Sunday, October 28, 2007

Thinking a Little on Tomorrow

Well, it isn't exactly tomorrow, but Elie has a younger brother who is 17. When I first started this, I thought that I would write it to follow Elie through, God willing, his three years in the army. Somewhere along the way, I realized that it's likely that this will continue as my oldest son leaves the army and my middle son enters. It might be interesting to see how the army is different the second time around. The things I've learned should keep me calmer, right?

So, this past weekend, Shmulik's friend came over to visit and I innocently asked him what he would be doing next year when the boys graduate high school. I am encouraging Shmulik to go to one of several pre-military programs that help prepare the boy to become the soldier. They are so much smarter going in, knowing what to expect. Shmulik's friend's father was in the army and currently works for the Ministry of Religion, so I was pretty sure his son wouldn't go directly into the army. I thought his answer would encourage, but soon found I was wrong.

Shmulik's friend is talking about going to America to work for a few months and then maybe finding his way out of the army. Certainly, he doesn't want to serve in a combat unit. There were many comments about this as I tried to absorb his reasoning.

"If all of Israel felt this way," I told him, "there would be no Israel." He couldn't argue; he had no answer.

After his friend left, I asked Shmulik about the discussion. It was so hard for me to believe that this boy felt this way, that his family approved of him not serving. It was then that Shmulik told me about his father. As I'd guessed, he once had been in the army. He'd served in the Six Day War in the tank division, when his tank was hit. He managed to get out, but his friends did not. He heard them die. He saw them die, and worst of all, he smelled them die.

For a year after, his wife couldn't make meat in the house because the smell made him sick. This is a gentle man I've greeted many times. He always has a smile and a kind word. He dotes on his children, helps others, and deep in his past has this horror. "You have to understand," Shmulik said to me, "they are afraid."

I understood. Though I still think it hard to imagine this boy not serving in the army as all his friends are preparing to do, I do understand. It was then I thought about this blog and knew that I am at the start of a long road. One son is in the army now. He'll help teach me what I need to know to make the way easier for his brother. And, by the time Shmulik comes out of the army, I'll have my youngest son hot on his tails. I'll have a little over two years to get used to the idea, maybe even three.

So now, maybe I'll stop thinking about tomorrow and concentrate on today, when Shmulik is safe in school with his friends, my youngest son is safe in his school, and Elie is somewhere patrolling the security fence, not too far away and yet still out of reach.

Friday, October 26, 2007 real-time

Sometimes people say they have a lump in their throat to indicate fear or nerves. Well, it isn't a lump, exactly, and it isn't in my throat - it's deep in the pit of my stomach. It isn't exactly a burning sensation, more like a gnawing ache trying to remind me of something... I can't quite describe it, but it started about 40 minutes ago when Elie called me.

It's Friday again here in Israel. Erev Shabbat - the eve of the coming Sabbath, a day of preparation, a day to summarize the week, know you are taking a deep breathe and a brief rest before the next week begins. Friday is also the day when the Arabs near where Elie is stationed regularly decide to protest the security fence Israel has built near their homes.

Of course, Israel didn't build the security fence BECAUSE it was near their homes. Israel built it because THEIR homes are near ISRAELI homes and to protect the Israelis from shooting attacks, rock-throwing, fire-bombing and the ever persistent threat of suicide bombers attempting to infiltrate through these areas to attack our buses, our cafes, even our schools, Israel chose to make a physical and hopefully impenetrable barrier.

Other countries would flatten their enemy’s villages, expel them from near their civilian areas. Other countries would do what is necessary to defend their citizens and answer to the world later on…or not at all. But Israel is held to a different standard, and so we don’t flatten, we don’t destroy whole villages. We simply build a barrier, until they decide to make peace with us. We created a division, until, as Golda Meir once said, they love their children more than they hate us. It is needed, until the day they stop sending their children to kill ours.

In most places, the barrier is marked by a fence and in some places, where the Arab villages come very close to Jewish towns, there is a wall. The wall is tall and intimidating. It is supposed to be. There are cameras and sensors and whatever is needed. It is meant to stop those who should not enter. It does. Terrorist attacks have dropped by more than 90%; even car thefts have dropped dramatically!

