The sixth commandment
As a medic, Joseph Algazy was mobilized for the Six-Day War in 1967. Already a well-known left-wing activist and a young father, he made one decision before he went into battle: He would not kill another human being − no matter what
A number of personal experiences from the war of June 1967 remain etched in my memory. For reasons that will become clear, I have never before made them public. Now, almost 40 years later, I felt it was time to commit them to writing and publish them. This is my war story. Because it is the personal story of a political individual, it is also a political story. Owing to space considerations, only fragments of it are set down here.
The skies of the Middle East grew ominously dark in May 1967. War was palpably in the air. I was 29 and the editor of the weekly Zo Haderech (The Path), the Hebrew-language organ of Rakah (the New Communist List), one of the two groupings of the Communist Party in Israel, which had split two years earlier. On Friday, May 19 at midday, I interviewed Oded Kotler, who had just won the award for best actor at the Cannes Film Festival for his role in Uri Zohar’s “Shlosha Yamim Veyeled” (“Three Days and a Child”). At home I followed the news, which left no doubt: the region was deteriorating with sure steps toward another war.
At 1 A.M., pounding on the door woke me from restless sleep. Two reservists were there to deliver an emergency order; I was to report to my reserve unit in the morning. The countdown to war had begun. Miriam, my companion at the time, who was in her seventh month of pregnancy, stood behind me as though petrified, without saying a word. I felt a surge of anger shoot through me, but kept myself from shouting so as not to wake our son, Gadi, who was then five and a half.
I prepared myself for a lengthy tour of reserve duty, cramming everything I could into my regular reserve-duty knapsack. But instead of going back to sleep, Miriam and I sat down at the desk to work: to utilize the few hours that remained until morning, I dictated the interview with Oded Kotler to Miriam, who kept nodding off.
In the morning I reported to our unit’s meeting place − a reserve infantry battalion − in the center of a residential neighborhood in Jaffa. Gradually others showed up and we immediately plunged into discussions about the onrushing events. The reactions ranged from vociferous enthusiasm for war to muted concern about the unknown.
Most of the time, I stood off to the side, immersed in thoughts about what was happening and what lay in store for us, and worries about the family I had left behind. Aware that my political views would only anger the others, I preferred to keep a low profile. I was afraid. I remembered the arrest of a handful of reservists who were members of the Communist Party 11 years earlier, after they had expressed, in the army, public opposition to the Sinai-Suez war of 1956 (Haaretz Magazine, January 10, 1997; Hebrew).
From Jaffa we were taken to a base near Ramle to organize and receive our equipment. As a company medic, I was burdened with two first-aid knapsacks and a folding stretcher in addition to the standard gear. At about twilight, shortly before the end of Shabbat, we set out southward in a truck convoy. On the way the convoy passed through various towns and villages. Large numbers of people stood by the roadside, applauding and cheering us. Women voiced joyful ululations, as though they were accompanying us on our wedding day. Others threw us candies. The manifestations of joy only deepened my feeling of gloomy fury. I leaned on the side of the ladder on the tightly packed truck and slowly slid down until I was sitting on the floor, where I wore my moroseness like a cloak. Within me, I felt I did not belong to this place.
In darkness we reached the site where the forces were massing, in the Ketziot-Kadesh Barnea-Nitzana sector on the Egyptian border. The area was very much like the site where we had trained a few months before. And, like then, we were ordered to dig positions and trenches in the rocky ground.
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.” − Henry David Thoreau, “Walden”
The period that preceded the war’s outbreak came to be known as the “days of waiting.” During the day we were busy improving our positions and undergoing training, and at night we were on guard duty. Much of the news on Israel Radio was taken up with the boastful speeches being delivered over the Cairo-based UAR (United Arab Republic) Radio − speeches which served our own masters of war − who were eager for battle − astonishingly well. The official propaganda machine cultivated the anxiety that gripped the Israeli public upon hearing Cairo’s threats, the hawkish demagogy of our politicians and the patriotic fervor of volunteer performers and entertainers.
