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.
Since then, the army has not disputed any of the details in the soldiers' accounts. One opposition member of parliament has called for an investigation, as has an editorial in the Haaretz newspaper. Otherwise, public reaction has been minimal.
Three of the soldiers have now spoken in separate interviews to The Washington Post: Levi and two others who were not willing to disclose their names because they said they were ashamed of what they did and feared they could be harassed for coming forward. This account of what happened that night is based upon their detailed descriptions, supplemented by other interviews and newspaper articles from the time.
All three former soldiers -- two combat engineers and a paratrooper -- are college students in their mid-twenties who look back at their time on active duty with a deep sense of regret and anger. They say they are speaking out to expose what they believe was an unjustified killing operation. One says he is so sickened by what happened that he informed his girlfriend only last weekend and has yet to tell his parents.
"Personally, I feel bad that I didn't speak out that night," said the paratrooper.
"I don't know if I could have stopped it," he added, "but at least I could have tried."
Shahar Levi is a thin, dark-haired psychology student with an easy smile and intense brown eyes. Sitting in a sidewalk cafe last weekend, he recalled that winning the competition to be accepted into the army's elite Yael unit was the Israeli equivalent of getting into Harvard or Yale, only with an extra layer of patriotic meaning.
"In a society like Israel, if you are serving in a special unit, you are considered to be the salt of the earth," he said. "And if you serve in a special unit, in your resume you have to take part in a few special missions -- what we called sexy operations."
Early in the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, sexy operations were hard to come by. Levi and his men participated in demolishing houses of suspected terrorists or arresting men wanted by the authorities -- tedious and often unrewarding work. They had started out on such a mission on the night of Feb. 19, 2002, when their bus was diverted to a nearby base.
There they learned that six Israeli soldiers had been gunned down and another wounded two hours earlier at a checkpoint outside the West Bank village of Ein Arik. The soldiers, who had arrived at the checkpoint just a few hours earlier, never had a chance. Palestinian gunmen had positioned themselves just a few yards away and opened fire without warning, cutting down five of the soldiers immediately. Then they entered a nearby building where two soldiers were sleeping, killed one and wounded the other, and escaped.
It was the latest in a series of attacks that had killed 14 soldiers, an Israeli policeman and three civilians over a 10-day period.
Levi's commanding officer emerged from a briefing to tell him and his men that they were going to retaliate. Levi said the purpose of the mission was clear, although he did not remember the word "revenge" being used. Another soldier in his unit said it was.
"He told us six soldiers got killed in a terror attack and we're going to take the life of six Palestinian officers," said the other soldier, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In the murky war between Israel and the Palestinians, the role of the Palestinian police was often complex and ambiguous. One of nine different security forces reporting to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the police had been set up, armed and trained following the 1993 Oslo peace accords to help Arafat's Palestinian Authority keep law and order in the West Bank and Gaza and assert control over rival militant groups. Members of the force wore green military uniforms and many carried automatic weapons.
In the days before the intifada, police officers carried out joint patrols with Israeli soldiers, shared intelligence and coordinated through district offices. But when the violence began, some policemen opened fire on Israelis or moonlighted as gunmen. Israeli officials repeatedly charged that the police were either failing in their duty to stop terrorist attacks or in some cases aiding the attacks. "In general, Israelis viewed the Palestinian police as complicit in terror," said Michael Oren, an Israeli military historian and analyst.
Mahmoud Aloul, the Palestinian governor of the Nablus district where some of the police outposts targeted in February 2002 were located, recalled that his men were caught by surprise. "The targets they chose are security positions that were established in agreement with Israel," he said. "They were not positions of war."
Aloul insisted that the policemen who were killed had nothing to do with Ein Arik or any other attack on Israelis. Three of the four police checkpoints hit that night were at least 20 miles from Ein Arik. The Palestinian gunmen responsible for the attack have never been identified, and the army has never asserted that any of the policemen were directly involved.
The soldiers say that until the Ein Arik attack they were instructed to treat the police as noncombatants. "Every time we had an operation near a police post we were told, 'Don't shoot a policeman,' " said the paratrooper. "They weren't friends, but they weren't enemies. Sometimes even before an operation, one of the officers would go to the DCO [District Coordinating Office] and ask them to inform the police. They just changed the rules completely that night."
At the time, however, the soldiers recalled, they were delighted with their new orders. "We were all very excited," said the engineer who would not allow his name to be used. "For all of us it was the first sexy mission. You put a cross on your gun if you kill a terrorist, and none of us had a cross."
There were no maps of the target, just one fuzzy photograph. The army officer drew up a plan of attack on pieces of cardboard. Within minutes the soldiers set off.