There are crossings at various intervals along the security fence/wall so that those who have a right to enter our cities, those who come to work and not to kill, can enter. Thousands who would once have simply walked across a field to get to work or shop in our cities must now get to one of these crossings. Israel was forced to choose – make them get to a crossing and wait to be checked, or risk suicide bombers in our cities. They can wait, or we can bury our children. It sounds harsh, but it all comes down to that simple equation.

These crossings also allow thousands of Palestinians the chance to receive what is perhaps the best health care available in the Middle East. There are two realities here. The first is that Israeli doctors regularly treat Palestinians - children with heart defects, women in labor, and even Palestinians who attempt to hurt Israelis. And the second reality is that the delays, the closures, the checkpoints and the security fence itself are a reaction to the level of violence waged against us.

And so this morning, as happens most Fridays when Israelis and Arabs in Israel are enjoying the first day of their weekend and most workplaces are closed, some Arabs will likely once again choose to spend their day off, as they do each week, violently protesting the security fence (instead of the violence that caused it to be built).

This time, for the first time, my son will be on the line. My son will be near the security fence with a gun in his hands and rubber bullets in the gun. He will not shoot, unless the situation requires it. His training has included when to shoot, where to shoot. He will listen to them scream out their hatred. He will read their signs of anger. He will do nothing...unless they attack (as they often do). These protestors often get violent, throwing stones and sometimes more. Last week, the boys at the same checkpoint were involved in trying to break up the protesters for many hours and only returned to base an hour after the Sabbath had begun.

And so, worried that he wouldn’t be able to call me later in the day before the Sabbath, Elie called to wish me (Shabbat Shalom – a peaceful Sabbath) almost an hour ago. If he has time before Shabbat comes, he’ll call me again. If not, my stomach will continue to ache and my mind to worry.

Elie once again has told me not to worry and once again I won't tell him what a silly thing that is to tell a mother. I'll worry. I'll carry this ache in the pit of my stomach until I hear his voice say he is fine. I'll check the news, knowing most of these demonstrations don't even rate a line in the news, and I'll wait.


The Sabbath arrives in a few short minutes. Elie still hasn’t called. The news is not reporting any demonstrations or disturbances. I can only hope that Elie will return to base, or is already there.
And finally, I can only hope that the Palestinian demonstrators realize that the way to get Israel to remove the barrier, the only way, is to stop the violence. We cannot reward violence with surrender. The security fence works. It’s proven itself and literally hundreds of people are probably alive and healthy today because Israel was able to find the suicide bombers before they were able to come into our cities.

A few years ago, a team of terrorists was on its way to attack a school in the small city of Yokneam. They were caught by Israeli security forces and when asked why they had chosen Yokneam, the terrorists answered honestly – because it wasn’t protected by the fence.

So, today, as the fence protected Israel, Elie and his unit protected the fence. May God protect the defenders of Israel – those in the north and in the south, those who fly through the skies and those who patrol the waters. And may God protect my son, Elie, and all those who guard and patrol the security fence.

Changing Plans

Although Elie still doesn't know where he will go when his unit separates, he told me recently that they expected to return north briefly for a "major exercise."

According to Israel National News:

IDF Changes Exercise to Calm Syria

( Senior IDF officers said Thursday that a major exercise planned for next week will be changed in order to avoid escalating tensions with Syria. Parts of the exercise that were to take place in the Golan have been canceled, and the entire exercise will take place in the Galilee.

IDF commanders explained that a major exercise in the Golan could raise fears of an IDF invasion among Syrian leaders. “We wanted to remove any shadow of a doubt... and to make it clear that this is only an exercise,” one officer explained. The exercise will be unusually large, and will include the air force and naval corps in addition to group troops.

Of course, we don't yet know if that means Elie's part has been canceled or moved and I'm not even sure Elie has been told of the change of plans. For now, we only know that he won't be home for the Sabbath, but may get off some time next week. If so, we will hopefully go back to the hospital to visit his friend, Re'em. We've been hearing miraculous news - that Re'em is breathing on his own for many hours of they day, eating solid foods, and most important sitting in a chair and telling doctors that he can feel his legs. I've been receiving updates from Re'em's sister on a regular basis and then forwarding them to Elie, hoping that he is getting the chance to read them.

