The Masada Complex
Israel, August 19, 1982
Masada pulled open the sliding door of the helicopter. The blades sliced the air above, blasting her with noise and heat. She held on, her eyes adjusting to the darkness. The pilot tilted the craft to the right and headed south, following the bleached shoreline of the Dead Sea. The target was minutes away.
Two steel cables dangled from a bar welded above the door, ready for rappelling down for the attack. As a technical specialist, Masada was responsible for the soldiers’ safety. She grabbed a cable in each hand and pulled hard, tightening the knots on the bar.
Lights appeared below. She recognized the perimeter fence, which formed a perfect circle around Kibbutz Ben-Yair, except for the bulge encompassing the cemetery, where her parents rested. Most of the buildings were dark, but lights still burned in the youth dormitory. She wondered whether her brother was still up, studying for his summer-school exams as he had promised, or scribbling another poem. At fifteen, Srulie was barely four years younger, but Masada had to play mother to him, mostly by phone from her military base. Otherwise he would spend all his time composing verses about arid mountains, red sunsets, and blue water encrusted with salt.
The kibbutz lights disappeared behind, and the pilot slowed down. The engine noise decreased, and the wind calmed. She peeked out through the open door. Just ahead of the helicopter, the unmistakable shape of Mount Masada appeared, growing larger against the moonlit sky.
The soldiers huddled with Colonel Dov Ness over a crude map, which Masada had sketched back at the base. She knew Herod’s ancient fort like a second home, its mythical, long-dead zealots like an extended family. Growing up at Kibbutz Ben-Yair, she and her friends had often climbed up the sheer cliffs, clinging to the primitive Snake Path all the way to the top, and spent the night around a campfire, singing patriotic ballads and telling scary fables until the sun chased away the magic.
The colonel traced a line on map. “The fort’s perimeter is a chain of connected rooms,” he yelled over the helicopter noise, “all around the edge of the flat mountaintop. Most of the fort is in ruins, but the Arabs chose a room with solid side walls.” He tapped the location. “The internal wall, where the doorway used to be, has crumbled. They’ve piled some rocks to block off the entrance. The mud roof is long gone, so that’s where you drop in.”
Masada leaned on the colonel’s shoulder, her lips to his ear. “One minute to target.”
He nodded. They had been lovers for several months, but outside his private quarters they had kept a professional facade-he the tough commander of the elite unit, she the technical specialist and every soldier’s heartthrob.
“Seven hostages,” Ness continued, “tied up along the side wall, right here. Two terrorists. Leader is short, balding, wearing a mask. He sent one of the hostages downhill with a note, a girl, who reported that he has a hand grenade. We need him alive-orders from above. Make sure to disable the grenade or kick it over the edge. The other terrorist is a skinny, tall teenager. Long hair. Armed with a handgun. Eliminate him on sight.” The colonel touched a finger to his temple. “And verify the kill.”
A red light blinked over the door.
Colonel Ness got up. “Slide down fast. Engage. Disable the one with the mask and kill the youth with the gun. But watch the hostages, okay? Don’t punch any holes in those kids, or you’ll screw up my next promotion!”
The soldiers laughed, and Masada wondered,
The pilot changed direction and pushed up the nose.
Blinking red changed to yellow.
“There!” Masada pointed to the ancient casement wall along the north rim.
The pilot adjusted direction, approaching the target. Two of the soldiers knelt at the door, machine guns strapped to their chests, helmets secured, night-vision goggles turned on. They pulled on canvas gloves and grabbed the cables, ready to rappel down. A third soldier lay flat between them with a rifle, his eye at the scope. The rest of the team lined up inside the fuselage in full battle gear.
Colonel Ness peered into the night. “What’s that on top?”
The yellow light began to blink.
The pilot adjusted course, slowing down.
Masada gazed through her night-vision goggles. “They rigged up some kind of a roof. It’s a sheet, or a tarp.”
“Take us lower,” Ness ordered the pilot, “level with the open end at the cliff.” He bent down and tapped the sniper’s helmet. “Find the youth, the one with the gun.”
As they hovered across from the room, Masada saw a figure standing at the open end, outlined from behind by a dim lamp.
“I see a skinny male.” The sniper shifted, tensed up. “Long hair. No mask.”
“That’s him,” Ness said.
Masada stabilized herself, staring hard through the greenish blur, disbelieving her own eyes.
“I don’t see a handgun.” The sniper adjusted his aim with the moving helicopter. “I’m going to lose him in three, two-”
Masada tried to yell, but her voice betrayed her.
“Go,” Ness said, “take him out!”
“No!” She let go of the goggles, which the wind snatched, and kicked the rifle just as a shot sounded. The momentum of her kick pulled her body out of the helicopter, into the darkness, the rotors shoving air at her back. Ness grabbed her arm, and she swung sideways, her head hitting something. The helicopter banked and flew in a wide arc over the ruins.
The colonel pulled her inside. “What the hell was that?”
Masada recovered her voice. “It’s my brother!”
Abu Faddah watched through a crack in the barricaded entrance. After releasing a bogus warning shot, the Israeli helicopter circled around and touched down in a swirl of dust. Dark figures leaped from the craft and took positions behind the ruins. He laughed out loud. His plan had worked! Soon the Israelis would break their stubborn vow never to negotiate with Palestinian guerrillas. What choice did they have? He had studied them for years. They had turned Mount Masada into the mythical centerpiece of their modern Zionism:
At the open end of the room, over the cliff, the hostage he had positioned as a human shield turned and smiled. Faddah, who was guarding him with the pistol, took a step back and looked over his shoulder, his face fearful. “Papa?”
He shrugged and said something in Hebrew that made the other kids laugh.
“Be firm, son,” Abu Faddah switched to Arabic, “he’s just showing off.”
Faddah raised the pistol, aiming it. The two teenagers glared at each other. They were equally tall and skinny, with dark hair reaching their shoulders. They could have passed for brothers.
“This is the Israeli army,” a man’s voice boomed through a megaphone in accented English. “Come out with