"I made them a stadium in the middle of the camp"

31 May 2002

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Palestinian children walking through the rubble of demolished homes in Jenin refugee camp looking for lost relatives (Photo: Charity Crouse, 2002)


This interview was first published in Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s most widely circulated tabloid paper, on 31 May 2002. It is an eyewitness testimony concerning what happened in Jenin, as told by a member of the Israeli military who was proud of his actions. Shortly after publication, the unit to which the man belongs received an official citation from the army command for outstanding service. Courtesy of Gush Shalom.

Moshe Nissim, nicknamed “Kurdi Bear[1]”, the D-9 operator who became the terror of the Jenin refugee camp inhabitants, speaks with no censorship about his time of glory.

“I entered Jenin driven by madness, by desperation, I felt I have nothing to loose, That even if I ‘get it’, no big deal.

I told my wife: “If anything happens to me, at least someone will take care of you!”.

I started my reserve service, in the worst conditions possible. Maybe this is why I didn’t give a damn. Not about explosive charges, not about gun fire.

“My life was in deep shit for the past one and a half years. For almost half a year I am suspended from work as a senior inspector in the Jerusalem municipality.

I worked there for 17 years, till that cursed day, January the 20th, exactly my 40th birthday, when the police came and arrested me.

They said that I and my colleagues in the inspection unit are suspected for being bribed by contractors and other business owners, that in fact, we are a corrupted bunch.

“This is a terrible injustice. I am a very friendly guy, and in this job you mix with people you inspect. But bribery? Me?

I am in debt for hundreds of thousands of Shekels long before all this story. Had I taken bribes, I would have money, but I couldn’t even pay the lawyer. Since then I am suspended. My wife was fired as well, and I have four children to keep.

“This was not the first blow. A few months earlier, I was injured badly in my back, my wife was fired, and my son got run over and had to be operated to save his leg.

Today he is OK, but his big dream, and mine, that he will once be a player in the Beitar Jerusalem team, this dream is probably gone forever. Pity. He was really talented. I have already promised him to get him into the children’s Beitar team.

“For two years, it is just one blow after another. I haven’t got a cent, but I love people. I cannot be indifferent. Every holiday, I distribute food packages for the needy. The same at Passover. I ran around like crazy. And just then, I started getting phone calls from the guys: “Kurdi”, they said, “we are all being recruited to do reserve service, but you are not called.”

“Truth is, that I understood my commanders. Hey, I’ve been doing my reserves duty for 16 years now, and I was useless. I did nothing but make trouble.

“During my obligatory military service[2] I was constantly sentenced to prison, because I refused to be a vehicle electrician. In my unit as well, in the bulldozer unit, I was supposed to be an electrician, but actually, I did nothing, just messed around. I would come to the unit, and immediately open a card table, open a bottle. If any officer would dare send me to guard duty, I would send him first. Kurdi always did his thing.

If I felt like going to a Beitar football match, or going home, no one could stop me. I would just start the car and go.

“Truth is, they didn’t even know me. When I am given responsibility, I can act differently, In the “Versailles” disaster[3] I was in charge of all the inspection team on location. When I was seen by one of the guys of my military unit, he was shocked.

He said: “In the army you can’t tie your shoelaces, and here you are a big chief!”

The truth is that when I finally decide to do something, I am one stubborn guy. I will go for it till the end. This time was one of those moments. What haven’t I done for them to take me? I sent the guys to twist the battalion commander’s arm, I phoned the company commander, I drove them mad. “I promise to work”, I pleaded with the battalion commander. Finally, he agreed to give me a chance.

“I said to myself: “Kurdi, you can’t let them down. No more running wild!”.

The speaker is Moshe Nissim, AKA “Moshe Nissim Beitar Jerusalem”.

In the Jenin refugee camp, he was called, over the military radio: “Kurdi Bear”.

Kurdi, because this is the name he insisted on. Bear, after the D-9 he was driving, demolishing house after house.

There was not one soldier in Jenin that did not hear this name. Kurdi Bear was considered the most devoted, brave, and probably the most destructive operator.

A man that the Jenin camp inquiry committee would want very much to have a word with.