The lesson I learned in recent months was not to expect, not to anticipate, not to schedule because the army works on its own clock and its own needs. So, we wait until Elie tells us that he'll be coming soon and we will wait until Elie tells us where he will be stationed after he finishes at the checkpoint patrol.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Greetings from Your Mother

So, I'm sitting in the WordCamp Israel Blogging Conference learning more about blogs...and to get here, I passed through the checkpoint where Elie is stationed. As I approached, I quickly scanned the faces of the soldiers - Elie wasn't there. Likely, he is driving around the security fence in a Humvee. It's what he told me he prefers. "Standing and watching cars drive through is boring," he told me the other day. So, I'm happy for him; he's enjoying the air, nice views, and not being bored.

As I passed through the checkpoint, I opened the window of the car and asked a soldier standing there, "Do you know Elie?"

"Of course," he answered with a warm smile.

"Send him greetings from his mother," I requested.

He smiled. I smiled - it was a wonderful feeling - to send love to your son. It was so much better than having to drive through in the dark knowing that he doesn't know you are there. All in all, a great way to start the day - warm greetings, Elie, from your mother!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Decision Time

In a little over a week, Elie will have completed his first major milestone in the regular army. He's finished basic training, finished a large exercise in the Golan Heights, been on the edge of war as the nation sat back waiting to see what the Syrians would do, and now he is serving in his first real position as a soldier at one of Israel's checkpoints. This ends soon, as he reaches the end of his 7th month in the army.

Soon, Elie will have to make a decision. His unit is breaking up and being reassigned according to the army's wishes and the preferences of the soldiers involved. They'll come back together, possibly, if war breaks out and perhaps to take part in exercises requiring artillery practice or backup.

But for now, some will go on to the "commander's" course - four months of training followed by an assignment in which they will escort the next group of artillery inductees through those first grueling months getting used to the army. They will do to the next batch what was done to them - make the young soldiers call them "Commander" and not use their first names. Make them stand at attention each night, sleep only 6 hours, inspect their guns and their cots, and teach them what it means to be a they were taught. It means saying goodbye to Or and Yedidya for now, as they move on to their next assignments too. Elie's commanding officers want him to do the course and become a commander. Elie isn't sure.

Some will go on to be stationed in bases and checkpoints to finish out their army service. This path is not the one Elie is likely to take.

Finally, another small group will take a long and involved emergency medics course. This is much more detailed than the training Elie received during the five years he volunteered for the local ambulance squad. The medics (Hovshim) want Elie to take this course and that's what Elie wants too.

If Elie takes the Course Hovshim, he can later choose to do the Course Mefakdim (Commanders Course). But, if he takes the Course Mefakdim, it is unlikely that the army will agree to give him the Course Hovshim later. A soldier cannot lead his troops and stop to treat them at the same time. Some will lead, others will try to save lives.

To some degree, it is Elie's decision - a major one in his life so far, and not one in which I am involved. He must decide and perhaps even fight for what he wants. I dropped him off this morning at the base on my way to a client's office and later in the day, as I drove past the base again, I thought - there's my son, so close...and yet he doesn't know that I'm just outside, driving past him. He's somewhere in there, close, patrolling or sitting with friends. But for now, our lives have separated, until next week, hopefully, when he comes home again.

Already in the morning, when he came out of his room in full uniform - the first time in a week - I felt him slipping away; already his mind was back in the army. It's a good feeling because he's happy, he's committed, and he's gained so much. He's more confident, more mature, physically stronger, and, for now, excited to be embarking on each new path.

At the same time, I feel a bit strange because I know that where he walks, I can't follow. What he does, I won't always know. What he knows, he can't share with me completely. And whatever he decides, I have to accept.

The Israeli army is known for the "follow me" policy. In most armies, the commanders are in the rear - ordering their men into action. In Israel, the commanders lead. Follow me, they say to their soldiers. And the soldiers follow because they know the commander will guide them well. The commander takes the risk, is trained to shoot or handle the most complicated weapons and the soldiers follow. That's also why the number of fallen commanding officers is so high in Israel. The most famous might well be Yoni Netanyahu, who fell in Entebbe, Uganda while leading a rescue of Jewish hostages, but the is one of thousands who fell while leading their men into battle. Being a commanding officer can be very dangerous.

Israeli medics are known to risk all to get to their soldiers, to try to save them. Many medics died in our last war because they didn't wait to secure the path to the injured. To do so would likely mean allowing someone to bleed to death and so being a medic can be very dangerous in the Israeli army too. They are right there, in the thick of battle and when a soldier is wounded, they act as they have been trained, to do all in their power to stabilize, to save, to evacuate, to care for their wounded.

