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Chapter 20

To be drafted into Zahal was not only the accepted norm of our society, but it was an honour, it was exciting, it was a cause for pride and showing off. That was true among the Sabras, among the high school graduates and especially among the kibbutznikim. Many of the parents of the young draftees were concerned and there were some who tried to use their connections to secure for their children a good "job." The jobnikim, as they were called, were those soldiers who were not assigned front line duties, those who had soft jobs, like clerical work.

Throughout my two and a half years of service, there was continuous unrest along the borders, especially the Egyptian border, with many terrorist infiltrations and just as many retaliatory actions by the Israelis. The terrorist attacks resulted in a considerable loss of life, especially among the civilian population, while our counter actions suffered some casualties as well. The parents' concern had a justification in fact and I could hardly blame my father for trying to pull some strings on my behalf. It was, however, quite useless, because the entire group of the graduation classes of some thirty boys and about the same number of girls, were drafted simultaneously. We were to undergo basic training as a group, boys and girls separately, following which we would be assigned to various military specialties. It would have been quite unthinkable for me, a healthy young man, to be assigned some "job" instead of the front line duties. I would be ashamed to show myself in Natanya on my furlough from the Army.

Sarafand was the camp where all "fresh meat" (the nickname given to the new draftees) had to undergo basic training. My happiness as a student in Natanya came to an abrupt end. The methodology of basic training, as well as many other aspects of army life, was very much based upon British traditions, not surprisingly, since this was where we acquired our military experience in the 1930s and later during the Second World War. The historians who deal with the conduct of the Israeli Army during the early 1950s, invariably describe this period as the "Era of Terror." The method of handling a new recruit was very simple and very brutal: break his spirit until he becomes absolutely obedient. To me it was shockingly unexpected, the more so since the elite unit of Zahal during the War of Liberation, the Palmach, was trained to function on the initiative and improvisation of each individual who made up the group.

I was quite miserable through the entire three months of basic training. Every minute of my time was strictly regulated, every activity had to be performed on the run, even to go to the barracks containing the toilet and washroom facilities, or to go to our meals. The most dreaded time of the day was inspection time. The beds in the barracks had to be perfectly aligned, the blankets folded in a strictly prescribed fashion, the kit-bag, the polishing of the shoes, the washing and ironing of our clothes (which we had to do ourselves), the shaving, the cleaning of the barrack floors and windows, the maintenance of our personal weapons: every single detail was strictly regulated and controlled. It was quite easy for the sergeant who performed the daily inspection to find something amiss.

Punishments were meted out on a daily basis, some were collective and others were individual. There was hardly a day without a punishment and often without apparent justification. It was really a provocation to many recruits to commit some pranks, for which they were eventually punished. They had the satisfaction of amusing themselves by breaking the harsh routine and by knowing why they were punished. The punishments varied from push-ups to jogging, forced marches, extra duties (like kitchen work, bathroom cleaning, white washing), extra inspections with extra preparations for them. The worst punishment was denial of furlough. We only had four days during the first three months. That meant one outing during the training period and one at the end of the three months. Some of us never got the chance to be out of camp. Some of us were court-martialed for more serious infractions, like insubordination or being asleep on guard duty, which usually resulted in incarceration for several days or weeks. The penal institutions were controlled by the dreaded Military Police and conditions in there were a living hell. Most people who had a taste of it made sure never to return.

At the end of our basic training we were sent for a two-week training course to the South for field exercises. Water rationing was strictly observed. One canteen of water per day had to suffice for shaving, for washing dishes and for drinking. Most of us used just a few drops of water to soap our faces in order to shave. Our mess tans were scraped thoroughly with sand, they never saw any water. For the first three days we marched one hundred and fifty kilometers from our base camp, all the way to our training ground. We had to carry our pup tents (one for two people), our food rations, our change of underwear, especially socks, and of course, our weapons. It was a grueling march. Everybody had terrible blisters and although the medics did their best to treat them, the difficulties increased each day.

