Tuesday, March 31, 2009
I can drive; I can use a computer; I can do...well, a lot of things. I might not be able to run as fast, jump as high. I certainly can't shoot anything - I have this medical condition that makes it difficult to touch a gun. It has a term ... it's called ... um ... gunaphobia. But other than my ... my ... gunaphobia, I don't have any allergies and I do really want to serve my country and I do believe in ... well, whatever I have to do to get in there!
You probably think I've lost my mind, right? But, it's easy to explain. See, I was folding laundry - I have a pile higher than a mountain in my living room. My kitchen is clean, but now I have to scrub it. I know that doesn't make sense, but you see, it's not about clean, it's about crumb-free, bread-free, noodles-free.
On top of that - for months now, Elie's room has been ... well ... let's just say that I honestly don't believe it is humanly possible to have a messier room. Elie is, like his parents, a collector. It doesn't matter of what, only that whatever it is might be useful in the future, might remind you of something. I've spent almost two hours trying to clean Elie's room and this idea just popped into my head. I want to join the army.
I've picked up string after string, papers of all sorts, a few stray bullets, even. Deep under the piles of clothes that should have been in the closet, there are toys from the child he was such a short time ago. And there are booklets from the army; army boots, and a used gun belt. There's an extra pair of gloves he got while he was stationed near Gaza during the war. I'm opening every piece of paper, lest I accidentally throw something out by mistake. There’s an extra plastic thing that Elie once explained is used to manually calculate the angle of a missile. And if he says so, it must be true.
I found a listing of his soldiers and a two page handout of satirical lyrics that they probably wrote for the battalion vacation recently. They poked fun of one of the other battalions, showing gratitude for, of all things, at least not being part of that group.
I've folded dozens of dark gray socks and green undershirts. I've thrown out empty bags of pretty much every snack known to the Israeli child and a few that they don't know. I found a package of American candy corns and two full bottles of water – including one that had a rope attached to it. I’m sure there’s a story there.
Passover is coming. It's the time that we become obsessive about cleaning out our homes. Each of my children is cleaning their own space - more or less ... and helping with the rest of the house as well. Today while I was at a client's site, my middle son and one of my adopted sons cleaned the oven and the refrigerator. For 15 year old appliances, I have to say they look quite amazing!
All this work is symbolic, to a certain extent - but it's also very physical. Passover is a time when we celebrate freedom - our freedom. It is a holiday of tremendous faith. Would you follow someone blindly into the desert? Would you leave the world you know - even if the conditions were bad - in the hope that tomorrow will be better? That's the underlying story of Passover - have faith, trust, believe.
Passover is the time that Spring arrives - of flowers and the promise of summer. And Passover is the celebration of a victory over evil; over a kingdom that enslaved us; a people that abused us. From the weakest in the land, we were released, built into a nation, and given our homeland.
This is our land – ancient and beloved. We know where Joseph is buried and Samuel the Prophet. We know where our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are buried. We know where Rachel rests on the side of the road near Bethlehem; and Sarah and Rebecca and Leah, too.
Our connection to this land is there, here, for all to see. It is what makes this land so incredible. You walk and with each step, you feel those who came before. We are commanded to accept that all of the House of Israel stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and received the Ten Commandments and God's promise of the Torah.
On the anniversary of the night the Israelites left Egypt, Jews around the world will commemorate that moment with the Seder. This year, Elie will be here. By the time he gets here, maybe I'll forget about my sore back, my tired eyes, worries about all sorts of things, most of which I can't do anything about anyway. Too often, in the spirit of the minor details, we lose the meaning of the real and larger issues. That's what happens to me almost every year and I am struggling to avoid it happening this year.
It works while I am out of the house ... and then when I come home, I look at the rooms that still need to be done, the things that still need to be scrubbed. When the Jews left Egypt, some of them lost sight of the greater miracle and went astray to worship the golden calf. Perhaps there is a message there as well for me ... if I only had the time to think about it.
Elie will come home to a clean room, fresh sheets and an organized closet ... even if it kills me.
So, see, I return to the start of this post. I'm thinking that if I could join the army - I could maybe come home at the last minute to a clean house, cooked food, all the Passover food bought and stored away. Sheets changed, everything scrubbed. Please, please can I join the army?
