I have never done time in a civilian prison. But military jails are another matter. During my long service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)—during 1967–1969 as a conscript and, thereafter, until 1990, as a reservist—I spent three stints, as far as I can remember, under lock and key. Each of them tells us something about the history of Israel and the IDF.
The first time was like a bad joke and brief, almost a non-event. It was sometime in mid-June 1967, a week or so after the IDF had defeated the armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in the Six Day War. In the days after the shooting had ended, the IDF was engulfed by chaos. On the front lines, at the eastern edge of the newly-conquered Golan Heights and West Bank, along the Jordan River, the forward combat units dug in, waiting for what the politicians would decide—to hold in place, to withdraw, to shift the units about. (The troops remain there, more or less along the same lines, to this day, 53 years later.) They were also dug in on the western edge of the newly-conquered Sinai Peninsula, along the Suez Canal, from which they were to withdraw eastward, back to Israel proper, following the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty of 1979. It was the Sinai Peninsula in exchange for peace.
But the rest of the army, having never moved from its bases in Israel or having just returned to them between June 11th and 12th, 1967, simply fell apart. All was in flux. A mind-boggling victory had been won, the Arab armies had been mashed into dust and, in the short term, no longer represented a threat, and new territories and historic-religious sites, especially in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, had been occupied and now beckoned. So the soldiers, including many in my unit—Battalion 908 of the Naha”l infantry corps—with their officers barely around and with no assignments to fulfill, simply took off, for a day or two or three; to visit relatives and girlfriends, or to browse in the alleyways of the Old City of Jerusalem, or to see and touch the Wailing Wall, or to look at Rachel’s tomb, just south of Jerusalem, or the prophet Samuel’s tomb just north of the city. Some ventured farther afield, to Hebron, King David’s capital before Jerusalem, where King Herod a thousand years later had built his monumental mausoleum, the Tomb of the Patriarchs (and their wives), seven centuries later converted by the Muslims into the al-Ibrahimiyya (Abraham’s) Mosque, the current focal point of prayer, tension, and violence between the city’s Muslim Arab majority and Jewish minority.
Battalion 908 was the Naha”l’s basic training unit, and its thousand-odd conscripts had donned uniforms in January, only five months earlier. They were about to clip on their graduation pins—the infantry soldier’s symbol, with red background (meaning combat status), attached to their olive berets—when Egypt’s President Gamal Abdul Nasser decided to roll the dice and challenge Israel. He pushed his armored divisions into the demilitarized Sinai Peninsula, ordered out the UN peace-keeping force along the Sinai-Israel border, and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping entering or leaving Israel’s southern port city of Eilat. After waiting a few days, Israel responded on June 5th by assaulting the Egyptian air force and armor in Sinai, triggering Jordanian and Syrian attacks on Israel, which ended with Israel’s conquest, in about 140 hours, of the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights.
During the tense days of late May and early June, the 908th, hardly a fully ready frontline unit, had been sent north and had dug in on the western rims of the kibbutzim Degania and Degania Bet, just south of the Sea of Galilee, establishing a defensive line to beat off a possible Syrian cross-border thrust. That thrust never materialized. The Syrians made do with occasional artillery salvos against the Jordan Valley kibbutzim. But on June 9th, while the Golani Infantry Brigade pushed into the northern Golan Heights, Battalion 908 was sent under a blazing June sun, in full view of the Syrian gunners on top of the ridge and in full combat gear, eastward, towards the southern Golan Heights—a thousand 18-year-old infantrymen trudging along the hot black asphalt road. Whether it was intended as a feint—to draw Syrian attention away from Golani’s push to the north—or as a serious preliminary to actually assaulting the Syrian Tawfik positions above, or a mixture of the two (a feint, to be sure, but if the Syrians didn’t respond or fled, to carry on up the Golan slope) is unclear.
