Excerpt for Powder Keg by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Oren Or Bittoun

Translated from Hebrew by Ines Ehrlich

Powder Keg

Smashwords 2018

Copyright © 2018 by Oren Or Bittoun

All rights reserved.

This book may not be reproduced in whole or in part, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, or other without written permission from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review.

Table of Contents


Words by Danny Yatom


PART ONE A Backpack Full of Sand

Chapter 1 No Way

Chapter 2 Hot Spot

Chapter 3 Wherever I go

Chapter 4 Point of No Return

Chapter 5 Nightmare

Chapter 6 A Lone Bullet

Chapter 7 A Bullet in the Chamber

Chapter 8 The Stink of Hell

PART TWO Post-Trauma

Chapter 9 Out of the Fog

Chapter 10 The Noise

Chapter 11 A Red Light

Chapter 12 Something’s Not Right

Chapter 13 Powder Keg

Chapter 14 The Lofty Hairstylist

Chapter 15 Because of who I am

Chapter 16 This is the Place

Chapter 17 Count Down

Chapter 18 Without Saying a Word

Chapter 19 In Two Voices



Chapter 20 From the Abyss to the Summit


Chapter 21 On Guard

Chapter 22 On the Contrary

Chapter 23 You are the Spectators

Chapter 24 A Never Ending Story

PART THREE The Ghost Knights

Chapter 25 The Discourse

Chapter 26 The Ghosts


Connecting the Soul


I would like begin by thanking my wife Sharon and my dear family. My parents, who are no longer with us, my sisters, my brothers and my children – Ofek, Stav, Yonatan and Rafael. I have been and will always remain by your side.

Special thanks go to my brothers in arms - the combat soldiers of the Border Guard Brigade Counter-Terrorism Unit in the West Bank, which has become my second home. It is by your grace that the citizens of Israel are able to sleep soundly and in peace.

I would also like to acknowledge the combat soldiers who unconditionally stand in the line of fire, the bereaved families, and the close friends who encouraged me to publish this book and supported me throughout the difficult journey.

Many thanks go to my business and professional partners – Gali and Kobi Ben Haim, with whom our fates have become entwined over the years, becoming one large family.

A special thanks goes to Avi Rahamim who guided and assisted me throughout the writing of this book.

Many thanks go to Professor Henia Shanon-Klein for her insights, her personal approach to my story, and her close guidance throughout this journey.

From the depths of my heart I would like to thank my brother in arms, Ofer Bar Yehuda, the former unit psychologist, who is always there for my family and me and for his support of my comrades in arms.

I would like to thank the interviewees, some of whom fought side by side with me in battle. I’d also like to extend my gratitude to Danny Yatom, Major General (reserve), former Head of the Israeli Central Command and head of the Mossad for lending a sympathetic ear, supporting and encouraging me throughout the writing of this book.

I would like to thank my friend Guy Zachs for managing the translation of this book and for his media consultation. And finally, many thanks are due to Ines Ehrlich for translating this book into English.

Words by Danny Yatom

Oren Or Bittoun served as a military combat soldier and an officer in the Border Guard Brigade Counter-Terrorism Unit, The Mista’aravim, that operated in the West Bank during his service. Oren and many other soldiers of this special unit took part in numerous counter-terrorism operations against those responsible for carrying out attacks that have killed and maimed many innocent Israeli citizens.

In his book Oren recounts his battlefield experiences. In one of these battles, the unit’s most loved and admired commanding officer, Superintendent Eli Avram, RIP was killed in front of him while leading an attack on a building in Jenin where two arch-terrorists were hiding out.

Oren, who served in the unit, describes the battles and the terrible experiences he witnessed and which resulted in combat related Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or shell shock. He courageously describes the disorder and his experiences coping with the severe trauma. I knew Eli, Oren and many of the unit’s soldiers and commanders personally. These combat soldiers' contribution to the fight against terror in the West Bank is incalculable, and their dangerous and daring operations have saved countless lives.

The value of this book lies not only in its legacy but also in its educational value. It tells the story of young combat soldiers who lay down their lives time and again, volunteering and fighting to safeguard our citizens, something they view as their moral obligation.

This wonderful group of men work tirelessly day and night to ensure the safety of the public at large, and are motivated each new day by the love of Israel and the love of its people.

This book and story herein will hopefully inspire and motivate the younger generation to join the ranks of the IDF's combat units, and make a significant contribution during their own military service.


Major General (res.) Danny Yatom,

Former Head of Israeli Central Command and

Head of Mossad


The book Powder Keg was first published in Israel in 2017 and quickly became a best seller. Since its release, I have been touring the country with the book giving lectures and inspiring people with my story and the way I coped with my post-trauma – and I could have sufficed with that, but I am not built that way. Post-trauma and its destructive impact resulting from military service is not restricted to Israel’s borders alone.

I couldn’t ignore the suffering of my fellow comrades in arms around the world, particularly those in the US, where Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is more prominent and claims the lives of thousands of veterans each year.

US army veterans who fought in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan while defending their country throughout the years, and the ongoing war against terrorists who have pledged to make us live in fear by undermining security and public order, have created an insufferable reality for many army vets. For them, the war is not yet over despite having long since hung up their boots.

My comrades in arms and I swore to never give up, and to continue the fight against terror. Just as the US army vets and the international coalition fighters risked their lives for this heroic cause, we too are prepared to lay down our lives. Irrespective of this decision, citizens and decision makers (the government, parliament or congress) must not forget the vets who returned from battle with either physical or emotional wounds.

