An Israeli Reservist Asks: What Did I Fight for in Gaza?

For now, writes the soldier, the well-brought-up Zionist young people continue to show up dutifully for reserve duty. But they are also filled with despair.

Tamir V.
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A wounded Israeli soldier being evacuated outside Gaza, July 21, 2014. Credit: Reuters
Tamir V.

Sayed Kashua has had it, the singer Mira Awad doesn’t know how it will all end, the majority can’t stand Gideon Levy, former MK Aryeh Eldad doesn’t believe there is any chance for peace, and I – my soul aches from the despair.

I got back from reserve duty in the Gaza Strip two weeks ago. I’d already spent 69 days in uniform this year, in connection with the seizure of the ship Klos C. On the way home, I had lain with a friend on the roof of the bridge and looked with satisfaction at the Israeli flag we had hoisted over the arms ship, which was carrying vast quantities of weapons meant to be used against us. What can I tell you? I spent my formative years in the Reali School in Haifa, with a mom who was the coordinator of the “personal commitment” program and a dad who’s involved in the success of Iron Dome. Zionism and contributing to something to society are not dirty words.

The walls of my (rented) apartment are adorned with original prints of photographs by David Rubinger: David Ben-Gurion in his room in Kibbutz Sde Boker, Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin in a helicopter on the way to Gaza at the end of the fighting in the Six-Day War. The apartment borders on Tel Aviv Port, and abuts a synagogue damaged by shrapnel during the recent fighting. I asked my father what the odds were that this would happen again, having in mind the range of zero probability. Quite high, he replied: If the next missile is fired from the same place, and has the same trajectory, the path of interception will also be similar. We decided to buy a lottery ticket.

After my mandatory army service, I went to the United States. I needed a rest – from the military operations, from the wars and from being responsible for my buddies’ lives. I worked in Boston, studied business administration at Harvard, and throughout the whole period I was consumed with a desire to return to Israel. The Foreign Ministry had these terrific programs for reversing the brain drain. But what happens after that, when the “brain” starts to grasp what’s going on here?

Channel 10 recently broadcast a harrowing interview with Col. (res.) Roni Bart, until recently a senior member of Israel’s National Security Council. It was appalling to hear him describe the impotence of those at the top. The NSC doesn’t challenge , the army isn’t challenged, the political level doesn’t hold serious discussions, and if in the end there is a discussion, there’s no follow-up.

Every Israeli ministry can appoint an adviser on strategy. There is a ministry with that word in its name that’s supposedly in charge of security strategy. In reality, it’s in charge of very little, because there is no formulation of policy, no brainstorming, no proactive thinking. We have an army and we will not allow ourselves to be led again into concentration camps, but we simply cannot shake off the passive pattern of thought of ghetto dwellers.

We are no longer in Europe and are definitely not “a light unto the nations.” Maybe I was naïve, maybe I was dazzled by the ethos. For me, the penny first dropped when Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated. But my understanding became sharper the day a few bums burned to death an innocent boy, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, only because he was an Arab. I was ashamed of being a Jew. Of being a human being. “Love your neighbor as yourself”?

The hatred in Israel is abysmal. I’m not talking about the “price tag” terrorists or the settlers who harass Arabs and uproot olive trees. Two young people, a Jewish woman and an Arab man, were fighting on the social networks for their right to get married. What happened to the freedom of the individual? Same-sex couples also have to flee abroad to be married. Whole population segments are delegitimized here. It starts with racism between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. It continues in an education system that spends millions of shekels on “inculcating the Bible” but declines to cope with racism.

The only time social cohesion ostensibly exists is during hostilities. If I were a cynic, I would ask whether hostilities are a means or a goal, because for policy-makers there is nothing like the status quo.

Maybe it’s more correct to say, “Love yourself like yourself.” Khaled Meshal and his cohorts are not the only ones lining their pockets with the money of their voters. Ehud Olmert, who in 2006 sent me (to Lebanon) to fight for my home, is on the way to jail. Throw a stone and you’ll hit corruption that affects all our lives. And while we’re on the subject of economic decisions, I was aghast when MK Stav Shaffir was kicked out of a session of the Finance Committee because she demanded transparency regarding the recent transfer of billions of shekels to the defense budget.