The dust and sand of the desert crept into every hole and crack − into tents, clothes, eyes, mouth, ears, weapons. The days were brutally hot, the nights cold. The profuse perspiration, a shortage of water and the absence of hygienic conditions gave rise to intolerable levels of dirt and stench. Diarrhea was common. To try to overcome, at least in part, the depression that had seized me, I started to read. Just before leaving home I had stuffed Charlie Chaplin’s autobiography, in French translation, into my knapsack.
In addition I kept up my outer appearance, in contrast to the others, who assumed a desert-combat look. Nearly everyone was unshaven, dusty, dirty and repulsively smelly. I filled two tin cans with water, which served me to shave, wash and even launder my grimy clothes.
My buddy in the pup tent was a young religious man who was pleasant and had a cordial temperament. He was the company clerk. In civilian life he was an agronomist and etymologist. He was surprised, though not frightened, when I confirmed what he had already heard from other soldiers − that his tent mate was, heaven forbid, both an atheist and a Communist. Despite our different approaches and frequent arguments, we felt mutual respect and a readiness to help each other. Our relations improved even more when he discovered that indeed, as he had heard from religious soldiers in the battalion, I had agreed to be the tenth person and thus complete the prayer quorum, as a gesture of camaraderie.
My buddy and I exchanged morale-boosting letters that were sent by schoolchildren to the soldiers who had been called up. Many of the children repeated what their teachers had hammered into their heads: “It is good to die for one’s country.” Here is one such letter: “My wish is that you will defeat these bad Arabs and give great courage. And I hope that you beat the Arabs and that we destroy their country.”
I wrote home nearly every day, asking over and over how Miriam and Gadi were doing in light of the day-to-day difficulties and the feeling of impending war. Not forgetting that Miriam bore childhood scars from World War II, I wrote her, “From this place I know your thoughts about the distant past, and now once again dangers.” I urged her, “Try to get over it, and make sure especially that Gadi does not feel insecure − keep him busy all the time.”
The memory of my father, an indefatigable worrier, came up in one of the letters: “I have to admit that at times I feel better for the fact that Father is not alive. He would certainly have gone into a paroxysm of worry.”
I missed my house and my little family very much. In those days people did not know the gender of the fetus in the womb, but that did not stop me from being almost positive that we would have a girl, and we had already chosen a name − Jasmine.
In the letters, I described something of our experiences, always careful not to give away “military secrets.” After I finished reading Chaplin’s book, I allowed myself to quote from it, in free translation, a few lines from the famous speech in “The Great Dictator”: “Soldiers! Do not give in to these thugs, to these people who despise and subjugate you ... Who dictate your deeds, your thoughts and your feelings! ... Who treat you like a herd of animals and use you as cannon fodder! You are not machines! You are people! Your heart is brimming with love for humanity! Do not hate!”
As company medic, I had little to do. People came to me with headaches or stomachaches or with minor cuts and abrasions. The others were treated in the battalion clinic tent, where a physician was on call. I enjoyed the role of medic: it made much easier my total of 35 years of military service, both as a conscript and in the reserves. When I was about to be drafted, I pondered at length the question of what I would do in the army. On the day the selection officer asked me if I wanted to be a medic, I leaped at the offer. As a medic, I thought, I would have a better chance of avoiding actual combat; on the contrary, I would be able to treat people − both Israeli soldiers and “enemy troops” − and perhaps save lives.
My aspiration was realized faster than I could have dreamed. In December 1956, after completing a medics course, I was seconded to the military clinic that was operating in Sharm el-Sheikh after its conquest. There I treated both Israeli soldiers and Egyptian prisoners of war.
On Wednesday, May 24, in the wake of reports that Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had ordered the Straits of Tiran blocked to Israeli shipping, the rumor spread among the troops that we would be at war the next day. To prepare, we checked our weapons, dug more positions and trenches, lay minefields and trained in assaulting outposts.