We cannot ignore the high suicide rate prevalent among post-traumatic US army vets. The Justice for Vets organization in the US has reported that the official number of US veterans who commit suicide each day as a result of post-trauma stands at 22. A recent CNN report claimed that the numbers are even higher and are closer to 30 suicides a day!

A simple calculation shows that around 8,000 to 11,000 army vets commit suicide each year. Taking into account that 20% of roughly 3,000,000 American soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last decade-and-a-half are suffering from PTSD inflicted during their military service, we arrive at the staggering number of 600,000 PTSD victims in the US alone, of whom only a minority are recognized and treated.

It is my belief that this is the real war; this is the battleground that not only claims lives and affects veterans’ mental health, but also impacts the lives of a vet's family, their surroundings and their community. This is a family struggle that includes the children, friends, and families from among the close circles of every veteran who has slipped under the system’s radar. The commanding officers, the decision makers and the establishment couldn’t see what was happening to the souls of those who were sent to battle under their orders.

These vets carry with them the unbearable images of friends who fell in battle before their eyes (like myself). These are sights that the human soul can’t take without them becoming etched deep within, without relief from re-living the events over and over again in a cruel and never ending cycle.

Until quite recently, we were labeled as “crazy” or “insane”. However, shell shocked soldiers returning from war are not crazy, and PTSD is not a mental disorder. Soldiers have been sent to psychiatric wards and treated with psychiatric drugs, which have done nothing but take them out of the cycle of life nor treat the basic disorder that has impeded their lives.

It is known today that people suffering from PTSD can lead normal lives as long as they are counseled and treated professionally, the type of treatment I started receiving 16 years after being discharged from the army. Yes, I was also one of those who slipped unnoticed under the radar.

Today, I am leading a normal life with a terrific career and family because I agreed to take the proper treatment. My story is one of triumph, of choosing life, a story of living alongside a wonderful wife and children who shower me with endless love and warmth.

Coping with my PTSD wasn’t easy nor was it instantaneous, it was more like a roller coaster with steep climbs and even steeper falls. It’s my story. I am sure you will find something familiar with your own experiences in this book; whether you know someone suffering from post-trauma or whether you are struggling with PSTD yourself, for whatever reason.

I hope that my story will inspire you to better cope with your PTSD, or that of someone’s close to you. I want to find these lost vets, who returned home from war but for whom the battle is not yet over.

I believe in three winning principles for successfully treating military post-trauma: locating PTSD victims in real time, therapy, and the counselling and rehabilitation of victims and their families. Only after implementing these three principles can the hundreds or thousands of vets who have returned from battle with emotional scars be able to live a full and normal life, without sensing a loss of control, abandonment, helplessness, repression and betrayal. These emotions are all too common among families of military veterans struggling with PSTD, wherever they may be.

This book which was originally written in Hebrew has now been translated into English and will be translated into additional languages in the future. I have made it my life’s mission to prevent the next military vet’s suicide as a result of post-trauma. PTSD is not a contagious disease and it can be fought successfully!

I would like to convey my thanks to the readers joining me on this important voyage and by doing so, raising awareness of the issue. Together we’ll minimize the rate of suicides as a result of PTSD. In the Jewish scriptures it proclaims: “Anyone who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world." Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5.

Together let’s work to save as many lives as we can!

Chapter 1
No Way

As we approach Al-Manara Square we do our best to avoid attracting attention. The unit is patrolling the area in a military jeep like ordinary IDF soldiers, dressed in our border guard uniforms. Maintaining no eye contact, we avoid recognition; this is our territory, the turf where we operate. Recognition can be dangerous or even fatal in a confrontation. Driving around like this in the heart of the village once made my heart pound, but I’ve become immune, and I’m unafraid.

Back to base, we take time out from the patrols. Eli Avram, the unit commander, summons me to his office. I look into his serious, penetrating eyes. This is no tough guy act, or military power distance culture. I know that look. I take a quick look at the commander’s desk and spot a request for a field operation. I’ll go blindly wherever he asks me, assured of his leadership, knowing full well he’ll do what it takes to keep us safe.

“We’ve been tipped off that a high level meeting is about to take place between top wanted terrorists in the vicinity of the Bir Zeit University,” Eli updates me.

Carrying out a military operation near a school or university could blow our cover and the situation could easily spin out of control. “It’ll be a highly sensitive and hostile operation,” I tell him, “it has to be targeted and carried out discreetly.”

“That’s why we’ve been chosen,” he replies, “we can do it, no matter how difficult, with no casualties on our side.”

We scan the maps and reference points to get an idea of what we’re up against, examining how to tackle the mission. I take a look at the map and realize that the operation will call for a complex military deployment, complete with helicopter support and several vehicles. It’s way too much, I think, and we’ll be exposed from the get-go. From my time serving in the unit in the West Bank, I know what we’re up against. These are hostile terrorists of the worst kind, fighters who have nothing to lose. Their goal is to hit us hard. Their dream is to be struck by a bullet and die a martyr.

“We could roll out the Almanat Kash protocol, and quietly take over the building at midnight along with sniper cover.” I suggest. “We can then wait it out until early morning and take full control of the area.”

“Negative”, Eli replies, “We have to operate as a consolidated force, utilizing our power to shake them up and force them to respond. My goal is to paralyze them and cripple their ability to retaliate. We’ll have everything we need for the operation, Oren. My brief will include a specific order – not to kill. There will be innocent students within range of the operation. Sound judgment is mandatory. The rules of engagement won’t change; we keep to General Staff orders, a minimum of unnecessary casualties.”

From here on, every detail is crucial. Eli answers each question to make sure we all understand the scope of the operation and the heavy responsibility we carry. He takes out the list provided by the security service field intel, listing the names of the wanted terrorists. This top level meeting is likely to be the only opportunity to surprise them and take them in. We set the time and the countdown begins - 0100 hours the next day.

