To the blessed memory
of Rav Meir Kahane
This story had been written 17 years ago and almost forgotten. The first time I remembered it was in 2002 when I volunteered for miluim (reserve military service). The second time it was in winter, at the outbreak of the Gaza war. Ironically, to-day it seems even more significant than then, during the first and minor wave of terrorism which is now nostalgically called "The First Intifada". Now, when our gloomiest predictions have come true and the war has come to our homes, we must clearly understand what we can expect from our enemy and what is the alternative to fighting him.
The darkness slowly captured the deserted streets. The traffic had all but stopped, though the curfew had not yet begun. I was sitting in the watch tower on guard for our military base in the city of Gaza, and there was its main street stretched out in front of me. On rare days without strikes it was noisy and crowded, full of children, donkeys and cars. The similarity of cars, people's clothing, and general desolation, reminded me of a small provincial town in the country of my exodus. The only difference was that there were no drunkards seen here nor drunk singing heard, but rather women in white head-coverings and high-pitched calls of a muezzin.
And now the street seemed completely uninhabited. Only muezzins in nearby mosques broke the silence that came with the darkness, in many voices calling the believers to the evening prayer. "I have to turn on the searchlight", I thought, "because, according to the orders, one may shoot only when he clearly sees a Molotov cocktail in the hand of a terrorist, just before it is thrown. Once a bottle, a stone or a grenade is in flight, shooting is forbidden. Nevertheless, one could shoot in response to fire opened on his position. Recently these incidents had become much more frequent. It was important in such a situation to survive after the first shot, but this aim was not always achieved... so, there is only one way out - I must see him before he shoots or throws. I knew he would come. I had been waiting for him for the past two weeks of miluim.
"Why are we here?" - the young red-haired kibbutznik asked vehemently, in one of the rare moments between watches when we met in the canteen. "Do we really need this stinking hole? Do you want a two-nation state? Why not spend all this money on the poor and the absorption of new immigrants?"
What could I answer? That before the Six-Days War Gaza Strip was a wasp nest of terrorism and will be again if we retreat? That the settlers of Gush Katif have the right (which is written in Torah) to live on the Land of Israel's soil? That after getting "the territories" the Arabs will not be completely satisfied, and they will demand Galilee and Acre, and Jaffa, and, at the end, all that was not swallowed in the first round? And I myself, who came back after two thousand years of wandering, after all that was left behind, should become homeless once again?!
The beam of the searchlight cut from the darkness gloomy silhouettes of houses, black gaps of windows, lamp posts. Last passers-by disappeared from the street. I looked at my watch: it was 8:30, 30 minutes since the curfew had come into effect. "But he has not come yet", I thought. "He is watching the news on the Jordanian TV. His wife is serving dinner to him and he is sitting in an armchair, relaxing, resting before the night's operation".
I felt it was getting colder. I pulled nylon bags onto my feet (this invention to save heat I had brought with me from Russia, and it was a great success among the miluimniks-sabras freezing on watch towers).
A long cold night was ahead of me, reminiscent of Russia ...
The local train to Klin was overcrowded. Thanks to the "Bag-In" tactics which I had developed and experienced in my high school years (when storming a train, metro or bus, I would throw my bag as an anchor over the people, and they would pull it in along with me), I managed to acquire a seat. I made myself comfortable and unfolded a photocopy of Shaar Lematkhil newspaper in easy Hebrew, preparing the homework for tomorrow's Hebrew class. One word in the article which I was reading was unknown to me. I underlined it and began to turn over the pages of the dictionary.
"Don't bother yourself", a black-bearded man of oriental appearance standing beside and hanging over me like clusters of grapes suddenly muttered in a heavy foreign accent: "This word, "kherut" means "freedom", it is what the Zionists took from us Palestinians. But we'll take our freedom back". The man raised his voice, and his eyes flashed with devilish fire, "I do not advise you to go to Palestine. I shall come to you there - and..." - with his hand he made a gesture across his throat. This gesture had only one meaning. I had seen it in Claude Lanzman's film "Holocaust", when the Polish engineer of the train loaded with Jews going to Treblinka's death camp used it.
A hot wave flooded my head with fragments of family chronicles: our relatives slaughtered by the Nazis, memories of my unsuccessful attempt to enter the University, a fight with an anti-semitic neighbor, the picture of the Israeli soldiers praying at the Western Wall in liberated Jerusalem. "Never Again", the bell of Rav Kahane tolled in my veins, spreading the fever of anger through my body and discharging an internal spring of hatred.
