by Victor Cygielman
There is a full moon tonight. Ideal for a stakeout. Our platoon has been ordered to ambush Arab infiltrators who keep trying to penetrate this part of the Judean Hills, not far from Jerusalem, held by our “Palmach” 1 brigade. We are in the midst of a cease-fire. Autumn 1948. All around us olive groves. Palestinian peasants, who fled the war and their villages, are worried about their crops left behind. Again and again they try to cross the Jewish lines and pick as many olives as they can in one night. Those are the infiltrators.
Why the misgiving? On several occasions, telephone lines have been cut and other damage caused to army equipment. Here and there, a Jordanian soldier, dressed up like a farmer, hides among the Palestinian peasants who cross the front line. The orders are to ambush, shoot and kill a group of peasants, “putting the fear of God” into those who manage to escape alive. That will put an end to the infiltrators, we are told. A couple of hours before the stakeout, we — a group of Jewish volunteers from Belgium — gather in our tent. A heated discussion follows: Is it morally justified to kill several innocent peasants, in order to eliminate a possible saboteur and/or prevent future crossings into our line?
Counter-argument: How can you stop the cutting of telephone lines and other hostile acts, if you don’t scare off the peasants and thus discourage infiltration altogether? And how can you scare them off without setting an example, a deadly example? The upshot of this stormy debate: We shall ambush them and shoot, but — disobeying orders — we shall aim over the heads of the peasants. They’ll flee and won’t dare come back. Everybody agrees, except our corporal Saadia, a wily, ever-smiling twenty-year-old Yemenite Jew. He is more than puzzled by our misgivings, by our soul-searching. “The orders are: shoot to kill. Orders are orders. Don’t try and be clever about it,” he says and smiles.
Aiming Not to Kill
We man the stakeout at around four o’clock in the morning. The Palestinian peasants usually arrive an hour or two before dawn when they do. Will they come tonight? The big yellow moon looks at us and we are flattening our bodies to the earth to be as invisible as possible. All is quiet, except for the irritating chirping of a grasshopper. “Here they are,” whispers suddenly Saadia. A dozen or so peasants appear like ghosts on the slope of the nearby hill. Clad in white galabiyas, they stand out clearly among the shadows. No camouflage there. They move in our direction, or rather towards the olive trees. “Wait for my signal,” whispers the corporal. We strain our ears, but fail to notice even the shuffle of their feet.
A few moments later, just before they reach the safety of the trees, Saadia utters between clenched teeth: “Shoot!” We aim over their heads and squeeze the triggers of our “stens” (light machine guns). The peasants freeze in fright, then start fleeing, but not all of them. Some have been felled by Saadia’s fire. Killed or wounded? At dawn, we find one body and traces of blood. The wounded seem to have made it back to the Jordanian lines.
The corporal has reported our insubordination. Lussek, the battalion commander, a somber, laconic kibbutznik, asks us what we have to say in our defense. We try to explain our moral dilemma: even if there was a saboteur among those peasants, we feel it’s better to let one guilty man escape rather than take the lives of innocent peasants in order to put an end to infiltrators, however harmful.
Lussek looks at us for a long moment, a frown creases his brow. “We are fighting a war, not having a philosophical symposium,” he says in the end, but we shall not court-martial you this time. “You may be soft-hearted idiots,” adds Lussek, “but you have proven, in general, to be good fighters.”
The cease-fire goes on. And Palestinian peasants keep on trying to cross our lines and reaching their olive trees. “Crazy Arabs,” mutters Saadia, “they care more about their olives than about their lives.”