On the night of the operation we are withdrawn, each caught up in his own thoughts. We bat around likely scenarios which could result in a successful operation. One team brings up examples of past operations that ended successfully; perhaps we should adopt similar elements for this one. “I know what we should do”, Eli suddenly mutters. He has an idea. “Just before zero hour,” he says, “we’ll get into a local truck wearing our IDF uniforms.”

“Ok”, I say “go on.” In the middle of summer, the truck will turn into a furnace, I think to myself, as I feel the clamminess of the humidity in my hands. Think out of the box! I recall the saying, ‘routine is the greatest enemy’. We’ve carried out numerous operations, sometimes dressed as women, sometimes as street vendors, and we've blended in among the locals and adopted their mannerisms. A local truck…ok, it might just work, I think to myself.

The plan for the operation is approved. At dawn we set out to find a suitable truck. Locating such a vehicle and commandeering it is no simple matter – only able to be carried out in the early hours of the morning when the streets are empty, and an easy escape route is within reach. We reach the center of Ramallah just before 0600 hours and spot an old truck. We get out of our vehicle and move towards it quickly. One of the squad members hotwires the truck, grips the steering wheel and drives it back to base. Later we're briefed on how to get in and out of the truck as well as on other critical details of the operation. The tension is high, knowing we’re about to enter a crowded university campus full of civilians, along with a handful of terrorists. Extreme caution is called for when civilians are in range. A few minutes before our departure, the mood is tense but determined. Our team is ready for action, come what may. We are ready to take down our targets, and do whatever it takes. Our hearts are pounding heavily, our bodies are drenched in sweat. The unit remains quiet, our eyes fixed on Eli who is putting on his gear. He goes over the equipment, making sure that none of us have forgotten anything; he checks our weapons and ammo. He also affirms our spirits and motivation, calming agitated nerves. The madness is yet to come, the inevitable skirmishes, the shootouts. We’ll be dealing with a high-risk situation before the terrorists’ surrender, before we can return to base safely and prepare for our next operation.

We set out on the route leading to Bir Zeit. The truck driver and commander sit up front. The route is bumpy and we can feel the contours of the underlying road in our bodies. Huddled together in the back, it’s hot and suffocating, and the old exhaust pipe fills our lungs with ash. Again, I go over the idea of entering Ramallah in a truck. Did we really need this risky adventure? Despite the danger, we’ve always carried out our assignments willingly. I speak to Eli on the field radio. The rescue team, zone brigade commander and secret service are ready for action. We wait for the order ‘Prok’, engage, the code word calling us to action. Eli is on the radio: “Abir 215. Abir 215 here. Five minutes to target.”

“Acknowledged.” Petrol fumes from the old exhaust pipe fill the storage compartment of the truck. Eli lowers his head and vomits from the pressure, coughing to the point of nearly choking.

The truck stops near Ramallah University and Eli and B jump out. B goes to the back of the truck and gives the orders. Eli opens up the compartment and shouts the order “Prok”. I leap out with my men. We engage while running, sealing off all the entrances and exits on campus. In seconds we surround the campus and take full control of our positions.

Moments later we hear a loud scream “Gish! Gish! Gish!” Heavy fire opens up in our direction. I return fire and hit the target, and the firing stops. Suddenly chaos erupts. Ten meters away from me, I spot a young man clambering over the campus wall trying to escape. I run towards him, tackle him and hold him down. Eli joins me and together we drag the terrorist to the extraction vehicle. The team reports over the radio that more of our targets are trying to escape over the wall. Fortunately, we are able to catch up with them, handcuff and bring them back to the vehicle.

From this point onwards the situation resumes a familiar pattern. The intense activity makes the locals unruly. Calls of Allahhu Ahkbar pierce the air as shots are fired towards us. Rocks and Molotov cocktails hurl our way. The locals' motivation to retaliate is at a peak. The security forces working alongside us call out to the terrorists to surrender by megaphone, and eventually a number of them file out of the complex, hands in the air. Next, the breaching unit deploys into the building using tear gas and other non-lethal means to disperse the crowds. Quickly we manage to take control of the situation. The security personnel reports that identified terrorists have been spotted hiding amongst the crowd. Scouring the area, we collect large amounts of weapons, ammunition and rifles ready for use.

The operation ends well, with zero casualties. Operating side by side with the security forces fills us with pride. No one is able to accomplish what we can, I think to myself. Our ability to immerse ourselves among the local population, maneuvering and using improvisational skills, the ability to identify targets in the field, with calculated yet effective use of weapons – we are professionals and we carried out a sterile operation without a hitch. Following the operation, we are showered with praise by the brigade commander and others. The first phase in preventing an attack is capturing the suspect, which then paves the way for an interrogation by the secret service. Birds start singing after being captured, and every suspect knows it.