Even before the spring had time to straighten, the train pulled into a station and the bearded stranger began to push his way to the exit door of the car.
"Podsolniechnaya" was written on the sign installed on the station's platform. It was the railway terminal of Solnechnogorsk - the Town of Sunny Mountains.
But this sweet name did not move or deceive me. I knew that within a distance of only a few kilometers from the station there was the famous "Vistrel" ("a shot") school for Army officers. The school served the base for instruction and training of terrorists of all sorts and colours and this, obviously, was my casual interlocutor's destination. Paradoxically, the head of this school was the notorious Jew-general Dragunsky, Chairman of the “Anti-Zionist Committee of Soviet People" which played an important role in Soviet anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish propaganda.
"But is this actually paradoxical?", I wondered. "How many Jew-apostates have there been in our history - beginning with the sons of Korah rebelling against Moses and ending with Trotsky and Kaganovich, and the left-wingers in Israel of nowadays?"
Suddenly the bearded face appeared in the car's window. Grinning malignantly, he repeated his awful gesture. The train moved and the station's platform, crowded with passengers, slowly faded away, along with this terrible threat.
My ears were still ringing with "You have been refused because your departure contradicts the interests of our State", as, making my way through the ruins of my collapsed world, I left the office of Major Zinchenko. The land of my dreams had been swiftly carried away to inaccessibility. With a sheer air of malicious joy the ordinary customers of OVIR (Interior Ministry department for visas and registration of foreign citizens) looked at me. They came for their tourist visas, or were going to go abroad on a mission - the corrupted pillars of the decaying society. With pain and compassion I was met by my fellow Jews, whose applications for exit visa, as well as mine, had been rejected, and for many of us, not for the first time. A few foreigners who came for extensions of their visas, watched in bewilderment the little tragedies being performed here every moment - the tears, cries, breakdowns and other expressions of classical theater. Suddenly one of them rose from his seat and slowly directed his steps toward our "Jewish corner". His face was adorned with a beard as before, but it was impossible not to recognize him. Of course, it was him, my last year fellow traveller on the local train to Klin! He smiled cordially, showing a row of new shining teeth, and said in a friendly way: "Well, everything is O.K. now, you may live!". I seemed to make some involuntary movement toward him, because a moment later I was dragged by two militia officers to the exit door, my arms twisted behind my back. "Quiet, citizen, quiet!" There was always a militia car ready in the courtyard of the OVIR building.
Large flakes of snow were falling, and maybe because of this, our group of protesters, who came to the building of Lenin Library, the traditional place of Jewish demonstrations, was hardly noticed. Anyway, our posters "Let My People Go!" and "We want to go home to Israel" did not draw much attention from the passers-by. The postponed date of the demonstration, instead of the traditional one (the 24th of December, the anniversary of "The Hijackers Trial"), and the limited number of protesters prevented the early appearance of the KGB and militia. After half an hour the "representatives of the general public" and the "guards of public order and security" arrived in special cars. The "Perestroyka" just had begun, and the main roles in this performance were saved for the "overstaffed public representatives" (volunteers and KGB officers in civilian clothing), while the uniformed militia men stood aside. Closely encircling our group, they began to press us into the lane, all the time threatening and insulting us and trying to snatch the posters from our hands. "Zidy!" an elderly woman, seemingly cultured and educated, shouted hysterically, "Kikes! It's our bread that you gloat!" "How can one breath the same air as they breath?!" exclaimed the war veteran with shining polished medals on his sheepskin coat, slightly intoxicated with wine and traditional anti-semitic slogans. "You wil-l rot-t h-here, you s-son-of-a-b-bitch and-d s-see Is-srael as-s w-well as-s your ears-s" - the young man with tattooed hands breathed out, along with the fragrance of alcohol - the typical representative of the criminals who were enlisted into the ranks of the KGB). The whole performance was directed by a man wearing expensive f western-made fur coat and fur cap on his head. With all my strength I seized my poster which the criminal tried to snatch. "Not Permissible!" the officer in the fur coat shot a malicious glance in my direction, and at the same moment I felt a sharp pain in my lower jaw. While falling down onto the snow, I suddenly saw him in a window of the Library, grinning and repeating his favorite gesture.
