Israelis Recall a Night of Death and Revenge

Israeli soldiers comfort each other at the 2002 funeral of a comrade killed in an ambush by Palestinian gunmen. That ambush led to Israeli attacks on Palestinian police posts.
Israeli soldiers comfort each other at the 2002 funeral of a comrade killed in an ambush by Palestinian gunmen. That ambush led to Israeli attacks on Palestinian police posts. (By David Silverman -- Getty Images)
By Glenn Frankel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 11, 2005

TEL AVIV -- On a chilly Tuesday evening in February 2002, four Palestinian gunmen stormed an Israeli military outpost west of the West Bank city of Ramallah, shot dead six soldiers at close range and escaped into the darkness in one of the most audacious and deadly attacks of the 17-month Palestinian uprising.

Eight hours later, as daylight was peeking through the night sky above a Palestinian police checkpoint nine miles away, Israeli soldiers took their revenge. They opened fire without warning on a group of policemen, shooting one who fell nearby, while another took refuge in a tin hut and others fled.

Some of the soldiers hurled grenades into the hut, which burst into flames. Others, led by Staff Sgt. Shahar Levi, focused on the downed policeman.

"He was injured, he didn't die immediately, so we continued shooting him, me and all the others -- hundreds of bullets," Levi recalled in an interview.

When it was over, one of Levi's men checked the body. "I turned him over," said the soldier, who unlike Levi was unwilling to allow his name to be published. "He was like a 50-year-old guy with a mustache, a chubby little guy. Didn't have a gun."

In the bloodstained chronicle of the Palestinian uprising that began in September 2000, that night marked a turning point. Two elite Israeli army units, retaliating for the surprise attack on the six soldiers, swooped down on four Palestinian checkpoints and killed nine policemen -- the first time the Israeli army had openly targeted Palestinian police, who until then had generally not been deemed combatants. An additional nine Palestinians died overnight in other attacks.

The violence of that night was soon overshadowed by more intense conflict. Palestinian suicide bombers escalated their attacks on Israeli civilians, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the army to reoccupy major cities in the West Bank.

Now, some of the Israelis who participated in the ambush of the policemen have come forward to describe in detail what happened and to denounce it as a crime. The soldiers say that the Palestinians they killed had no role in the attack on the soldiers, but were chosen because they were readily available targets, and that the Palestinian officers were mowed down without being given a chance to surrender.

"Some of them could have been terrorists and some of them could not -- we didn't care, actually," Levi said. "I felt that I wanted to kill. It smelled like revenge, and it's not what an army in a democratic society should do. It didn't smell good."

The spokesman's office of the Israeli army, in response to questions, issued a statement saying Palestinian policemen were targeted that night because they had "facilitated the passage and actively assisted the terrorists who passed through these checkpoints to carry out murderous attacks against Israeli civilians and soldiers." The army, it said, had been instructed by Israel's civilian leaders "to change the mode of operation and adjust it to the harsh reality on the ground."

Because the killings were carried out according to orders, added a military official who spoke on condition of anonymity, no investigation was ever conducted.

It is rare for soldiers from elite units to discuss military operations, especially those that involved killing. But two ex-soldiers have given statements to Breaking the Silence, an organization of army veterans opposed to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and several spoke anonymously to the Maariv newspaper, which published a report on the incident June 3.

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