Back at the base I scrub myself clean in the shower. An odor lingers from the truck, and the stink of petrol makes me nauseous. My team is exhausted, staring blankly at the ceiling from their bunks. The adrenalin is still running high, and images race back and forth until sleep takes over. It’s hard to unwind after such an operation. We succeeded in preventing an attack by capturing the terrorists in hostile territory, I think to myself. Analyzing each step of the operation in my mind, every detail, I try to summarize what we accomplished as a team, evaluating I how each of us performed and what each contributed during those critical moments. Even the toughest soldiers can lose it. There’s no way of knowing who might suffer an anxiety attack, and you can’t blame any of them. Looking in from the outside I want to be tough and look out for my comrades in arms. Over time and through experience, I developed layers of psychological defenses. I know how to deal with the difficulties, both during and after an operation. There’s no way I would break, nor let fear or weakness take hold. I would never let that happen. The unit’s activities leave me no choice. To be a counter-terrorism operative is to give consent, it’s a commitment that calls for targets to be met in full, in every possible scenario. To be a counter-terrorism operative is to join a collective, to create circles of defenses in every situation, to look out for one another, and you can’t do it alone. In a few hours we’ll be on our feet again. I just hope we won’t have to take another ride in that truck I think to myself, as my eyes slowly begin to dim. Those fumes made it difficult to breath. In just a few days I’ll be going home for the weekend, to recover and gain strength for the next operation. I miss my mom, who has no idea what I do. How can one explain to a mother the experience of being a counter-terrorism operative? How does one explain the unit’s concept and what is expected of it? Disguised or not, I fight terrorists to win! A jumble of thoughts bounced through my mind, and after a few more moments of wakefulness sleep takes me.

Chapter 2
Hot Spot

It’s a wet and stormy night in the middle of winter and the Palestinian city of Jenin is shrouded in darkness. On base in my bunk, I’m trying to sleep. The silence throughout the rooms puts me on edge. I listen to the sounds of thunder and rain. I think of S. S is a young security operative who was sent to escort a gas tanker to a gas station in the heart of Jenin. Suddenly a piercing shout cuts through my thoughts. “Everyone to the vehicles! This is not a drill! This is not a drill!” Without a moment’s hesitation, I leap out of my bunk and immediately look around to get a sense on what’s going on, to understand why the entire team has been put on immediate alert or ‘Hakpatza’. Cutting through the noise, someone says that S, the security operative escorting the tanker had been shot, his weapon seized and the attackers got away. The reports are coming in fast and they don’t sound good.

Boarding the Sufa army jeep in full gear, we make our way to the petrol station located at the southern exit of Jenin. The position of the petrol station is strategically problematic. Effective combat techniques are compromised in areas where hilly terrain line both sides of the route. Driving through alleyways, the rain has left dangerous puddles. Our driver grips the steering wheel, keeping his foot on the gas pedal despite the harsh weather. My thoughts begin to spin, and I wonder what action we can expect to take after arriving at the hot spot. How will we capture the terrorist? Nothing will stop us, that’s a personal promise. It’s our pledge and the responsibility we have to one another.

The vehicle screeches to an abrupt halt at the entrance of the gas station. The area is filled with knee-high flood water. We exit the jeep weapons drawn, quickly scouring the surrounding area. We look up, down, and sideways, in every direction that can serve as a potential hiding spot. Carefully we make our way to the petrol pumps. In single file we trudge through the murky water impeding our progress. I am the third in line as we make our way silently through the sea of water sloshing around our feet. Suddenly the first soldier in the line disappears, completely submerged. “S where are you? What’s happening?” we call out, reaching through the water, fumbling to find him. From somewhere deep inside the ground, E suddenly grabs our squad mate’s arm and yanks hard, trying to pull him out. I join him. I feel a hand underwater, grip it hard and help E pull him up. Wrenching him out, I see the open sewage hole into which he’d been suctioned. Fortunately, S had managed to jam his rifle horizontally, which saved him from slipping through the open hole. His weapon prevented him from being swallowed up into the disgusting pit, part of Jenin’s sewage system. The rescue effort took 30 seconds, an eternity in an emergency situation. We almost lost one of our fighters in an instant, I think to myself. If it hadn’t been for the pouring rain, we would have seen the opening right away, and avoided the incident altogether. We could have been spared the unnecessary anxiety. It was a foolish incident, I think to myself. If it hadn’t been for the non-stop rain, we’d have seen the open hole and could have avoided it. Bad luck. On the other hand, we have saved a life even before starting our mission.

We reach the site, our hot spot. It is here that S was assaulted and killed. “Damn terrorist surprised him from behind and shot him at point blank with an improvised weapon,” D, the regional secret service coordinator informs us. As we are briefed on the incident, I’m scanning the surroundings and notice a house near the lower part of the hill on the roadside. I decide to search the building, taking two squad members with me. Before setting off I glance down at S’s body lying on the soggy ground - covered in a sheet, it breaks my heart.

I run towards the house with no clue of what we might find. Making our way to the front door, we break into the house and carefully examine every corner. The house is empty except for an old woman; her expression is one of surprise and apparent suffering. I feel a wave of compassion towards the old lady. Taking a final look, I turn to the exit and leave the house. After scouring every millimeter, I don't see the need to continue my search.

We return to the jeep, confused by the incident. We’re heading back to base for an updated briefing, to examine possible scenarios and to explore the options for resuming control. We’re soaked to the bone, and in shock at the loss of S, a security operative who lost his life carrying out an essential role. A terrorist shot him in the back, giving him no chance of defending himself, I think to myself. A single bullet ripped through his chest. S died instantly and the attacker seized his weapon and disappeared into the densely populated village. We sit silently in the Jeep on this fatal night. We’ll get our hands on that terrorist, whatever it takes, I think. He’ll be interrogated and we’ll extract vital intelligence from him, which will be used to prevent further attacks. We arrive at the base exhausted and disappointed, still without getting our hands on the attacker.

Two days later the secret service coordinator calls us in for a briefing on the profile of the terrorists. During the extensive discussion, we see his photo, learn his first name and the location of his home where he lives with his wife. I summon Y to prepare the team for a major field operation. We’ll get him, dead or alive. My mind is set that we will bring him down and justice will be served.

