I had been in Israel for just over two years and was nine months into my compulsory military service when war came.
I had just received my wings and red beret and achieved a childhood dream of becoming an Israeli paratrooper. Growing up in apartheid South Africa, I had but one goal: to be an Israeli. And now I was preparing to defend a nation even younger than I.
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The Egyptians, for the first time since 1956, had moved forces into Sinai, massing 100,000 men and 900 tanks virtually on Israel’s southern border. Transistor radios carried increasingly dire reports: The Iraqis had sent troops and jets to bolster the Jordanian army on our eastern front, where Israel was just nine-miles wide at its narrowest. To the north, the Syrians were digging in their artillery on the Golan Heights from where they could look down on the Israeli settlements and towns. On May 26, 1967, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser said it plain in a public speech: “This will be total war. Our basic aim will be to destroy Israel.”
Two days later, Levi Eshkol, the indecisive prime minister, read from a handwritten text without his glasses, stumbling over last-minute corrections. Public confidence plummeted. The patriotic songs on the radio began to sound as hollow as the assurances of government spokesmen. The economy came to a near halt as tens of thousands of reserves were called up and cars and trucks were commandeered for military service. People were told to tape their windows and blockade entrances against shrapnel. Much of central Israel was within Jordanian artillery range and there was a distinct feeling that we would be overrun.
In desperation, Eshkol asked his political and ideological enemy, Menachem Begin, the right-wing leader, to create a unity government. Begin agreed on the condition Eshkol invite another political rival, Moshe Dayan, a former chief of staff and war hero, to join them as minister of defense.
Soon after, we were waiting to board a plane for a planned jump on Egyptian positions in northern Sinai. The jump was canceled when it was learned that the Egyptians had peppered their positions with iron stakes to impale us. Instead, we moved on the ground to a dense eucalyptus grove close to where the borders of Israel, Egypt and Gaza meet. Early on the morning of June 5, flanked by tanks and with Israeli jets whizzing overhead, we advanced on Sheikh Zuweid, a complex of trenches surrounded by barbed wire and mine fields. It was my turn at the head of the column when, out of nowhere, an Egyptian soldier appeared, his Kalashnikov cocked and pointing at me. I emptied the magazine of my Uzi in controlled bursts. I felt no sense of victory as he died, just relief that the situation was not reversed.
That night, our mood turned to elation when we heard over our crackly radio that our air force had destroyed 90 percent of the Egyptian air force in a surprise attack that morning. With little opposition, we reached Kantara on the Suez Canal in what seemed lightning speed. The radio delivered more good news: Israel had taken East Jerusalem and all of the West Bank to the Jordan River and all of Sinai. Nasser’s army, like his air force, was decimated, the dunes of Sinai littered with the discarded boots of fleeing troops. On the sixth day, after losing the Golan Heights, Syria joined Egypt and Jordan in agreeing to a cease-fire.
Israel’s astonishing, almost miraculous victory imprinted the still-young nation’s presence indelibly on the Middle East. But though the war led to eventual peace with Egypt and Jordan, it never brought it full acceptance from its neighbors. And even though it ensured Israel’s existence, in the long term it may have done as much harm as good. I feel that I have earned the right to say this: For 50 years, I have watched as a soldier, journalist, husband and father as successive Israeli governments failed to leverage this victory into lasting peace, as Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank eroded the country morally, democratically and in the esteem of the international community.
Never have I seen Israel as divided as it is now, almost at war between those who want the occupation to end and those who want to keep the West Bank’s 2.7 million Palestinians under Israeli rule in perpetuity, seemingly oblivious to the cost involved. I left South Africa as a young man because I hated racism and apartheid. Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is not apartheid, but is unfair. Being an occupier of another people is not what I had in mind when I came to the country or when I went to war in 1967. I wanted to help build a country where my children would live and their children after them. But the failure to make peace puts this in jeopardy if Israel slides from being a democratic, moral and tolerant Jewish state into the pariah apartheid South Africa once was.
