staring desperately into Rachel's eyes. This time, pain was an enemy that neither Max's mind nor his body could defeat.
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