For 75 hours, with no break, he sat on the huge bulldozer, charges exploding around him, and erased house after house.

His story, which he tells openly and with no inhibitions, is far from being a regular war myth. Medals, so it seems, will not be awarded for it. [Gush Shalom notes here that his company was later awarded a citation for outstanding service.]

The experience

“The funny bit is, I didn’t even know how to operate the D-9. I have never been an operator. But I begged them to give me a chance to learn.

Before we went into Shekhem [Hebrew name for the Palestinian town of Nablus], I asked some of the guys to teach me. They sat with me for two hours. They taught me how to drive forwards and make a flat surface.

“I took it on with no problem and told them: ‘That’s it. Move aside and let me work.’.

This is what happened in Jenin as well. I have never demolished a house before, or even a wall. I got into the D-9 with a friend of mine, a Yemenite. I let him work for an hour, and then told him, ‘OK. I got the idea.’

“But the real thing started the day 13 of our soldiers were killed up that alley in the Jenin refugee camp.

“When they brought us in, I knew that nobody wanted to work with me. They were afraid to be with me on the bulldozer. Not only did I have a reputation of a troublemaker, but also of a man who knows no fear, and they were right about that. I really have no fear. They knew I had no fear, that I don’t give a damn, and that I can go anywhere, without asking questions, without an escort of tanks or APC’s or anything. Once, in Jenin, I left the tank that escorted us everywhere. I wanted to have a spin around the camp, see what’s going on. Gadi, the other operator who was with me, nearly fainted. He started going mad: ‘Get back,’ he shouted, ‘we have no escort!’, but I had to get to know the place better, to find an exit, just in case we needed one. I was not afraid to die. At least I was insured. This would have helped my family.

The Flag

“When we got into the camp, the D-9’s were already waiting. They where hauled from Shekhem [Nablus]. I got the big D-9 L, me and the Yemenite, my partner. First thing I did was to tie the Beitar team flag. I had it prepared in advance. I wanted the family to be able to identify me. I told the family and the kids: ‘you will see my bulldozer on television. When you see the Beitar flag, that will be me’. And this is exactly what happened.

“I know it sounds crazy, but for me, to hang this flag was completely natural. Like eating. Here, look at this Beitar pendant around my neck. It never comes off. Not off me, and not off the kids. I carry the Beitar flags everywhere I go. Look at my car, all covered with these flags. This is the way I am. I always go to the Beitar matches, in a Beitar colored Galabia (an Arab man’s dress), and a big drum of the Kurds from the C. Once, after our first national championship, I took a ride on the roof of a car, carrying the drum, all the way to Jerusalem.

“Beitar is a kink in my brain. There is no other way to explain it. After my family, it is the most important thing in my life, and the only thing that can kill me. In Jenin, I was not scared for a moment, but I cannot go to the Beitar matches for half a year now. The suspense kills me, and I am constantly afraid of getting a heart attack. Sometimes, I can walk around ‘Teddy’ (the main Jerusalem stadium) with a ticket in my hand, and I can’t go in. In one match, in Beit Shean, I fainted after they scored a goal. I know how this sounds, but that’s the way it is. Incurable. At home, they know better than to talk to me if Beitar lost a match.

“So now you understand why the Beitar flag was on the bulldozer in Jenin. Someone told me that my commander wanted to take it off. But no way. If I had a say in the matter, there would be a Beitar flag on the top of the mosque in the camp. I tried convincing the Golani (an infantry brigade of the Israeli army) officer I worked with to let me go up there and hang it, but he refused. He said I would be shot if I tried. Pity.

“The flag was the most outstanding object in the camp. Reservists who went home on short leave came back with Beitar flags, just to imitate me. It made a lot of noise, my flag. The Golani soldiers were stunned. ‘You brought Beitar here,’ they told me. And I said: ‘I am going to make a Teddy stadium here. Don’t you worry.’.

“On the radio, they wanted to call me ‘Moshe-Bear’, but I insisted on Kurdi. I told the Golanis, I am Kurdi, and I won’t answer if you call me by any other name.’ That is how ‘Kurdi Bear’ was born. This is my name, and I am stubborn.