What this means is that there are no safe paths in the army, just as there are no truly safe paths in life. I've often told people that we give birth, if we are blessed, with perfect little babies, who spend their lives going around collecting scars. This morning, as I dropped Elie off, I thought about the scar on the top of his head - the one he got when he climbed like a monkey onto the bunk beds and then cut his head on the bookshelves nearby. It was very obvious because while on vacation this past week, he once again cut his hair very short and the hair has never quite grown back over the area where he was injured. And the scar on his leg, from the time he surreptitiously took a razor and wanted to see if he could cut his pajamas - he succeeded, but also cut his leg.

Life may be about collecting scars, but it is also about meeting challenges, testing yourself, and expanding your abilities. It's interesting to watch Elie grow before my eyes, to test himself to see what he is capable of doing.

Commander or medic? I don't know what he will choose, but I have faith that we will see him through each step...and no, he didn't let me give him a kiss in front of the base when I dropped him off, but he did smile and say he'd call soon.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Elie's Floor

The floor of Elie's room has always been something of a mystery to me. It's there - it has to be, and yet more often than not, it's a bit of a chore to find it in any large quantity. I'm a firm believer in children keeping their own rooms tidy. I'll ask them to clean it; I'll beg them to clean it.

Occasionally, I'll even help them clean it. But for the most part, a child's room is the first world that belongs just to him, and I like to respect his right to use (and abuse) it. Every once in a while, the urge to clean it beats the "be a good mother and let them be" attitude.

Lately, since Elie has been in the army, the desire to have him come home to a clean room and fresh sheets on the bed is even stronger and I've given in to it more often than not. Interestingly enough, the other kids are jealous and want me to clean their rooms there goes my great philosophy of life which said they'd like me to leave their rooms alone.

While Elie was away at yeshiva, I once spent 18 hours cleaning his room, amazed to find the amount of absolute garbage a child could tuck away in the most amazing places. He was 18 years old and I understood that he was on the brink of something. His floor contained a mixture of so many ages, toys and tools, water guns and computer or phone manuals.

As I was cleaning his room the other day before he got home from the army - doing a quick grab and chuck routine to get rid of the worst of it, a thought crossed my mind, but with the excitement of Elie coming home for a whole week, I let it slip away and didn't write about it. Then, on Friday, as Elie was preparing to go away to spend the weekend as his yeshiva/pre-military academy (also known as a mechina), the thoughts crystallized again and I promised myself I'd take the time to write.

As he was packing his bag, on his bed, were several magazines - and I don't mean the paper kind. He was taking his gun with him, naturally, including several magazines of bullets. He's been instructed to have the magazine loaded into the gun at times when he isn't on base or in our home. A few stray bullets were also on his bed. So there it is. As a very young child, Elie's floor was littered with little toy figures, cars, and marbles.

As he got older, there were CDs and all sorts of wires, brochures for the latest phones, and tools. Pieces of phones and earphones and extension cords and screw drivers and nails. His childhood toys had long since been relegated to a box in the corner under his desk and recently, he called his youngest brother in and gave him a bunch of toys from the sacred box under the desk.

But Elie's room is far from empty. Where once there were toys, now there are army boots and belts, green undershirts. Now, there are bullets on his bed. A spare belt for his gun and many packages of black shoe polish cover his desk. I could handle the shoe polish and the belts, but the bullets show me that he's in a new place in his life and I'm reminded that it's a place I've never been.

I came home late tonight and knocked on Elie's door. He was watching a movie on his computer and tucked into the area between his bed and the wall was his M16. He's wearing regular clothes, sprawled across his bed with empty bottles of ice tea on the floor. Barefoot, content...and a gun in the corner of his room. Elie was explaining to me the rules of engagement and how they are taught many Arabic phrases - "Stop or I'll shoot"; "Don't move"; "Pull your shirt up". These are designed to save lives. The Palestinian's life...and Elie's life.

His officers have explained that Israeli soldiers are stuck in a quandry - choose, they tell them - and choose quickly. If you believe the person approaching you poses a threat, call to them and tell them to stop. If they continue to advance, don't hesitate to shoot in the air. Call out again - Stop or I'll shoot. If they continue to advance, aim for their legs. Stop them from advancing and then call in a robot that will check whether they have a bomb on them. If you can't stop them, shoot to kill.

