Excerpt from “Company C”

My self-interrogation was interrupted by the impact of a very large rock on the truck’s tarpaulin cover. The driver swerved and brought the truck to a halt; Efi, sitting in the cab, ordered us out, and quick. Elnatan was also shouting orders from his jeep as we scrambled down. It took us a few seconds to orient ourselves in the barrage of stones coming from somewhere above us. Elnatan ordered us to lower the visors on our riot helmets, but most of us had done that already, just as a hiker instinctively pulls down the brim of his hat to block the glare of the sun. At a further order from Elnatan, we lined up on either side of the road. Then he ordered me, Falk, and the other NCOs to remove the magazines of regular bullets in our rifles and insert the ones with plastic bullets.

We now saw that we were at the bottom of the street leading out of the village and toward the main road, at the last line of houses before the olive groves and fields began. The street bisected the village, which sprawled horizontally over the slope of the hill on which it was built, running straight up to the mosque at the top. Our attackers were a gaggle of teenage boys on the incline, no more than 150 meters from us.

One of them seemed slightly older than the rest — maybe eighteen or nineteen—and was leading the chants, his right arm raised above his head and a red kerchief in his hand. He drew a circle in the sky to mark off each slogan. He’d shout a slogan as he made one circle, and the boys around him would repeat it at the top of their voices as the kerchief circled again. I couldn’t make out the words, but we recognized the chant by the rhythm: “With blood and fire we will redeem you, Palestine.”

We were at a topographic disadvantage, and the red-kerchief kid had the initiative. He was forcing us to engage him and his teenage brigade. In the best guerrilla tradition—if he was a cadet of the Marxist fronts, as perhaps the red kerchief indicated, he’d no doubt read Mao and Che—he meant to draw us into his home territory, the village where he and
his boys knew every alley and tree and where every house belonged to a cousin. He could
be sure that his boys would be at their fiercest here, because they knew that at every window a girl watched.

Was this a spontaneous response to our raid, or a well-thought out contingency plan being put into action? I suspected that the kid’s objectives in this skirmish were well defined. The secondary goal was to galvanize his troops, test them in battle, and observe the natural leaders who might be solicited in a year or two’s time to join an active cell of his resistance organization.
His primary goal, however, was to embarrass and frighten the enemy force that had invaded his village. He certainly knew, from intelligence and from our appearance, that we were reservists here on short-term duty in the Jenin sector. He meant to show us that Tamoun was a liberated territory, not merely in word but in action, and that if we wanted a quiet and safe month we would keep our distance from this stronghold of Palestinian nationalism.

The red-kerchief kid’s cell commander may well have told him that the ideal outcome of the battle would be forcing the Israelis to overreact. If these alarmed, apprehensive reservists could be provoked to open fire, there might be a martyr among the boys, or a stray bullet might pierce the wall of a house and hit a child or mother. The Palestinian cause would score a victory on the propaganda front. The Israelis would investigate the reserve officers and maybe try, convict, and punish them. The unit’s soldiers would be demoralized, and thus less effective, not only here in Jenin but also in future rounds of duty in the territories.

The strategy was as follows: Catch the enemy in an inferior position, at the bottom of the hill, hemmed in on both sides by houses. Have the main rebel force stationed at the top of the road unleash a barrage of light weapons fire (in this instance, stones) on the regulars. When the reservists commence pursuit, out-of-shape family men chasing agile fifteen year-olds, have the main rebel force disperse into the villages byways while an overwatch contingent stationed on nearby roofs continues to assail the invaders.

A rock the size of my fist hit the barrel of my rifle, forcing the cloth strap into the skin of my neck. Another rock hit Falk in the helmet, eliciting an uncharacteristic curse.

Elnatan began advancing slowly up the hill toward the attackers and we followed. The boys fell back — were they afraid of our guns, or was this a strategic retreat toward a better position? The hail of stones continued unabated.

But the red-kerchief kid darted toward us, still waving his standard above his head. Was this an attempt to rally his retreating troops, or was he so caught up in his chanting that he forgot his own plan? Whatever the explanation, he was now within the permitted range of the plastic bullets.

Elnatan ordered Efi, Falk, and me to raise our rifles and keep the kid in our sights. “If we can disable him, the rest of them will disappear,” he said in an even voice. “I’m going to shoot as soon as I can be sure I’ll hit his legs. But if I don’t shoot and he seems about to get closer than the permitted range, any of you is authorized to fire.” We halted and aimed. The red-kerchief kid took another step forward; Elnatan dropped to one knee and we heard the crack of his rifle. The kid fell to the ground, clutching his left thigh. The hail of stones ceased and the boys vanished. Border Guard jeeps appeared out of nowhere and began pursuing the fleeing teenagers.

We ran to the fallen commander as Elnatan summoned Shaya, the medic. The red kerchief kid was grimacing and bleeding fast. The wound seemed no less serious for having been inflicted by plastic. Shaya bandaged the thigh.

“He’s got to get to a hospital,” Shaya said dispassionately. He’d done his job well but had no sympathy for his patient. “It’s bleeding a lot. You might have hit an artery.”

“Get Barak up here with his jeep,” Elnatan ordered, and within seconds Barak appeared.

Elnatan’s gaze fell on me.

“Watzman, get this guy in the jeep and take him out to the main road. Flag down a Palestinian car and tell the driver to take him to the hospital in Jenin.”

“Shouldn’t we take him ourselves?” I asked. “Maybe he needs a medic with him.”

Elnatan looked at the houses around us. “By now fifty people here have called Jenin and told the people there what happened. If I send a jeep alone into the city, its crew will be lynched by a mob.”

We heard screams and the sound of blows from one of the nearby alleys.

“The Border Guard’s taking care of them now,” Elnatan said impassively.

I began to help the red-kerchief kid climb into the back seat of the jeep but Elnatan stopped me.

“Are you crazy? Put him here where you can keep your rifle on him.” Elnatan pointed to the hood.

I helped the kid settle as best he could on the front of the jeep. He was surprisingly cooperative. By now his grimace had been replaced by a stoic stare. I kept my rifle trained on him as Barak slowly turned the jeep around and trundled over the potholed asphalt down to the main road.
A Palestinian cab appeared, coming from the south. I waved my hand but he showed no sign of slowing until I raised my rifle. He stopped short at the intersection.

“He need to go hospital Jenin,” I said to the driver in Arabic, my grammar, not good to begin with, getting lost in the emotion of the moment.

The driver nodded silently and I opened the back door of the cab, helping the youth climb in. Instinctively, I drew my wallet from my pocket and offered the driver a 10-shekel note. He looked at me as if I were from another planet.

“It’s okay,” he said in Hebrew, waving my hand away. “It’s really okay.” And he sped off toward Jenin.