My thoughts run ahead of me. We have the intel and I’m sure we’ll get him and neutralize him in seconds. A few minutes later we have our gear on and the team is ready to exit the base. A final briefing is given just prior to deployment, heading deep into the refugee camp of Jenin. Officer N and I divide the team up into a breaching force and a closing force. The close-off force will set up camp in a nearby building. In an analysis of the aerial views, N and I identify a problem. The terrorists’ home is attached to another, much wider house. We’ll need to deploy more broadly. We decide to split up and seal the adjacent building at the entry point of the terrorist’s home. It’ll be a tactical surprise maneuver. No one will notice we’re coming until we’re upon them.

The team boards the camouflaged vehicles and exits the base. It’s almost 0230 hours. We drive through the camp’s narrow alleyways slowly, headlamps switched off. Sitting in silence, we concentrate on the task ahead, set on achieving our goal just as we have many times before. We’ll hunt that damn terrorist down and bring him to justice, and I’m primed. We stop at a distance of roughly 300 meters from the target destination. Disembarking and walking quietly on the path leading up to the building, I know these are critical moments. There’s a smell of smoke in the air, the smell of death, and the sound of barking dogs lingers in the background. The adrenalin rush is high and our hearts are pounding. We are ready. Wearing our local civilian outfits, we advance confidently. I move quickly, with the last image I have of S before my eyes. I see how he lay there at the gas station, shot in the back with his face turned into the ground. He was attacked from behind, with no chance to defend himself. Filled with anger, I swear to myself that I will not give up until I get that terrorist.

Twenty meters from the target’s home, N, the breaching force commander, continues towards the building to make sure it is hermetically sealed. At the same time, I as the closing force commander stand prepared with my weapon drawn - aiming towards the darkened window on the second floor. “Authorized for action” I radio in. N and the breaching force are standing in front of the heavy iron door at the entrance of the house. Upon N’s order, K kicks it open forcefully. The team quickly enters and makes contact with the terrorist inside. He is lying in bed next to his wife, naked. Jumping out of bed he faces the team, standing by the window with a gun drawn. Shouting Allah Ahkbar he cocks his gun and takes aim at the team. N and K quickly come to their senses and fire a round of bullets into his upper body. Completely naked, the terrorist topples out of the second floor window, landing with a thump at my feet below.

For a moment there is silence, and then the man’s wife screams hysterically and uncontrollably, wailing at her loss. Down below, the terrorist’s face is turned towards the ground – where it belongs after what he did, I think to myself. He got what he deserves. Looking around me to make sure I am secure, I notice one of his legs shaking. I ask E to cover me. E gets on the radio and updates command that a terrorist is down, a vegetable, as we call it in military code. I turn him over and his breathing is labored and heavy. I ask him in Arabic, Shu Asmak? He whispers his name. “Bingo,” I inform the command over the radio. The terrorist who killed S has been eliminated. His breathing stops. Hardouf, I say.

N and the breaching force search the building and find S’s personal weapon, the one seized during the ambush. The squad also finds additional ammo, ready for use.

The murderer is no longer with us, and a good thing too, I think to myself. Even before setting out on the operation, I was confident we would capture and neutralize him. He will no longer pose a threat to anyone, anywhere. “Another X marked on the list of wanted persons,” I confide to E, “another terrorist with blood on his hands has been eliminated.”

We hoist the terrorist and lay his limp body inside the vehicle. Blood drips onto my legs as we make our way out of the dark alleyways, driving back to base with his dead body inside the closed vehicle. Despite my assurance he was a terrorist, the sight of a dead man is not easy to digest - it’s brutal. I feel his blood dripping onto me, but I do what is expected of me - I stay in control, showing no trace of emotion. After the high of the operation, those moments before the kill, face to face with the terrorist, comes a sense of uncontrollable, unfiltered disgust, and I am crashing.

Arriving at the base, my boots are covered in the terrorist’s blood. The odor reaches my nostrils, and I can hear the sound of his voice choking, seconds before taking his last breath and mumbling his name. I just want to get in the shower and scrub off the filth, to leave no trace behind.

We did our job. The operation ended successfully. We are the trusted, experienced combat soldiers trained to eliminate terror. Not all of it, and not forever, but at the end of the day we exacted a high price from the other side. After the shower there’s a sense of accomplishment, and the adrenalin runs high again as the unit unwinds after a hot military operation. As the images are re-run in my mind, my pulse begins to race, and I analyze every second of the operation. The squad is exhausted but content. I know they wanted more, as if what they had just experienced wasn’t enough. Tough and invincible, they are ready for another round, to give it their all. I lay back in my bunk and observe them, thinking these men are heroes, every one of them. I could blindly put my trust in every one of these guys. The bond between us has been proven over and over. Our ability to function as a team moves me, but the heavy loss of S fills me with rage. The terrorist, I console myself, can no longer do any harm. It’s almost morning. I need to get some sleep between one operation and the next, between past and present.

Chapter 3
Wherever I go

I’m a mischievous kid, full of energy, curious and sensitive. I love playing with my friends. I came into the world at 05:50 on the morning of October 5, 1971 at the Kiriya Hospital in Tel Aviv. I am the youngest of the Bittoun family, a brother to five boys and three girls. Life is full of curiosity and adventure. It’s a world that needs exploring and understanding. I love probing life’s hidden secrets, and by the end of the day I’m usually exhausted but happily content.

I am three years old when we move from the Neveh Sharet neighborhood of Tel Aviv to the Ramat Hashikma neighborhood in Ramat Gan, just a few miles away. There’s an open door culture in the household, mutual worries, but warmth all around. The grownups are a source of comfort wherever I go.