The long queue for tickets at the Aeroflot international agency did not frighten me. Not because the long years of life here had accustomed me to standing in lines (the knowledge that your time is being wasted never makes you happy), but simply this time I had a greenish piece of paper in my wallet, which for a person not involved was quite worthless, but for me it was a treasure - my exit visa, the pass to freedom. Now each hour that passed reduced the waiting for the moment when I would step onto the land of my dreams, love and hope. The hours that I spent in this queue became unforgettable. I was very active, readily entering into conversations with tourists to Bulgaria, visitors to their relatives in America, specialists on a mission to India, civil workers to Afganistan. I was happy and I wished to share that happiness with others.
At the end, after I paid at the cashier's and received nice glossy booklet of tickets for the Aeroflot flight Moscow - Bucharest - Tel-Aviv, I went to the exit door, not daring to take my eyes off the treasure I now possessed. Suddenly a hand was laid on my shoulder.
I stopped and turned around - it was him! It was not easy to recognize him: his face was clean- shaven and he wore an expensive tailor-made suit. But he grinned the same way as before, and his grin only underlined the exceptional cruelty of his eyes. "After all, you did not follow my advice", - he said in a low voice. His accent was much less noticeable than before - the result of years of practice. "Well, you'll have to wait. I will come. Do you remember what I promised to you, to you all?" - and he raised his hand to repeat his favorite gesture. But this time he did not succeed. "Never again" - a stream of adrenaline infused my blood, and my hand intercepted his. "Never Again" – that triumphant song burst from every pore of my soul and filled the hall, and everyone present turned their heads toward us. As if at someone's command, two militia officers ran to the source of the noise... but it only increased my happiness: "It's the last time, the last time...”
A dog barked somewhere near my watch tower. In a moment another one joined him, after that came the third, the fourth, the fifth, making a sort of choir performing in many voices. The local dogs seemed to know well the rules of the game: in the evening, after beginning of the curfew, they would come into the deserted streets knowing that there were neither men nor cars, that the streets were at their disposal and nothing would threaten their security.
The sergeant turned on the lights at the base. I knew that these lights made my silhouette a remarkably easy target, especially for him - "Vistrel" graduates were expert riflemen! I remembered episodes from old action movies that I had seen in the past. In one of those films the good guy - a superman - installed a dummy clad in his clothes, and he himself lurked in ambush. When the bad guy shot the dummy, exposing himself, the superman did not miss his target.
Excitedly, I imagined myself installing a dummy, dressing it in my own "dubbon", putting my helmet on it, and bending, seating myself on the floor of the tower. But at the same moment the sergeant would come. It was quite clear what the result would be - punishment for improper behavior while on duty. Moreover, he could throw a Molotov cocktail or a hand grenade, and then, little would remain, either of the dummy and me. So, only one option was left: to guess right the location where he would appear, and to be the first one to shoot! I would be violating orders, many soldiers were prosecuted for that... but to stay where I was and to be a target, a victim? That was forbidden by the law of "Pikuakh Nefesh".
Well, if destined... Everything is in Thy hands, Creator of Heaven and Earth. We shall not be bent, we shall not capitulate. We came here by Thy Highest Command. And if there is a trial, but true Trial of Justice and History, I will say the same two words: "Never Again!"
It grew colder, even colder than the night before. The torn shreds of clouds disappeared, and the stars appeared for a moment, reminding me that it was time for the night prayer. "Unto slanderers let there be no hope", I asked the Almighty, "and may all the doers of wickedness perish in an instant, and all the enemies of Thy people be speedily cut off..."
The sound of a siren pierced the silence of the night. A police car with blinking blue light flashed by, followed by two Army jeeps and a command-car. Somewhere a violent incident had occurred. In a moment new characters would appear on the stage - ambulances and UN cars. And that is what happened - except the latter came before the former. But the first on the scene were the cameramen. Like jackals to the odour of blood, they would rush into the midst of riots, help terrorists, and accuse Israel of “violating human rights". What extent of absurdity a lie repeated many times can bring!
Two ambulances passed in opposite directions. It seemed to be serious. Yesterday the school bus which took the children from the settlements of Gush Katif was showered with stones, and this morning a Molotov cocktail was thrown into the police station. Evidently, some memorable date was being celebrated. The Intifada had its own calendar: every two-three days there was "the Day of FATAH", or the anniversary of the beginning of the Gulf war, or "the Day of Land", etc. These celebrations were accompanied with escalations of terrorist activity, violent demonstrations and general strikes. The Arabs who did not participate in the strikes initiated by the terrorist organizations risked their lives. This had much in common with our trade union strikes. Sometimes we thought that the trade union bosses were the only ones who benefited, because of their political or personal interests. But we were bound to participate - such was the reality.
