We Didn't Dare to Know: Seven Years After Hamas Tunnel Attack, Revisiting My Nephew's Death

Iris Leal’s nephew fell in an attack by Hamas during Operation Protective Edge. On the seventh anniversary of that war, she illuminates one of the most charged zones of Israeli life, the nationalization of private grief in the name of the ethos of heroism

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An illustrative image of a convoy of people
Credit: Tamir Sher
Iris Leal
Iris Leal
Iris Leal
Iris Leal

A month earlier, on one of the first days of the search for the three yeshiva boys whose abduction served as prologue to the war, I sat with two friends at a café that served greasy food. One was a student of mine who, over time, would become an influential figure in the Israeli literary world. The other was a writer who taught in the writing department I chaired. We were meeting prior to the formal year-end event at school, that familiar combination of gallows and cuddle, so characteristic of the final reviews at art colleges. A moment before we stood before the fidgeting students as they shifted between fear and trembling and desperate fury, and spoke to them about the short stories they submitted, we joined the writer, as he devoured a plate of hummus with a breathtaking amount of hot sauce and talked about the situation.

I had been walking with a pinch of apprehension in the pit of my stomach almost from the moment the operation began, and argued that within days or even hours we would be slipping into an all-out war. The Palestinian forces in the Gaza Strip had already responded to the intentional brutality of the Israel Defense Forces with a barrage of rockets, to which the Israeli air force responded with heavy bombing. The writer nodded his agreement, mouth full, while the student reminded us of the notorious but often blessed hesitancy of our prime minister. If there was even the slightest possibility of avoiding a widespread military confrontation with Hamas, the student said confidently, Bibi would go for it. The writer gave another full-mouth nod, seeming to agree both with my assertion that we were on the brink of war and with the other assertion that there was not going to be a war with equal lack of concern, possibly caused by the numbing effect of the hot sauce.

I remember that afternoon in all its details: the smells of gasoline and grease from the garages on the streets nearby, and the sickly petrol-blue sky; the television at the kiosk that was showing the early news edition on mute; the speedy gobbling of hummus with the patch of red sauce spreading over the mush like an oil stain; the pleasure of spending time with smart and funny conversationalists; and the certainty that in spite of my former student’s rationale, the next round of fighting was already upon us. Rather than taking precautions, Israel seemed to commence its search for the abducted boys with a Molotov cocktail in one hand and a match in the other, and the combination of its efforts with the desire to avenge and damage Gazan infrastructure finally evolved, as I’d predicted, into an especially long and lethal war.

Two days later, the boys’ bodies were found, and the documenting of the madness reached its apex with a ground invasion of Gaza and the daily broadcasting of funerals. Everyone, you and I included, was glued to the television every evening, from the 8 P.M. news onward, crying in bursts of sympathy for the ruined families. Everyone knew the names of the dead, their faces, and the stories of their brief lives, and everyone, including the families that would receive their own dire news in a matter of days, asked themselves a trembling question, one that escaped their minds before they could even grasp it: Will this happen to us, too?

Those were the events that led me and my sister-in-law to find ourselves sitting in the makeshift corner out front, under an improvised roof, with a steady supply of bottled water, escaping the human density inside the house into the density of the hot air, watching the events from there.

The night before, following the funeral, my sister-in-law had swallowed some antibiotics, and since then she had faded. Her fever had gone down, but she had retreated inward. Even the convoy of government cars rolling down the road in the middle of the day could not pull her out of her apathetic tranquility. She watched passively as the convoy pulled up in front of the house and people emerged from it.

“The president is here,” I told her, unsurprised, because overnight our life had become an absurd play in which people say such things as, “the president is here.”

She just sighed and said, “Oh, Iris,” because who doesn’t know that a phone call from the prime minister and a visit from the president during wartime are surefire signs that someone here has been screwed. And even though we already knew what had happened and that the curse of the firstborn had struck this home, this was just more evidence that it actually, truly happened.

What we were watching was, therefore, the official commencement of national mourning for our personal loss. News on the radio and in the papers, as well as handshaking and condolences and WhatsApp messages and phone calls from dumbfounded friends and pictures of Nimrod (as I will call him here) that had appeared all over the walls – all this drilled the fact of his death into our insubordinate consciousness, one fraction of an inch at a time. Since we could not yet directly perceive this thing that had hit our lives like a meteorite, the condolence visits from the president, ministers and Knesset members helped us by way of defamiliarization to process the meaning of things even as they were pushing us away from it.