The truth is that I was not sorry to have been called up − it was important for me to be with all the others and to live with them in these critical days. Nevertheless, on the night between Wednesday and Thursday, I did not sleep a wink. My thoughts were not focused only on my personal fate. I was worried about my family and my mother. I tried to imagine how Miriam got along with Gadi when just the two of them were in the house. I imagined that my mother, who lived not far away, would join them as usual for the Friday evening meal. I also wondered, of course, how they were getting along without me at the newspaper.
But the question that preoccupied me most that night was how I would act if I were sent into battle. Although I realized that I might be hurt, like the others, I was worried less about my physical state than about my mental state. I had always known that I was incapable of shooting another person, of wounding or killing someone else. I knew that on the battlefield only two types of people existed: those who inflicted injury and those who were injured − killer and killed. I knew that the desire to survive and live dictated the behavior of every fighter in combat, and that I would not be given the chance to ask for a break and announce, “Hey, I’m not playing − don’t shoot me.” I was very concerned about the question of how I would live with myself after the war if I were compelled to behave as every soldier in battle is expected to behave − to shoot and kill in order to survive. But at no stage did I contemplate the possibility of deserting.
The hours slipped by. When dawn came I was still caught in the thicket of questions that had disturbed me the whole night. The commanding officers prepared us to move out. As fears mounted, people became less talkative; as the moment of moving into battle neared, the boastfulness waned. The tension disappeared instantly when we were informed that zero-hour had been postponed. Postponed, but not canceled, the officers emphasized. We went back to the waiting routine.
The days and nights passed slowly. I found it hard to sleep at night, being constantly plagued by the question of what I would do if I were sent into battle. I did not want to be caught unprepared. In my imagination I conjured up scenes from anti-war books I had read, such as Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front,” Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms,” Henri Barbusse’s “Under Fire” and Dalton Trumbo’s “Johnny Got His Gun.” In none of them did I find the answer to the question that would not leave me.
In battle a medic, too, must fight in order to survive. His role is not confined only to tending the wounded. I was bothered by the question of whether I too would contribute my share to the bloody account between Israel and its Arab neighbors. And what would happen if I were to encounter among the troops of the “Egyptian enemy” a soldier I had known − or whose family I had known − in the Alexandria quarter in which I grew up, or in the neighborhood where my father had his tavern?
One day we were visited by the division commander, Major General Ariel Sharon, who enjoyed the aura of a gung-ho warrior. It was apparent from the radio newscasts that the frantic diplomatic efforts then underway were not interfering with his preparations for war. Not only was the army ready for war − so was the home front. The atmosphere heated up even more in the wake of the “stuttering address” by Prime Minister Levi Eshkol in a radio broadcast to the nation on May 28. A few days later Moshe Dayan and Menachem Begin were brought into the cabinet. It was not until years later that the public learned about the intense pressure that had been brought to bear by powerful sources in the political and military establishments for the formation of a national-unity government and for going to war. The pressures sometimes sounded like threats to stage a military coup.
Before dawn on Monday, June 5, we received the order to prepare for war. For hours we sat on our equipment, waiting for the signal. The battalion commander briefed us on our mission. Together with other forces, we were to capture Umm Katef, which was described as a site fortified according to Soviet military doctrine. Our battalion was given the task of “cleaning out” the defensive trenches around the site, by means of shooting, grenades, bayonets and hand-to-hand combat. We were issued equipment to protect us against a gas attack and a small flashlight for night identification.
At midday we boarded a bus that took us west. We crossed the border into Egypt. On the way I reached a decision: I will not wound or kill anyone, even at the risk of my life. I would advance with the rest of the forces but I would not turn my weapon, an Uzi submachine gun, on anyone, even if I were attacked and in danger. I decided that I would do my best to treat the wounded, Israelis and Egyptians alike. As soon as I had decided this, I went through everything a medic had to do in my head. That calmed me. Henceforth I felt that I had made the right decision.