During one scouting exercise we were divided into groups of six soldiers, then taken by a command car to a remote location in the Negev and told to march back to our field camp within twenty-four hours. That meant that we had to spend the night somewhere in the field (two of us always on guard). The object of the exercise was to learn to find your way back in the wilderness by using a map. Within our group of six there were three kibbutznikim, a rebellious lot at best. These guys preferred to carry out an assignment (the results were usually excellent) using their initiative, their own ways and not necessarily following the original instructions. They were familiar with the area because of their numerous excursions. It was very popular among Sabras to spend their vacations roaming the country. This was done literally from grade one on. The older one became, the higher the degree of difficulty. Our three kibbutznikim knew of a friendly Bedouin encampment that was nearby and they decided to have some fun. The other three soldiers objected to this escapade fearing the worst, but our three adventurers would not hear of it. They even offered us the choice of carrying out the exercise without them by giving us the map and promising to be at a certain point one hour prior to our required return to camp, so that we could all enter together and nobody will be the wiser. Well, we finally gave in and headed for the Bedouin camp. They welcomed us as old friends and offered us some food, which we gratefully accepted. The most important result of the Bedouin hospitality was that we now had an unlimited supply of water. It was nice to be able to wash the entire body, to be able to shave with water, to wash the dishes with water and to drink water until fully quenched. We slept well and very early in the morning, after filling our bellies with water, not unlike the camel's reserves, we were on our way in high spirits. We fulfilled our mission by arriving two hours earlier, which was an impressive achievement.

The kibbutznikim boasted that they managed to restrain themselves from using the full canteen of water, by bringing back a quarter of the canteen. The officer in charge became suspicious and although he could not prove foul play he was certain of some wrong doing. He gave them their ration of water for the following day by pouring it into their mess tin instead of the canteen. The mess tin is an open flat dish about 5 x 8 inches and 3 in. high, with a handle at one end. He ordered our three heroes to crawl through the pup tent holding the mess tin, with the ration of water in it in their hands, at a fast speed, many times. Naturally they spilled more than half of the water in performing this exercise, maybe twenty times. I can only add to this, that they were mighty thirsty the next day, but they knew how to bear their difficulties with a grin.

At the end of my basic training I was given four days off. Since we were often given night guard duties or we had to participate in night field exercises, we were constantly affected by a lack of sleep. So I spent the first day at home sleeping. After that, I had to parade through the streets of Natanya in my soldier's uniform and do a little showing off for my acquaintances and friends. More than half of the group of people who underwent basic training together with me were ordered to report to the school of tank crews, located near the town of Ramle, myself included. The exceptional members of our group were accepted to be trained as pilots. Others volunteered to become paratroopers, special commandos or plain infantry men. Those who were less physically able were assigned to non-combat units.

Life at the school of tank crews was not so strenuous as in basic training. Although strict discipline was still the rule, the training was less physically demanding, since we spent half the time in classrooms studying the mechanics of the tank, the weapons, and the communication systems. The rest of the training involved learning how to drive the tank, how to operate the weapons and how to maintain the machines and everything that was in them. These were all surplus World War II Shermans. Each tank required a five-man crew: main driver; second driver (who also manned a machine gun), radio operator, who also loaded the canon, the canon operator, and the tank commander (who also operated a heavy anti-aircraft machine gun). Each crew member had to be able to perform any task in the tank, but we each specialized in one field. Even though punishments continued to be meted out, they were more reasonable than before and they were mostly for some misdeed, although not always justified by the one who was punished. A common punishment was to enter the tank by the upper hatch and exit the tank by the escape hatch, which was located on the floor of the tank, very close to the ground, a real tight squeeze. It could become quite an ordeal if one had a hefty body and if the number of the trips increased. We cleaned the inside of the tank was done with rags soaked in benzine (gasoline). The fumes would cause us to become intoxicated, so that we could not walk straight, our heads would spin and some of us even fainted. It would take half an hour for the body to get back into shape.