Entering Rafah

I spent Operation Protective Edge with the reconnaissance unit of the Givati infantry brigade, after I cut short a working visit to China to make a contribution, share in the project. Shayetet 13 – the naval commando unit where I had served – was loaded with medical personnel, so I volunteered to join infantry battalions, which in any case do the hard work. Wonderful kids. I accompanied them on their entry into Rafah.

At night, in the staging area, I met Benaya Sarel, who had originally been in the Shayetet and moved to Givati. I remembered him as a shell-shocked clown, but now he was a beloved commander. He told me about his forthcoming wedding, a newborn niece, and he whined a little about the cold that he had picked up in Gaza. A few hours later, we were fighting for his life and for the life of Liel Gidoni. The fate of Hadar Goldin was unknown at that time. Pulling them out was tough, under fire. Inability to help the wounded is the most searing failure for a physician.

The days we spent until we finally got out of there weren’t easy, and were sometimes surrealistic. At one point we heard Yehoram Gaon on the radio singing “The Last War”; between verse and refrain there was a mortar round, a tank shooting, a shell slamming into something. An off-the-wall situation. Death can crop up anywhere including from the D9 bulldozer that almost brought the building we were in down on us.

Back in Israel, I joined the physician and the paramedic of the reconnaissance battalion who were paying condolence calls. We went to Kiryat Arba and then to Jerusalem. There is nothing harder than looking a family in the eyes and trying to explain, with the few tools we have – mostly empathy laced with a little medical jargon – what happened during the last few minutes of their beloved son’s life, what we did to help and why we didn’t succeed. To implant the hope and the belief that his death wasn’t in vain.

Death does not differentiate between political opinions, lifestyle, beliefs. I am constantly amazed at how unexceptional the human body is without a soul.

To assuage the pain, we went for hummus at a Jerusalem eatery called Between Gaza and Berlin. We were dying of hunger, and the name of the place sounded appropriate.

Blood is blood

A few of weeks ago, I shuddered when I saw a poster carried by bereaved parents at the demonstration meant to show solidarity with the residents of the south, at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. A few days later my heart ached at the words of writer David Grossman, who lost a son in the Second Lebanon War. I’m not a leftie, nor am I right-wing. I am first of all a human being. Blood is blood is blood. How much longer?

Virulent comments are apparently the norm on the Web in our enlightened country. In a place where a courageous individual like Channel 2 commentator Amnon Abramovich, a war hero, encounters ignorance and intolerance, it will probably be superfluous to mention the distinguished service medal I received, or the fact that in every confrontation, this last one included, my sister and my fiancee’s two brothers were also in uniform. Or that my fiancée worked day and night to defend Israel in the international arena. Will I, like Haim Oron [“I dare you to question the left’s loyalty to Israel,” Haaretz, Aug. 22], also have to prove my loyalty to the state?

Instead, perhaps my actions so far give me the right to ask the state to prove its loyalty to me. Before we plunge frenetically into a new series of commissions of inquiry, and probably also a general election, I want to ask the prime minister, the members of the security cabinet, the expanded and reduced kitchen cabinet and the heads of the Israel Defense Forces to look me in the eye and persuade me that I have a future in a democratic State of Israel – one that will be a little more honest vis-a-vis its citizens and a great deal more tolerant. Show me that you are worthy of the sacrifice you ask so blithely of bereaved families today and of families that will be bereaved in the future but don’t yet know it, and of me and those like me.

Just before the emergency call-up order for Operation Protective Edge arrived, I was fighting with friends against a blood libel that appeared in one of the world’s leading medical journals, The Lancet. We managed to publish a letter of response, put in a good word for the IDF and for Israel. Shortly afterward, I found myself in combat in Rafah. War after war after war. So, while I am fighting on yet another front – to save enough money for a first home in this country – maybe this time the decision makers will look me in the eye, the ordinary citizen who drops everything and stops his life each time he’s called to the flag, and persuade me that there is still something worth fighting for here. That the corruption, the nepotism, the hypocrisy and the intolerance haven’t destroyed all that’s good in my land.

Despite everything, I am optimistic. I want to live here, build a home, raise a family and continue to share in forging a better future. It will be very disappointing if the politicians and the generals will lack the courage to look me – all of us – in the eyes.

The writer serves as a doctor in the reserves in a naval commando unit.

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