Israeli society has determined that the loss of a fighter in a military confrontation is the highest degree on the scale of losses. Those killed in training and those killed in terror attacks have a place just one notch below. Even the death of the three abducted boys, “Our Boys,” in Gush Etzion, didn’t meet the same level of sublimity that would be attributed to the death of the soldiers who were sent to avenge them. There was no loss more public, more communal, and more micromanaged, according to a protocol employed thousands of times before the death of Nimrod.

In this sense, our loss made us part of the tragic-reality genre that had dominated the public’s attention in the days since of Our Boys’ abduction and the operation intended to bring them home. While the name “Operation Brother’s Keeper” left no room for doubt, and provided a title for the coverage until it was replaced with the name “Operation Protective Edge,” a robust plot sequence and an adherence to the rules of the genre were maintained down to the letter.

I met some fans of this bloody series during the shiva. They were easily recognizable by the scent they emitted. They were like wedding crashers, but rather than raiding the buffet, they brought with them cakes and pies in disposable pans and were excited in their strangeness, choked with empathy and sadness and a measure of admiration. A few of them, who just happened to stand near me, asked if I knew the family and whispered their request that I point out the parents, and I granted their wish without rancor. They were already invested in this story. The media had led them to believe we were all part of the same extended family of the People of Israel. Now was not the time to point out the error of their ways.

When the president stepped out of his car and stood at the curb, a rustle went through the crowd that filled the house and flowed out onto the road and into the shed. I felt a little sorry for him. He was known as an emotional man, famous for breaking into tears in public, and that day he was tasked with visiting nine other families. With my nearsighted eyes, I tried to decipher the feelings fluttering over his flushed face as he worked hard to preserve a stately expression. I think what I saw in his profile as he looked at the doorway, what I saw in the tiny nod he offered the people on the front porch and those in the stairwell who now hastily retreated to the sides to make way, and especially in the fraction of a moment when he turned to face the two of us in the shed, when I believe his eyes met mine – was a nervous twitch of trepidation. It flashed through his eyes, flickering meekly before being shoved aside.

News of his arrival made its way with the same muffled mumbling and whispering heard every day during the shiva. Mothers whispered to their children, “Do you know who that man is, honey?” and men elbowed complete strangers at their sides and said with the low voices of those in the know, “Ruvi’s here.” We, who checked on Yuli and Ami and their sons’ whereabouts every 15 minutes, passed the news over the family frequency: “They’re sitting with the president in Nimrod’s room.” I never asked them what they talked about with him, or if he cried or at least sniffled, and what kind of comfort he offered them.

Sgt. Nadav Raimond ("Nimrod" in the article), who fell on July 28, 2014 at Nahal Oz.

• • •

That evening, we returned to our own home in Tel Aviv, where an inconceivable silence overtook the apartment. A silence in which the refrigerator’s compressor, the radio – muted but not turned off, the kettle’s obscene whistle of appreciation, and the drops of water shattering in the bathroom sink, all sounded ridiculously loud.

Atypically, the city was quiet and people went to bed early, one ear pricked for the siren that could startle them in the middle of the night. Though we’d been torn abruptly from the urban routine of missiles and wartime, the one we had been living a long, long time ago, three days earlier, we still hadn’t forgotten the preparation for nighttime, the clothes we had to lay out for the children and ourselves on bedroom chairs and that we were somehow never able to put on during the minute we had to get to the stairwell.

There were a few puddles on the floor, left by our dog during our absence, and even if our lives had depended on it, we would not have risen to wipe them up. We could read each other’s minds, and we were now both thinking the same thing. But in the petrifying exhaustion at day’s end, with the drained energy that was barely sufficient for a last cigarette before sleep, which had itself become an exceptionally challenging and bleary mission, I wanted and looked forward to nothing, nor did I resist anything. Whatever happened, happened.

This was a new and intriguing sensation, because it went entirely against my nature. After years of New Age prompts, I was finally living in the moment, and this moment spread through space, trickling between the plates of time, transforming everything, past and future, into an ongoing present. Nothing existed but us, you and me and the sofas holding our bodies and the dog galloping through the room, dipping occasionally in puddles of her own urine and sliding on the floor until she slammed into one of the chairs and paused there, surprised.

In miserable silence, we watched this comedic bit on repeat until we’d finally had enough and you stood up and without even looking at me, went into the bedroom.

Even the death of the three abducted boys didn’t meet the same level of sublimity that would be attributed to the death of the soldiers who were sent to avenge them. There was no loss more public, more communal.