The Syrian gunners must have rubbed their eyes in astonishment—we were abundantly visible and vulnerable—and then let loose. Some of the shells splashed into the sea behind us, sending up plumes of water. It was like watching a movie. But then they ranged in and shells found their mark. Our battalion OC (officer in command or commanding officer), Lt. Col. Shlomo Halamish, and his communications officer, standing by their Jeep on Tel Katzir, just above the road, observing the battalion’s progress, were cut to bits, and the battalion, after a brief sit down under the eucalyptus trees lining the road, was ordered back to the Degania line. Dispirited, we knew something bad had happened but not what—no one told us, and we traipsed back down the road, westward.
A day or two later, with the Golan firmly in Israeli hands and a ceasefire in place, the battalion was bussed back to its base near Hadera, south of Haifa, Camp 80, originally a British Mandate army base. Then things fell apart. The officers and sergeant-majors, given no orders, vanished, and the troops, singly or in groups, took off. The same thing happened in other bases. Israel’s roads were awash with hitchhiking soldiers going this way and that. The civilian public, after issuing a collective sigh of relief and thanksgiving (in the pre-June 5th days many had actually feared a second Holocaust), and proud of its soldiers, literally begged hitchhikers to get into their cars, even driving soldiers to distant out of-the-way towns, not on their routes.
That night I think I was on my way back to base from Jerusalem. I waited with several soldiers at a bus stop, thumbing a lift. It was dark. A large army pick-up truck, generally referred to (mistakenly) as a “Gladiator,” stopped and we hopped into the back, where there were two padded benches. In front, in the cabin, sat a driver and perhaps an officer or two. We couldn’t make them out. The vehicle sped northward. An hour or so later, as if miraculously, it turned off precisely toward the entrance to Camp 80 (I don’t think any of us had mentioned to the driver where we were headed), and we all piled out straight into the arms of Staff Sergeant “Albert,” who had just alighted and was standing by the cabin door. “Albert”—I don’t remember and probably never knew, his last name—was the legendary non-commissioned officer who ran the camp’s administration with an iron fist and a shrill voice. He barked an indistinct order—it was late and we were all half-asleep—and frog-marched us straight into the caboose which adjoined the main gate.
I can’t remember the night in the lock-up though I am sure, given its size and the numerous detainees, it was uncomfortable. Nor do I remember being stripped of my shoelaces and belt, as was the norm (to prevent suicides). The following morning, we were let out and shuffled off to our tents, with no charges or trial. Stay put, no more AWOLing, we were warned.
My second incarceration was lengthier and more serious, but I managed to turn it into a protracted joke. At least that’s how I remember it. It was 1968 and I was in a newly-formed Naha”l reconnaissance unit (sayeret) in the oasis outpost of Bir Thmade, in central Sinai. With our freshly-minted black berets, our task was to patrol the vast area in Jeeps and command cars, mainly against beduin hashish smugglers, but also to be on the lookout for Egyptian intelligence scouts. The officers had assembled us outside our tents. We stood in rows, three deep, for a roll call or whatever, and a lieutenant—he had never liked me—was going on and on about some nonsense (keep your huts clean, don’t fall asleep on guard duty, collect the candy wrappers littering the camp, etc.). “What an ass,” I muttered. I thought I had kept my voice down but apparently the desert air carries. The lieutenant called me out.
“What did you say?”
“Nothing, hamefaked (sir).”
“I heard you.”
I admitted nothing. But early the following morning I was handed a brown manila envelope and told: “Inside are your particulars and a charge sheet.” It was probably a Thursday. I was told to make my way, by bus or hitchhiking, back to Israel, to stay the night at home and show up the following morning—Friday, the traditional day for courts martial—at my battalion HQ (the Bir Thmade sayeret belonged to Battalion 903) at Ibim.
So I took off, ultimately arriving at Ibim, near Sderot, on time. But on the way, I had opened the envelope and read the enclosed documents. Einai khashkhu (my eyes darkened), as they say. The complaint sheet, addressed to the battalion OC, stated: “We enjoin you: Give this soldier the maximal sentence.” They really didn’t like me back in Bir Thmade. A battalion OC had the authority to sentence soldiers to a maximum of 35 days in prison. A sergeant-major frog-marched me into the commander’s office. The OC, a red-bereted lt. colonel, looked stern. He read out the charge (“insulting an officer”) and then asked, pro forma: “Do you agree to be tried by me?” The question was mandated by IDF regulations. My reply was definitely not in the rule book: “No, sir.” I think I smiled (or, at least, I hope I did, broadly).