“In the reserves, they already got used to my signature: ‘Moshe Nissim Beitar Jerusalem’. For a while they asked me to stop it, but finally they just gave up.

Going in

“The moment I drove the bulldozer into the camp, something switched in my head. I went mad. All the desperation, caused by my personal condition, just vanished at once. All that remained was the anger over what had happened to our guys. Till now I am convinced, and so are the rest of us, that if we were let into the camp earlier, with all our might, twenty-four soldiers would not have been killed in this camp.

“The moment I went into the camp, for the first time, I just thought of how to help these soldiers. These fighters. Children the age of my son. I couldn’t grasp how they worked there, were a charge blows up on you, with every step you take.

“With the first mission I was given, to open a track inside the camp, I understood what kind of hell this was.

“My first mission, voluntarily, was to bring the soldiers food. I was told: ‘The only way to get food in there, is with the D-9’. They haven’t eaten in two days. You couldn’t poke your nose out. I filled the bulldozer till the roof, and drove the bulldozer right up to the door of their post, so that they would not have to take even one step outside their shelter. One step was enough in order to lose an arm or a leg.

“You could not tell where the charges were. They (the Palestinian fighters) dug holes in the ground and planted charges. You would just start driving, and you would hit a 3” pipe, welded on both ends. As you touch them, they go off. Everything was booby trapped. Even the walls of houses. Just touch them, and they blow up. Or, they would shoot you the moment you entered. There were charges in the roads, under the floor, between the walls. As you make an opening, something goes off. I saw a bird cage blow up in some pet shop, where we opened a track. A flying birdcage. I felt sorry for the birds. They just planted charges everywhere.

“For me, in the D-9, it was nothing. I didn’t mind. You would just hear the explosions.

Even 80 Kilos of explosives only rattled the bulldozer’s blade. It weighs three and a half tons[4]. It’s a monster. A tank can get hit in the belly. It’s belly is sensitive. With the D-9, you should only look out for RPG’s or 50 Kilos of explosives on the roof. But I didn’t think about it then. The only thing that mattered was that these soldiers must not risk themselves just to eat or drink something.”

“I fell in love with those children. I was willing to do with my bulldozer anything they would ask for. I begged for work: ‘Let me finish another house, open another track.’

They, in return, protected me. I would leave the bulldozer without weapons, nothing. Just walked in. They told me I am mad, but I said: ‘Leave me alone. Anyhow, the armored vest will not save me.’ This is how I worked. Even without a shirt. Half naked.

“Do you know how I held out for 75 hours? I didn’t get off the bulldozer. I had no problem of fatigue, because I drank whisky all the time. I had a bottle in the bulldozer at all times. I had put them in my bag in advance. Everybody else took clothes, but I knew what was waiting for me there, so I took whisky and something to munch on.

“Clothes? Didn’t need any. A towel was enough. Anyhow I could not leave the bulldozer. You open the door, and get a bullet. For 75 hours I didn’t think about my life at home, about all the problems. Everything was erased. Sometimes images of terror attacks in Jerusalem crossed my mind. I witnessed some of them.”

The purity of our weapons

“What is ‘opening a track’? You erase buildings. On both sides. There is no other choice, because the bulldozer was much wider than their alleys. But I am not looking for excuses or anything. You must ‘shave’ them. I didn’t give a damn about demolishing their houses, because it saved the lives of our soldiers. I worked where our soldiers were slaughtered. They didn’t tell all the truth about what happened. they drilled holes in the walls, holes for gun barrels. Anyone who escaped the charges, was shot through these holes.

“I had no mercy for anybody. I would erase anyone with the D-9, just so that our soldiers won’t expose themselves to danger. That’s what I told them. I was afraid for our soldiers. You could see them sleeping together, 40 soldiers in a house, all crowded. My heart went out for them. This is why I didn’t give a damn about demolishing all the houses I’ve demolished - and I have demolished plenty. By the end, I built the ‘Teddy’ football stadium there.