After getting off the bus, we continued westward by foot across the dunes. I will never forget that trek. Sections of it still flicker across my consciousness, like a horror film. Every step in the soft sand was sheer torture. I was weighed down by my personal knapsack, the two bags of medical equipment, the submachine gun, the ammunition clips, two full canteens of water and the folding stretcher. Progress was slow and wrenching. I huffed and puffed like a steam engine. Under the weight of my body and the gear I carried, with every step I sank into the sand almost up to my testicles.
Our slogging through the sand was accompanied by incessant Egyptian shelling. Later it turned out that it had caused no casualties, but it was certainly very scary. The ponderous motion of the slow march sometimes made the flashlight that was hanging on me turn on. Other soldiers had the same experience, and the officers kept shouting “Flashlights off!” for fear the Egyptian gunners would pinpoint our position.
We walked in a long column. The order was that each force, and every soldier in the force, had to maintain eye contact with the soldier in front of him. But the darker it got, the wider the gaps became, and the units became separated. As a medic, I had been positioned at the end of my company’s column. As the forced march continued, I noticed a soldier who was barely scrabbling along and was whining hysterically that he could not walk anymore. Officers and soldiers who passed him shouted something at him but did not stop to help him. I pressed on, too, but a few steps later I became alarmed: I was afraid that we were liable to lose him, and as a medic I thought it was my duty to help him.
I turned back to look for him. When I got to him he was even more hysterical. I learned later that while walking, the wretched soldier had cast off all his gear. I took hold of him and pulled him over to me. No one helped me. I had barely made it this far with all the equipment, yet now I found myself dragging another person. To this day I don’t know where I found the strength.
I brought the soldier as far as the jumping-off point for the assault. What happened to him after that, I don’t know. I met him by chance 35 years later, when I happened to pass by his kiosk in the center of Tel Aviv. He didn’t recognize me, but definitely remembered that night, the night march we had shared through the dunes.
After stopping to reorganize, the battalion was ordered to enter the fortified emplacement and “clean out” the trenches. I lost all sense of time. It was pitch black. I knew my company was positioned behind the reconnaissance platoon that was accompanying the battalion commander, but I could not understand exactly what was going on. I made my way heavily across the terrain and through the trenches, like a sleepwalker, a robot. My body hung heavy on me, and my head felt like a dead weight on my neck. Deliberately, and against orders, I did not load my Uzi.
I don’t remember how long we walked like this. Suddenly we came under fire. I couldn’t figure out the source, who was shooting at us, and with what. Nearby there were sounds of an engine and of the tracks of an approaching tank, and a few seconds later there was a tremendous boom as a shell landed next to us. Like everyone around me, I threw myself to the ground. I shut my eyes. I was in a state of shock.
Shouts of “Medic! Medic!” brought me back to reality. When I pulled myself together I realized I had not been wounded. I crawled toward the calls for help. It was a soldier who was wounded in the shoulder, probably by shrapnel. I bandaged him and tried to calm him. I promised him that I would see to it that he was evacuated as soon as possible to the collection point. (I met him again after the war at a ceremony in which the Six-Day War ribbon was handed out. Whenever the commander of the event would praise the war, this soldier would clutch his testicles and spew out a juicy curse in Judeo-Espagnol, and we could barely contain our laughter.)
While I was treating the wounded man, another soldier crawled over and told me that another wounded soldier was lying close by. I crawled over to him. His eyes were open and he was groaning softly. I recognized him immediately. It was Shauli, from the reconnaissance unit, who was always by the side of the battalion commander and was well known to every soldier in the battalion. He had a serious head wound. I placed a large bandage on it. Crawling to the battalion commander, I whispered to him that Shauli was badly wounded and had to be evacuated immediately. It turned out that the physician and the battalion’s collection point were far away. That was “my” first trial by fire and “my” first fatal casualty of the war.
Incessant exchanges of fire went on over our heads. Every so often, tracer bullets lit up the darkness. Detonations continued unabated and the skies were illuminated. I could not tell whether it was artillery or mortar fire, still less whose. We lay on our stomachs and dug our heads deep into the ground. Instinctively, we dug under our bodies, using hands and fingernails, in a desperate effort to find cover. We lay like that for a long time, forever, it seemed, until the new day dawned.
