Oren Kalisman is a physics student at Tel Aviv University. During his time in the Israeli army he was a lieutenant and platoon commander. I grew up in a village close to the Galilee. We lived surrounded by Arabs, but we had no connection to them. We didn’t hate them; we just ignored them. The only time I met an Arab was when my mother gave a lift to an old man who was hitchhiking to the next village. It was an unusual thing then for an Israeli woman to do. She didn’t see him as an Arab or a Jew – just as an old man who needed help.
Like my brothers and parents, at aged 18 I went into the army. I joined a special unit in the paratroopers, and after two years became an officer. At the start of the Second Intifada I was called to the West Bank, around Nablus, and put in charge of 20 soldiers. It was a very intense period and every night we’d go out on operations, most of the time for arrests. Most of the arrests went ‘smoothly’ without any trouble.
It wasn’t long before I started feeling like I didn’t want to be there. On one level I could justify the arrests, as these Palestinians might be planning attacks. But I kept thinking about their families and how they must be suffering too.
In one ambush we moved an armed vehicle close to a refugee camp and waited with snipers for people to come and throw stones and Molotov cocktails at us. We were baiting them so that we could take them out. If someone is throwing Molotovs at you, by the rules of engagement it’s OK to shoot them.
Soldiers are trained for action, so my men were very enthusiastic about this type of operation. But for me it was a moral issue – were we encouraging Palestinians to throw stones so that we could kill them?
February 2002, was a turning point for me. There was an attack on an Israeli army point near Ramallah, in which an armed Palestinian shot and killed six soldiers. It was a huge shock to the all-powerful Israeli army: not only did he kill six soldiers, but he got away unharmed. As a result, 24 hours later we received a very unique command – to ‘liquidate’ all police officers at a series of Palestinian checkpoints in the West Bank.
The word ‘revenge’ was never used, but it was clear to us that we were avenging the soldiers’ deaths. The hard part for me was realizing that our army was acting out of revenge.
I’m sorry to say that as a result 15 Palestinian policemen were killed. In our unit we called the operation a ‘terror attack’. In another unit they called it a massacre. The official army response was that these policemen were terrorists – but I don’t believe that; there was no attempt to arrest these men.
Later I spoke out about this with ‘Breaking the Silence’ – a group of former soldiers critical of methods used by the army in the occupied territories. My account was subsequently published in an Israeli newspaper.
In April 2002, during Passover, there was a massive terrorist attack in Netanya. 30 people were killed and 140 injured. The very next day I was called to take part in a counterattack. We were told to capture every town in the West Bank.
My unit occupied Nablus where the situation was tense and claustrophobic. The streets were too dangerous to operate in, so we took over the houses. One day, in a house I had occupied, I heard a shot from the next room.
It was one of my soldiers, positioned at the window, shooting a Palestinian man who was trying to move a body from the street. Our rules of engagement said we should only shoot at people carrying weapons, but he told me the commander of my company had ordered him to shoot. This was the first time I found myself taking a clear position. I told him firmly that I didn’t care what he’d been told, but that he was never to shoot at someone carrying a body again.
Palestinians who were fighting very bravely, and who I realized, were fighting out of desperation for their very homes; just as we were 60 years ago, surrounded us. For me this was another turning point and another step towards realizing that I no longer believed in what I was doing. At the end of the operation I asked my commanders to find a replacement for me.
These days the most difficult thing is trying to explain to Israelis how and why my transformation took place. I am seen as a traitor, although my family and close friends accept my position. I’m not looking for forgiveness, but for understanding.
I can’t forgive someone who wants to kill Israelis with a suicide bomb, and I don’t expect the families of the policemen I killed to forgive me. However, honest dialogue is important because through that comes understanding. In Combatants for Peace I met people who had wanted to kill me several years before, and vice versa.
The healing part of the story for me has been starting a new Combatants for Peace group in the city of Nablus. I went back to Nablus recently, and this time I was walking freely, speaking Hebrew and no longer afraid. It was an incredible feeling. The last time I’d been there I was a soldier in an army vehicle making arrests.