Does my son know what that means? I'm not sure that I know, and yet he understands what he must do. Elie told me that he's seen news reports of Arabs lying on the floor in pain while the Israelis send in bomb detecting robots to find and dismantle explosive belts hidden under their shirts, "What they don't show is how hard the soldiers tried to stop him before they had to shoot,"

Elie told me and I remembered the same broadcasts. It's true. You don't hear the voices calling out asking the man to stop, warning him that he is leaving them with no choice. Stop, or I will shoot because that is why I am here. To stand between you and innocent people. Stop. Don't hesitate, Elie's commanding officers tell him. If you believe you are in danger, you have to shoot. And yet, they tell the soldiers, if you are wrong, you will go to jail. It's all a matter of making a decision.

For tonight, Elie has no decisions to make, but he'll sleep with his gun by his bed and bullets close by. Not because he is in danger, but because he has learned that the gun is a part of him, an extension of the job he's been given to do. Always he must know where it is, always it must be close by. Always, he must be prepared to use it.

As for me, in a few days (too few), Elie will go back to the army and I'll go in and clean his room when I'm missing him most. I'll probably find some stray bullets and wonder where my little boy put his cars and marbles and Power Ranger figures and I'll mourn, just a little, a world that forces us into a position in which there are bullets in a boy's room and an extra pair of army boots in his closet.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Same and Yet Different

Three times a year, the army gives its soldiers a week of vacation time. It's a week when the man can slip back into the boy, back into watching too much television, staying up too late, eating wrong and more. In just over a week, it will be seven months since Elie entered the army. The changes go deep inside and will likely remain a part of who he has become.

Today, Elie's first free day away from the army, he got up early. He drove his brother and then his sister to school and later came to my office (twice) to help with some renovations we are doing. We ate dinner together and by 9:30 p.m., Elie had already gone to sleep. The boy who has vacation from the army can quickly fall back into old patterns, but the soldier in Elie likes what he has become physically and so the discipline that has become so much a part of his life is what will be tested this week.

Yesterday, I picked Elie up from the nearby base where he will be stationed for the next two weeks (one week of which, he'll spend at home with us). From there, we drove to a little store where Elie ordered prescription inserts for his boots to help ease some discomfort he's had (a result of flat feet and being on his feet too many hours a day). The army will cover this expense and it was interesting to see the store filled with other soldiers. Next to Elie sat a friend from his unit that we'd brought along for the same purpose - getting the insert for the boots. Across from Elie, was a young soldier in the paratroopers, another in some other division we didn't recognize. When that soldier left, a young female soldier sat down with her father. The father looked at Elie and his friend and asked what unit they were from. The light blue beret on Elie's soldier is an automatic giveaway - artillery, so what was left was simply the name of his unit within the larger division, represented by a number.

What followed was a serious of short sentences, numbers, locations, actions - army talk. The man had been in artillery more years back than he wanted to remember. He asked where the boys were stationed, where they'd been and explained that his unit no longer existed, but had been merged into another. This is very much a part of Israel. Long after this man has stopped serving in the army, even as his daughter is now serving, he remains "artillery." As I looked back and forth between Elie and this man, I realized that Elie too will be "artillery." This is a part of him and what he has become.

After we left the store, we went to visit Elie's friend, Re'em. Re'em has been moved to another hospital that specializes in rehabilitation and should hopefully help his recovery. The good news is that Re'em appears to have some feeling in his legs and is more aware of his surroundings. He looked at Elie and asked him how he was doing. It was hard for Elie, first because he had trouble understanding what Re'em was asking him and secondly because he didn't have any idea what to say.

"What's happening?" - the universal greeting of young men this age seemed so silly and it was clear that Re'em wasn't up to talking for any length of time. Elie has not yet mastered the concept of "small talk" and didn't understand that just speaking would have been a comfort. He tried to think of a topic. He tried to talk and found all words were completely inadequate. My mind filled with the words I wanted him to say, but I've had years more experience dealing with sick people, with those who are suffering.

