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
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
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