A minute or two later, you returned to the living room, carrying my laptop.

I could hear the sting of fear in my voice. “Are you going to watch the video?”

“Of course,” you said.

This was your usual answer anytime I expressed any doubts about your plans. “Of course,” meaning, obviously, meaning, do you even have to ask? In other words, no point in arguing.

“Why?” I insisted nonetheless. “You don’t have to.”

“Because I want to,” you said, then added, “and because I promised Yuli I’d watch it and tell her if it was safe for her to do so, too.”

They already knew about the video, then. “Who told them?” I asked. I had my suspicions.

You put the laptop down, your face and the back of the screen turned toward me as you searched for the video. “I don’t know,” you said, “does it matter?”

“It matters to me,” I said. “I don’t want to strangle anyone innocent.”

“In that case, you can probably go ahead and strangle S.”

S. had trouble restraining herself even before the tragedy, and even more trouble afterward. She was very sociable, completely harmless, but thirsty for attention and a serious drama-generator. Every few hours, when the tide was high and everything threatened to overflow, she would give us a full report of her feelings, the suffering ripping her to shreds from inside, the wink she hadn’t slept all night, the food she didn’t eat. Poor thing, she really had been attached to Nimrod, probably more than any of his other aunts and uncles, and was now worried that this special status might be taken away.

I sat up. “I knew it,” I announced.

“Good for you, babe,” you said, almost distracted, your eyes glued to the screen.

You found the video very quickly, and I watched it vicariously through your body language and facial expressions. Your neck was sunken, it had almost disappeared, and your head was buried deep between your shoulders. I heard muffled voices in the background, panting and gasping, feet stamping the ground, broken words followed by gunshots and yelling. All of these were also written across your face.

Hamas video from 2014 shows attack that killed five Israeli soldiers at Nahal Oz

You played the video three times, pausing and starting it over, rubbing your face until your skin turned red.

“Can Yuli watch it?” I asked, referring also to myself.

“No,” you said.

“Is it awful?”

You raised your eyes to me and considered this for a moment, as if my question was bizarre, then nodded gravely. “Yes.” You stood and picked up the laptop. Then you sat back down next to me. “You want to watch it?”

“Should I?”

You snorted. “If you want to.”

“Is it awful?” I asked again, as if your answer could change, and with it everything else.

“Come on,” you said, and I sat up and waited for the video to load.

At first I didn’t feel a thing. Breathing was effortful, and my mind, which was still able to command a few basic actions, was overtaken with destructive apathy. All systems were shut down. I saw a dirt road, heavy breathing, gunshots, yelling, retreat – and I felt nothing.

Today, I know the identity of the soldier who may have been dragged by, or may have been fighting off, one of the terrorists. I promised the journalist who told me that I wouldn’t reveal it to a soul, and I kept my promise. To this day I am locked together with him in the narrow, stifling cell of the secret, leaving even you on the other side of the door. And when, from time to time, I happen upon an image of his face, I feel a special kinship toward him, as if I were the only witness to his end, and in my heart I sing to him each time anew – as there is no shortage of silly and pointless things in this world – “I’ll Never Leave You,” as sung by Nicole Croisille.

They were surrounded by concrete barricades with lethal gaps between them, and an iron fence with a gate that also imbued them with a sense of safety, entirely unaware of the opening of a tunnel dug 650 feet to the north.

• • •

At 6:40 P.M., the wind stood still and the air was grainy.

Two soldiers were standing in the pillbox, watching over the expanse between Kibbutz Nahal Oz and the Gaza suburbs, and tracking the comings and goings of infantry and armored corps. Within Israeli territory, 650 feet from the border, at the top of a reinforced concrete tower, they were convinced they were safe from harm. They were part of the second team assigned to the guard post, and had only arrived two days earlier.

The previous team had a similar routine, with a few small yet critical additions. The guards in the post had been briefed to look in all directions, even toward Israeli territory, practiced different scenarios on a daily basis, and had two other soldiers positioned on the edge of an opening into the earth they happened to find not too far away.

At the same time, down in the yard, underneath a makeshift shelter, the six soldiers of the second team broke their boredom by eating candy from the care packages sent by kind civilians. Each of them in turn told the others what he missed the most, and what was the first thing he would do when he got home. They were surrounded by concrete barricades with lethal gaps between them, and an iron fence with a gate that also imbued them with a sense of safety, entirely unaware of the opening of a tunnel dug 650 feet to the north – the same hole the previous team had guarded, and from which now emerged nine men from the military arm of Hamas. One of them wore a helmet installed with a GoPro camera that documented their advance on a dirt path alongside a sunflower field, toward the guard post.