Gradually the exchanges of fire died down and then stopped. A long time went by before a few of the soldiers dared to lift their heads, stand up and leave their dugouts. As long as no one told me otherwise, I did not move; I continued to lie there and watch the events around me, stunned. I saw soldiers running back and forth. Occasionally I saw Egyptian soldiers who had left their shelters and were running every which way. Some of them collapsed and fell when they were caught in crossfire and hit.
For a long time I lay where I was. I was hungry and thirsty. I made an effort to look around but felt that I did not belong to this place. When it became apparent that the Umm Katef stronghold had fallen completely to the attacking forces, and all resistance by the defeated Egyptian troops ceased, the victorious soldiers emerged from their positions, huddled in small groups and regaled one another with the experiences of the battle. A few of them boasted of heroic deeds they had performed. A rumor also spread that at some stage of the battle we had come under friendly fire. No official source confirmed this.
After the “mopping up” operation, soldiers went looking for booty, especially weapons and ammunition. A few soldiers collected “souvenirs”: a bayonet, a pair of boots, a transistor radio, a cap bearing an Egyptian symbol, a wallet, family photos, postcards. The eagerness for booty only deepened my melancholy.
In the morning we were joined by my tent-mate, the company clerk, who had not taken part in the battle. He had sought me out to make sure I was safe and tried to strike up a conversation, but I was silent. I don’t know what he made of my mood.
I had emerged physically unscathed from the first two days of the war. I had no idea what missions our unit would be assigned subsequently. I remained determined not to take part in this game, no matter what.
“It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.” − Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”
On the morning of Wednesday, June 7, the battalion was ordered to advance northwest, to El Arish. We, the soldiers of the battalion, did not know exactly what awaited us there; whether we would take part in the capture of the city or if it had already been taken. Again we boarded buses and set out. Above, we could hear the roar of planes, and along the road were burnt-out hulks of Egyptian vehicles and disabled tanks.
Our progress was occasionally halted by craters that had been blasted into the road by the air force. Soldiers took advantage of these forced stops to get off the bus and stretch and urinate. Next to a charred Egyptian truck lay the naked, scorched bodies of two Egyptian soldiers, who from this distance looked like two burned loaves of bread. The skin on the stomach of one of them was split open and his intestines spilled out. The second had an obvious erection. Officers explained to us that the two had certainly taken a direct hit from a napalm bomb.
I did not move from my seat in the bus. Through the window I saw a soldier from the battalion who was vomiting his guts out. When he turned around I recognized him immediately: he was a young man who had recently completed his compulsory service and had joined our reserve battalion. During the waiting period, and again after the battle of Umm Katef and on the bus to El Arish, he had crowed like a rooster and displayed an eagerness for battle. All that went up in smoke at the sight of the two charred bodies of the Egyptian soldiers. A soldier handed the young reservist a canteen so he could wash his face, calmed him down and helped him board the bus. From that moment he sat in his place, quiet, pale, staring vacantly into space and absorbed in himself.
As we approached El Arish, we saw by the roadside braided straw nets that were used by local hunters to catch quail in their migratory period. One of the officers told us that El Arish had not yet been completely taken and that Egyptian forces were continuing to fight. When we entered the city we heard shooting from different directions. The commanders ordered us to be ready to leave the bus at any moment and take part in what they called, again, mopping up the nests of resistance in the city.
We were then ordered to cock our weapons and get ready to move out. This was not night, but broad daylight, and there was no way to evade the order or hide. In a split-second decision I loaded the Uzi, placed a bullet in the barrel, aimed it at my left palm and squeezed the trigger. When the bullet struck me I felt a powerful blow to my hand, which jolted my whole body. For a second I looked at the bleeding wound. Immediately soldiers and officers who saw that I was wounded gathered around and summoned help and encouraged me. One of them was my tent-mate. As I writhed with pain another medic bandaged my hand.