“Difficult? No way. You must be kidding. I wanted to destroy everything. I begged the officers, over the radio, to let me knock it all down; from top to bottom. To level everything. It’s not as if I wanted to kill. Just the houses. We didn’t harm those who came out of the houses we had started to demolish, waving white flags. We screwed just those who wanted to fight.

“No one refused an order to knock down a house. No such thing. When I was told to bring down a house, I took the opportunity to bring down some more houses; not because I wanted to - but because when you are asked to demolish a house, some other houses usually obscure it, so there is no other way. I would have to do it even if I didn’t want to. They just stood in the way. If I had to erase a house, come hell or high water - I would do it. And believe me, we demolished too little. The whole camp was littered with detonation charges. What actually saved the lives of the Palestinians themselves, because if they had returned to their homes, they would blow up.

“For three days, I just destroyed and destroyed. The whole area. Any house that they fired from came down. And to knock it down, I tore down some more. They were warned by loudspeaker to get out of the house before I come, but I gave no one a chance. I didn’t wait. I didn’t give one blow, and wait for them to come out. I would just ram the house with full power, to bring it down as fast as possible. I wanted to get to the other houses. To get as many as possible. Others may have restrained themselves, or so they say. Who are they kidding? Anyone who was there, and saw our soldiers in the houses, would understand they were in a death trap. I thought about saving them. I didn’t give a damn about the Palestinians, but I didn’t just ruin with no reason. It was all under orders.

“Many people where inside houses we stto demolish. They would come out of the houses we where working on. I didn’t see, with my own eyes, people dying under the blade of the D-9. and I didn’t see house falling down on live people. But if there were any, I wouldn’t care at all. I am sure people died inside these houses, but it was difficult to see, there was lots of dust everywhere, and we worked a lot at night. I found joy with every house that came down, because I knew they didn’t mind dying, but they cared for their homes. If you knocked down a house, you buried 40 or 50 people for generations. If I am sorry for anything, it is for not tearing the whole camp down.

Satisfaction

“I didn’t stop for a moment. Even when we had a two-hour break, I insisted on going on. I prepared a ramp, to destroy a four-story building. Once I steered sharply to the right, and a whole wall came down. Suddenly I heard shouting on the radio: ‘Kurdi, watch it! It is us!’ Turns out there where our guys inside, and they forgot to tell me.

“I had plenty of satisfaction. I really enjoyed it. I remember pulling down a wall of a four-story building. It came crashing down on my D-9. My partner screamed at me to reverse, but I let the wall come down on us. We would go for the sides of the buildings, and then ram them. If the job was to hard, we would ask for a tank shell.

“I couldn’t stop. I wanted to work and work. There was this Golani officer who gave us orders by radio - I drove him mad. I kept begging for more and more missions. On Sunday, after the fighting was over, we got orders to pull our D-9’s out of the area, and stop working on our ‘football stadium’, because the army didn’t want the cameras and press to see us working. I was really upset, because I had plans to knock down the big sign at the entrance of Jenin - three poles with a picture of Arafat. But on Sunday, they pulled us away before I had time to do it.

“I bitched them to give me more work. I would tell them, over the radio: ‘Why are you letting me rest? I want more work!’ All this time, I was really sick. I had fever. I got back from Jenin wiped out. Torn to bits. The next day, I went up again. One of the guys was ill, and I volunteered to help. I got back there. The battalion-commander was in shock when he saw me. The other operators all cracked up and needed rest, but I refused to leave. I wanted more.

“I had lots of satisfaction in Jenin, lots of satisfaction. It was like getting all the 18 years of doing nothing - into three days. The soldiers came up to me and said: ‘Kurdi, thanks a lot. Thanks a lot’. And I hurt for the thirteen[5]. If we had moved into the building where they were ambushed, we would have buried all those Palestinians alive.

“I kept thinking of our soldiers. I didn’t feel sorry for all those Palestinians who were left homeless. I just felt sorry for their children, who were not guilty. There was one wounded child, who was shot by Arabs. A Golani paramedic came down and changed his bandages, till he was evacuated. We took care of them, of the children. The soldiers gave them candy. But I had no mercy for the parents of these children.