They split into two teams. One positioned itself in the post, to block any backup forces while the other circled the yard. One terrorist hid in a corner, between two barricades, while four entered the yard.

A Hamas operative is seen inside an underground tunnel in Gaza, August 18, 2014. Credit: REUTERS

The soldiers in the guard tower heard shouting in Arabic, and were then startled by the explosion of an RPG missile as it hit the top of the tower. Immediately after that, the soldiers in the yard were fired at from three directions: from the sniper between the barricades, from the terrorist circling the post and surprising the soldiers from behind, and from three more charging from the front.

The two guards heard the gunshots and deduced what was happening in the yard, but the apertures in the tower did not offer a good view of the yard beneath them. One soldier shot a barrage into the shaft of the tower so that the terrorists couldn’t come up or throw up a grenade. A Hamas man entered the edge of their field of vision, already on his way out of the gate, dragging behind him a soldier’s body. The second guard edged the rifle out through a narrow opening in the pillbox at an angle that allowed him to shoot down and managed to get the terrorist to release the body. Then a deathly silence fell, the oddest silence they’d ever heard, and from the window they saw the Hamas fighters running lightly toward the hole and disappearing back into the earth.

I once read that death, even if it lasts no longer than a fraction of a second, always announces its arrival.

“What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you get home?”

“Hug my mother.”

When the two soldiers in the guard post came to sit shiva with us, they were accompanied by a reserve duty soldier who’d visited the post along with the deputy battalion commander shortly after the incident. On the small porch overlooking the road, crowded in plastic chairs, they did their best to answer all the questions we hurled at them.

Your eldest brother wore his elusive non-expression and went for the kill. Though he maintained a neutral tone, his body was alert. In my memory, he towers over our circle of heads – one Source-sandaled foot on his chair, the other still on the floor, his rear raised and his torso extended forward like a large seabird about to take flight.

But since outward impatience or outward eagerness or anything else outward goes against his nature, I assume that, once again, my memory is playing tricks on me. Of one thing I am certain, thanks to his glamorous military past (a past he’d disowned when he temporarily adopted the spiritual identity of an artist with anthroposophic tendencies, but which he was ready to use so as to assume a superior position above the rest of us when he saw fit): He was the one who ran this improvised inquiry, and perhaps that’s why I remember him hovering over us, his head too close to the heads of the two soldiers.

Yuli shrank down, as if trying to minimize her body surface and edge away from this first-hand report of the final moments of her son’s life, offered by the people who watched him being killed. Even she, who hugged all the soldiers who came to offer condolences, leaning into them, kept her distance from these two, not obviously hostile, but cautious and distant.

I don’t think she wanted to hurt anyone, neither her husband or his sister S., who had a tendency toward military-speak, which she reinforced with a grumpy, grave expression, nor the survivors. But, she had no opinion as to their level of responsibility and perhaps no interest either. She waited, passive and detached, for the results of the field inquiry taking place on the porch. She responded to every detail discussed with indifference, reacting only when someone mentioned something about the living Nimrod. Important things, such as what her living son talked about and how he felt revived her. She was charmed by every quote and laughed at every mischief. When they went back to talking about her dead son, she went out like a flame.

But your brother wouldn’t let go. He spurred on Ami, Nimrod’s father, who looked like he was on the verge of exploding, then tried again to find out the range of the field of vision from the pillbox and whether or not it was possible to “make contact” with the terrorists, as the soldiers had been trained to do.

Yuli shrank down, as if trying to minimize her body surface and edge away from this first-hand report of the final moments of her son’s life, offered by the people who watched him being killed.

They didn’t smile most of the time, the two soldiers. The pressure of guilt could be seen on their faces, and when they tried to smile they looked as if they’d just received terrible news that was nonetheless amusing. This was especially true of the younger guy, whom I still think of as “Moon Face.”

He had a wide, flat face the color of rich, glistening mocha, as if illuminated from within by a lantern, but sitting with us, it grew ashen. Something was swarming in his eyes, probably terror. Most of the time he lowered them toward his lap, looking at his hands (which I ached to cover with my own hands to comfort him, but knew that nobody there, least of all him, would view the gesture favorably), and only when spoken to directly did he raise his eyes to the speaker, waiting in fear for the question or statement to be made.