As a matter of course, soldiers answered in the affirmative, because saying “no” meant being sent up the chain of command to a higher echelon, which could dish out 70 days jail-time or more. The OC was clearly in shock and, for a long moment, at a loss for words. This was probably a first. But there was nothing he could do. His clerk filled out the paperwork and I was ordered to present myself at the Naha”l Corps HQ, in Jaffa, to be tried by the OC Naha”l (equivalent to a brigade commander). As it turned out, I was tried by the OC’s deputy, Lt. Col. Tzvika Levanon.
He had a nice guy reputation and a bushy Palma”h-style moustache to go with it. I agreed to be tried by him, but at our first trial session that Friday morning I decided to exercise my rights as a defendant (this was allowed at brigade-level hearings). “I want to call witnesses, who can testify that I didn’t call the lieutenant an ass,” I said. Thus I procured a brief leave from Bir Thmade’s heat and chores for two of my mates, who would need to travel up to Jaffa and back, meaning they would enjoy a day or two at home, a hot bath, momma’s meals, and so on. (Home leaves from Bir Thmade, because of the protracted travel involved, were infrequent—say for a week every six weeks.)
I spent the following week in loose detention in the Naha”l HQ complex—a sprawling, columned Arab house with a large, tree-lined garden surrounded by a wall—mostly sunning myself and reading. The food was better than at Bir Thmade. But for a few days they had me whitewashing tree trunks. (This was done in all IDF bases. I don’t know why or where the custom came from, probably from the British during the Mandate. Possibly the idea was to highlight trees so that sleepwalking soldiers wouldn’t bump into them.)
The following Friday my mates showed up. Levanon no doubt took their testimony with a large grain of salt. But, equally, he did not take the charge sheet too seriously. He sentenced me to seven days in jail. Immediately afterwards, accompanied by an HQ cook going on leave as my chaperone, I hitched down to Gaza’s central police station, a Mandate-era British police fort, which also served as a prison for both Arab terrorists and IDF miscreants like myself. Getting there took hours. My chaperone knocked on the thick, iron-ringed front door. A guard opened a hatch and asked what we wanted.
“He’s supposed to go to jail here,” said the cook.
“No can do, it’s after 14:00. We’re closed for the weekend.”
Arguing didn’t help. The cook, who wanted to get home for the weekend, was flustered. A brief discussion followed. In the end, I persuaded the cook to go on home and promised that I would proceed under my own steam, scout’s honor, to the Naha”l HQ on Sunday morning, and tell them that Gaza prison had simply refused to take me in. And so, after spending the weekend at home, I showed up on the Sunday morning at the Jaffa HQ. I told them my story and was given a new set of orders: Go to Naha”l Sinai, the tomato-growing Naha”l outpost on the Mediterranean shore of the Sinai Peninsula, near El Arish, which was at once an army strongpoint and settlement, and now also housed the Battalion 903 HQ, which had just moved there from Ibim.
I arrived sometime in the afternoon. It was a hot day. I walked into the battalion offices, manned by two young, tired, barely conscious female soldiers. I can’t remember if I had any paperwork with me but if I did, I didn’t show it. I told the girls that Naha”l HQ had ordered me to spend a week at the outpost. (Naomi Shemer later wrote a beautiful song about the place—he’akhzut hanaha”l besinai. It eventually became a civilian settlement called Ne’ot Sinai, which was evacuated by Israel along with the rest of the peninsula following the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.) I didn’t mention a trial or charges. I said I would need a room. The girls didn’t ask any questions, assigned me a room, informed me of the mealtimes, and told me that films were screened some evenings, after supper, in the dining hall.