Tell him about being stationed in the north, about how you'd had an exercise with a mutual friend's unit and how you "bombed" the hill that Roi's unit then "stormed." Tell him that you are now stationed at a checkpoint not far away. Tell him you came to see him a few days after the accident and it is so good to see him awake. Tell him you don't want to stay long because you know he is tired, but you are going to come back again as soon as you can.

I saw the anguish in Elie's eyes and longed to help him. I spoke briefly to Re'em, who responded, but it was Elie he wanted to hear from. So much to say, but nothing could go through the lump in Elie's throat and other than a few brief words, Elie watched as Re'em closed his eyes and went to sleep and then fought to awaken and look at Elie again.

Before we went into Re'em's room, I saw Elie talking with his middle-brother, who had come along with me to get Elie and go to the various stops along the way. Elie was the big brother, giving advice, the all-knowing, self-assured one. Suddenly, in the hospital, he was so unsure of himself and what to do. There wasn't much I could say to comfort him, no assurances I could give. It was good to see how much Re'em had progressed and it was also clear that he had a long road ahead of him. We'll go back, and hopefully next time, Elie will be able to speak more.

After we left the hospital, Elie asked if we could stop by a store and pick up some snacks for the guys at the checkpoint. To get back home, we had the option of taking one of two roads. Elie's group is stationed at a checkpoint on one of these roads and so we stopped at a store, bought cola and snacks and drove there. Elie got out with bags in hand and crossed the wide road alone while I watched. There is a brotherhood among soldiers, a deep friendship that develops that is obvious. Elie handed the snacks to one of his commanding officers, who thanked him and gave him a slap on the shoulder. Two others came over to greet him. Hand shakes, pats on the back. I was too far away to see the smiles I knew graced their faces, but the body language was clear. My son is among friends, among brothers.

The part that was special, was that Elie had only left them three hours before and yet he was greeted like a long lost hero. It helped ease the pain of seeing Re'em and being unable to do anything. Here, Elie did something - he moved with ease among his friends and then, to their great envy, he walked back to the car with a smile, to come home and sleep in his house, in his room, in his bed.

Monday, October 15, 2007

And the Decision Was...

never really made. Elie and his unit waited for word on Friday that they would be allowed to come home. Their bags were packed, the artillery equipment cleaned and packed away and the buses were there, but somehow up the chain of command, the approval never quite materialized and so Elie and his fellow soldiers spent the Sabbath up in the Golan.

On Sunday, Elie had a medical appointment to check why his feet and back were hurting (he got a referral for special inserts into his hard combat boots) and was kept waiting for the doctor for many hours. In the end, it was clear that by the time he returned to Tiberias on the regular bus, he would miss the last connecting army bus to the base and so he was allowed to come home for the night. I saw him for only a few minutes - enough for him to agree to my question about whether he would like me to bake him cookies to take along.

He went to sleep - I went to bake cookies after his youngest brother kindly prepared the ingredients. In the morning, I decided to indulge my need to be with him and agreed to drive him to the base where he and his unit will be stationed for the next two weeks. Elie wanted to drive and we stopped by his youngest sister's school because she'd forgotten her bottle of water and I know she likes to be able to drink during school.

As I watched Elie walk into the school with his uniform, I could imagine how excited his little sister would be to have her big brother walk into the classroom and hand-deliver her water. I could have taken the bottle in, or left it at the office, but it was a little gift I gave to each of them - Elie the chance to be the big brother, Aliza the sister with the soldier brother.

Elie loves to drive and so I gladly surrendered the wheel. As he drove, I asked him about the coming weeks. He'll be patrolling along Israel's security fence, helping protect against those who would try to infiltrate and attack our cities and civilians. I asked him about what he'd learned and he told me for the last week in the north, they spent most of their time back in the classroom learning all that they needed to know: how to identify a suspicious person, a fake ID, someone likely to cause harm.

The goal, Elie learned last week, was to protect the people of Israel so that they can live normal lives.
  • Israelis must be free from fear, so that they can live normal lives.
  • Palestinians must be free, so that they too can live normal lives.
  • Israelis must be able to travel to work, to schools, for medical care.
  • Palestinians must be able to travel to work, to schools, for medical care.

The challenge, Elie learned last week, was to combine these directives and to minimize the inconvenience to one population while minimizing the threat to the other. But the most important directive must be the lives of Israelis. The quality of the Palestinian's life cannot take precedence over the safety of the Israeli, over the very life of the Israeli.