My father was born in Oran, Algeria, and my mother in Casablanca, Morocco. Dad moved to Israel when he was 29, and Mom at 16. They met in Israel and got married. They are so warm and loving. They pass on to their children the love and heritage of Israel by recounting the stories of the Meoraot, the bloody clashes between Jews and Arabs during the British Mandate. They speak in simple terms about the geopolitics of the Middle East, and explain what we can learn from these events. Making a living is a struggle for both of them. Mom is handicapped but despite her physical disability, she cleans houses and delivers milk in the early hours of the morning, riding a tricycle. She helps elderly people at a nursing home in an effort to make ends meet and to feed us. God forbid she deny us anything. Dad is a maintenance worker in a heating element factory. At night I listen to my parents discussing their financial hardships. They set priorities for buying food and clothes. I sense the hardship. I keep this information to myself and don’t share it with my siblings. I don’t interfere and don’t want to embarrass them.

Socially I’m a leader at school. “Oren, you are a charismatic child with leadership skills,” I am told by my elders. I influence and make decisions for other kids. My schoolmates are always eager to hear my opinion on soccer, basketball, judo and the scouts. I am not an easy learner; I find it difficult to sit in class and listen to my teachers for hours on end, or to take an active part in the classroom. I am in the “special needs” group, under the school principal’s charge. I carry out various assignments during the day. They keep me occupied, which is part of the school’s effort to keep me on the school curriculum. I do odd jobs in the garden, watering, weeding, and raking leaves; I rinse off the school yard and playground. They give me cleaning jobs, always cleaning. I empty out trash cans, thinking “what a job the principal’s office has given me”, but hey, at least I’m contributing to the environment.

The family’s financial situation affects me. I look at my friends in their new sneakers showing off in class. I look at myself, with almost nothing. Visiting friends’ homes I am filled with envy. Their houses are grand, with pools in their backyards and everything spic and span. They go on vacations and brag about their flights and trips abroad. I think about our situation and the hardship of providing for the household. I always feel different, like an outsider. If only I too could also go abroad and discover new countries, spend time with my parents and experience life like my friends do. I dream of the day when we too would have a grand house with a gigantic pool, and a big yard where I could invite friends and family. Our apartment is very small and modest, just three-and-a-half rooms. My parents were given the apartment by the state at a very low cost.

I leave for school without a lunchbox. I stop off at our local grocer and ask him to charge my good’s to my mother’s account. I often buy a milk chocolate drink and a bread roll so I won’t go hungry. At the end of the month when Mom gets her state allowance, she’ll pay off the debt. The facts of life affect me, and it’s a cruel reality.

Our neighbors are Iraqis, Persian, Ashkenazi Jews and Yemenites, a wonderful mix of people. We are the only Moroccan family in the apartment building. Each Friday before the Sabbath, my mom visits a different neighbor and exchanges dishes so that we, her children, can experience the foods of other cultures. The family gathers around the Sabbath table for Friday night Kiddush, a blessing over wine and a family event I look forward to all week. It’s a time for us to be together as we listen to Dad reciting the Shabbat prayers.

In my first year of high school, I attend a special day school for underprivileged children which includes a hot lunch. The choice of menu, unfortunately, is not mine. My course of study is welding, but I don’t like the place. I don’t like the welding nor do I like the kids studying with me. My mother makes an extra effort and manages to buy me a bike, a BMX model. At the end of the school day, I ride my bike to Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, to a small delivery office, where I work in the afternoons delivering letters. I give my wages to my mom to help with the household expenses. I graduate the ninth grade despite the hardships, and with my mom’s recommendation and support, I move to another school in Tel Aviv.

In tenth grade I enroll in a hairstyling course, but a few months after the start of the school year I drop out, sensing my teacher dislikes like me. One morning leading up to my withdrawal she decided to throw me out, without warning. I am a problematic child and I disrupt the class. “Nothing will come of this kid,” she tells my mom, without mincing words. The school principal supports the teacher and adds, “For all I care let him roam the streets, perhaps he’ll be more successful there.” I drop out and have no desire to go back.

My mother decides that I should continue studying hairstyling, and searches for another place where I can learn the profession. I find myself in a private school studying hairstyling during the week without knowledge that this will wind up as my lifelong profession. In the afternoons, I interned at different hair salons as an assistant in return for customer tips. I am content with my work.

At fifteen-and-a-half, my brothers Ilan and Mottie have joined the police force, while my brothers Meir and Yossi join patrols as police volunteers. They look like tough, hardened warriors with their uniforms and weapons. I ask to join my brother on a patrol one evening and we cruise the neighborhood in a police van. What a wonderful feeling it is to be with my brother the cop, catching the bad guys, the thieves of the neighborhood. The radio keeps issuing orders, reports and updates to the policemen on the beat. I listen quietly, peering out the window onto the streets as we cruise by. During the rest of my free time, I volunteer at the fire station in Ramat Gan. The path to developing my combat instincts has begun.

My father is diagnosed with cancer and suffers several heart attacks. He undergoes many treatments and is prescribed medication. Mother dedicates herself to his care. I watch her, a nurse of sorts, caring unconditionally for Dad. His two illnesses combined with chemotherapy complicate matters, and soon his movement is restricted. Our apartment is on the third floor and climbing the stairs is a struggle. He stays at home bedridden and unable to work. As his health deteriorates, he becomes more and more bitter.