I spent the week on my back reading books and newspapers and in the outpost’s communal club house, and showed up for meals and movies. Nobody asked me who I was—presumably the battalion HQ personnel thought I was a member of the outpost and the outpost members thought I was from battalion HQ. I exchanged banter with one or two soldiers. I remember one guy, with a blonde beard, with an English accent and broken Hebrew, who claimed he was a famous writer serving in the IDF incognito. I can’t remember who he claimed to be (James Joyce? Kingsley Amis?). At week’s end, I went back to the girls in the battalion offices, said the week was up and I needed to return to Jaffa, and they gave me chits for the buses the next day. In Jaffa, I told the secretaries I had served my sentence in Naha”l Sinai and was sent on my way. Eventually, I made it back to Bir Thmade.
The third and last incarcerative episode was the most serious, and no joking matter. I was given a three-week sentence in IDF Prison Number 4, in Sarafand, outside Ramleh, for refusing to serve in the occupied territories. Some of the following is based on the diary I kept during those weeks.
It was autumn 1988 and I was in the IDF reserves, and I was called up for a 35-day stint in the West Bank. I was told that the battalion would be stationed in Nablus (the site of Biblical Shechem), the main Arab town in the northern West Bank, on patrol and ambush duty in the casbah (the old town center). The town had a bad reputation. They really didn’t like us. (During the Second Intifada a decade or so later, the town and its three peripheral refugee camps were a hotbed of lethal Palestinian terrorism.)
When I showed up at our base, where we collected our equipment and officers, I said, “No, I’m not going.” I refused to take part in the suppression of the First Intifada, which had broken out the previous December. It was mostly an unarmed, non-lethal rebellion by the Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Some East Jerusalemites and Israeli Arabs joined in. There was a lot of rage, demonstrations, stone-throwing, civil disobedience, non-payment of taxes, school and shop shutdowns, and general non-compliance with the orders of the military government, which had been governing the territories for two decades. Here and there, as the intifada progressed, there were armed attacks by Hamas gunmen, but these were rare. The rebels said they wanted to shake off Israeli rule (intifada in Arabic means a shaking off, like a dog shaking off fleas).
The platoon and company commanders tried to dissuade me. I stuck to my guns. They sent me to the battalion OC who passed me on to divisional HQ. The deputy division commander, a lt. colonel, tried gentle tough love. The trial lasted all of seven minutes. He kicked off by saying: Why not go home for the weekend, think things over, and come back, and we’ll forget about what has happened; perhaps we can even assign you to duties that will not involve interaction with the locals. I wasn’t having any of it.
“What we are doing is wrong; a crime,” I said.
“You leave me no choice,” he replied. “I’ll have to send you to prison. And believe me, it’s not for you, you’re a journalist, a doctor [of history].” (A few months before, I had published my first book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947–1949.)
“I also have no choice. We have to get out of the territories.”
“Even if I agree with you, in the army we must carry out orders. It’s not a matter of political beliefs. I sentence you to 21 days in jail,” he concluded.
Again, it was a Friday afternoon; Prison Number 4 would not take in new inmates during the weekend. So I spent it in a tent with a quartermaster who had been denied leave for some offense or other. He was of North African origin and his hard line was typical of Israel’s Mizrahi Jews. “The only way to end the Intifada is to hit them hard, with an iron fist. It’s the only language they understand. If you speak to them and act softly, they think you are weak, they will exploit you. Be tough, and they’ll respect you,” he said.
On Sunday, I reached Sarafand. The prisoner intake procedure was grim, indeed, a bit of a shock: We were left to sit for hours in a dark, hot, claustrophobic corridor; non-coms came and went barking orders. They kept saying, “Don’t look at me, don’t you dare look me in the eye.” I was led into a large room or cell with three metal bunk beds. This was part of “Company C” block, the reservists’ company, mostly in their 30s. The prison’s other blocks were filled with two companies of conscript prisoners, 18–21-year-olds. It was striking how a relatively small number of guards—a handful really, two or three of them female—managed to maintain order and keep everyone in line, including the dozens of conscripts, who were in for refusing orders, theft, assault, even attempted murder. The reservists were a far less threatening bunch and more cheerful, in for relatively short stints, most of them for going AWOL or simply not showing up when issued with call-up orders. Almost all the prisoners, conscripts and reservists, were Mizrahi Jews, most from non-combat units, rear echelon drivers, cooks, and quartermasters.
