Some background first:
Oct 19, 2000 - Rabbi Binyamin Herling, 64, of Kedumim, was killed when Fatah members and Palestinian security forces opened fire on a group of Israeli men, women, and children on a trip at Mount Ebal near Nablus.The hikers were pinned down by terrorist fire for more than five hours before the IDF rescued them, well, at least most of them. Here is a time line of the attack:
11:00 a.m.The IDF set up an inquiry commission which included General Yoram Yair and Brigadier Generals Yoav Galant and Elazar Stern. The inquiry commission placed much of the responsibility for the death of Rabbi Herling on Nehemiah Perlman's shoulders, saying that he misled the army with regards to the hike.
The tour bus, carrying 36 passengers from Yerushalayim, Haifa, Kfar Saba, Karnei Shomron, Kedumim, Yitzhar and Peduel leaves Kedumim. The IDF's senior commander in the area has approved the trip on three different occasions-the first time, two weeks before the outing; the second time, three days before the outing; and the final confirmation, on the morning of the outing. Major (Res.) Nechemia Perlman, a resident of Kedumim who has led dozens of similar outings to the same site, is the guide. A military escort consisting of two vehicles carrying a total of six soldiers accompanies the bus. The bus reaches its destination a few minutes later. Seven passengers stay with the bus, while the other 29 follow their guide, Perlman, and begin the hike toward the ruins of ancient Shechem and Yehoshua Ben Nun's altar. Two soldiers remain in the parking lot to guard the bus and the military vehicles, while the other four follow the group. The area is completely deserted. There are no Arab houses in sight.
Six hikers get tired and decide to stop for a rest and wait where they are until the main group, consisting of 23 people, visits the ruins and the altar. Two soldiers stay with them, while the remaining two soldiers-a medic and a soldier carrying a field radio-follow the main group.
The group descends the slope leading to the archaeological site. Several hundred yards below them they can see the last houses of the Askar Palestinian refugee camp, located on the northeastern edge of modern-day Shechem. Suddenly members of the group hear bullets whizzing by, followed a split second later by the noise of semi-automatic gunfire. A soldier screams, "Take cover!" and each member of the group runs in a different direction and throws himself behind the first boulder he can find. Meanwhile, the two soldiers run forward a few yards while firing their weapons in an effort to provide covering fire for the civilians. They take up parallel positions approximately 20 meters, or 60 feet, away from one another and continue firing. Eliezer Mizrahi, once a member of the IDF's elite Golani unit, and today a resident of Yitzhar, runs to the left of the two soldiers, takes cover behind a boulder, and begins firing his M-16. Another member of the group, Michael Chernin, who is on 24-hour leave from the parachutist unit in which he serves, cocks his weapon and takes up a firing position approximately 10 meters to the right of the two soldiers. Rabbi Herling, carrying an Uzi submachine gun, runs alongside him and joins Chernin behind the boulder. The group is thus divided into two-the two soldiers and three civilians forward at the firing line, and the rest of the men, women and children hiding behind a large boulder a few yards behind. According to Mizrahi, "In the first five minutes they shot at us in long bursts using Kalashnikov semi-automatic weapons, and it was not very effective. Those of us on the firing line instructed the men, women and children hiding in back of the boulder behind us to try to make their way to the top of the hill and reach the other side, which would have put them out of danger. "They began crawling up the hill while those of us on the firing line returned fire. Since the attackers were some 200 meters away, Rabbi Herling's Uzi would have been ineffective, so he held his fire and saved his ammunition in case they would close in on us."
Some members of the group manage to advance about 10 meters up the hill, but then the intensity of the fire increases. They hear the ominous barking of Zero Point Five heavy machine guns capable of penetrating armor. The huge bullets impact heavily on the rocks all around them and shatter them. Sniper fire then joins in, and suddenly no one is able to make a move without a bullet whizzing by. The group is pinned down. The noise of the Zero Point Five machine guns can be heard all the way to Alon Moreh, approximately two kilometers, or 1-1/2 miles, east of the group.
Michael Lev, one of the six hikers who stopped to rest, contacts the IDF by means of his cellular phone and reports the incident while the sounds of shooting are heard in the background. "We're taking care of it," he is told. Immediately, the field radio at the firing line comes to life. The guide, Perlman, who also happens to be the senior officer at the scene, describes the situation and asks for helicopters to get the women and children out.
Half an hour after alerting the army, the situation gets worse-the group, still pinned down by sniper and heavy machine gun fire, is unable to return fire. Meanwhile, pairs of black-robed Tanzim fighters begin advancing up the hill toward the group in an effort to outflank the firing line. Lev, who had contacted the IDF a half hour earlier, calls Arutz 7 radio station and is patched through to a talk show in progress. Shocked citizens throughout Israel listen with disbelief to his live report and hear the sound of shooting in the background. "Please send help!" he pleads in a broken voice.