But in June 1967 these feelings were many years away. All we could hear was cheering. As we marched back into Israel, crowds strewed flowers in our path, lavished us with sweets. We rode through the Lion’s Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem bound for the Western Wall. Even for secular Jews like me, it was a dizzying and emotional moment. But even in that victory tour there were the signs of the struggles to come. In a string of Palestinian villages east of the Old City, we saw white flags hanging from homes and the stunned looks on the faces of those who watched us drive by.
It took a while to digest that our role had shifted from conqueror to occupier. Back on duty in the Sinai, there were some uneasy moments, like escorting prisoners of war for interrogation, knowing what lay in store for them, or turning pleading civilians away at roadblocks, under strict orders not to let them through, no matter what reason they gave.
About a month into this routine there was an incident that left me deeply conflicted for the first time since arriving in Israel. Palestinian fedayeen operating out of Gaza started laying mines on the railway line to the Israeli border. Someone came up with the idea that the best way to prevent this was to place a flatbed carriage loaded with Palestinians in front of the engine.
Late one night, several of us were sent to a refugee camp in southern Gaza with orders to round up about 20 young men for “carriage duty.” As our miserable victims were dragged from their homes, trembling at the feet of armed soldiers screaming at them in Hebrew, a language they could not understand, I felt a wave of nausea come over me. I saw South African police rounding up “pass-offenders” for mandatory jail terms; despite myself, I heard echoes of the Holocaust as we forced these confused and terrified people onto a train carriage. My feelings were not rational or proportional—there was no comparison between this and the Holocaust, I knew. But I couldn’t shake my conscience. I felt that what I had done was inconsistent with why I had come to Israel. I feared becoming, once again, a stranger in my own land.
The period after the war was heady. Suddenly we could camp in Sinai and dive in the Red Sea; put a note in the Western Wall and pop off to Bethlehem for cheap shopping and lunch. Israelis packed Jericho’s open-air restaurants and markets, buying up bags of local fresh oranges as fast as the sellers could grow them. We moved around freely and without fear, even through the refugee camps in Gaza en route to some of the beaches on the Mediterranean. There was a sense of security in the land. Israel had strategic depth and full control over the territories it conquered, little thought being given to the fate of the 1.5 million Palestinians now under Israeli military occupation.
Moshe Dayan, the defense minister, said the Palestinians would be happy with limited self-rule, minus control over security issues and foreign affairs. Others, like Begin, believed that economic prosperity would solve the problem. Only the police minister, Eliahu Sasson, had the courage to state the obvious. He urged his cabinet colleagues to compromise with the Arabs even in the absence of full peace and to reach an agreement on the West Bank as quickly as possible, warning of possible collapse if the occupation continued. But in September came the “three nos” from the Arab League summit in Khartoum: No peace with Israel. No recognition of Israel. No negotiations with Israel. I don’t think I remember a week without conflict since.
Renewed hostilities began almost immediately. Israeli forces dug the Bar Lev Line on the east side of the Canal as Egyptian artillery shells began to rain down with increasing frequency. The few weeks I spent stationed there—utterly exposed—were probably the most frightening of my life. By the time a cease-fire was reached with Egypt in August 1970, over 1,400 Israelis had been killed, nearly twice as many as in the Six-Day War and nothing to show for it.
Nasser had found Israel’s Achilles’ heel: a high sensitivity to casualties. Everyone had a son, brother, cousin, husband in uniform. With barely 2 million Jews in the country, virtually no family or community was left unscathed.
On March 18, 1968, a school bus hit a mine in the Negev. This was the 38th attack by the fedayeen in three months and Israel decided to retaliate. I was in the hospital with chicken pox, furious I would not be on the raid. The target was Karameh, a town in central Jordan, where Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization had their headquarters. Israel assembled a huge force of paratroops, infantry and armor. It was supposed to be a cakewalk. Our goals were to destroy the Palestinian base of operations, kill or capture anyone there, including Arafat, and send a strong signal to the Jordanian monarch to end the terror against Israel from across his border.