I was taken off the bus and driven to the collection point for wounded soldiers. Again my hand was bandaged and I was given a shot of morphine. I remember vaguely being placed in an ambulance in which a few wounded soldiers already lay. I have a blurred recollection that the driver lost control of the vehicle and that we flipped over as he drove. Maybe that was only a hallucination brought on by the morphine. I remember that a few hours later I received a second injection of morphine, and maybe a third afterward. I also remember dull pains and a feeling that I was on some kind of high, floating in a merry mood. That was the only time in my life that I was under the influence of drugs. I think I was flown back to Israel together with other wounded soldiers, but I remember nothing about the flight.
By the time the effects of the drug wore off, I was in a hospital in Kfar Sava. It was late at night. I felt intense pain and I was conscious of the events around me. Nurses and doctors treated me with much devotion, took off my uniform and put a robe on me. I was sent to be x-rayed and when the results arrived I was taken to surgery immediately. Before being anesthetized, I asked the medical team whether anyone had informed my family about my condition and where I was. I managed to ask the nurses to look in the pockets of the pants they had removed from me and take out my wallet, in which I kept a photo of my son, Gadi. When I heard the nurses’ remark brightly, “What a gorgeous kid you have,” I burst into tears. But in short order I was completely at the mercy of the physicians, the nurses and the anesthetic.
When I awoke, before dawn, I was in a bed in the ward, suffering from pains in my bandaged hand. Slowly the effects of the anesthetic wore off. I began to worry that under the influence of the narcotic, I might have revealed my secret during the operation. When the doctors made the rounds of the ward, I asked them and the nurses whether I had said anything during the surgery. They said I had, and added humorously that I had nothing to worry about − I had not revealed any military secrets. They had no way of knowing that I was concerned not about “military secrets” but about my secret. That worry would not leave me for many years afterward.
On Thursday Miriam and Gadi came to visit me in the hospital. It was a very emotional reunion, but the circumstances in which I was wounded did not come up in the conversation. I asked Miriam about how her pregnancy was going and about how Gadi was getting along in kindergarten and in the neighborhood in the light of the war euphoria. It might be thought that the visit and the conversation would have a calming effect on me. But no − even after the visit I remained completely on edge. I knew the war was continuing. To calm myself, and despite the pains, I asked the nurses to give me something to do in bed. I prepared pads for dressing wounds. At night, the pain and the tension made it impossible for me to fall asleep without a suppository for that purpose.
When I awoke on Friday morning, I decided to go home for Shabbat − at any price. From the hospital in Kfar Sava I hitchhiked to Ramat Gan. The driver let me off next to the kiosk below the Rama movie theater. When the owner of the kiosk, Moshe (Mussa) Khoury, an old, dear friend, asked how I was, I broke into tears and was unable to speak. Worried, he drove me home.
Gadi and Miriam were happy to see me, and my mother arrived later, too. Only a few people came to visit and I successfully evaded all attempts to extract information about the circumstances in which I was wounded. My replies were deliberately vague, and the questioners must have assumed that I was still confused and not completely aware of what had happened to me.
I slept a great deal over the weekend and between dozing off listened to the news on the radio. The fighting on the Egyptian and Jordanian fronts was over, but not on the Syrian front. On Friday evening, when it was reported that President Nasser had announced his resignation in a broadcast to the nation, the shouts of exultation from the streets were heard clearly in the house. Instantaneously the blackout in which the country had been shrouded was lifted. The streetlights went on and the blinds in houses were pulled up. Nasser’s resignation was perceived in Israel as the first political achievement of the military victory in the Israeli-initiated war.
On Saturday night the fighting on the Golan Heights finally ended. The next day I returned to the hospital. The personnel in the ward were distraught over the story of a young soldier who had been brought to the hospital the previous evening, seriously wounded. One of the nurses told me that the doctors had labored for hours to save his life. He had been wounded in the stomach by a bullet fired by a buddy from his unit in a game the two had played, apparently out of boredom. But whereas he had flinched from pulling the trigger, his friend had not, and had not missed. The bullet made several revolutions in his body and had wreaked havoc with many internal organs.