Elie was taught how to face a threat, when to shoot, where to shoot and given the right to decide. It is your responsibility, they told him, to decide if the person who approaches you poses a threat to your safety or that of Israel.

If an ambulance approaches the checkpoint, he was told, you have to search it as quickly as possible. Try to make it fast so that the Palestinian patient doesn't suffer. But if you miss something, someone in Israel may die. Ambulances have been used in terrorist attacks and to hide explosives. Be thorough. Be careful. Israel is counting on you.

Heavy words for a 20 year old. Responsibility beyond any I can imagine. Elie is calm and smiling when I drop him off at the base. He's met two of his friends and they are awaiting the rest of the unit. It's another day in his life as a soldier. Another day when the sun is shining and he is being tested. He's strong. He's happy. He's a human being and he will do what is right - for the Palestinian who approaches him and for the Israeli who depends on him.


And a quick update on Elie's friend, Re'em ben Chaya Margalit: today, someone touched Re'em's leg and it moved in response. The doctors are hopeful that this is a positive sign that Re'em has some feeling in his legs and that his recovery has begun. I called Elie and told him the news. We are hoping to go visit Re'em this week.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Waiting for a Decision

It's Friday morning here in Israel. It's a time of anticipation - the Sabbath is coming and that means a chance to shut the world out; to forget about pressures of work and the worries of finances and schedules. Twenty five hours, from sunset tonight to tomorrow night, when we don't think about anything other than this time with our families and friends.

Friday morning is all about preparation. What we do brings in the Sabbath and fills the house with warmth. We clean our homes or make sure everything is in order. We prepare the table in advance with the best dishes and place the sweet Challah bread in the center, all for that moment when you come back from the evening prayers to a home filled with peace. We cook our favorite foods on Friday and keep them warm over the Sabbath. So Friday means the house is filled with the most wonderful smells of soup, roasting chicken, perhaps a cake or two. Walk down our block on Friday morning, and everyone knows, the Sabbath is coming.

And when it does, we stop. For 25 hours, we shut out the world. No telephones, no computers, no television. No cars, no radios, no stereos. Few cars on the street, but many people strolling around, not in a rush to get anywhere. It's Shabbat, our day of rest and our minds and bodies are conditioned to breathe, to relax, to accept the moment and not worry about tomorrow. Until Saturday night, and then we are back to our regular fast-paced lives...rushing, working, doing it all, and waiting until we are graced with another Friday morning like this one.

Elie is up north, waiting too. Will he be allowed to come home for the weekend? Next week, on Sunday morning, they move on to their next assignment so there's really no reason for his unit to remain up north. The artillery equipment has all been cleaned and prepared. His bags are packed. They are waiting for the approval of some high level army official.

Two weeks ago, while Elie wasn't home, I created a new recipe that I know he is going to love. Should I make it for him or will he again not be here to enjoy it? Should I buy the drinks he likes...they won't go bad, would be my mother's advice. Should I clean his room (even though he won't expect it)...well, it won't get dirty again while he's away, right?

So, I'm waiting. Elie's waiting. What the army might put the unit on a bus to begin the long journey south. This is what they did a few weeks ago with the rest of the group - the time that Elie came home early to see Re'em. They gave them instructions to drive to a particular location and wait there. This way, they were closer to home if they got the expected approval, and close enough to come back, if they didn't. When approval still hadn't come through, they were told to travel a little further on the way.

It reminds me of the Entebbe hijacking rescue in 1976. Years later, it would come out that the government was still debating whether to approve the mission or not, to risk flying hundreds of miles to chance a rescue of over 100 Jewish passengers and the brave French crew that stayed with them after terrorists performed a Nazi-like selection process and released the non-Jewish prisoners. Should Israel fly that far? Could the airforce and army successfully attack the terrorists and rescue the hostages so far from our country, in the midst of Uganda?

The government couldn't decide and time was running out. If the mission didn't leave by a certain hour, they would miss their narrow window of opportunity and arrive at the wrong time of day. So, they got approval to fly out of Israel, but not launch the mission. Somewhere above the skies between here and Uganda, the planes received the go-ahead.

Nothing so grandiose here, just a bunch of boys who want to come home and a bunch of mothers trying to figure out what to cook. Soon, they will be on a bus, waiting for the go-ahead to come home. Will Elie be home this weekend? Stay tuned...