The first IDF unit arrives on the scene a full hour and a half after the shooting begins. One of the reasons for the delay is the circuitous route the unit takes to get to the scene of the battle-under strict orders not to violate any signed agreements with the Palestinians, the unit commander makes sure to stay within Israeli-controlled territory, thus lengthening the journey by some 30 minutes. However, not only the commander is to blame. The order to move came only an hour after the initial report was received. Meanwhile, five members of the group pinned down on the slope manage to reach the top of the hill and rejoin the two soldiers and six hikers. There they discover the reason why the two soldiers have not fired their weapons-located some 800 meters from the attackers, they are too far to take aim effectively. One of the two soldiers borrows a pair of binoculars from one of the five survivors and starts shooting, but with poor results.
Perlman reaches the top of the hill. The IDF troops that have arrived on the scene are standing by waiting for orders. Perlman screams at them to do something. They say they have orders not to proceed until they receive further instructions. Using his cellular phone, Perlman contacts the area's IDF commanding officer and demands that something be done immediately. The IDF unit receives the long-awaited order to open fire. An officer and three soldiers crest the hill and advance a few steps down the slope before a barrage of bullets forces them to retreat and take cover behind the hill. Two attack helicopters arrive and hover over the area.
Palestinian gunfire intensifies, and the soldiers and citizens still in the firing line are unable to raise their heads. From the top of the hill, Perlman, and the others, spot three Palestinians clad in black moving quickly up the hill toward those in the firing line. They shoot at the figures, but miss their targets. The three Palestinians outflank the firing line and begin shooting from the right at Rabbi Herling and Chernin. Chernin is hit first-a bullet ricochets against his elbow and the left side of his chest. Mizrahi and the medic try to reach him, but accurate sniper fire prevents them from moving away from their position. Minutes later Rabbi Herling is hit. The bullet enters near his left hip and exits through his right shoulder. Three others are wounded: Barak Chalaf and Shmuel Ben Yehuda of Kedumim, and Yossi Friel of Yerushalayim.
Ambulances, jeeps and half-trucks arrive. The hikers behind the rocks are taken to the ambulances while the jeeps and half-tracks, unable to descend the steep slope, look for a different route to enter the battlefield. IDF snipers begin shooting at the Palestinians, but from a difficult angle. The helicopters are still hovering overhead.
At long last an elite recon unit arrives by helicopter, but it takes them no less than half an hour to get organized and ready to mobilize. Meanwhile, four wounded Israelis are bleeding on the slope below alongside the murdered Rabbi Herling. Those on the firing line are running out of ammunition and check their fire. The helicopter pilot overhead notifies the commanding officer in charge of the operation that he has been circling overhead for almost two hours and has not been called upon to fire. "You are not using me," he says over the radio to the officer. Those on the firing line release a color-smoke bomb, thinking the reason for the delay is that their position is unclear. Immediately their position is peppered with bullets.
After warning the Palestinian residents of the area to evacuate the houses from where the attackers are firing, the attack helicopters shoot-but not in the direction of the attackers. Rather, they shoot warning shots at an empty field nearby.
The IDF notifies the media that all the wounded have been evacuated. In reality, the situation has remained unchanged. Four Israelis are slowly bleeding to death in the field of battle, and the army personnel on top of the hill have done nothing. The helicopters have not shot a single shot at the attackers, who continue to shoot enthusiastically. Several Arabs take a few potshots at one of the helicopters with their Kalashnikovs. The pilot reports this and is ordered to leave the area. Mizrahi and the others at the firing line receive a message: "We'll take you out under the cover of darkness. Wait a little longer." As if they had a choice.
Four kilometers away from the battle zone, the IDF mobilizes a few tanks and armored personnel carriers for the benefit of the media cameras. They come nowhere near the battle. Residents of the area, finally waking up to the fact that the IDF is being held back, organize a rescue unit including reserve soldiers and medics and start running toward the slope, determined to save the soldiers and civilians trapped below.
Mizrahi calls the IDF once again from his cellular phone. "This is Mizrahi reporting that I am alone here with two soldiers and two wounded, Rabbi Herling's condition is still unknown, we are located 50 meters from the path."
Nightfall. The Palestinians, lacking night vision gear, are unable to continue firing effectively. Under the cover of darkness a team of medics reaches the firing line and transports the dead and the wounded. As the survivors are being evacuated, the sounds of wild cheering and celebration can be heard drifting over the dark, bloody mountain from the refugee camp below.
However, there were several problems with the inquiry. First of all their mandate was to investigate the army, and not to find civilians that may have some kind of liability for what happened. Secondly, they did not notify Perlman of their intention to place the blame on him. Usually in such a case the person is given a hearing to see the evidence against him and to defend himself.
After years of unsuccessfully trying to clear his name through dialog with the army, he decided to sue the army and General Yoram Yair personally. As I mentioned, they settled out of court.
BTW, as far as I know only one Israeli news outlet (NRG) has covered this story!