Nothing happened

Half a dozen bullets fired by an IDF soldier pierced the windshield of a taxi in which Gideon Levy was traveling this week. A personal account.

Nothing happened. Soldiers opened fire, no one was hurt. Not a thing happened. The soldiers evacuated the bullet-riddled taxi and its passengers from the zone of fire and no officer appeared: not to investigate, not to take testimony, not to explain, not to apologize, and above all not to show the soldiers that, after all, something did happen.

No one came because nothing happened. Nothing happened because it happens almost every day, usually to Palestinians. Only this time, it happened to us, too. It usually ends with people wounded and even killed, people who violated the curfew, approached a checkpoint, who didn’t know or didn’t understand - or just like that, without reason or excuse; but not this time, thanks to the bulletproof windows of the taxi we were traveling in.

Last Friday it was Ahmed al-Karini, an employee of the Nablus Municipality, who was driving, with the authorization of the army, to repair telephone poles, who was killed by soldiers in his vehicle - a “lapse of coordination.” On Saturday it was a farmer, Hosni Damiri, who went out to his field on the outskirts of Tul Karm with the authorization of the army, and again - a “lapse of coordination,” as the army describes it, as though the appalling ease with which soldiers open fire is not the real problem, only a “lapse of coordination.”

Generally, the unnecessary victims are Palestinians, like the electrician Karini or the farmer Damiri - it was the circumstances of his death that we had come to investigate on Sunday - but this time, the bullets were aimed at us. Aimed with intent to kill. There is no other way to describe the purpose behind five bullets that slam into an Israeli taxi, two or three of them in the center of the front windshield, aimed directly at the passengers and blocked only because of the armored glass. Shooting without any sort of warning or alarm. You shoot, period. Just like you light up a cigarette.

No call to stop, no shooting in the air with time given to come to a halt, no shooting at the wheels - live fire straight into an Israeli taxi that was moving slowly and with the greatest possible caution, so as not to arouse suspicion, not frighten anyone, not make anyone edgy, a car whose driver and passengers are very experienced in trips such as these in the face of the trigger-happy soldiers.

But nothing happened. Tomorrow, or the next day, it will happen again, bet on it. After the many bullet-riddled cars we have seen, their seats covered with blood, their Palestinian drivers and passengers killed or wounded by soldiers for no reason, it was apparently time for us to be on this side of the bullet, in the first person, first-hand. Are they the only ones who have it coming?

Taibeh checkpoint, the southern entry to Tul Karm. A helicopter hovers above the city , a bad omen. The authorizations were obtained the coordination arranged ahead of time with the IDF Spokesperson’s Office. A soldier at the checkpoint: “We know about you, but the city is under curfew, it’s a closed military area.” An IDF spokesperson on the phone: “We’ll check, wait.” The freedom of movement we have been given lately in the territories arouses respect for the Israel Defense Forces.

In the meantime, some Palestinians arrive, dressed in rags. They were “illegally present” in Israel and have been swept here from the streets of Taibeh. A Border Police jeep is behind the group, urging them on, threatening to run them over, and they are forced to flee from the vehicle. The expressions on the faces of the coerced sprinters are a mixture of humiliation, exhaustion and disgust. A few of them are elderly people whose breath is short. This is jogging, Border Police style.

Finally, with obvious experience, they enter a kind of makeshift compound below the deserted checkpoint. No one has told them to do this, but they are well-trained. They will wait there, on the ground, until they are checked out, a matter of hours upon hours. They are a pitiful sight. Across the way, a few trucks load and unload crates of potatoes for the besieged city beyond the checkpoint, using the back-to-back method. After a wait of about two and a half hours, the authorization arrives. The soldier instructs us to open the heavy yellow barrier ourselves and to proceed on our way.

Salah Haj Yehiye, a field worker for Physicians for Human Rights, who knows Tul Karm well, joins us, sitting in front. Photographer Miki Kratsman and I are in the back seat of an armored taxicab belonging to a Jerusalem driver, Meno Lehrman, nine years in the territories.

“They have never shot at an Israeli taxi,” he says. The back windshield is not bulletproof. Lehrman: “They never shoot from behind, except to make sure of a kill.”

Tul Karm is under a curfew the likes of which we have never seen. We have visited the West Bank town a number of times in the past few weeks, but there has never been a curfew like this. The silence and desolation of the streets are compounded by the feeling that there is no one inside the houses, either, that the city is deserted. Everything is shut and sealed, locked and bolted - blinds, windows and iron gratings through which no one even dares to peek. Only one elderly man wearing a white undershirt glances out of a window, and with a frightened look immediately disappears.