Letters from schoolchildren continued to arrive in the hospital. Miriam and Gadi remember me lying in bed surrounded by gift parcels and letters. I kept some of them. A girl from a village in the Sharon area wrote, “What’s the feeling in the company? You must be having a great time ... Yesterday I saw biscuits from Qalqilyah that our boys brought back. That was thrilling ... Now is the time when we should have our annual school outing and the end-of-year party. Maybe there will be one and we will go to El Arish, to Gaza or to Old Jerusalem, right? Who knows?”
I was very disturbed by the political situation engendered by the lightning victory by the Israel Defense Forces. The intoxication of victory frightened and nauseated me, especially the open manifestations of joy by people at the sight of bodies of enemy soldiers, rows of shoes that had been abandoned during their flight, and the refugee convoys. Despite the censorship, fragments of information began to arrive about the destruction of Palestinian villages and the expulsion of the villagers.
It was I who initiated my early discharge from the hospital. At home I was visited by my religiously observant tent-mate. He brought me the personal effects I had left behind in the unit. I did not meet him again until recently, after 39 years. We reminisced about those far-off days and he reminded me that during the waiting period I was the only soldier in the company who obeyed the order to sleep with shoes on. When he asked me why I was not taking off my shoes, like the rest of the soldiers, I replied − so he told me − that as a medic I must not waste precious time if summoned to give first aid.
He also reminded me about the eve-of-war parade in which the battalion commander had requested that every soldier who did not want to take part in the war to take one step forward − which no one had done. Strange, but I have absolutely no recollection of that. When I told him that, he replied that maybe I had missed that event because I was busy with something else. Maybe.
On the day after my discharge from the hospital I did not restrain myself, but went to the editorial office of Zo Haderech. In short order I was back at work there. My main contribution at the time was to translate reports from the foreign press, which were not subject to the prohibitions of Israeli censorship and contained photographs and descriptions of the Palestinian exodus − the second within 20 years − from the occupied territories in the West Bank across the bridges to the east bank of the Jordan, and from the Gaza Strip via Sinai to Egypt. The military censorship also forbade publication of eyewitness accounts by Israelis about the destruction and ethnic cleansing wrought by the IDF, such as in the Latrun area and around Qalqilyah in the West Bank, as well as on the Syrian Golan Heights, where most of the villages were razed to the ground.
A conversation with the writer Emil Habibi, who was then a member of the Knesset for the Communist Party, about the expulsions and the bulldozing of villages in the West Bank led to a secret visit in his old Beetle to the Latrun area. There we saw firsthand the scale of the destruction and devastation of the villages of Yalu, Beit Nuba and Emmaus. The IDF had not yet finished wiping the three villages off the face of the earth, but had already distributed their land to local Jewish villages. The fences of prickly-pear cactus that had surrounded the yards still made it possible to see where the houses had stood.
Thirty years later I returned to the area, this time in the company of refugees from the three villages, for a photo-report for Haaretz Magazine (July 11, 1997; Hebrew). The photographs were supplied by Yossef Hochman, who took them as the events were happening.
I resumed my normal life. A couple of months after the war our daughter, Jasmine, was born. Friends and family members did not ask me how I had been wounded. I was especially surprised that the IDF authorities did not, to the best of my knowledge, investigate the event and treated me like the other war wounded. As a result of the wound I was given a 10 percent disability status for one year and paid a one-time monetary compensation of less than 1,000 Israeli pounds (about $250). I cashed the check, fearing that I would draw attention to myself if I showed no interest in it − but I sent the money as an anonymous donation to an organization that treated sick children.
The medical staff at the Kfar Sava hospital succeeded in knitting the broken bone and stitched the gaping wound with a masterly hand. A small scar, barely discernible, remained on my left palm. I feel hardly any limitation in the use of the hand. It is only in the winter, when it gets cold, that I feel a bit of pain in the palm, and if I am struck on the scar it reacts by swelling up instantaneously.