It was quiet again. The stars withdrew into impenetrable shrouds of clouds. "If it rains", I thought with a trace of hope, "it will be warmer". The fact that my watch tower was substantially leaky did not worry me, it would not have enough time to fill up with water before my shift is over. Or... - my thoughts came back to the forthcoming meeting. I wondered if he changed over the past two years since we met? If he once again grew his beard? If he had a belly as well as I? If he lost even a small portion of the bloodthirstiness which had been readable in his eyes?
I glanced at my watch. It was exactly 10. He will come after midnight, probably just before 2 when I must be relieved. Certainly, he learned our timetable and knew that the best time for his attack was at the end of a shift, when a watchman was tired and thought only of how to withstand the stupefying drowsiness.
"To fall asleep when watching was as dangerous as when driving", I thought, "How many car accidents happened because the driver fell asleep!" Once I myself fell asleep at the steering wheel - but this was only a reverie, and the wheel and the car were left in the past, in my former life. Was that reality? The past lost its value as reality. It became a myth, a fairy tale, some imprint in the memory. The real things were the watch tower, my M-16 rifle and the dirty street with broken asphalt - the source of imminent danger to my life.
Sounds of music, cries of joy, and laughter, came for a moment from the area of the base, and again it became quiet. Seemingly, the soldiers of the regular troops were having a party and opened the door for a friend to come in. They enjoyed themselves with music, beer and the sense of warmth and security, relaxing after long cold hours of patrolling in the streets under a shower of stones and mocking and humiliating swearing, unable to do anything because of the ban on shooting. And my nearing fight was not their business at all... at war everyone does his own work.
The phosphorescent hands of my watch met at the mark of 12. "So, the countdown has begun", I said to myself. "It's time to make the last preparations".
The ideal springboard for attack was the roof of the house across the street. I did not believe that he would decide on shooting through the window, because the tenants who let him in would pay for it dearly. They would not hide him in their apartment either.
Therefore, he will arrive shortly before the attack, by foot, car or donkey. Now I should listen very carefully. All my being concentrated in my two ears – the locators of my survival. In the silence I could hear a rustle of trees, a creak of the door in the command room, a cough of a sick man in that house across the street - the center of conspiracy against my life. If only this cough does not last forever! "Take a pill", in my heart I sent this order to the sick one, "Be silent!"
The time dragged on slowly, but I knew the fateful moment was drawing nearer and nearer. At last, I heard the sound that I could consider suspicious: from the passageway between the houses across the street came the bang of a car door. But the motor was not heard and the headlights, even reflected, were not seen.
Hence, he arrived long ago and all the time has been sitting in the car, waiting for the moment scheduled for the attack. And now this moment has come, and he stepped out of the car to kill me.
Of course, I understood, I might be wrong a thousand times and it could be someone else, without any connection to terrorism, but some vague force, an internal source sent me pulses: he has come, he has come...
The searchlight was aimed at the roof, at the point where the stairway led. I covered the rifle with the "dubbon" (in order to prevent him as well as those on the base from hearing the characteristic sounds known to everyone), released the safety lock and cocked. I stood up at the window and aimed the rifle. I rested it on special support, released my left hand and put the finger on the switch of the searchlight. The same vague force – the internal source, wound me into a tight spring. Somewhere in the depth of my being some old melody began to play, louder and louder as the minutes passed. I heard a clank of something metallic, probably a hatch. In my heart I counted 201, 202, 203, 204 and turned the switch on. From the darkness, the bright white spot of light snatched the figure of the man with a Kalashnikov automatic gun in his hands. I needed not more than a moment to identify him, slightly paunchy and bald, but not less dangerous. The melody that was playing continually inside me, transformed into the rolling beat of a drum with the same rhythm: NE-VER-A-GAIN-NE-VER-A-GAIN - and I pulled the trigger.
The thunder of the shot merging with the beat of the drum made no impression on me. The figure of my enemy bent in two, fell down onto the roof and, like in the action movies, rolled to the edge of the roof and fell onto the ground. I saw soldiers running toward me from every direction. The beat of the drum quieted down and the pasuk from Torah came to me: “when thou goest forth to war against thine enemies, and the Lord thy God hath given them into thine hands...”