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Middle East Kevin Dispatch

Tomb of the Well-Known Soldier
Part IV - Days of Reckoning

January 29, 2000

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Three years down a very long road
By the time Ofer Levy was a teenager, Israelis were just beginning to come to grips with what really happened in Lebanon. Unlike in previous wars, full media coverage of the Lebanon invasion left little mystery as to the extent of the violence. The world community condemned it, and both Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon resigned from power. By now everyone in Israel had heard of the atrocities of the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps, where Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers guarding the camps turned a blind eye to their Christian Phalange Militia allies who slaughtered 800 unarmed civilian refugees. Israel was now a David that was beginning to look more like Goliath. Ofer's generation hoped this new strength would bring peace to the nation…

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…

His cousin Eyal Cohen, meanwhile, continued to suffer terribly from "helem krav," or "shell shock." Because of his mental illness-for which there was virtually no cure -- Eyal was unable to hold down a job and moved back in with his parents. At times, seeing children reminded Eyal of the burned and lifeless bodies he had seen in Beirut. Fortunately this never happened during visits with Ofer, who was already 15. Eyal saw Ofer and his mother, Yael, once a month, when they came down from Safed to visit the family in Tel Aviv. In fact, hanging out with Ofer was like therapy for Eyal, who didn't have any friends left to talk to anyway. Curious Ofer asked Eyal direct questions about the war and his experience. Finally, and only with Ofer, Eyal started to talk about everything he went through during his days as a lieutenant…

'I cannot believe that war is the best solution. No one wonthe last war and no one will win the next. -Eleanor Roosevelt

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.

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Patrolling the borders between Israelis and Palestinians
As the sun rose, it reflected off the garbage and abandoned street vehicles. Col. Bresler saw nothing pure about Gaza: kids were everywhere, and his Jeep inched slowly through the tightly packed crowds of people. Stretched Mercedes taxis competed with donkey-driven carts full of produce, lumber and rubbish for access to inadequate roads. Buildings were nothing more than thrown-together concrete blocks-halfway built or halfway destroyedb -- all less than livable. To the Colonel it looked like one big, narrow, 150-square mile refugee camp, surrounded by barbed-wire fences and patrolled by his men.

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.

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Col. Bresler grabbed two men and jumped into Lt. Herzog's Jeep, ordering the driver to head straight for his target. The boy and a few of his friends broke away from the demonstration and ran down the street, not looking back. They jumped over potholes and splashed through puddles trying to outrun the Jeep. It raced after them but was forced to stop at the entrance to the next street. Skeletal remains of a burned car blocked the way. The Colonel furiously ordered two men to follow the boys on foot, but Lt. Herzog suggested they intercept the boys at the other end of the street. The driver turned the Jeep around, and sped back the way they came, turning a sharp right into a small alley.


Molotov cocktail - a grenade made by setting fire to a bottle filled with flammable liquid
Intifada - uprising
The driver slowed down to avoid scraping the Jeep's sides on the narrow alley walls. Col. Bresler suspected the boys were hiding in nearby homes. He was ready to go door-to-door to snuff them out when, in an instant, a flash of red passed from one side of the alley to the other. "Kadima!" he shouted, and the Jeep sped forward after the three boys, who in his imagination were already handcuffed to the front of the Jeep undergoing harsh interrogation. The Jeep rounded the corner and chased all three boys down a long, narrow alley. There was no exit at the far end. The boys hopelessly raced forward, panting. They reached the cement wall which blocked their escape and spun around to see the Jeep closing in on them. They knew they were trapped and destined to join thousands of other youth who survive the chase but spend weeks or months in detention for their defiance.

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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A soldier dies and a country loses a son
In Israel it is said that, "for every soldier that dies, the country loses a son." And yet, sons continue to die in wars fought out of fear of losing the country. From the very beginning, Max had always hoped his country could exist in peace. He was willing to go to war for this cause and, at the risk of suffering, even to die for it. He never expected that his children and grandchildren would be forced to do the same. After each war, Max used to ask Rachel, "When did Eretz Yisrael, once a land full of hopes, become a place of such painful memories?" Israelis are still searching for an answer, to this day.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Abeja - Journeys Into the Prison-Like World of Gaza City
Kevin - The Tomb of the Well-Known Soldier Part III: The War of Uncertainty
Team - The Politics of Thirst
Kavitha - Kavi Gets MAD With Art

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