The cakewalk ended in disaster. Against all predictions the Jordanians joined in the fray and the Palestinians put up fierce resistance in a 15-hour house-to-house battle. Israel was stunned when the full scale of the debacle became known: 32 soldiers killed, 69 injured, 17 tanks hit and four tanks abandoned behind enemy lines. A year earlier, Israel had conquered the Arab world. Now, its forces were routed by a vagabond band of Palestinian terrorists.
Levi Eshkol died of a heart attack in February 1969. Some said he could not stand the pain of the mounting death toll. Golda Meir, once referred to by David Ben-Gurion as “the best man in my cabinet,” came out of retirement to become Israel’s first and only female prime minister. Begin, who opposed yielding “one inch” of territory, stormed out of the unity government when Meir agreed to “withdraw to secure and recognized boundaries in the framework of a comprehensive peace settlement.” As it turned out, Meir and her cabinet were no less hawkish than he. Dayan said “rather Sharm el Sheikh without peace than peace without Sharm el Sheikh” while Meir rejected overtures from the Egyptians to end the conflict.
Three years later Israel was to pay the price.
By the time war broke out again, on Saturday October 6, 1973, I was married with two small children and had recently been appointed military correspondent of the Jerusalem Post, then Israel’s only English-language daily. For weeks we had been reporting on massive troop movements on the Egyptian side of the Canal and the sudden recall of 20,000 Soviet advisers from Egypt in early October, reminiscent of Nasser’s expulsion of United Nations’ forces just six years before. Though war was clearly on the horizon, Israel’s intelligence chief, Eli Zeira, insisted otherwise. At 2 o’clock in the afternoon on Friday, October 5, Zeira sat at the head of a long, shiny table peeling chilled almonds with a silver penknife. He had summoned the military correspondents to castigate us for causing public panic; the Egyptian troop movements west of the Canal, he said, were only exercises.
Minutes after the surprise attack exactly one day later—which happened to be Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar—the phone rang in our Jerusalem apartment. It was the army spokesman asking me to hurry to headquarters in Tel Aviv. Generally, not a car moves on Yom Kippur, but this day the traffic was heavy with reservists rushing to their units as their code words came over the radio, usually silent on the holy day.
Earlier that morning, Meir had refused a request by chief of staff David Elazar to launch a pre-emptive strike against the Syrians. She said she could not risk the wrath of the Americans. President Richard Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, had told her that under no circumstances was Israel to be seen as starting a war. Israel had to wait for the Arabs to make the first move. It was a costly decision.
That night, I attended a news conference by the prime minister, defense minister and the chief of staff. They assured us that this was not war, just localized Syrian and Egyptian actions that would be contained soon, all of which I reported faithfully in my story the next morning. But by that afternoon, it was war and I was no longer a reporter. I had been called into active duty after hastily preparing the public shelter in our building with water, tinned food and whatever comfort I could find before leaving for the front.
That night, in the cold of a cloudless evening in the Judean desert near the Jordan River, I sat with my comrades huddled again around a transistor radio listening to the news: Tens of thousands of Egyptian soldiers were crossing the Canal virtually unopposed, Israel’s paltry forces there overrun, Syrian armor was advancing on the Golan. There was nothing between the Jordan River and Jerusalem except for us, a reserve paratroops battalion, and a few old tanks. Our planes were coming down like flies in Sinai and on the Golan. Our air force, still basking in the victory of 1967, had totally underestimated the effectiveness of the Soviet-supplied mobile anti-aircraft missiles. On the ground, anti-tank missiles ripped through Israeli armor with ease. So dire had the situation become, said the voice on the radio, that all air force operations had been diverted to the north to try and stop the Syrians. The threat posed by the Egyptians was less immediate, with a lot of sand between the Canal and Tel Aviv, but they were still advancing.
Our fear was palpable as we listened to the radio that night. Nothing was said, but we truly believed that Israel once again was on the brink of destruction.