I witness the heart attacks and resuscitations. I am an observer, watching how the physicians save my dad time and again. On my return from school, I kiss his cheek and peer at him searchingly. I want to make sure he feels okay, that he doesn’t need anything. Mother dedicates all her time to him, never leaving his side, day or night. She won’t allow him to be taken to a hospice and cared for by strangers. Contrary to the medical service’s recommendations, she doesn’t quit, but she never neglects us, her children. She takes up various jobs in the early hours of the morning so that she can continue to provide for us. We’ve been taught values, respect for each other and a great love for our country. Mom continues to celebrate the Jewish holidays in our home, modestly but with food and song, so that we don’t feel left out. Father sits at the head of the table, blessing each of us with the holiday or Sabbath blessing. He wishes each of us luck, a blessing for the rest of our lives. In my gut I sense that he is soon to leave us and that’s why he insists on the blessings. Dad doesn’t need to speak, but his expression says it all. Each time I look at him, I understand him clearly. A strong nonverbal communication exists between us. His presence makes me feel good. He is a sensitive and respectful man.

Late one afternoon, I sit with Dad watching a soccer game on TV. It is the Champions Cup Finals, and Maccabee Tel Aviv wins the European Championship. An Israeli team has achieved an international victory. We are jubilant and proud. I kiss him good night and go to bed. In the morning, I leave for school. On my return, a neighbor tells me that dad didn’t feel well and that Mom took him to the hospital. I assume it’s just another attack, knowing Dad is unwell. I imagine he’ll undergo some tests and he’ll be sent home with a prescription. I stay at home with my siblings. By evening I fall asleep on the sofa in the living room. Meanwhile, the hospital calls and asks Mom to come immediately. Dad’s condition is critical. I jump up wide awake to the grim news.

A little while later Mom and my siblings arrive back home, moaning and crying hysterically. “Dad’s dead, dad’s dead.” I shake violently, like never before. I break into little pieces inside.

Dad's funeral is held the next morning. Friends and relatives come to bid him farewell. My father is no longer among the living. My unique, special dad is gone. My siblings and I share rare unified moments together, pledging to try and stay strong and united, and to watch out for one another. We decide to stay together, to care for Mom and make sure she doesn’t feel abandoned for even a moment. To care for her as she cared for Dad until his dying breath. My mom is everything to me. A role model, and I promise myself I will support her unconditionally.

We slowly adjust to losing Dad. It is a difficult period for the entire family, filled with past memories and longing. We have to be strong for each other. We knew the family would never be the same again. Gradually, each of my siblings leaves home to get on with their lives. My sister Aliza marries and moves to the Hadar Yossef neighborhood in Tel Aviv. My brother Yossi meets a Swiss girl, Theodora, and they decide to move to Switzerland and get married. Mottie serves in the police force and Ilan eventually joins him. Meir, Yael and Orna also get married and start their own families.

Mother and I remain at home. I come home after school or from visiting friends and find her in tears, quiet and painful tears. She shares her thoughts and sorrows with me. “Everything has fallen apart Oren. Since your dad passed, everyone has left and gone on with their lives. It’s the right thing to do, but everything is crumbling. Promise me Oren, sweetheart, that we will never be apart, that we’ll remain as we always were, a large and united family. Promise me that we’ll meet during the High Holidays, and when you and your siblings’ children and grandchildren come, we’ll continue Dad’s heritage, God bless him.”

We are left with a sense of emptiness. Tears roll down my cheeks as I watch her sorrow, and listen to her memories of places they visited together, her longing for him. Mother wants to return to the past, where her whole family was intact.

Still at high school, my mom is always on my mind, and I wonder how she is doing. I think of Dad constantly, missing him. I know I must go on despite the colossal loss. I’m still not an adult, but feel I have come a long way. I have been given one of life’s harshest lessons. From this point, things can only get better. There’s no room for failure or frustrations.

I know I am about to be drafted into the IDF. I need to be mature and emotionally strong, carrying a lot of responsibilities, and I know that I have to move on.

Chapter 4
Point of No Return

In the early morning of November 14, 1989, I leave the house for the recruitment center. Drill commands are running through my head, left, right, left right, left right. I have been dreaming of joining the military since I was 15. I take judo classes five times a week, but that’s me, a bit obsessive. I play soccer with the Ha’Koah Ramat Gan team. The physical exertion yields results, my body strengthening and my muscles toned. I take every opportunity to catch the number nine bus to the beach where I fill my school bag with sand and then sprint along the beach. The harder it is, I tell myself, the stronger and more resilient I’ll become. I enjoy training without knowing what is in store for me. Officially I am considered a partial orphan, so military service is not legally mandatory for me. I badger my mom until she agrees to waive her objection to my enlistment.

Left, right, left right. Mom and I take a short bus ride to the recruitment center at Tel Hashomer, outside Tel Aviv. The bus ride isn't long, just a short distance from my home. My spirits are running high. The day has come when I can have my say, carry out orders, whatever they may be. I’ll be a leader, the best there is, the one they’ll point to and say he’s Melach Haaretz, the salt of the earth, one of Israel’s finest, a brave soldier.

I arrive at the recruitment center with a sense of pride. I present my identification card and look around me. I see dozens of young boys, all just as nervous as me. My name is added to the waiting list for the induction process. One of the female soldiers tells me that the selection process will take place inside the camp, and from that point on, each soldier will be dispatched to the unit in which he will serve. My military service will begin from this point onwards. “Copy, over”.

It is a difficult time to part ways with my mom. I am young and I don't understand why she is sobbing on such a happy occasion, sobbing like I had never seen her before. Her body language reveals her emotional state; she is on the verge of hysteria, which affects me deeply. I give her a warm hug, trying to encourage her. “Stay strong, I can take care of myself Mom. Don’t worry. Trust me, I’ll be strong and you’ll be proud of me, you’ll see. I’ll be with you in spirit.”. I try to console her.