The day I arrived, Prison Number 4 held six prisoners serving sentences for conscientious objection; when I left, only one would still be there. I think I was the 39th soldier jailed for refusal to serve during the first months of the Intifada. (During the course of the whole Intifada some 200 Israelis refused to serve and were jailed, almost all of them reservists.) I talked to four of the others, all from one armored battalion—two kibbutzniks, a lawyer from Tel Aviv and a Hebrew University student. “It’s not so bad,” they said.
The four completed their sentence and were released a few days later. But then another conscientious objector, of sorts, arrived—Hiller Bardin, a 52-year-old American-Israeli, with dual citizenship. Most reservists are released from service at the age of 40, but Bardin had volunteered. Stationed in Ramallah, he had hoped to “soften” the occupation by trying privately to negotiate a local “ceasefire” with the town’s notables. The army gave him a 14-day sentence for unauthorized meddling. Well-wishers then contacted the American consulate, and diplomatic efforts followed to achieve his release. He walked out of Prison Number 4 a few days later. I asked the prison warden or OC for a 36-hour home leave, on account of the impending Sukkot (Feast of the Tabernacles) holiday. He refused, though it had been granted to other reservists with families. My “commanders,” the prison officers, also refused my requests to be allowed to call home. I was told that they had been ordered to treat me “by the book.” But my immediate guards treated me well.
Most of the time in prison was spent reading or playing games in my room or walking about the courtyard. I spent an hour or two each morning cleaning up the garden plot adjacent to our cell block. I had “inherited” the chore from one of the released conscientious objectors. The prisoners threw used socks and candy wrappers out of their barred cell windows onto the plot and I collected them. While walking in the yard, a Druse or Arab conscript-prisoner approached me and asked if I could “help him” write a letter to his (Jewish?) girlfriend. Though not an expert in the field, I performed as best I could. He offered me cigarettes as payment or reward; cigarettes were a major prison currency.
In political discussions with my fellow reservists, most of whom were Likud supporters or further to the right, there was little rancor, to my surprise. But there were exceptions. One day I was assigned to kitchen duty. The kitchen was filthy, grease everywhere, the floor, pots and pans, cutlery. The food, of course, was awful. Later, I had my first real political argument, with a fellow kitchen worker, Darwish, a Jew of Kurdish origin. We were in the courtyard. “They should have given you a year, not 21 days. We should kill all of them [i.e., the Arabs]. Stand them up against a wall and shoot them.” He takes aim with his arm, spraying the wall with gunfire. “We should do to them what Hitler did to us. Because that’s what they want to do to us. And you guys, you Peace Now-niks and leftists, you’re working for them, for the PLO. As it says in the Bible, ‘thy destroyers and they that made thee waste shall go forth out of thee.'” (Isaiah 49:17) It was all very public. During the discussion—more accurately, his rant—prisoners gathered around us. They clearly agreed with Darwish. There was a feeling of mob violence in the air. But nothing happened.
Ten days into my incarceration the authorities allowed a family visit. The wife and children arrived and we sat on a bench in an empty lot near the administration building. There was not much to say. Prison guards kept watch over us and the other visiting families and prisoners scattered around the lot. I was happy to hear that left-wing activists from the leftist Yesh Gvul (there is a limit/border) organization were helping my wife out with groceries and a stipend. I felt bad after they left. The following day was a general “sports day” in the IDF. It included the military prisons. Because of our relative weight, my reserve company easily beat the two conscript companies’ teams in the tug-of-war contest. We lost in the foot race running with a stretcher with a “wounded” soldier on top. All now depended on the football (soccer) tournament. The guards cheered our company. Our first game ended in a draw. But we won the second game against the other conscripts team 6–5, in large measure due to my goalkeeping. Hence, overall, our company won the day—and each of us got a phone call home as a reward. For a moment, I was a local hero.