Once it was clear that Jordan’s King Hussein would not join the war we were redeployed to the Hermon, a 7,000-foot-high range overlooking Syria and Lebanon, where we were to stay as reservists, far from family and home for nine freezing months, some of us in jeopardy of financial ruin. I was still in my 20s, had been in Israel for just eight years and was in my third war. Since being released from active service in 1969 I had spent hundreds of days in the reserves fighting terrorists over the Jordanian and Lebanese borders. More than once I thought of my kids and what their future would be in this land of never-ending conflict, sometimes even harboring secret doubts as to the viability of Israel’s long-term survival.
The Yom Kippur War cost Israel over 2,600 killed and some 10,000 wounded—a tremendous price for a small country. It also eventually cost the Labor Party its three-decade hegemony over Israeli politics. In May 1977, Begin, the man Ben-Gurion once compared to Hitler, won the election by a landslide. Begin called his election “a turning point for the Jewish people” and encouraged young religious Zionists to build their homes in Judea and Samaria, “Israel’s biblical homeland, never to be returned.”
Begin’s rhetoric seemed to portent a right-wing agenda, but behind the scenes he was laying the groundwork for peace with Egypt culminating in a secret meeting on September 16 faciliated by King Hassan of Morocco between Israeli foreign minister Moshe Dayan and Egyptian Deputy Prime Minister Hassan Tuhami. Then on November 19, 1977, the unthinkable happened. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat arrived in Israel, stepping off his plane onto a red carpet, received by an honor guard and a 21-gun salute.
I watched the scene on television with Eitan Haber, a colleague from Yedioth Ahronoth, a Hebrew afternoon newspaper. We cried with joy. The next morning, Sadat told the Knesset that “We really and truly welcome you to live among us in peace and security.” Begin would go on to declare, “No more war, no more bloodshed and no more threats.”
It was as if the Messiah had arrived.
At a joint news conference in Jerusalem during the Sadat visit, Begin declared that for Israel, territory was “holy.” Sadat responded that for Egypt territory was “holy as well.” Ultimately, Israel gave up every inch of the Sinai, establishing the precedent of land for peace. But there was one issue the two men didn’t touch. In making their peace Sadat and Begin thought they could sweep the Palestinian problem under the carpet. The issue was “referred to committee” where it would remain unresolved and festering to this day.
For the next 16 months I would cover the peace process from up close. I was one of the first Israeli reporters in Egypt. I was more moved seeing the pyramids than when I first touched the Western Wall back in June 1967. Finally, I felt Israel had received formal recognition of its existence as the homeland of the Jewish people, and that now, with Egypt, the most powerful country in the Arab world, on our side, Israel was safe.
During that period, I spent weeks and weeks in Egypt. I traveled relatively freely through the country, unashamedly and without fear telling all and sundry that I was from Israel. I was received warmly, something that would change over time. Many things stand out in my mind from that period, but prime among them is a conversation I had with General Abdel Ghani-el Gamasy, the then-Egyptian minister of defense and architect of Egypt’s strategy in the 1973 war. I asked him why the Egyptian forces, having crossed the canal so easily, had stopped in Sinai and not continued to Tel Aviv.
Egypt’s strategy, he replied, was not to conquer Tel Aviv, but to achieve enough of a victory to restore Egyptian dignity before pursuing a path toward peace. You cannot negotiate on your knees, but only eye to eye, I remember him saying—a sentence that has come back to haunt me many times when thinking how we relate to the Palestinians as masters, not equals.
The first Palestinian intifada erupted like wildfire on December 9, 1987. Yitzhak Rabin, the defense minister, was in Washington to address a conference at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where I was a fellow at the time. It soon became apparent something was amiss. Rabin looked increasingly agitated. It was soon clear why: That morning, a military truck had hit and killed four Palestinians in the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza. Riots were breaking out across the occupied territories and Israeli troops were coming under a hail of stones.