Sunday, March 29, 2009
I started the day feeling the weight of the world on my shoulders. So many reasons I couldn’t begin to count them; so much to do, I don’t know where to begin. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, so my first job was to cut it down. I did that by starting to make a list of the things that are on my mind. I hadn’t finished when I was called into one meeting, followed by another.
Finally, back to my office for some quiet. I read some emails, looked at the pile of papers on my desk and decided procrastination was good. I sorted through the stack, throwing away the garbage and handing much off to be filed. In the middle of the second pile, Elie called. I had spoken to him before the Sabbath arrived on Friday, spent a nice and quiet Shabbat with the rest of my children (one “adopted son” was with us, another far away in America living with his wife, Elie in the north.) Not all together, but at least everyone safe and accounted for.
Sunday came with the regular back-to-school/back-to-work routine. Meetings, some work, some accounting, some twittering, some LinkedIn, and then the phone call I wasn’t expecting.
I don't have all the details but for some reason, Elie and two soldiers were given the battalion commander’s jeep and told to drive from the base in the north to point A, from point A to point B, from point B, back up north. I assume they had things to do in each place, but the main point here is that our home lies roughly between point A and point B - with a detour of about 20 minutes. It's a matter of driving straight when the road curves from the Dead Sea to Jerusalem, entering our city and driving another 5 minutes to our home.
"Hi, Ima. Where are you?" Elie asked.
"At the office," I answered. In Jerusalem. It was early afternoon. The Passover holidays are fast approaching. It's a time when people, especially women, start cleaning every inch of their homes – not your regular daily/weekly cleaning but to a depth that is often hard to explain. Passover cleaning is difficult to do at the best of times; almost impossible to do while maintaining a full work load. My middle son spent much of the day cleaning on his own, waiting for me to come home and pitch in.
"I'll be home in about an hour," Elie said. My first thought was that this was a bad thing. If they were sending him home now, would that mean that he wasn't going to spend the seder with us? I'm desperate for that time, that night, that togetherness. I need to be able to shut the world out and if Elie isn't home, I won't be able to do that. I won't be able to gather into myself and forget all else. I know that sounds terribly self-centered, but I guess that's why I started this blog - so that I could talk about a soldier's mother. Often I talk about the soldier - but this is a mother thing. So yes, I want him home. I need him home – not today, next week. Why were they sending him home today?
Before I could get completely upset, Elie explained that he was traveling past and so would stop at our home for a few minutes. Ah, my heart calmed as quickly as it stirred. Five minutes. Passover is still ours. Wait…I’m in Jerusalem at work. He’s going home.
"I was going home early," I explained, more to myself than to him. A few hours doesn’t really make a difference, and anyway, here a computer, there a computer – I can work from home. "I'll meet you there."
I could have put in another hour of work, but that would mean not seeing him. I left the office within minutes and as I was entering the city called Elie.
"Where are you?" I asked.
"Tzomet Almog," he explained - just at the foot of the steep climb up from the desert plain to our mountain-top city. The Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth – located approximately 350 meters below sea level. Maale Adumim is about 650 meters above sea level – the highway climbs for a good 10-15 minutes. Elie was close, "About 20 minutes away," he said.
"Do you want me to stop and get you anything?" I asked him.
"How about burekas?" he asked. These are potato or mushroom (or cheese or spinach) pastries with a light flaky dough.
"How many are you?" I asked.
"Three," he answered. And so I stopped in the mall and filled a small bag with mushroom and potato burekas.
"How many burekas can three soldiers eat?" I asked the man behind the counter.
"Depends on how hungry they are," he answered with a smile. Great, I thought. Duh. I'm a mother, you silly man. Just say I put in enough, that's all I need to hear. He took the bag, put it on the scale. And said, "This is fine."
I bought some chocolate pastries too. Drove home. Threw two bottles of Elie's ice tea into a bag; added a container of brownies and some cups. What else?
"Hi, Ima," Elie called out as he came in the house. I showed him the stuff in the bag and got a "cool." He went to the bathroom, gave me a hug and went outside. I asked if the others wanted to use the bathroom too. Elie said no.