At last some mail arrived, with four items for me. Everything was censored by the guards, which explained the delay. One of the items was a postcard from a friend vacationing in Greece. He wrote that he had met an old Greek philosopher who told him that, at some point, every person must take poison on behalf of his beliefs. The next day, cigarettes were distributed—20 for reservists, 10 for conscripts. I had stopped smoking more than a decade before, on the day I completed my PhD, but I accepted them. The prison cigarettes, exceptionally, were blue rather than white. The conscripts were constantly pestering us, the reservists, for cigarettes. Cigarettes were a continuous source of friction between the companies and within each cell block. One of the right-wing reservists told me he had always been intolerant of leftists until he was stuck with four of them in a cell and, after many arguments, he came to see that the other side also had a point, which he could at least understand if not accept. So maybe prison is not such a bad thing.
My last day. I’m called in by the reserve company “commander” for a talk. He is young and pleasant. We discuss my refusal to serve in the West Bank. I fill in a questionnaire, about prison food, the guards’ behavior, possible ill-treatment by fellow prisoners. “I hope I don’t see you again,” he says. He wasn’t joshing. A number of IDF refuseniks or conscientious objectors were recalled for active duty after a stint in jail and, again refusing, were returned for a further 21- or 35-day stint. But this was rare, apparently occurring only in battalions commanded by extreme right-wingers. The IDF General Staff guideline was apparently to give light sentences and not to recall offenders. The hours before release were nerve-racking. The sergeant-majors in charge dragged out the process—handing back uniforms, issuing the necessary paperwork—deliberately. At last, the front gate guard turns the key in the blue and red-coated steel door, and I’m out. It was worth it. Altogether I had been inside 17 days. I’d “gained” two days that first weekend and two days were deducted for “good behavior.” Certainly better, I felt, than 35 days in the casbah.
I went home and returned to my desk at the Jerusalem Post. I was never called up again and a year later I got my walking papers, released from the IDF at the age of 40. Years later, when the Second Intifada began, I opposed conscientious objection. During the First Intifada (1987–1991), the riots in the West Bank and Gaza Strip resulted in the deaths of 200 Israelis and 1,200 Palestinians but the violence had been aimed at casting off what they (and I) saw as an oppressive military government. The mass bombings and shootings perpetrated inside Israel proper during the Second Intifada (2000–2004), meanwhile, claimed the lives of more than 1,000 Israelis (at a cost of 4,500 Palestinians) and were aimed both at undermining military rule in the territories and subverting Israel itself.
* * *
So, what do I make of all this decades later? Well, firstly, obviously, army life didn’t suit me, but then this was clear already at the time and evident in my later historiography. Second, the Israeli army—the conscript formations and even more so in the reserves—was a pretty loose-fitting organization, characterized by a great deal of indiscipline and leniency toward offenders. This was true of my experiences in 1967, 1968, and 1988. In Western armies during the world wars, conscientious objectors were sent down for long months, even years, and insulting officers did not end in short vacations along the Sinai coast. In combat, the IDF was more disciplined, which accounts for its battlefield successes—though these probably also owed a lot to the character and quality of the armies they had faced. Lastly, the continuous, grinding, multi-shaped struggle with the Arabs, for most Israeli males, was not restricted to the (relatively limited) days of combat in short wars—it impinged directly on the lives of the hundreds of thousands who served an average of 30 days a year in the reserve combat formations, until the age of 40–41, and it indirectly impinged on the lives of their families, parents, wives, and children.
Benny Morris is an Israeli historian. His last book, co-authored with Dror Ze’evi, is The Thirty-Year Genocide; Turkey’s Destruction of its Christian Minorities, 1894–1924 (Harvard UP, 2019). Among his other books: The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited (Cambridge UP, 2003) and 1948, A History of the First Arab-Israeli War (Yale UP 2008).
Featured Image: The author (right) on the back of a half-track leaving Beirut in 1982. All pics courtesy of Benny Morris unless otherwise indicated.