One of the most difficult exercises was to participate in a mock battle with all the hatches closed when the temperature outside was 40 degrees C. The tank had no air conditioning. Some of my friends called the tank the mobile casket. At the end of the exercise we would emerge from the tank into the hot desert air and feel chilly.

During the three months' course in the school for tank crews, I felt somewhat more relaxed, less cooped up. Life was not as harsh as it was for the first three months. All the graduates were promoted to private first class and we attached our first stripe upon our sleeves. On my next vacation I could boast that I was a member of the tank corps as well as a first class private.

We were now posted to the camp of regiment eighty-two, the only functioning tank regiment in Zahal at the time. We were not yet finished with our courses. We had to undergo an infantry platoon commander course, another three months of training more physically demanding than the basic training. These three months were definitely the most difficult period of my entire two-and-a-half year service. Discipline was as harsh and often as unreasonable as during the basic training, except that now we were trained to lead people into battle in a variety of terrain, weather conditions, during day or night. Sometimes, during our training, we used fake hand grenades, they exploded harmlessly, like firecrackers. These devices were not always functioning properly, they simply would not explode. Some of the kibbutznikim in our course, who always looked for an opportunity to have some fun and to relieve the constant pressure, collected the faulty fake grenades and stored them in our barrack. Our barrack was really a hangar, leftover from the British mandate. It was a long structure with one long wall only and two shorter walls on the sides, with a slanted roof on top. Our beds were lined up perpendicularly along the long wall, so that we were really exposed to the weather, as there was no wall in front of our beds. Since our course took place during the winter months it happened quite often that our beds, and what was on them, became soaking wet from the rain. If the wind was blowing at the same time, we would be shivering throughout the night.

One of the most despised punishments inflicted upon our group was the extra noon-time inspection. As the sergeant put it: I am not coming to you, you will come to me. What he meant was for us to carry our beds some two hundred meters, to the square in front of the regimental headquarters, line them up, have them properly arranged with all the equipment on them, undergo inspection, then carry everything back to the barrack. Since it was done during lunch time, there was not much time left to eat and all activities had to be done on the run. During this third course we had to use a lot of live ammunition, Especially in the last few weeks all field exercises were very realistic. If we had to attack and capture a target, the area through which we were advancing was sprayed with machine gun fire. It was during such an exercise that one of our comrades was seriously wounded and unfortunately remained crippled for the rest of his life. On another occasion, one of our group was cleaning his weapon and accidentally shot another soldier, fortunately for both, he recovered from his wound.

As we were approaching the end of our course, tension was very high, and the kibbutznikim decided it was time to act. They gathered a large number of unexploded fake grenades, placed them near the regimental headquarters, just before curfew, which was ten P.M. A fifteen minutes' delay fuse was attached to a small can of gasoline, which would ignite as soon as the fuse reached it. The burning gasoline would set on fire the unexploded fake grenades, creating a big bang, but quite harmless. At least there was no material damage. The fifteen minutes' delay was sufficient time for the perpetrators of the prank to return to the barrack before curfew time. All members of the group were in bed when the explosion occurred. As soon as the explosion was heard in camp, there was pandemonium, setting off a tremendous amount of activity. The officer on duty ordered the reserve guard to follow him and they ran around the perimeter of the camp searching for infiltrators. Some guards who were already on duty, opened fire onto the area surrounding the camp, claiming later that they were sure to have seen some movement in the field outside the camp fence. Many officers and soldiers, fully armed, were running around camp.