I followed him outside and saw that the "others" were two soldiers - one male; one female. Elie was the commanding officer, the other two didn't have stripes on their sleeves. One was the driver. I looked at the young woman, "would you like to use the bathroom?" I asked.
"Yes, is it ok?" she asked and suddenly she was what she really is - a girl; not a soldier, but a person under the uniform. Yes, of course she needs a bathroom. Elie and the other young man could easily find someplace, any place, if they had to see to their needs, but she needed a private place. Not something that Elie or the other boy would have thought of and so I said to the young woman, "he's a man. You'll have to excuse him," and they all laughed.
She went in and I told Elie with a smile, "girls need bathrooms," and he laughed that wonderful laugh; smiled that wonderful smile and shoved a burekas in his mouth.
They stayed for about 10 minutes, munching on the brownies and the burekas. Elie kept saying he wasn’t hungry and yet in the space of a few minutes, he ate several burekas and brownies, drank some ice tea and just smiled.
Elie confiscated one of his brother's music CDs (with permission) and they stood around and munched and talked. Three young people - that's really all they are. Three beautiful young people...all dressed in green...all with guns…driving around in an army jeep...and an assignment that requires them to travel between army bases.
As Elie walked to the front of the jeep, I called to him, "you still have to give me a hug," I said. And he did.
In the scale of a lifetime, it was a quick flash, easily gone in a second; in a mother's day, it was everything. The world balances when you can see your son for just a few minutes unexpectedly. It's back to cleaning; back to folding laundry; back to waiting until the next time I have all my children with me and I can close out the world, knowing they are all safe.
I asked the young driver if he was OK to drive the long distances, asked him to be careful. It was the mother speaking to them - hopefully a slice of home for each but most definitely for Elie. He travels back up north with his mother's brownies...and her love.
Gaza is different than Lebanon; Hamas different from Hezbollah. Syria is different from Jordan; all different from Egypt. Each time Elie is ordered to a border, he and his soldiers are first taught what that means, who stands against them. Elie is 21 years old; soon enough, he'll be 22. Thirty years ago, a young Benjamin Netanyahu was interviewed and asked to explain the situation in the Middle East. Like Elie, he was young and handsome. Like Elie, he was strong and determined and like Elie, the ways of politics had yet to poison his opinions and so a young Bibi, our next Prime Minister, spoke the truth of what we face here - then and now.
The situation has not changed; our enemies have not changed. What has changed, sadly, is that the political animal in this young man has silenced a tongue that once spoke truth.
This is Benjamin Netanyahu at 28 years old, explaining clearly the situation in the Middle East. This was more than 30 years ago and perhaps the saddest thing is that nothing has really changed.
Sunday, March 22, 2009
We entered an intersection and joined a long line of cars waiting to enter a tunnel.
"Why are they getting stuck here?" I asked aloud, a bit frustrated to be hitting traffic earlier than usual along the route.
"The light at the end of the tunnel," Elie answered.
And there began a discussion of the difference between men and women, the literal and the figurative.
"I can't see the light at the end of the tunnel," I answered and again realized how funny that sounded.
Sure enough, it was the literal light at the end of the tunnel that was delaying the traffic and sure enough, it is the light at the end of each tunnel that we face in life that leads us forward, calls to us. We all have that light, something we desperately want and know that we have to keep working towards, even if we can't see it.
We celebrated my middle son's birthday this weekend. He turned 19 and already the army is part of the discussions we have. I urge him towards artillery - it's a known world for me and for the most part one that takes place behind enemy lines. I already know in my head that I won't be that lucky next time around; that this son will go in, where Elie bombed from outside. He talks of many units and possibilities; artillery does not interest him. He does not want to be Elie's little brother, even though the army is not like school.
"Ah, Elie's brother," he's heard in the past. No, he won't follow Elie. Perhaps it's the fatalist part of me, but I already know that next time around, I'll have to find a way to breathe even with him insidea war zone. I don't know if it will be in ground forces, tanks, paratroopers, or some special unit. I just know, deep down, I won't be lucky enough twice to know that my son is outside the most dangerous areas.
Like the mother I was two years ago when Elie entered, the one who couldn't imagine functioning while a son was actively at war (even on the outside perimeter), I can't imagine this second son entering into Gaza or Lebanon or Syria and doing what so many of our soldiers did just a few weeks ago. So many mothers were so brave; functioned and did what they had to do.
