Jenin: The Israeli reservist's view

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The first Israeli killed at Jenin was a major who refused the offer of covering fire because it might cause civilian casualties, a reservist who fought in that April battle said.

Jonathan Alster, 38, told a lunch meeting of the Zionist Organization of America this week that he spent the first three days of the operation on "Antenna Hill," about 300 yards above the Jenin refugee camp. "The next nine days, I spent inside the camp, inside the houses," he said.


Alster explained that his platoon's mission on the hill was to provide covering fire for advancing Israel Defense Force soldiers.

The first to die was Maj. Moshe Gerstner, 29. "He was just married eight months -- just finished school as an engineer," Alster said. "He was up on the hill with us right before he went with his group down into the camp. We asked him, when it was time to go down: Do you want us to soften up the area, to make them keep their heads down? He said, 'No. We don't know what's waiting for us. We don't know if women and children are in there. We'll go down on our own.'


"And before he reached the first house ... he was killed by a sniper."

Alster and two other reservists are visiting the United States to give their perspectives on the Israeli military incursion into the West Bank March 29-April 23. They said the campaign, codenamed "Defensive Shield," was intended to root out the infrastructure supporting the wave of suicide bombings that has killed and wounded hundreds of Israelis in the past year.

Alster, a father or four, is a New York City native whose family immigrated to Israel in 1975. With him were Saul Kramer, 26, originally from South Africa, who also fought at Jenin, and Nathalie Narcyz, 22, who was born in Antwerp, Belgium.

Their trip to the United States was sponsored by Joey Low, a New York City businessman who is on the board of governors of Hillel, a Jewish campus organization. This is the second such trip Low has financed and organized.

The Jenin operation met with a firestorm of media criticism, especially in Europe. Alster dismissed the suggestion that Israel could have forestalled this by accommodating the press from the outset.

"Why didn't we let the media in earlier? Why didn't we show that we had nothing to hide? It is so ridiculous!" he said. "We did not receive supplies inside the camp for two to three days because it was too dangerous for our tanks and armored personnel carriers to move in it.


"At a certain point, they stopped bringing us water in jerry cans. They moved to bottled water because it became too dangerous to carry the jerry cans the 5 yards from the personnel carrier to our door. They threw us the box with food into the house. The crossfire was too intense.

"It was a madhouse! Who would have dealt with 10 reporters being killed the first day?"

Alster lives in the Galilee, in northern Israel, and commutes to Tel Aviv, where he works for United Parcel Service. In March he was doing his regular annual reserve duty, which is from 35 to 45 days per year, near Ramallah, in the West Bank. When operation Defensive Shield started, his regiment was pulled out and sent to Jenin.

Alster described what brought the group to the United States. "We lost 23 boys in the camp. Three of them were close friends of mine. One of them I spoke to about 12 minutes before he was shot. When we came out of Jenin, and I heard the beginning of the reports of a massacre, I took it very personally. I was insulted for my friends who were killed, the boys who were hurt, for all of us who did what we did inside those 12 days."


The reservist said the IDF took the casualties, which were high relative to the size of the force and the population of Israel, because of the care the army took in its effort not to hurt innocent people.

Alster said that during the fighting, questions were raised by soldiers about Israel's decision to fight door-to-door. "They said: 'Why didn't we just announce that they had six hours to leave, put up two roadblocks, check whoever leaves the compound, and just go in with a plane?'"

But Alster said the real moral debates were on a much smaller scale, at night, when the soldiers tried to catch a few hours' sleep between missions. "Can we use the tea set? There was a pack of cigarettes in the house. Should we smoke them, or not?"

The emergency call-up of reservists met with a 120 percent response. Students interrupted their vacations to fly back to Israel. Men in their late 40s who had been released from the reserves years before reported for duty. "We didn't have enough guns, we didn't have enough supplies to give out. Everybody felt it was a war of survival," Alster said.

From Antenna Hill in Jenin, Alster could see his town. "I was literally defending my house. I don't live in the West Bank or in Gaza. I'm in the middle of Israel, and I can see my town. All I want is for my 16-year-old girl to be able to get on a bus or go to a movie in a mall. That's all we want."


Nathalie Narcyz said she likes to party, but her parents won't let her go to nightclubs. "I have to respect that because they're afraid I'm going to die, and I have nothing to say back to them. Also, is it appropriate to go out and have fun when people are dying?"

Narcyz did her 2 years' military service compulsory for Israeli women. "We can't choose our enemies. We're forced to fight," she said. Females do not serve in combat units, but "I have to send my brother, my father and my friends."

Narcyz said she feels obligated to tell the world that much of the reporting out of Israel is inaccurate, even "lies."

After Saul Kramer finished his tour of army service, he thought he would be able to get on with his life, his studies, and his career. But he learned otherwise a year and a half ago, when he was called up for a month's reserve duty. "Previously, I had done ambushes deep into southern Lebanon, and here I was doing ambushes 50 kilometers from where I live in Jerusalem," he said.

When Kramer was called up for Defensive Shield, he and members of his unit went to their base outside Jerusalem, where they picked up their combat uniforms and weapons. They were taken to another base in southern Israel, where they had one day to train. The next day they went up to Jenin, where they manned a roadblock


"One of the accusations made against Israel and the soldiers was that no humanitarian aid was allowed in. I personally checked many of the trucks (carrying) medical supplies, clothing, food, and other humanitarian aid that went into Jenin sent by organizations from around Europe, here in America, and inside Israel itself."

Kramer said that one morning he and his fellow soldiers spotted a vehicle coming from the camp trying to evade the roadblock. "It was trying to make its way through a field adjacent to where we were positioned. We managed to stop the vehicle. We had to do the normal security checks. "Inside were a group of French journalists and a Palestinian terrorist on Israel's wanted list."

When Kramer got out of Jenin, he wrote an impassioned e-mail to his family and friends in South Africa that made its way around the world. "I've received hundreds and hundreds of responses from Jews and non-Jews from Alaska to Australia to Japan expressing their thanks and encouragement," he said.

In his e-mail, Kramer wrote that contrary to "the lies CNN, BBC and all the others have been telling the world ... there was no massacre in Jenin." In the fighting, terrorists used children as human shields, he wrote. "If we had no regard for the lives of innocent civilians, 23 sons, husbands and fathers would be at home with their families now."


Alster said that inside the refugee camp, "there were dozens and dozens of laboratories. The whole town was booby-trapped. I drive the personnel carrier. We couldn't move inside the camp for 10 yards without overcoming some kind of a booby-trap. ... It was one big mess."

He first welcomed the idea of a U.N. investigation. "We have nothing to hide!" But his opinion changed a short time after coming out of Jenin. "We're never going to be liked, no matter what we do and how we do it. Israel has to do what's good for Israel." And in the last analysis, this means "so Nathalie can go out at night, my kid can get on a bus -- simple stuff."

Alster said one news photo he had seen was cropped to make the destruction in Jenin "look like Hiroshima." The refugee camp, about 500 yards square, is a very small part of the larger Jenin, he said. With 14,000 inhabitants, that 2.5 acres is densely populated. "The part that was ruined by bulldozers at the end is about 10 percent of the camp." That is where Palestinian fighters had been pushed after days of fighting. On April 9, "that terrible day," 13 Israeli reservists were killed and nine wounded in an ambush. After that, Alster said, the IDF realized that the only way to finish the operation was to bring in the bulldozers. "I personally think that in that situation it was the most humane thing to do."



(Read a human rights activists response to Alster's views at

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