I remembered the picture on television, of the mother who said she will bear children so that they will explode in Tel Aviv. I asked the Palestinian women I saw there: ‘Aren’t you ashamed?’

“After I finished the work, I got out of the bulldozer, piled up some clothes on the side of the road, and fell asleep. They looked after me, so that I won’t get run over by a tank or something. All the fatigue of the past 75 hours just landed on me. There was a lot of excitement in what I did. The fact that I did a good job operating the bulldozer, the soldiers who came to me, after it was all over, and said: ‘thank you’. This was enough for me. I miss them. I’ve invited all of them for Kubeh at my place. Their commander, Kobi, the one I worked with throughout the 75 hours, was amazed by the invitation.

‘Do you want the entire company to come over to your house?’

I told him: ‘As far as I am concerned, bring the whole battalion.’

I phoned my mother, from the D-9, and told her that the whole battalion was coming. She said: ‘no sweat’. I am waiting for them”.

Politics

“I know many people will think that my attitude stems from me being a ‘Beitar’ and ‘Likud’ member[6]. It is true. I am heavily on the right. But this has nothing to do with what I have done in Jenin. I have many Arab friends. And I say, if a man has done nothing - don’t touch him. A man who has done something - hang him, as far as I am concerned. Even a pregnant woman - shoot her without mercy, if she has a terrorist behind her. This is the way I thought in Jenin. I answered to no one. Didn’t give a damn. The main thing was to help our soldiers. If I had been given three weeks, I would have had more fun. That is, If they would let me tear the whole camp down. I have no mercy.

“All the human rights organizations and the UN that messed with Jenin, and turned what we have done there into such an issue, are just bullshitting, lying. Lots of the walls in those houses just exploded by themselves, at our slightest touch. It is true, though, that during the last days we smashed the camp. And yes, it was justified. They mowed our soldiers down. They had a chance to surrender.

“No one expressed any reservations against doing it. Not only me. Who would dare speak? If anyone would as much as open his mouth, I would have buried him under the D-9. This is the reason I didn’t mind seeing the hundred by hundred[7] we’ve flattened. As far as I am concerned, I left them with a football stadium, so they can play. This was our gift to the camp. Better than killing them. They will sit quietly. Jenin will not return to what it use to be.”

Epilogue

Two days after getting out of Jenin, ‘Kurdi Bear’ was admitted into hospital, suffering from pneumonia. As it turned out, the 75 straight hours in the D-9 took their toll. Some days after he had returned home, a phone call woke him up in the middle of the night.

“I got home one night, and for some reason, I couldn’t sleep. I was uncomfortable.

Till 4 AM I just wandered about, suddenly the phone rings: ‘Are you Nati’s father?’

I sked what happened. ‘Get over here, to the hospital.’ ‘Tell me the truth’ I told her.

‘I must know’. She said that: ‘Things are not good. Come’. I speeded to Tel Hashomer hospital. A nurse and a social worker waited for me there. They wanted to tell me that my son had died. That he came in, dead already. Finished. Serious brain damage. They had planned to ask me to donate his organs.

“Suddenly she ran to the surgery, came back and said that they drained blood from his brain, and that she hopes he will survive. We will know within 72 hours. We hurried to get an amulet from Rabbi Caduri. It helped with the Beitar team, when we almost dropped to a lower league. On Friday, they called us back to the hospital. They were in shock: The kid just tore the respiration tubes off. He woke up.”

20 year old Nati Nissim is lying on a bed, in the fifth floor of the Beit Levinstein hospital, draped from head to toe in the black-yellow uniform of the Beitar football team. “Daddy,” he says suddenly “Don’t forget. I need to get to the semi finals.” Kurdi Bear, with a bristly chin and red eyes, freezes for a second, and tries to get his son back into reality. “Nati”, he says softly, “I’ve already told you, Beitar has lost.”

Nati laughs. “No way! I am going to the match!” he says and tries to get up. The father suppresses his frustration, gives up the struggle. The accident has caused the son to lose his short-term memory. Just like in the movie “Momento”, he can recall, with astonishing precision, any Beitar goal going ten years back or even more, but forgets within minutes who he is talking with. “Why am I here?” he asks his parents again and again, and bows his head with embarrassment when an acquaintance reminds him of a conversation they had just the day before.

