The Ben-Nahims were sitting in their Paris apartment at 10:30 P.M. on Sunday night when an Israeli embassy official called to notify them that their son, Gabriel, had been wounded in action in Gaza. An hour later, they were on board a flight to Israel.
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“I barely had five minutes to pack,” recounts Nelly Ben-Nahim, Gabriel’s mother, as she waits outside the intensive care unit at Soroka Medical Center. “We arrived here in Israel at 5:30 A.M. and took a taxi straight from the airport to the hospital.”
Gabriel, 22, is a soldier in Golani, the infantry brigade that has suffered the heaviest casualties since the outset of the Israeli ground invasion into Gaza. By the time his parents arrived in Soroka, he had already undergone surgery for head and chest injuries.
His mother notes that she and her husband had barely returned from their previous trip to Israel. Last month, they were here to attend the traditional beret march ceremony that marks the end of advanced training in the army and where Gabriel received a certificate of excellence. “I was back in Paris on June 29, and here I am again,” she remarks.
Milling about in this special space set aside for visitors outside the Intensive Care Unit are dozens of other family members and friends of wounded soldiers, anxiously waiting to hear word from the medical staff about the condition of their loved ones.
“It’s looking good,” one father informs an interlocutor over his cellphone. “The doctors said he’s going to be fine.”
In another corner, a father throws his arm around his grown son and plants a big kiss on his cheek, his eyes brimming over with tears. Boxes of snacks, sweets and soft drinks are piled up along the floor, waiting to be delivered to those behind the swinging doors.
Suddenly, a great hush falls over the room, as the crowd breaks up to make way for a special wheelchair-bound visitor, himself dressed in Soroka hospital pajamas. Col. Raslan Alian, the Golani brigade commander who was seriously injured in fighting Saturday night, makes his way toward the intensive care unit, accompanied by a contingent of military personnel.
A bandage over one eye and bruises all over his face and head, Alian announces that he’s come to see how his soldiers are doing. Before making his way through the swinging door, though, he wheels himself in the direction of a mother sitting on a bench, who holds back tears as she takes his hand.
She and the rest of her family, from the north of Israel, have been sitting here since Sunday afternoon waiting for word on her son, she reports, who has meanwhile undergone surgery to reset his jaw.
Alian, the first Druze to serve as commander of the Golani brigade, is then wheeled in the direction the Ben-Nahims. “Yes, I remember giving your son his beret at the ceremony,” he tells Gabriel’s father, Robert.
The largest medical center in the south of Israel, Soroka has been in the eye of the storm in recent weeks, tending not only to wounded soldiers from the battlefield but also those civilians who sustained serious injuries from Hamas rocket fire.
It was here that the first Israeli civilian killed in the latest round of fighting was brought after he was fatally wounded in a mortar attack at the Erez crossing, while delivering food to soldiers. It was here, as well, that two Bedouin sisters were brought after they were hit by shrapnel while playing outside and where a seriously injured Bedouin baby was brought for treatment a few days ago after her father was killed in a rocket attack.
Prof. Jochanan Peiser, deputy director general of Soroka, tells reporters that 32 casualties of the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas were being treated at the hospital, including 22 soldiers, three of them in critical condition. “We have managed to stabilize two of the critically injured and have seen tremendous improvement in their condition,” he reports.
In recent days, the hospital has also seen a steady stream of politicians invading its corridors, all eager to see and hear firsthand how it is holding up during these trying times.
“We’re doing OK,” Dr. Moti Klein, director of the intensive care unit, tells a delegation headed by Minister of Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz, as he slaps the dignitary on the back. “We have the know-how and the experience, and this is not the sort of thing that presents a major challenge for us.”
Still, he says, certain things are different in this latest round of fighting. “First of all, the wounded are coming in with greater frequency. Secondly, we’re seeing different types of wounds. Hardly any chest and stomach injuries, like we used to. The army has learned from the past and they provide good protection for that now. What we’re seeing more of now are eye injuries and head injuries in the parts of the head that aren’t covered by helmets.”
Just as Klein is briefing the minister, another military helicopter lands on the lawn outside reserved for this purpose, bringing in the latest casualties from the battlefield.
“Many of our doctors are now serving in reserve duty in Gaza,” he tells Steinitz, “and they’re the ones who end up accompanying the wounded soldiers back here. It’s almost a surrealistic situation.”
As Steinitz and his delegation leave the hospital premises, Health Minister Yael German and her entourage are ushered in. On her way out of the intensive care unit, German asks to speak with Gabriel’s parents. “I just saw your son,” she reports to them. “I want you to know that he’s in good spirits and doing well.
Noa, an old friend of Gabriel’s mother who hasn’t left her side for one minute, confirms the diagnosis. “The doctors promised he’d be OK, and we believe them,” she says.