On the way back to Tel Aviv, Rabin made the unfortunate statement that “we will break their bones.” A few days later, a CBS crew filmed Israeli soldiers doing exactly that and the war was on. Israel was at a total loss as to how to deal with rock-throwing Palestinians. The narrative had been reversed, casting them as David and Israel as Goliath. The military’s inability to suppress the uprising became clear to me once I was back at the paper after my return from Washington. During one unforgettable visit to the Central Command, Amram Mitzna, a general who was to go on to become the mayor of Haifa, showed me a rock-slinging catapult reminiscent of Roman times that was to be used against the Palestinians. This, he said, one hand proudly resting on the monster’s side, is our answer. I felt like I was in Chelm, the fictional town in Yiddish folklore where idiots reside.
In June 1992, Rabin was elected prime minister with a significant majority. We were with friends in Tel Aviv and a loud whoop of joy filled the streets when the results were announced. Though Rabin had been a hard-liner when the intifada broke out, he was seen as a pragmatist, a leader with a vision as opposed to the man he beat: the dour and largely unsuccessful Yitzhak Shamir, also known as “Mr. Nyet” for his propensity to say “no” to everything. With Rabin’s election came new hope.
Rabin had a clear vision of what he wanted to achieve. He set up a strong liberal-left coalition and allowed his deputy, Shimon Peres, to carry out top-secret exploratory talks with the PLO under the aegis of the Norwegian government. These evolved into the Oslo Accords, signed with a reluctant handshake between Rabin and Arafat on the White House lawn, a beaming Bill Clinton between them, on September 13, 1993.
It was a ray of sunlight that would not last.
Rabin was demonized by the right wing at mass rallies where the victor of 1967 was scorned as a traitor with pictures of him in a Nazi SS uniform. Chanting crowds carried a coffin with his name on it. Rabbis of prominent yeshivas on the West Bank incited violence in “the name of the land” and religious fanatics gathered outside Rabin’s home to recite the pulsa denura—the mother of all curses said to bring death within a year.
An inward and shy man despite his high public position, Rabin was not one for public displays and at first demurred when asked to attend a peace celebration organized by Tel Aviv Mayor Shlomo Lahat and Rabin’s political nemesis, Peres, whom he disliked intensely despite their long history together. But he agreed to come.
It was Saturday night, November 4, 1995, and hundreds of thousands assembled, waving Israeli flags. Rabin was visibly moved on the stage, enjoying the embrace from the crowd after months of vilification. He swayed to the music and to the surprise of all extended an awkward hug toward Peres for the first time in their careers.
The event ended with Rabin reading the lyrics to the “Song of Peace” from a piece of paper he later neatly folded and put in his shirt pocket. The crowd was still singing and chanting when he turned to leave, waving as he turned toward the stairs.
Moments later, he was hit by two of three bullets shot by Yigal Amir, an Israeli right-wing fanatic and law student at Bar Ilan University who had taken the urgings of the West Bank rabbis literally. Rabin was pronounced dead 40 minutes later by his aide, Eitan Haber, with whom I had watched Sadat arrive. Again, he had tears in his eyes, this time in grief as he waved the blood-soaked paper with the lyrics.
Mourning enveloped the country, less for Rabin than for Israel itself. The unthinkable had happened and Israel would never be the same. Under Rabin, Israel had its future mapped out. He had a clear vision of what he wanted and where he was prepared to go. This was clear to me when I interviewed him on the Thursday afternoon, two days before his assassination.
As we sat down in his office a waitress walked in with two beers on a silver tray. He drank both of them. He told me that he was prepared to negotiate a peace deal with Syria, the depth of Israel’s territorial withdrawal on the Golan being equal to the depth of Syrian President Assad’s commitment to peace. With regard to the Palestinians, he intended to see Oslo through to the end. Those settlers who refused to relocate according to the contours of a final agreement would be left to die on the vine, he said, with no water, no electricity and no security provided by Israel.
And then he was dead, and any real chance of peace seemed to vanish.
