The Last and Oldest Interviewee
One dark night about a month ago, some military vehicles drew up outside the home of Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Yitzhak Pundak in Poleg, a community some 30 km. north of Tel Aviv. His escorts handled him with the utmost delicacy. Soon after that night, Pundak turned 104.
The convoy had been sent to pick up Pundak at the behest of the Chief of the General Staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkott, who had summoned the entire supreme command of the Israel Defense Forces to the
area for a re-enactment of one of the battles of the 1948 War of Independence. Pundak had commanded the IDF force that night. He was a hero of several of important battles of that war.
It was an emotional moment. A man who was born when the First World War was still over the horizon giving rare, first-hand information, with clarity and in detail, about a war which changed the face of the Middle East, to the officers of the General Staff, who were born a generation after the War of Independence.
Pundak with David Ben Gurion
A week after that occasion, I visited Yitzhak Pundak at his home to interview him, the last interview of the some 1,000 that I conducted for my forthcoming book, Rise and Kill First.
I wanted to hear from him about events in the early 1970s, when he was military governor of the Gaza Strip, responsible for civilian affairs, and there was an explosive confrontation between him and one of the strongest men in the country, the head of the IDF’s Southern Command, Maj. General Ariel Sharon.
Sharon had begun introducing more and more military units into the Gaza Strip to assist the Shin Bet in hunting down and arresting or killing terrorists. Not everyone agreed with Sharon’s aggressive approach. Pundak maintained that the way to curb Palestinian terror was to improve the quality of life for the territory’s inhabitants, and allow them to manage civilian and municipal affairs on their own, with a minimal military presence in inhabited areas. “Saber-rattling and killing couldn’t take us anywhere but to an Intifada (popular uprising),” Pundak told me.
He and Sharon clashed about everything, and the Minister of Defense, Moshe Dayan, had been compelled to intervene time and again to calm down the storms at the highest level of the military. At the center of the clash was the role played by a top-secret unit of undercover soldiers camouflaged as terrorists, “Chameleon” (zikit in Hebrew) commanded by Meir Dagan; Sharon ran the unit under his direct and personal control in the heart of the Gaza Strip.
Without giving up a spoiler for when you read the book, which includes details from Pundak, Sharon, Dagan and others involved, I will reveal only what occurred at the height of the confrontations between the two men. Pundak had discovered an operational order that he absolutely and totally objected to and Sharon refused to rescind it. Pundak blurted out at Sharon:“You are a liar, a crook and a knave.”
Sharon rose and raised his hand as if to slap Pundak, but thought the better of it and sat down. Pundak says he saluted, declared, “Now I know you’re are also a coward,” and left the room.
Pundak’s account, despite his age, is trenchant and precise. It makes one wonder if things could not have been done differently, if Pundak’s way had triumphed, and not Sharon’s, would we today be facing a different Gaza, and not a Gaza controlled (by virtue of genuine elections) by a murderous jihadist movement.
Either way, Pundak’s story is unique and interesting. I had the honor of recording it, and thereafter, wrap up the information-gathering part of my book.