Less than a year ago, he was still waking up at noon, making himself some coffee, and eating leftovers straight from the fridge. Then he would shuffle back to bed and his phone, put on the playlist he’d composed with utter seriousness, stringing together the songs of local pop sensation Omer Adam and Rihanna, Kanye West and Katy Perry, hip hop and Mediterranean contemporary music, pop and dubstep, listening to it with wonder as if he’d created a miracle. The only song that had recently begun to affect him negatively was David Bowie’s “Where Are We Now?” He wanted uplifting songs, not something that sounded like it was being played from inside a grave, and he often skipped it and had already made up his mind to remove it from the playlist.

Israeli soldiers on patrol in the Gaza Strip, July 2014.Credit: Amir Cohen / Reuters

He was in the golden age of his manhood. At night he probably went out to meet friends or had them over at his house. They must have sipped revolting, cheap, vodka-based mixed drinks, and between two and three in the morning, their tongues already dry as if they had cotton balls in their mouths, they returned to their favorite subject – preparations for the combat unit in which they would soon enlist. They belched and bragged too loudly about the torment of preparing for the military rigors that awaited them, and what they had to look forward to in basic training, each of them trying to outdo the others.

They spoke derisively about sprinting and carrying stretchers, exaggerating the difficulties and belittling the dangers. Of course they wanted, like everyone else, to see some action. Of course they believed they’d be lucky enough to take part in an operation, justifying all the hopes they’d ascribed to their service in a combat unit, that they’d have the chance to fulfill a role in the script that ran over and over through their minds, according to which they pounced at the mission with determination, keeping their cool in battle, everything contained within them, all the courage they knew they had, finally finding its expression and recognition.

But somehow, of all the daydreams, all the detailed scenarios, this possibility, that 10 months later they’d become caught in a shooting battle with Hamas and would watch five of their comrades get killed, one by one, before their eyes, had never crossed their minds.

The sight of Nimrod’s perforated body was still etched onto their corneas as they sat on the porch with us, visible to us from there, and above their heads, in the stifling air of early August, hovered about seven versions of the question of whether or not they had done enough to save their friends or whether they’d been protecting themselves instead. There is no denying that none of us allowed ourselves the privilege of trying to understand them or remove the burden of guilt from their shoulders. The urgent question was how and why, and they could not refuse to answer it.

Each man is his brother’s Cain.

Alone, they survived, and they suffered the torment of survivors. They were ashamed to be alive when others were not. That’s why I believe that immediately after the incident was over, as soon as they could think again, they must have felt accused and judged. The words of Southern Command Maj. General Sami Turgeman, spoken the following day, “I expect more from any altercation our forces have with terrorists,” as well as the Hamas victory video, which received an immense number of viewings online, were aimed directly at them. Every day they had to justify and defend themselves, explaining why they locked themselves at the top of the tower rather than taking the stairs down to the yard to help their friends. Could they not have done more than they had? Deep, deep down, doubt gnawed at them.

The reserve duty soldier sitting beside me said they had to go from one bereaved family to the next and answer all of their questions, especially the ones not asked out loud. Now that I know the details of the army’s internal inquiry; now that I understand that the deaths of all five of those soldiers could have – should have – been prevented; now that I know the soldiers were fully prepared, in terms of having equipment at hand, and that they’d done everything they could have under the circumstances; now that even a clueless person like me understands the meaning of a battle fought at such close range – I realize that Moon Face and his friend were the scapegoats in a long line of malfunctions, and that the responsible parties were hiding behind their backs.

When they got up to leave, tired and grateful to have this visit over with, I ambushed them at the bottom of the stairs.

I spoke fervently. “It isn’t your fault,” I told Moon Face. “We aren’t mad at you. We aren’t mad at you at all.”

Moon Face didn’t even hear me, and his friend nodded distractedly and seemed eager to flee.

As I stood there, before him, I didn’t ask myself why my empathy for him was so deep and piercing, and still is to this day. Why did I have to release him from his guilty feelings with my own two hands? And how did Moon Face, a 19-year-old soldier whose real name I do not even know, become my mirror image?

“What did Nimrod say?” I asked when they turned to leave.

Moon Face was startled. “What?”

“What was the first thing he said he’d do when he got back home?”

Moon Face smiled glumly. “Hug his mother.”

Iris Leal is a writer and a columnist for Haaretz. She teaches writing at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. This article is excerpted and adapted from her 2019 book “We Didn’t Dare to Know” (Am Oved, in Hebrew), and was translated by Yardenne Greenspan.

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