I still do not know why the IDF authorities ignored the circumstances of my wound. I knew I was marked as a Communist and that my service file contained the details of an episode in July 1958, when I was arrested by Field Security and accused of distributing leaflets at military bases. In the leaflets the Communist Party criticized the government for opening Israel’s airspace to the air forces of Britain and the United States, both of which sent aircraft to Jordan and Lebanon in order to save their rulers from opponents. That episode resulted in a suspended sentence of 35 days in prison. My fears that the wound I sustained in El Arish on June 7, 1967, would be investigated proved unfounded. Maybe the IDF preferred not to probe the wounds of that war, in order not to acknowledge that such a phenomenon existed.
To this day I have not told anyone what, exactly, I did. Over the years I gave a few people who are close to me an account that was very general and vague. A few guessed more or less what had happened. Only three of them spoke to me about it: Emil Habibi, the writer and poet Mordechai Avi Shaul (president of the League of Civil and Human Rights) and his wife, Leah. Avi Shaul told me, “Leah and I know what happened and what you did in the war, but we do not want to know anything about it, and it is better that way.”
In our years of friendship and joint activity, which were often marred by serious disagreements, Emil Habibi and I conducted several intimate conversations. One of them took place a few months after the war, in September 1967, in Moscow. We talked about the relationship between one’s personal commitment to himself and his conscience, and his commitment to the framework in which he lives and is an active partner. The reference point was primarily the Communist Party, in which both of us were then members.
Habibi astounded me with his frankness. He said, “A person who is an active member of an organization, especially a revolutionary organization such as the Communist Party, feels a self-evident deep commitment to the organization. But despite that commitment, however sincere, there are special cases in which a person must make fateful decisions of conscience completely alone, without asking or consulting the organization − because of the risk that the organization will decide differently from his personal awareness, his inner inclination, the dictate of his conscience.”
Habibi then lowered the conversation from the theoretical level to the ground of reality: “If you had come to consult with us, with the party, before your particular act in the war, it is almost certain that it would have forbidden you to commit that act. And now, too, if what you did becomes public knowledge, it is not unlikely that the party leadership will dissociate itself from it.”
Habibi spoke about “the act” without specifying what it was, but as he spoke he looked alternately in my eyes and at the palm of my hand. It was clear to both of us what he meant. According to a few indications, I knew that he had confided my secret, with a touch of pride, to a few people we both knew, to a few of our good friends in the West Bank and in Egypt.
That fear − that the party would not back what I had done − was indeed one of the reasons I hid the act, but definitely not the only one.
Another person very close and dear to me who found out about the episode in his own way was my son, Gadi. I never told him about it. In his childhood we told him that I had not been wounded by enemy fire but by a rifle that was accidentally discharged in the bus we were traveling in. But when he himself was incarcerated in Megiddo Prison, in 1981, for refusing to serve in the occupied territories, he told me after his release that he remembered the episode, put two and two together − what he had seen in his military service together with his own doubts − and understood. When I remarried, I told Talila, my companion, the story. My other children will find out about it when they read this article.
For many years I guarded the secret closely. Why? The simple answer is that I was afraid to get entangled with the authorities. Just so. The main thing for me was that I had achieved my goal: not to kill. I knew that in the eyes of the law I had committed an offense, a serious offense. Once I tried to find out whether the statute of limitations applies to an offense of that kind.
There were several occasions when I was especially apprehensive that my secret would be revealed and would be used to cast aspersions on me and on my political views. One was when I refused to serve in the occupied territories as a reservist following the publication of a collection of my reporting on events there in the book, “Daddy, What Did You Do When Nader’s House Was Demolished?” (1974). And again when I wrote about soldiers who refuse to serve in the territories and about youngsters who refuse to do army service, in articles published in Zo Haderech, Haaretz and in the foreign press.
The decision to break my silence now – 2006 - took form as I was writing my recently published book in Hebrew “Hakorban” (The Victim), in which I tell the tragic story of a young soldier, the pacifist Rotem Shapira, who commited suicide during his military service. He was not 19.