When I speak to Elie, I love the times I can hear laughter in his voice. Over the last few weeks, the calls have been great, but in the last few days, the tone has changed, been more subdued. He still wants the connection - he'll call, but then he has nothing he wants to say (or he'll say something knowing that I can't do much but listen).
"How's it going?" was the way one call started recently.
"Fine. Everything OK?" I asked.
"Yeah. Just wanted to see how things are going?" That's Elie code for "you talk, Ima." And so I talked about a national conference I coordinated, something about the car, something about the house.
How the new course we started at our Training Center is going, about general things. He was tired, he said, when I asked again if everything was okay and in the tired voice I heard frustration.
"What's wrong?" I asked again, and slowly the story poured out.
Essentially, as much as they are men, they are still boys. Most soldiers are on the same schedule, going home once every three weeks. The army understands that this is inconvenient for some, but impossible for others. Some families are dependent on their sons and when they go to the army, the family suffers terrible hardships.
One boy's parents are both elderly and disabled and without him in the house, they can't get out. So he has permission to go home every weekend to be with them. During the week, friends and other family members carry the brunt of helping these elderly people and on the weekends, when Elie and others come home to sleep and be pampered, this young man goes home to help his parents.
Another's family is in deep financial crisis. The army has given the soldier extra time so that he can work part-time to bring money in, arranged for loans and extra assistance. The list goes on. The army has counselors and the equivalent of social workers to assist the families and the soldiers.
Most boys are grateful for the exceptions made for them and honored to serve in a way that allows them to fulfill their obligation both to family and country. Often, they have matured early as a result of their home situation and the army simply adds that extra layer of responsibility and maturity that it brings to all our sons.
But some, one in particular in Elie's unit, views the army's leniency as a victory, something about which to brag. And the other soldiers, those who don't get to go home as often, are tired and annoyed by the pushing and bragging and, being what they are underneath, still young men grappling and changing and developing, one struck back.
No, not by hitting. In frustration, one of the soldiers went over, took the braggart's sheets, pillow and blanket, and threw them in the garbage. The message was clear - you aren't part of "us." The young man found his possessions and in anger, turned to the officers on base. It is their job to punish, and punish they have.
Like parents who ground their children, they ordered all soldiers to remain on base. All leaves canceled until the one who did it admits his actions. Exceptions were made for plans that had already been arranged and those extra cases in need, and this frustrated and angered the soldiers more.
Finally, last week, the officers decided to postpone the punishment to this week entirely - Elie's weekend home. Elie is scheduled to start the training he needs to lead the Basic Training course on Sunday. While within the base, the officers can cancel one group and switch it with another, once Elie leaves, he begins a new vacation pattern.
By holding him on base this last weekend, they might well have prevented him from getting any time at home at all. Elie complained to a higher ranking officer that he was being unfairly punished and that it would be almost impossible for him to stay on base, and still get to the southern training base on Sunday on time. The officer agreed, and ordered that Elie be released as expected. This went back and forth for some time.
For a few days, this anger and frustration simmered. The soldier who did this did not come forward and the officer who punished the soldiers stood his ground. Elie fell in the middle of this, wondering if he would end up going straight from the base to his next assignment. He hadn't been home in almost three weeks. Elie was frustrated and understanding.
He knows that one soldier deserves to be punished and they do not know which one. He also knows that he is leaving the unit and has little to do that can't be done by someone else. He has turned over his responsibilities and is turning in his gun. He wants to move to the next step, the next challenge. He wants to come home. It's hard for me to sit here, knowing I can't help him. I can't go and bring him home. I'll go, as soon as the army gives him permission to leave, but there is nothing I can do to help him.
This isn't school, where I can complain to the principal if the teacher is being overly harsh. This is Elie's first step into real life and he's handling it, though he is frustrated and annoyed. There are rules he knows they are breaking; giving him less sleep than he is entitled to. He could complain, but he hasn't and he won't. He's just waiting.
This week, the army discovered a tunnel that went from a house approximately 250 meters inside Gaza, under our security fence, and into Israel. A similar tunnel was used in the past to launch attacks, kidnap a soldier, and smuggle weapons.
For no good reason, was this tunnel built. The army destroyed the tunnel and during the operation, several Palestinians were killed (not innocent ones, but armed terrorists involved with the tunnel) and several soldiers injured. The Hamas government, duly elected by the people in Gaza, the government that admits launching rockets at our cities, holding one of our soldiers, and masterminding countless terrorist attacks against our cities, malls, buses and cafes...accused Israel of breaking the "relative calm."
The term "relative calm" is a misnomer. In the rest of the world, it means a temporary peace in which both sides cease attacking the other, hopefully while working towards a peace agreement and a more permanent solution to a conflict.
In the Middle East, for Israel, it means a rocket or two a week, rather than five per day. It means our having to catch an occasional bomber rather than one each day. It means knowing that our enemies are re-arming, storing missiles and weapons, planning further attacks. This one was imminent; the tunnel was almost ready. The army destroyed the tunnel and our cities were again attacked by rockets. More than 45 rockets and mortars were launched in a two day period; six soldiers wounded, including one seriously; six civilians, including children, were taken to hospital suffering from shock.
Elie's unit was put on alert. If the rocket attacks continue, they will be re-positioned near Gaza. This presents a dilemma to the officers on Elie's base. As Elie explained it to me, "this might be the last time we can go home."
Of course, he means something far different than what the words imply. What he meant was that during a conflict, a soldier doesn't necessarily get a regular weekend home once or twice a month. If they didn't go home this weekend, after not being home for three weeks, and if they are based outside Gaza, there is no telling when they will next have the opportunity to go home. At 9:00 p.m. last night, the officers decided to let the regular soldiers go home.
Elie and another commander had to wait until this morning. They are both leaving the g'dud (battalion) to go to training base in the south. If their units are repositioned, it will not change their assignment. They returned their guns, their spare uniforms and other equipment to the g'dud and signed out.
On Sunday, Elie will be issued another gun, be given more uniforms, and receive supplies from the training base. Today, five more rockets were fired at Israel.