I was with my wife in Istanbul when I saw the footage of Ariel Sharon going onto Temple Mount in September 2000 with a retinue of armed bodyguards, media and followers. She was in the shower and I yelled through the door that I was watching the second intifada in the making. Soon, buses started to explode and suicide bombers began to hit malls and markets, hotel lobbies, restaurants and discos. The carnage went on for more than four years. One day, my young son asked his mother whether we were living in the Shoa—the Holocaust.
It ended in February 2005 when the new president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, shook hands with Sharon, who had recently been elected prime minister in the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. They agreed to revert to a U.S.-sponsored road map for peace, but, as so often in the past, it turned out to be a long journey to nowhere. All the sides wanted to climb down from the tree and the road map was their ladder. George W. Bush wanted stability; Sharon wanted to extend Israeli control over the West Bank; and Abbas had no real choice, being dependent on both.
In August 2005—nearly a decade after Rabin’s assassination—Sharon unilaterally withdrew Israeli forces and settlers from Gaza. It might have seemed like a peace overture, but it wasn’t. His intent was diabolically simple: shed Gaza’s 2 million Palestinians to reduce the demographic threat to Israel and tighten Israel’s hold on the West Bank.
There is no such thing as protracted occupation over another people without a moral or democratic price to be paid. The settlers, who believe God is on their side, claim otherwise as do those hard-liners on the right who want the land and pretend not to see the people who live there.
In 1967, we fought armies on distant battlefields, as we did again in 1973. My children, however, have been forced into the role of occupiers contrary to the values we hold at home. My oldest son was inducted into the army about a year into the first intifada. When he was asked which unit he wanted to join, he replied: “I’ll do anything but be an occupier.” With the explanation that “We need nice boys like you with strong values to interact with the Palestinians with sensitivity,” he was sent to join a newly established unit based in Beit Jallah near Bethlehem. His unit’s precise goal was to enforce the occupation: arrest “terror suspects” in the middle of the night, relatives cursing and spitting at them in the process; enforce curfews to stymie protests, telling young kids they can’t play soccer in the street because they posed a security threat; man roadblocks and turn away the sick because they did not have the right permits.
He did his duty as was expected of him, but almost the day after shedding his uniform he slammed the door on the country of his birth. He moved abroad and has not returned. We met in Vienna a few years later and talked about his decision. “I’ll never forgive the country for what it made me do,” he said simply. As I listened, I felt both sad and proud.
My younger boys’ opinions of the Palestinians were forged mainly during the second intifada and its relentless suicide bombings. In less than a decade, they have witnessed four wars and seen Israel’s heartland bombarded indiscriminately with rockets seeking to cause as much civilian damage as possible. As a result, they see the Palestinians with none of the sympathy felt by their older brother, but as enemies in every sense of the word and their military service not as enforcing the occupation, but protecting Israel’s streets from terror—a subtle but massive difference in terms of future peace.
In the West Bank, a third of the Palestinian population is under 14. Less than 5 percent remember a time without Israeli occupation. Decades of Israeli military rule have bred resentment and hatred, the flimsy olive branch offered by the Oslo Accords now a distant memory.
In Israel, the right wing has grown stronger, testing democracy and the rule of law almost daily as the liberal opposition looks on, impotent and unable to stop the rot. With more than half a million Israelis now living on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, I feel the problem has become almost intractable; Israel seems doomed to live by the bayonet in perpetuity, damaging itself as much as those it occupies. It erodes the professionalism of the army and takes its eye off the real threats: a nuclear Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and international and local terror. To survive, Israel needs to live with bayonet in hand, but not pointed at itself.
In 1967, I was proud to be an Israeli. That is still the case, but a lot more complicated. I am not as at peace with Israel today as I was then and I fear for the future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic country, something that never even occurred to me at the time. In 1967, as a young soldier, I felt like I helped shape the future of my adopted country. I don’t feel that way now. I feel unable to change its course and once again I wonder what kind of a future our children and grandchildren will have here. Israel has achieved much over the years, but the occupation has to stop before it conquers us all.