“Bittoun, Oren,” my name is announced. I board the bus to the basic training base. Several thoughts run through my mind throughout the journey. What will become of me? Left, right, left, right. I suddenly feel vulnerable despite my physical resilience. I am close to tears. “How soft we are inside” I think to myself. Despite my strong physique, I have a sensitive and vulnerable soul. I’m leaving behind everything I’ve known since birth, and ending the routine of personal training. I’m about to reach new heights and break new ground, all in the name of defending my country.

The bus slows to a stop at the camp. I begin the medical procedure, getting shots and inoculations. My body is being prepped, made immune and impenetrable to bacteria and disease. A moment later, an induction officer asks me in a surprisingly soothing tone, “Where would you like to go? Where would you like to serve?” I answer definitively. The Golani Brigade’s elite unit, sir!” “Why there?” asks the officer. “Mottie, my elder brother, served there during the Yom Kippur War. Golani is my unit,” I say clearly. “It’s the IDF’s most elite unit. That’s where I want to go.” I have what it takes physically and emotionally. I am volunteering unconditionally. The officer hears me out and suggests I join the upcoming gibush, ‘tryouts’ for the paratroopers’ brigade. This would be part of the selection process for elite combat units that tests physical fitness, emotional preparedness, leadership skills and teamwork. “It’s an equally elite unit,” he adds. I hesitate. He tries to convince me and promises, “If you don’t get through the gibush, the next stop will be Golani.” I give in.

A new day begins. The paratroopers’ orders come in fast and furious. I am number seven and under intense scrutiny by the commanders and training officers who take us through each step of the tryout. We slither like snakes in the sand, run like rabbits in the field and skip like deer fleeing from hungry predators. Orders are yelled at us non-stop.

I recall how in my youth I would stare at the soldiers on home-leave or going back to base. How I would watch them ambling down the sidewalk, crossing the road carrying their heavy backpacks with rifles slung over their shoulders. I used to scrutinize their olive green uniforms, their unit insignia and pins. I was familiar with every military symbol worn on their lapels, as well as their uniforms, their berets and boots. I would examine the wear and tear of their uniforms, recognizing what unit each soldier had come from, fascinated and envious. I recall how as a boy I joined the scouts and imagined my khaki uniform as an IDF uniform. I was so proud and in awe of the flag that my mom had embroidered on the left hand side of my shirt, close to my heart. Each time I wore the uniform, I imagined becoming a soldier.

Thoughts of my mom flash through my mind, and I worry about her and my siblings. My spirits are low but I won’t quit, I swear to myself. My commanders evaluate each assignment. I am constantly being observed, and there is zero tolerance for mediocrity or failure. The hours go by and the number of soldiers dwindle. Some break, and they don’t make it through the gibush. I start grasping how much this place suits me. The realization is magical; it becomes my personal endurance test. I push myself to the limit, and then push even harder. Training exercises, runarounds. I am drenched. I wipe the sweat off and keep going. No one will break Oren Bittoun.

I am covered in sand and mud, and the constant shouts and orders ring in my ears. My uniform is filthy, my boots are becoming worn, and fragmented dreams come and go. The pace is dizzying. What will happen? How will I be seen? I look at the other rookies, giving them a helping hand, a little shove, a little more encouragement to help them get through the next hurdle. I have to be a leader and get through the gibush with a winning team, come what may. A commander approaches me, unexpectedly stopping me in my tracks and asks, “Why do you need all this soldier? Wouldn’t you be better off giving up now and going home? End this gibush. I’ll make sure you’re placed in a unit close to home,” he says. “You’ll have great conditions, air conditioning, why not enjoy your military service, eh? Come on," he adds, “take a shower, have a hot meal, there’s no need for you to suffer. Just sign the waiver volunteering for the unit and it’ll all be over. You’ll leave here breathing normally, no sweat. You’ll be much better off outside.”

“Negative, sir, I want to continue.” I will complete the gibush, I’m going all the way. No one will break my spirit.

I continue the run. The heavy equipment on my back is weighing me down, and I bite my lip. I compliment myself. I’m strong, I’m tough, I am reborn. Another obstacle, another hurdle, another crawling drill through the thorns, and more stretcher drills. Together with three other soldiers I carry a stretcher bearing the weight of a soldier, chosen because of his heavy frame. I understand the pace, the balance that’s required. This is real teamwork, and we help each other get through the drill. Silent curses fly back and forth beneath the stretcher. Drops of perspiration drip everywhere, and heavy weapons are hanging over our shoulders. I feel empowered.

The gibush ends and I indeed become a certified combat fighter, but not as expected. Following the tryout I am summoned to the commander’s tent where I am informed that I didn’t make the cut, and I will be transferred to the Border Guard Brigade for the duration of my military service. I am shaken. What does that mean? How did I not make the gibush? I gave it everything I had, physically and emotionally. “What do you mean I didn’t make the gibush?” I ask furiously. “How about Golani then? They promised me at the recruitment center that Golani would be the next stop.”

“The list for Golani is closed,” replies the commander. “You’ll be transferred to the Border Guard Brigade, that’s your next stop, soldier.” Copy. Out. There’s no way I’ll join a unit I have no interest in, I say to myself. “No Way,” I reply. “Don’t worry,” he says, "the Border Guard also has elite units. You can still become a combat fighter, you’ll see. You have the skills and characteristics of a fighter. You're just starting out. Accept your lot and contribute to your country. That’s our decision and it’s final.”

I continue to argue my case, but get barely another word from the commander. He simply turns and yells to the soldiers nearby to put me under arrest! Me? Under arrest? For what? For asking to join an elite unit?

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