Dr. David Zangen is a 50-year-old Pediatric Endocrinology specialist at the Hadasa Ein-Karem hospital in Jerusalem. He finished his reserve service five years ago, but still volunteers to serve during emergencies. In 2002, he was called in to take part in Operation Defensive Shield in the Jenin Refugee Camp and was stationed with the Armored Corps 5th Brigade. In that time, he was faced with life-and-death decisions concerning the lives of his friends. Today, he agreed to share his experience from the operation — and how he stood up against the lies told about it.
Dr. David Zangen today.
Where did you serve during Operation Defensive Shield?
I was called to join my reserves brigade during the operation in the Jenin Refugee Camp, which is where the deadliest terror attacks came from.
The government decided to start Operation Defensive Shield due to the incessant suicide bombings in Israel. Jenin was home to the most dangerous terrorists. They knew about the operation and booby-trapped the area of the camp before we arrived. We also knew about their readiness and were prepared for a difficult battle.
How was the atmosphere in Israel prior to the Operation? What was the feeling among the fighting soldiers?
Most of the forces that fought with us were from reserve battalions. That means most of them were called up from home; they weren’t active duty. We were called up during Passover, which was difficult, because we all wanted to spend the holiday with our families. But of course we all reported for duty. There was a feeling among all of us that the terror must be stopped.
The atmosphere is Israel was very stressful. People were scared. It was hard to live in Israel at the time — you couldn’t visit a coffee shop or ride the bus because of the chance of being killed by a suicide bomber.
How long did the fighting last? How did you experience Operation Defensive Shield?
It took us nine days of nonstop work to clear Jenin of terrorists, because we used a system of door-to-door fighting and warned the residents of every house before we attacked. The fight was dangerous, because the enemy could ambush us when we entered each house. We went into the fight knowing the price for us would be high.
It was tough going, even though most of Jenin’s residents left the area before we arrived. Instead of there being about 13,000 people in the area, only 1,300 were waiting for us — most of them terrorists and collaborators. We knew that we would suffer many casualties and injuries.
How many losses did you suffer?
By the end of the operation we suffered the loss of 23 soldiers, and another 75 injured. 13 of the casualties were killed on the same day. This was when we arrived toward the center of the camp, where the terrorists were entrenched. They ambushed us. The evacuation of the dead and injured was difficult, since we fought in narrow alleyways, and some of our injured died during the evacuation.
How was it for you, as the brigade’s doctor?
With every soldier I couldn’t save, I felt like I was failing, because I couldn’t do anything for him. Moreover, when you’re in the reserves, you’re familiar with most of the people you treat; you understand what their death would mean.
On the same day that 13 soldiers were killed, three of the bodies were abducted by the terrorists. Soldiers from Sayeret Matkal and Shayetet entered different buildings in order to search for the bodies, and they could have easily been killed. It wasn’t easy for me, seeing those guys go and knowing they might not come back for the sake of dead bodies. Eventually the bodies were found unattended by the Shayetet soldiers and no one got hurt.
Did you learn anything from participating in Operation Defensive Shield?
I realized that it was an important and decisive battle. I knew that we were conveying a message: that even though the IDF (Zahal) had to pay a great price, it would do so in order to defend Israel.
There was a point where we didn’t have the ability to effectively fight in Palestinian cities, but we did it anyway, realizing that we could dramatically reduce the number of suicide bombings inside Israel that way.
The operation was very moral, and it made the terrorists realize that they can’t beat Israel through terrorism. They resorted to lies instead.
What do you mean by ‘resorted to lies’?
During the operation, we made a point to leave the hospital in Jenin unharmed so that injured people would be able to receive medical treatment. Whenever we passed by it snipers on the roof shot at us, but we didn’t fire a single bullet back at them.
Despite that, the people who were there at the time told the media that we killed 16,000 people — even though there were only 54 casualties — and that we shut off the hospital’s electricity. This lie drew a lot of harsh criticism from international organizations and news agencies.
A few months after the operation, Mohammed Bakri was about to release the movie ‘Jenin Jenin’, which projected many lies. A member of an Israeli bereaved family called me and asked me to try talk to a cinema manager in Jerusalem who was about to screen the film, and ask him to reconsider.
The manager called me and invited me to watch the film and give her my personal opinion. I came to the cinema and watched the movie, which was filled with lies. She still decided to screen the film, but invited me to stay and speak when the movie was over. I agreed. When I arrived, Mohammed Bakri was on stage and telling the audience that the reason he created the film was to show both sides of the conflict in order to promote peace.
Then I got up on the stage, told him and the audience who I was, and told him that the things he put in his movie never happened. The audience got upset, yelled at me that I was a child murderer and took the microphone from my hands. It was a tough moment for me. That’s why whenever I can, I fight to spread the truth.
You finished your reserves service five years ago, and now you only serve in emergencies. How would you summarize your time in the IDF (Zahal)?
For me, being a reserve soldier is not a duty or a burden — it’s a privilege.