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Night of June 3/4: Colonel Bukhris, "Kurdish Teddy-Bear", and the Jenin Massacre

Last Friday (May 31), the weekend supplements of the two largest newspapers in Israel devoted their cover interviews to two soldiers who played a key role in the repression of resistance at the Jenin Refugee Camp. Ma’ariv’s “Weekend” hosted Lt.Col. Ofek Bukhris, a Golani battalion commander, who fought bravely and sustained a leg injury. Bukhris is a modest and distinguished professional officer. He mentioned that at Jenin “there were severe professional and ethical problems”, but he does not want to unravel them at the interview, but rather solve them within the system. We’ll wish Bukhris a smooth healing, and shall return to him later.

Yediot’s “7 Days” found a much spicier hero from these tragic days. Moshe Nissim is a 40-year-old reserve soldier from Jerusalem, a proud member of Beitar’s “Small Bunch of Fans” [Beitar is the most politically-oriented soccer team in Israel, associated with right-wing and anti-Arab sentiments. Their “small bunch” is notorious for acts of hooliganism]. Nissim became known at Jenin as “Kurdish Teddy-Bear”. First Tip of the Week: I recommend to go and read this amazing interview (“I made them a stadium in the middle of the camp”, by Z. Yehezkieli). Here is a short summary.

The invasion found Moshe Nissim fired from his job at Jerusalem’s Municipality, and under investigation for charges of bribe taking. Nissim has not performed many reserve duties in his life (he admits to having evaded them), so much so, that his unit did not even bother to recruit him for the invasion. When he heard that all his unit is being called except him, he raised hell until they agreed to take him. His military profession is automotive electrician; but he insisted on manning a (US-made) D-9 mega-bulldozer. Usually, the army allows one to operate such a monster only after a lengthy course, but for Nissim it took two hours, and away we go. He and his unit found themselves at the last scene of genuine resistance: the Jenin Refugee Camp – just after a bomb ambush killed 13 Israeli soldiers.

Nissim placed a Beitar flag on the D-9 and started destroying houses. The interviewed asked whether it was hard for him. “Hard? You must be joking. I wanted to erase everything. I would wail to the officers over the radio, so they’ll let me tear it all down…. When they told me to destroy a house, I took advantage of it and ruined a few more…. Believe me, we did not destroy enough…”

“For three days I just erased and erased. The entire area. I took down any house from which there was shooting. To take it down, I would take down several more. The soldiers warned with a speaker, that the tenants must leave before I come in, but I did not give anyone a chance. I did not wait…. I would give a house the hardest push, so it would fall as fast as possible… Others may have been more restrained. Or they say the have. Don’t believe their stories… There were many people in the houses we started to destroy… I did not see a house fall on a live person. But if there was such a case, I don’t give a damn. I’m sure that people died in these houses, but it was hard to see, there were tons of dust and we worked a lot at night. I enjoyed seeing each house fall, because I knew that they don’t mind dying, but a house hurts them more… If something hurts me, it’s that we did not erase the entire camp.”

Nissim continues, telling about his emotions: “I had a great satisfaction, a great fun…. I couldn’t stop. I wanted to keep on working all the time. I drove the Golani officer nuts over the radio… After the fighting was over, we received an order to get the D-9’s out of there… the Army did not want the photographers and journalists to see us at work…. I fought with them to let me ruin more…. I had a great satisfaction at Jenin. Tons of satisfaction. It was like concentrating all these 18 years in which I’ve done nothing [on reserve duty – AO] into three days. The soldiers came to me and said, ‘Kurdish, thank you , thank you.’”

How did Nissim manage to stay awake for three days straight? “You know how I held on for 75 hours? I didn’t get off the D-9. I had no fatigue problem, because I kept drinking whiskey all the time… I placed some in my bag ahead of time. Everyone packed clothes, but I knew what was awaiting us there. I took whiskey and some pistachios…. Jenin empowered me. It helped me forget my troubles.”

We, too, will thank Moshe Nissim. For he answered, in his first-hand account, the question that my government's propoganda machine made us forget: Was there a Massacre at Jenin?
Yup, there was.

Let’s return to the wounded hero, Col. Bukhris. A mild guess will lead us to the conclusion that the “severe ethical problems” he mentions, may have something to do with the ecstatic activities of Moshe Nissim et al. But what about you, Lt. Col. O. Bukhris? Your role as a battalion commander includes overseeing and commanding those bulldozer operators working with you, such as Nissim. Your right and duty is to discipline reserve corporals who go wild and slaughter innocents – and to throw them the hell out of there if they refuse to be disciplined. You may have tried without success; I don’t know, I wasn’t there. Anyhow, these severe ethical problems are your problems too. And that’s after we’ve supposedly accepted the official Israeli stand, and laid aside the fact that the brutal takeover of a defenseless, dense, poor town of 15,000 outside your borders - just because there are a few dozen murder suspects hiding there – is a severe crime, indeed "the mother of all" of Nissim's crimes.

So, Col. Bukhris, you believe that “things should be resolved within the system.” I am only two years older than you, but I have 14 more years of civilian experience. From this perspective, I can assure you that you will resolve nothing within the system, because the problem is in the system itself. Let’s take Moshe Nissim as a test case.

A man with a very dubious civilian and military record wants to volunteer for the invasion. Well, these are patriotic times, I guess everyone gets a chance. OK. He insists on becoming the operator of a giant bulldozer, even though neither his military nor his civilian experience qualify him as such, and (I suspect) there was no shortage of qualified operators. Moreover, his motives are probably not hidden; he keeps blabbering about how he wants to “teach them a lesson”, and so on. But no one even stops to think, whether such a man should be allowed to sit behind the wheel.

So he sits behind the wheel and starts slaughtering, a bottle of whiskey in hand. The army is not under intolerable stress and infinite mess like, say, in the 1973 war. The top command is all intact, is not far from the Jenin camp, and knows exactly what’s going on. Someone seems to go way beyond any command issued to him, even to grossly disobey the commands, causing a massive bloodshed of innocents. But instead of calling him to order immediately, they let him go on and on, and set the pace for his buddies. It is not hard to guess that Moshe Nissim’s exploits have become the joke of the day – and even a source of pride and immitation – and commanders dismissed them with a smile and a shrug, maybe even praised him. It is not hard for me to guess this, because I’ve seen during my own service many examples for such attitude towards people who performed such (much less terrible, but still criminal) deeds against civilian population.

No doubt, Moshe Nissim is an extreme case. But the system is judged by its treatment of extreme cases. When it came to the life and honor of Arab civilians, the military system has all too often given soldiers practicing such extreme acts of humiliation, torture, even murder, a free hand during the act, sometimes even encouragement – and endless forgiveness and lenience after the act. These are the fruits of racism.

Listen to my personal advice, Col. Bukhris: escape this system while you can, before it corrupts you to the core.

And to the system, that is to the top military command, I suggest:

You'd better start a thorough and vigorous soul-searching and mending process , or else what we'll be left with here will not deserve to be called an army anymore.

Good Night,

assaf