In the meantime, we were staying in our beds, like good boys. We knew that it was just a matter of time before the finger would be pointed at us. It was the officer on duty, who finally went to investigate the cause of the smoke rising in front of the headquarters. It did not take long to discover the smoldering fragments of the fake grenades and soon it became obvious that the cause of the entire upheaval were the guys in training for platoon commanders. We learned much later that when the captain in charge of our course heard what happened, his first reaction was to urge his superior to dismantle the course, to fail each and everyone of us, and to demote us all to privates. His request was delayed for later consideration. For now he was ordered to investigate and to take immediate punitive measures.

At about ten thirty, the sergeant major made us jump out of bed and line up, barefoot and in our nightly attire, in front of our beds on the cold cement floor. It did not take long for us to start shivering and it was not immediately clear whether the reason for the trembling was the cold or the fear. We had never been accorded the honour of being visited by the sergeant major and the captain, instead of the sergeant alone. Well, the captain took the floor. He tried to impress upon us the seriousness of our action. He did not even question whether the act was committed by us. He stressed the fact that we were constantly on high alert, because of the incessant tension on the borders, particularly in our area, which was close to the Gaza strip, from where many attacks were initiated. He also said that because of the serious disruptive nature of our action, the very existence of our course was now in doubt, as well as our chances of ever becoming officers in Zahal.

That last statement was very painful to many of us, since the majority of us wanted to do just that, to become officers even though it meant undergoing an additional half a year of very difficult training. Personally, I did not plan to take this course, because it meant signing up for an additional year of service and since I was three years older than the rest of them, I could not afford to postpone my university studies any longer than it was absolutely necessary.

Despite the captain's urging to tell the truth and for the perpetrators to step forward, so as to allow the rest of the group to continue the course, no one moved and no sound was uttered. He even questioned each member of the group whether he did it. He then said that he was giving us a special assignment for the night, to give us plenty of time to reconsider our silence. The words "special assignment" were commonly used instead of "punishment." We had to be fully dressed, with full pack and weapons, including machine guns and mortars, and lined up in five minutes. We all made sure to fill up our canteens, we had a pretty good idea of what the special assignment would be. We were taken by trucks some thirty kilometers to the south of our camp. During the ride we were singing loudly and defiantly demanding to be taken further south. We knew that this would not happen, because the man in charge of the trip was our platoon sergeant and he did not have the authority to change the captain's orders We were given our orders and told to be ready for our morning inspection the following day. The vehicles departed with the sergeant and we set out on our long march. Half an hour later there were some lights approaching us and we decided to simply block the highway.

It was pure luck that one of those huge trucks that was transporting supplies to the settlements in the Negev, was returning empty. Whatever the reason for this unusual event, we were mighty happy that it happened. We told the driver that we were returning from an action on the border and we need his help to give us a lift for some twenty five kilometer. The driver did not really have a choice since we all climbed into the back of the truck before he could give us an answer. We stopped a few kilometers before our camp. It was now past midnight, we posted guards and went to sleep as best as we could in the field, for about four hours. At five A.M. we lined up in perfect formation and marched into camp as on parade, full of pep and singing at the top of our voices. The men and the officers were duly impressed with our stamina. Although we were ready for inspection in time, we had to repeat the inspection at noon in front of the headquarters and the training that day was exceptionally physically vigorous.

The following day we were taken into the main dining hall and given questionnaires which we were to answer in writing, in a given time, like an examination paper. The questions must have been prepared by a psychologist. Concerning the event that took place on the night of ........ Do you agree with the perpetrators? Is it morally correct? It is militarily acceptable? Should the perpetrator be accepted as a future officer? and so on. Then there were more direct questions: Did you do it? Do you know who did it? Whom do you suspect? and so on. The examination did not bring about the desired results and the officer in charge had to make a final decision about our future in the Army. There was a great need for tank commanders and for new officers and we were certainly top material for both of those needs. The captain decided that we should complete the course. The following week we were all promoted to corporal (two stripes on our sleeves) and we received our traditional four days vacation. We were also ordered to report directly to the school of tank commanders in Ramle, a familiar camp to all of us.

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