Kurdi sits in the ward and tries to look as optimistic as possible. The doctors are talking about a lengthy recovery process. They say that there is no telling if and when Nati’s memory will return to normal. The financial situation is not brieither. He and his wife, Ronit, can hardly buy gas for his battered Subaru that tries to make the journey from the Castel neighborhood to the hospital. Kurdi wants to build himself a tent in front of the hospital. For the time being, he sleeps in the car.

“Jenin has strengthened me,” he says. “It helped me forget my troubles. I had hoped it would be some turning point, until this hit me. But what happened to Nati taught me what really is important. I am living now for my son. The rest is really not important.”

The friends from his reserves unit are helping him.

“He stood up when it really counted. He was there, in the most trying moment”, says Haim Tamam, a soldier serving with him. “No one has functioned like he has. And I don’t know if any of us could go through the nightmare he went through without putting a bullet through his head. We are all amazed by him.”

Yeffet Damti, his bulldozer partner from Jenin, says that one thing is certain: “On the next mission, I am only going with Kurdi”.

Kurdi, for his part, thanks his commanders that gave him the chance.

For the time being, they are wrapping him with attention and sympathy. They came here, to the hospital, just to be with him. Just so he won’t be lonely. They are talking about raising funds to help him. When they meet him next to his son’s bed, back come the memories from those 75 hours.

The chats around the son’s bed continue till the management of the hospital called and begged them to stop bragging about destroying Jenin. There are Arab therapists who might be hurt, and one of the Arab patients has already complained.

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Gush Shalom Commentary

This is the incredible, self-told story of Moshe Nissim, a fanatic football fan and a permanent troublemaker, who begged his commanders in the reserves unit for a chance to take part in “the action”.

By “action” he was referring to the wide scale destruction carried out by the Israeli army in many Palestinian locations, especially in the Jenin Refugee camp.

He was sent into Jenin, riding a 60 ton demolition bulldozer - and equipped with 16 years of pent-up personal frustration, plenty of whisky and only two hours of training on that armored tool.

“Enough training to drive forwards and make a flat surface”, as he himself testifies in the interview.

His story may be extreme, and this man must answer to many serious questions, but Moshe Nissim is not much different from thousands of other frustrated and violent football fans, who terrorize cities in Europe after a football match.

But then again, Of course, it is unconceivable, that the British army would send a drunken and frustrated Manchester fan into Belfast riding a D-9 bulldozer.

Therefore, the really troubling questions must be directed at the system that sent him into Jenin on this mission of destruction. This system is the Israeli army.

* What kind of army puts a 60 ton, multimillion dollar demolition bulldozer in the hands of such a person, who has not operated one before?

* How could his rampage go on, without being stopped by any of the officers, at any rank?

* How can such an army insist it is “the most moral army in the world”?

* Does this interview shed more light on Israel’s refusal to have it’s actions in Jenin investigated?

* What did happen in Jenin?

We hope that after reading this sickening interview, you will find ways of sending these questions, and others you might have, to the Israeli government through it’s ambassadors, to the Israeli army, who, we are sure, will not tolerate it’s fine tools being used in such a brutal and unlawful manner.

Gush Shalom Endnotes

1. “Bear” is the army code for the D-9 bulldozers. Kurdi means a person of Kurdish origin.

2. In Israel, men are recruited at the age of 18 for 3 years of obligatory military service. After being released, at the age of 21, they enter the reserve corps. The reserve duty usually demands 30 days of service each year, till the age of 45.

3. In January 2001, a building in Jerusalem collapsed during a wedding in a hall named Versailles. Some 25 people were killed.

4. The D-9 actually weighs 48.7 tons, without Armor. The armor brings the weight closer to 60 tons.

5. The operator is referring to the day in which 13 Israeli soldiers were killed by Palestinian fighters in an ambush in Jenin.

6. Two right-wing movements. Beitar, the youth movement, is more nationalistic. Likud is the major right-wing party.

7. This is the size, in meters, of the part of the camp that was totally demolished.