Eli Ben-Shem, Is It Really Such an Honor to Be Buried in a Military Cemetery?

Eli Ben-Shem lost his son, 1st Lt. Kobi Ben-Shem, when two military helicopters crashed over the She'ar Yashuv moshav in the Upper Galilee, killing 73 soldiers who were on their way to an Israeli military outpost in southern Lebanon. He has served as chairman of the veterans memorial organization Yad Lebanim for the past 10 years.

In light of the controversy surrounding this week's request that Yair Sasson of Be'er Sheva be buried in a military cemetery - even though Sasson, who died in a motorcycle accident on Friday, had deserted the army for 25 days and was classified as a deserter - Ben-Shem has called on the government to enact legislation to settle the question of who is entitled to a military funeral. Sasson was granted a military funeral Tuesday, on the order of the High Court of Justice.

Does burying a deserter in a military cemetery impeach the honor of soldiers who fell in the line of duty?

Definitely. I don't think that a man who has behaved badly, deserted the ranks of the army - or, to take completely different examples, murdered his girlfriend or committed suicide or a crime - deserves to be buried in a military cemetery. It shows contempt for bereavement and inflicts real damage on the feelings of bereaved families. There is a case of a bereaved father from Tiberias, Yaakov Avitan, whose son Adi was kidnapped and murdered by Hezbollah, who said that he cannot visit his son's grave because a soldier who murdered his girlfriend is buried next to him.

As a bereaved father, do you think is it really such an honor to be buried in a military cemetery?

It is a very great honor. The people buried there gave their lives for the country, after it called upon them to enlist in the army at age 18, and did not ask if they wanted to. Military burial is an expression of the honor the government feels for them. There is no doubt that one must work and contribute to attain this honor.

How do you feel about the Eyal Sasson case coming before the High Court of Justice this week?

I feel very bad. I think that military cemeteries are a national pantheon. It is an honor to be buried in them, and for the bereaved parents who visit the graves of their loved ones. Take Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. It can be seen as the story of our revival after the Holocaust, which - along with the memorials for the fallen of the Dakar submarine and the naval battleship Eilat, and the graves of those who fell in wars and battles - tells the story of the State of Israel. Anyone who did not actively serve in the army and was killed while he was a deserter is not a part of that story.

So what happened here? How could a soldier who did not serve, who broke army regulations and was killed in a completely separate context from his army service, be buried in a military funeral?

That's the problem that needs to be solved. Army regulations define a soldier as a deserter after 15 days of being absent without leave, but burial regulations are different. I, and other bereaved parents, approached the IDF chief of staff and the defense minister to change the legislation, so that the law would be clear in these situations: If a soldier is AWOL for a clearly defined period and dies in a civilian context, he will not be considered a fallen soldier. It's important that the laws correspond with the army regulations.

In the absence of such symmetry, there is room for interpretation, as happened this week. I think that it would be right if in the end the soldier was buried in a military cemetery because he was missing only 25 days, which is a relatively short time. We don't live in a vacuum, and sometimes questions come up in all kinds of areas of life and we have to consider them all.

Is there a difference between your pain, as the father of a son who died in the notorious helicopter disaster, and the pain of Yaakov Sasson, whose son was a deserter who was killed in a motorcycle accident?

The pain is the same pain, and it is hard for me to see this father's tears. I don't see myself as more privileged than he is; I don't think at all that my pain is worse than his. We both lost our sons and there is nothing more terrible. When Kobi fell, a wound opened that will never heal. I wake with it in the morning and go to sleep with it at night. Time doesn't ease anything, and so I know the sorrow this father has to cope with and will have to cope with in future, and I wish him strength.

The former head of the IDF Personnel Directorate, Maj. Gen. (Res. ) Elazar Stern, said this week that in the current situation, it was not clear who would fill the military cemeteries in another 50 years or what we will be able to tell our descendants about those buried there. Do you agree?

I agree completely, except that he said things harshly that I would express more gently. He said them before counting to three, while I prefer to take a gentler approach. But his concern is justified.

What do you hear from other bereaved parents about the Sasson case?

Many families say it pains them that a deserter would receive the same honor that their son received after being killed in combat. Many others called me, confused about the government's laws and army regulations. They did not understand the difference between absenteeism and desertion. This incident caused a storm of feelings among many bereaved parents.

And yet, did all those buried in the military cemeteries fall in the line of duty?

About 25 percent of those buried in military cemeteries and military sections of cemeteries fell in action, in wars or battles. The rest, 75 percent, did not; they died in car accidents, while in uniform, or they committed suicide. Every year, between 110 and 120 new families become bereaved. About 30 to 40 soldiers commit suicide each year. Each of these receives the same honor from the state that it granted to my son, 1st Lt. Kobi Ben-Shem, who was killed in the helicopter disaster.

And that's okay?

It's a matter of values. If a man dies in uniform, or of a disease, he is a fallen soldier in every way. A large part of the story is education. I appeared with Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi in a high school in the center of the country about two months ago. Ashkenazi asked the students what they know about the Six-Day War. Even though there were 500 people sitting in the auditorium, there was total silence.

One boy stood up, hesitated a little and said: "Didn't we conquer Masada then?" The schools are simply not teaching about Israeli wars. I think our boy would not have heard of the helicopter disaster either. When I was young, there were role models: Moshe Dayan, Ariel Sharon. For them? They have Futana from "Big Brother," and afterwards we wonder why half of them don't enlist in the IDF.