On the way to the city center, after passing the municipal cemetery, which resembles the rest of the city, we see an armored personnel carrier standing on the corner of the street. A young police lieutenant emerges from the APC, checks us out, and orders us to proceed toward the IDF’s District Coordination Office (DCO) until he can find out whether our presence here is authorized. He knew nothing about us.

We do as ordered. A dirt road leads west to the DCO, atop which fly two flags, Israeli and Palestinian, recalling another time. Both flags look like rags. We drive very slowly, as befits situations like this. Very slowly we make our way along the deserted road, in the direction of the base, which is enclosed by a concrete wall and iron gates, and has a high, armored guard tower at its entrance, from which a soldier is undoubtedly watching us with cocked rifle, seeing but unseen.

Our car bears all the identification signs of an Israeli cab: it’s a white Mercedes 220, it has yellow license plates, a yellowish taxi sign on the roof, a sticker of a French television station on the front windshield. Meno, the driver, lights a cigarette and opens the unprotected part of his window. Hot air surges into the car. We are 100 to 150 meters from the base.

Suddenly a bullet whistles by. Immediately afterward, but immediately, without any pause, the bullets begin to slam into the front windshield of the taxi. Bullet after bullet. An explosive sound, and straightaway there is another hole in the glass, but the bullets don’t penetrate. Five or six shots. Four or five hits. Two or three bullets in the center of the front windshield, one in the engine, one on the side, to the right of our heads.

Meno moves the car quickly to the side of the road, taking shelter behind a tin wall. The car is out of the line of fire and the shooting stops. Where will it come from next? From behind, where the windshield is not bulletproof? A few long minutes later, which feels like an eternity - as everyone always says in these situations because it always does - as we lie on the floor of the taxi, covering our heads with our hands and phoning in horror to the whole world, the APC rumbles up with the officer who sent us here, escorted by a Border Police jeep. After a few minutes in shock, we follow them to the DCO.

The young officer offers us water, but there is no one on behalf of the IDF to explain or investigate. Not a brigade commander, not a battalion commander, not a company commander. No one. Only a few curious soldiers. At my initiative, I call the sector brigade commander, Colonel Dan Hefetz, who says there had been a hitch and therefore the soldiers had opened fire.

We make our way home. The damage to the taxi is estimated at tens of thousands of shekels, because of a bullet that plowed into the engine. That afternoon I receive a call from the IDF Spokesperson, Brigadier General Ruth Yaron, who apologizes in the name of the IDF. There was a call from the defense minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who sounded very agitated and said he was shocked and that he personally would see to it that an investigation was carried out and that the soldiers who were responsible would be sent to prison, he said. The investigation was concluded that evening: without an investigation by the Military Police, a disciplinary court sentenced a platoon commander - the polite lieutenant from the APC - to 35 days in prison and gave the operations sergeant, who ordered one of the soldiers to open fire, a suspended sentence of 21 days in prison. The soldier who did the shooting was not tried. The IDF stated that the investigation had turned up two hitches: one by the operations sergeant, who had failed to update the company commander and the positions in the sector about the movement of the taxi, and the second by the company commander, who had been in the APC and had ordered the taxi to proceed west. Not a word about the shooting.

Colonel Hefetz, the brigade commander, explained that the road we were on was “sterile” - no vehicles of any kind were allowed on it. Are we to understand from this that his soldiers, who were guarding the road, had become automatons? If not, what went through the mind of the soldier from the Paratroop Brigade who so easily gave the order to open fire at the passengers in an Israeli taxi? And what went through the mind of the paratrooper who carried out the order, as he stood in his armored guard post, not facing any sort of mortal or other danger, certainly not from a car that was inching its way forward, and fired bullet after bullet into it in single-shot sequence?

Do the soldiers give any thought to the people on whom they fire, with the intent to kill, without prior warning, and thus offhandedly seal their fate? Maybe they are Israelis? Maybe they are Palestinians who got lost? Maybe the car is carrying a dying child to a hospital? Maybe there is a woman in labor in the car? Are they all to be condemned to automatic death? Has this incident bothered the soldiers since it happened, or did they again take refuge in the excuse of the true dangers they face, to the point where they think of nothing else? How many times have they done this in the past, and will do so in the future, without any reason - open fire at innocent Palestinians in cars that do not have bulletproof windshields?