There were two separate operations against police posts that night. The Yael team was dispatched to a checkpoint outside the village of Deir Sudan, located in a narrow valley north of Ramallah. Five snipers set up a position on a hillside while the other men came down the hill and set up behind a stone wall. The checkpoint was shut down for the night -- the policemen were asleep in a nearby house -- and the soldiers sat for at least three hours. Then just before dawn, a half-dozen men began emerging, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, some carrying weapons while others were unarmed.
The snipers fired first but failed to hit any of the policemen. Then Levi and his men emerged from behind the wall and opened fire. The policemen, caught by surprise, never fired back. Most managed to flee, but two were killed.
One of Levi's men hit a policeman a few yards away. "He said, 'Wow, I hit him.' " Levi recalled. "He was happy like a kid."
His fellow combat engineer recalled a similar feeling of elation.
"This is what we dreamed of, being the sexiest warrior," he said.
It was over within minutes. The soldiers were bused back to a nearby Jewish settlement, where they were fed and congratulated by residents and by their commanders. They were also mildly reprimanded for not checking the remains of the hut to see how many dead Palestinians were inside.
Meanwhile, to the north, a special paratroop unit launched a similar operation against three checkpoints outside the Balata refugee camp. The soldiers were supposed to open fire on all three outposts simultaneously, but at one checkpoint the men opened fire prematurely after an unsuspecting policeman ventured too close to their position.
"He was 10 meters away and he was for sure dead," recalled the paratrooper who would not allow his name to be used. "He never shot."
The soldiers rushed the checkpoint, hurling grenades over a wall, then stormed a small house where the policemen had been sleeping and opened fire. The paratrooper said at least five policemen were killed, and possibly six. Another policeman was killed at the second checkpoint, while the third turned out to be deserted. Wounded policemen were dispatched with additional shots to the body or head, the paratrooper said, to ensure that they were dead.
Afterward, the paratroops' officers played a videotape of the attack that had been recorded at an observation post. "Everybody could recognize themselves," the paratrooper said. "They were very pleased."
That morning both sides counted their dead and pronounced their judgment. Several armed Palestinian groups asserted responsibility for the attack on Ein Arik. Marwan Barghouti, a senior West Bank leader, noting that army checkpoints were places where Palestinians were often humiliated by soldiers, hailed the attack as "a response to the acts of slaughter that the Israelis do and an expression of Palestinians' frustration over the occupation."
As Israel buried its six dead soldiers, Brig. Gen. Gershon Yitzhak, commander of the West Bank, said the targeting of the policemen was a justifiable act of war. "This shall not be a one-sided war," he told reporters at a briefing. "We will react toward anyone in any place necessary. The purpose of the operation was to strike at anyone who is in any way involved in the dispatch of terrorists."
Israeli analysts said the army had acted swiftly to restore the morale of its soldiers, badly shaken by the Ein Arik attack, and to reestablish a sense of deterrence. "As a commander, you want to immediately calm any feeling of panic and restore a sense of confidence in your people," said Hirsh Goodman, senior research associate with the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. "There is also a dimension of revenge -- no one might say it, but everyone would understand it."
But the war continued to escalate. Two weeks later a lone Palestinian sniper mowed down seven soldiers and three Jewish settlers and escaped.
For three of the soldiers involved in the attacks on the police, the elation did not last long. The combat engineer said he was so upset he spoke to his father about it the next day. "I knew I did something very bad," he recalled. "My dad tried to convince me to go tell someone. I didn't want to do it. I thought the patriotic thing was not to tell."
It was only after they left the army that all three men began to voice their misgivings. Even so, they say their loyalty to other members of their unit -- most of whom still believe the operation was proper and justified -- prevented them from speaking out.
"It took me two years until I got enough distance from the military time," the engineer said. "It's like we know we did something bad, but the idea of going out and telling it seems like a bad thing because you're going to hurt the unit."
Avichay Sharon, a former army sergeant who is spokesman for Breaking the Silence, said the pattern was a familiar one. "When you're inside the system, you are kind of blind," he said. "The moral conflicts and dilemmas are a part of your life, and if you stop and think about them, you might not get up the next morning. Even after you leave the army, it takes a long time to look in the mirror and say, 'Well, I was a monster for three years.' "
"It's true these guys are the exception" in speaking out, he added. "It's not just that you're criticizing the system -- you're also criticizing yourself. It's one of the hardest things you can do as a human being."
Special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.
Mourners carry the bodies of Palestinian policemen at a funeral in the West Bank city of Nablus in 2002. The officers were killed in Israeli attacks.