Thursday, September 6, 2007

Just When You Thought It Was Safe...

I thought I'd have more time. Time to adjust to being the mother of a soldier in training; time to adjust to being a mother of a soldier on patrol; time to adjust slowly to the inevitable unknown. This week we celebrated Elie's father's 50th birthday - another great milestone in a man's life, in a father's life.

We planned a special surprise birthday party, which didn't come off for several reasons, but Elie had already gotten permission to come home a few hours early and so we settled on a plan to have the whole family together for dinner. I got a text message from Elie last night at midnight telling me he'd be on a bus at 6:00 a.m. and home by 11:00 a.m. Time to rest, relax, sleep a little and be refreshed for dinner.

Elie called at 4:00 a.m. to tell me they'd been put on alert. Clearly something had happened, but I didn't know what. It's the whole country, Elie told me. I wondered what was happening in Gaza and why that should effect Elie.

By the morning, it was clear that Elie couldn't leave the base but the reason still wasn't clear. For a few minutes around 11:00 a.m., Elie was told he could come home, but he called me to say there were no buses.

"I'll come get you," I told him. It's a two-hour drive, but the need to see him, to feel him safe, was strong enough that I didn't care.

"One of the guys has to get to Eilat. He asked if you could drop him in Tiberias," Elie asked. "He'll fly from there."

"No problem," I said as I looked around for a map.

"The other guys asked if you could bring them some snacks. And some cola," Elie added. "Not diet."

That was probably the first smile I'd had all day. "No problem." I loaded bags filled with bamba, the national favorite snack and added some chocolate, some drinks, and more. Map in hand...the phone rang.

"They shut it down again. I can't come," Elie told me.

I spoke to him on and off, each time wondering what was happening, where. Around 4:00 p.m. Israeli time, the story broke. The Syrians are claiming that an Israeli aircraft flew over their territory. "We warn the Israeli enemy government against this flagrant aggressive act, and retain the right to respond in an appropriate way," the Syrian spokesman said.

The gist of Elie's response to that claim can be summed up as a denial. It's not true, he said. The Syrians are making that up because they have a reason. It won't have happened by accident, it seems all agree.

Did Israel fly over? Did the Syrians make the whole story up in order to increase tensions? All possibilities that leave a mother panicked beyond words. Elie is calm. His unit is ready. Their vehicles are there, armed and ready if needed. There are bunkers nearby; secure areas. Radar, satellites. Nothing comforts right now.

I thought I'd have more time to come to terms with this. I couldn't get back to sleep after Elie called last night. "I told you now to worry," Elie scolded me this morning. At another time, I would laugh...how silly for a boy to think he can command his mother not to worry. It is yet another small sign that deep in the man, remains the boy.

Syria will do what it wants to do. The political scientist in me (Barnard College, Class of 1982) tells me that nations act according to their interest, and it is in Syria's interest to keep the Middle East in the news. Peace does not serve their purpose; compromise is not in their vocabulary. Any peace without a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan will be seen as a defeat for Bashar Assad and so there can be no peace with Syria. If US efforts in November to bring about a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians are successful (something very few people believe is even a slight possibility), that success would leave the Syrians on their own. They have a vested interest in seeing that those talks don't succeed, and that might even mean going to war.

In 1948, Syria attacked Israel. In 1956, Syria attacked Israel. In 1967, Syria in conjunction with Egypt was preparing to attack, and in 1973, Syria again attacked. The Golan Heights is the only thing that stands between Syria and almost 1 million Israelis. The Golan Heights is there as a physical barrier. Whoever commands the heights, has the ability to secure...or destroy, much of northern Israel. The Golan Heights protects those vulnerable valleys...just as Elie's unit and the other soldiers who are up there protect the Golan Heights.

What I have learned today, is that life in the army is full of unknowns. Not much different than other aspects of life and yet, more frightening and frustrating at times. Elie was to come home for the upcoming holiday of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. Now it appears that they won't be able to release him. He was to have come home today, but is still in the north tonight as the sun is setting. Tomorrow he might be able to get here, we still don't know.

And through all those unknowns, is the deepest unknown of all - what will Syria do, and where will my son be when they take whatever actions they will? The lump that has been inside of me since Elie entered the army seems so much larger tonight that it almost blocks my ability to breathe.

As always, I can see today's events from many sides. The Israeli in me refuses to be intimidated. I don't know what happened last night.

It could have been an intentional incursion by the Israeli air force - but for what purpose? We can see all that there is to see by our satellites. Sending in a single plane at midnight is absurd, unnecessary, and unlikely. The Syrians are unlikely to have actually seen anything and since they claim that the plane flew over an uninhabited area and did no damage, who then was there to say the plane "dropped ammunition." No, I would never credit the Syrians with actually telling the truth.

It could have been an accidental crossing over a dark border late at night - unlikely, given the sophistication of the Israeli Air Force, but possible.

It could have been...and likely was...a fabrication of the Syrian side. And so, we are back to the same question - for what purpose? Here the answer can be an attempt to destroy, in advance, any chances the US plan had for success. It could be many things.

For me, I have to find comfort, from day to day and moment to moment. At this moment, my son is safe. Closer to danger than I would like him to be, but safe. May he and the protectors of Israel have a safe and quiet night and may they each have the chance to be with their families soon. Lila tov, Elie - I love you.

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Note: It's Friday morning. I heard from Elie only briefly saying that the army would be keeping them in the north "just in case." Yesterday, Syria claimed Israeli aircraft "dropped bombs on an empty area while our air defenses were firing heavily at them." Today they admit that we didn't drop any bombs and have reduced their claims to a whine "They intervened in our airspace... which they should not do -- we are a sovereign country and they should not come into airspace."
It still isn't completely clear if an Israeli plane even entered Syrian airspace - but what seems to be happening, one can only hope, is that Syria is backing off. Perhaps there too, there are mothers who fear for their sons and want only peace. One mother wrote to me "I still think we need a conference of mothers – I’ll bet there are more than a few American, Israeli, Syrian, Lebanese, and Iraqi mothers out there who don’t want their children in harms way either."I think that is the conclusion to all things - let the mothers rule!

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