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A Quick Update

The problem with blogging, I've learned, isn't so much the starting as the maintaining. In my last post, I told you about Elie's friend Re'em - and have left many people hanging by not updating you. The problem is, as with many medical situations, it takes mere seconds to get there, and months or longer to get out.

Re'em is stable. Where he is now, isn't a very good or comfortable place, but for now, it's a day-by-day battle. He is still in intensive care and the doctors don't yet know, or at least aren't saying to those outside the immediate family, what any long term prognosis is.

For now, it seems we take it day-by-day and wait for his body to heal, praying that it be as complete and speedy a recovery as possible. The good news is that they have moved the breathing tube from his mouth, so that he is more comfortable. There are small signs of progress and many prayers on his behalf. More than that, there is not much that we can do.

As for Elie, he's back up north waiting for his unit to be transferred to another location. It might happen next might not. Elie has learned a little lesson himself. He hesitates to tell me if he is coming home because he doesn't want me to be disappointed. I heard from a friend that their son might be coming home this weekend and since he is in Elie's unit (one of 6 other units loosely bound into this division), I asked Elie if he was coming home too. He's still waiting to find out.

When the transfer comes through, it is another milestone in his service. It means training has ended and he is part of the regular army. For the next 9 months or so, he'll be patrolling various areas on Israel's borders and at various checkpoints. Then, assuming we aren't involved in war before then, he'll go back into training for a few months to keep them comfortable with the artillery equipment.

What does it mean to man a checkpoint? That's a post in and of itself, but the short version is very simple. Elie and his group will have 2-3 seconds to decide if the person who is approaching them poses a threat. Is there a chance this person is armed, carrying explosives, or someone who simply wants to support his family? Will the ambulance that wants to take a patient to the hospital have been altered to provide shelter not for the ill, but for those who wish to attack? All this, must be decided in the two or three seconds it takes for the person to pass through the checkpoint. Elie and his group will be all that stands between one person intent on murder and innocent men, women and children who, even as those seconds tick away, are unaware of any threat.

This is the way it was on August 9, 2001, when a young Palestinian couple crossed through a checkpoint on their way into Jerusalem. He was carrying a guitar case, and inside the innocent looking case, there was a massive bomb, and screws and nails to magnify the devastation. He was from a well-to-do family; she was part of the image they would present. Ahlam Tamimi was 20 years old when she accompanied Shuheil al-Masri and years later was quoted as saying, "I'm not sorry for what I did."

Think of the soldier who let al-Masri pass through the checkpoint that day. He had only seconds to decide and he made a tragic mistake. What are our options? Can we give our soldiers more time to evaluate each person? Can we check them more carefully?

On the other side of the argument are those who say checkpoints damage the quality of life of the Palestinians. This argument was made to Arnold Roth, whose 15 year old daughter Malki was murdered in the Sbarro bombing. Roth's answer was very simple - we have no right to speak of the quality of Palestinian life...when his daughter was denied life itself. If the Palestinians didn't bring their threat and their violence to our cities, the security fence and defensive measures would not have to be taken. The bombings came first; the security fence is a reaction to it. Stop the bombings - the attempts at bombings, and the fence can come down.

Would a few more seconds have made the difference? We'll never know. But there are many, many cases where the checkpoints have saved lives, caught a bomber or someone carrying a weapon and so the checkpoints become a necessary evil that will go away when the Palestinians stop trying to bring weapons through them. Now especially, when much of the security fence is in place, Palestinians must cross into Israel through the checkpoints.

The result is a 90% drop in terrrorist attacks and a much higher rate of catching those who attempt violence. The flip side of that is the tremendous burden it puts on our soldiers at the checkpoints - to be constantly aware of who is passing in front of them. Friend or foe? Innocent civilian or someone who wants to harm innocents? Unarmed or carrying explosives, guns, knives, any weapon meant to harm?

Soon, Elie will learn a new reality. He will learn to judge, to evaluate, to determine, to quantify and qualify, to analyze and understand each of thousands of people who walk and drive through his checkpoint - all in two or three seconds.

From the age of 6, Elie has passed through checkpoints thousands of times. Starting next week, he will be standing there, between Israel and those who would do her harm...and between Israel and thousands of innocent Israelis and Palestinians who just want to get to work or school. It will be Elie's job to tell the difference - in two or three seconds.

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