I will never forget the evening my friends and I were sent to kill Palestinian police officers in a revenge attack. We went from soldiers sent to defend our families to murderers of innocent people.
A month has passed since we were informed of the kidnapping of Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel. Ever since, there has been unrest in the region. Along with their families, we all hoped for good news, and mourned with them when the teens’ bodies were found. However, over the past few weeks our computer screens and our streets have been filled not only with sorrow, but also with cries for revenge. Israeli citizens and leaders alike have openly called for avenging the deaths of the three boys.
“No more playing by the rules,” said MK Ayelet Shaked. The Secretary General of World Bnei Akiva youth movement called for bloody vengeance. These calls of action, among many others, led Israeli citizens to take to the streets and attack Palestinians indiscriminately. This air of revenge claimed the life of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, the Palestinian youth from Shuafat who was murdered by Jewish Israelis.
The cycle of violence didn’t end with the youth. The Israeli leadership responded to the demands for revenge by mobilizing the Israeli military as an army of vengeance, and Hamas responded in kind. The military operation that commenced in the West Bank as a result of the kidnapping included collective punishment of thousands of Palestinian civilians. Hamas returned to shooting rockets from the Gaza Strip at Israeli civilians in Israel, and the Israeli army launched a military operation against the Gaza Strip. Over 200 Palestinians, the vast majority of them civilians, and one Israeli citizen have been killed since the upsurge in violence. The Israeli army has carried out approximately 1,825 air strikes in the Gaza, and Palestinian militants have fired more than 900 rockets into Israeli territory. At this point, there is no end in sight to the cycle of reciprocal violence that continues due to the logic of revenge.
Following the vengeful civilian actions, a debate emerged among the Israeli public between supporters and opponents of revenge; yet the majority of the Israeli public has remained indifferent to the mobilization of Israeli combat soldiers in operations of revenge. I know this indifference well, as I myself was sent as a military officer to carry out such a mission, and hardly anyone thought twice about it.
I want to tell you about one day in 2002 when my soldiers and I were sent to seek revenge for the deaths of six soldiers. I served in the Israeli army as a combat soldier and an officer in an elite unit during the Second Intifada. In February 2002 I was with my unit near Nablus when we were informed that Palestinian militants had killed six military engineers at an army checkpoint at the Ein Arik junction and had managed to escape.
The next day we gathered for a briefing prior to the operation. Our commanders informed us about the events at Ein Arik and explained that our unit would be sent to checkpoints in the area manned by Palestinian police officers with the objective of killing any officer we found. They didn’t say, “You’re going to seek revenge,” but there was no need to state it explicitly. We knew we were going out to avenge the deaths of the soldiers and we spoke about it explicitly among ourselves.
Until that day, we were expressly forbidden from opening fire on Palestinian police officers. We also knew that the army had a special agreement with the Palestinian security forces, whereby we were to avoid harming them. However, that evening none of this was relevant anymore. We did not know who we were sent to kill – neither their names nor what they had done in their past – yet we knew for certain that they had nothing to do with the murder of the soldiers at the Ein Arik checkpoint. We left behind a few human bodies that had posed no threat to us at all. I am sure that those police officers had not expected anything; they likely had no idea why they were attacked.
That same night, as part of the same “revenge operation,” two similar attacks took place near two other posts guarded by Palestinian police officers in the West Bank and Gaza. All in all, 15 Palestinian police officers were killed that night. The morning news headlines about the operation read: “IDF Objective: Palestinian Police.” The IDF responded regarding the motives for revenge by stating, “The Palestinian police failed to prevent the entry of terrorists into Israel.” For many readers this response was enough, and many others probably didn’t care. But I knew what we did. We avenged the deaths of six Israeli soldiers with the deaths of 15 Palestinian police officers. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
I will never forget that evening, the evening when my friends and I were transformed from soldiers of an army of defense to soldiers of an army of vengeance. We changed from soldiers sent to defend our families into murderers of innocent people.
A few years after that night, I broke my silence because I believed that the Israeli public needed to know what takes place, in its name, on a daily in the occupied Palestinian territories. I am breaking my silence again today because I believe that the Israeli public and its leadership need to know what they are asking for when they call for revenge. They need to know that when they seek revenge they are actually asking us to turn today’s soldiers – our friends, siblings, and children – into murderers. It is the same bloody transition my friends and I underwent back in 2002.
With respect to the victims of vengeance on both sides, and for the sake of the youths sent to be turned into murderers, the time has come to stop this cycle of revenge.
*O.K. served as an officer in the paratroopers reconnaissance unit during the Second Intifada and is a member of Breaking the Silence.