I can't imagine having their grace and courage; no, I am not like them. I'll try to be; I want to be. Or maybe I don't. Maybe if I can convince God (forget trying to convince my son or the army), maybe God will have mercy on me and arrange for another artillery assignment. Yes, that is my best bet - I can "handle" artillery. God knows the army...He can do this. Yes, that's where I am going to concentrate my energies! God, please, please put Shmulik in artillery too!
"I can't see the light at the end of the tunnel," I told my children this morning and in a very real sense, this is true. I have one son in the army - he will leave the army in about one year from now, but there is no light there because by then, the second son will likely already be in basic training, at least.
There will be about three years in which I'll probably have no son in the army - but up to six months of the time, I'll have one or the other doing his annual reserve duty (one month or so per year for a combat soldier, potentially more if/when there is a war).
God has given me a gift, three gifts (OK, actually five gifts and six if you count my husband and more if you go outside this inner circle). These three particular gifts have all been blessed with healthy and strong bodies. Two already have the highest profile given in the army and it is likely the third will (God willing) as well. Two have already agreed to join combat units; one has not been asked yet. One has already served two years; the third is likely to enter the army within the year.
Somewhere around the age of 40, Israeli men are no longer called to the Reserves - that is 27 years from now, till my youngest son reaches 40. Of course, as is the way of things, it is hoped that God will grant me grandchildren and as my mother is the grandmother of two Israeli soldiers (Elie and his cousin...also in artillery), so too, God willing, will I be the grandmother of Israeli soldiers. With each blessing, the tunnel gets longer, the light farther away.
Two years ago, I decided sanity rests in focusing on the tunnel, on each day and step you take and not looking for the light at the end.
"I can't see the light at the end of the tunnel," I told Elie this morning. Elie thinks in the literal sense and knows the traffic will move and we will reach the end of the tunnel soon enough. In the physical world, he was correct, but in the metaphorical world in which mothers imagine all scenarios, it might well be that we have to learn to live in the tunnel and accept that someday, though the light may well be there and we may reach it, we will miss so much if we hurry there.
For now, the tunnel leads back to the north for a few weeks, until Elie again joins the family to celebrate the Passover Seder and a holiday that reminds us of our freedom.
Saturday, March 21, 2009
For 1,000 days, Hamas has violated international law, preventing Red Cross officials from gaining access to Gilad to confirm his condition.
For 1,000 days, the world has allowed this to continue, while sending aid to the Palestinians who elected this Hamas party to be their leaders.
For 1,000 days, Aviva and Noam Shalit have gone to sleep not knowing if they will ever see their son again, and for 1,000 days, Gilad has been alone, surrounded by our enemies, waiting to come home.
Unlike Palestinian prisoners in Israeli hands, Gilad has no access to the media, no family visits, no one to confirm his condition. For a short period of time, during the Gaza war, I couldn't reach Elie. As a commander, he was ordered to confiscate his soldiers' telephones, but he had his with him. It was closed during much of the war, to save the battery, as he told me, and to prevent our enemies from tracking any locations.
During those few days, I felt so incredibly unable to function. How could I do what I needed to do on a daily basis when at any given moment, I didn't know where he was, what he was doing. A missile would hit an open field...but the fields around Gaza were our staging grounds for the war. It was good that the rockets didn't hit an Israeli city, but their hitting fields brought no comfort as well.
I can't imagine, even for a moment, the agony that Aviva Shalit has handled for 1,000 days; I can't imagine how she and her husband and family have continued each day to live and breathe and remind us, each of these 1,000 days, that her son - and ours - remains a captive.
Two weeks ago, hoping to avoid this very day, the Shalits moved to a protest tent in Jerusalem, where they were visited by many politicians, even "entertained" by the wife of Ehud Olmert, who certainly couldn't understand what the Shalits are suffering. She has long since abused the term "pacifist" to promote her anti-IDF positions. One of her children refused to serve in the army. Their oldest son has long since abandoned life here, preferring to live in New York and support organizations that support soldiers refusing orders and/or service entirely and one of their daughters spends her time going to checkpoints and harassing soldiers, thinking that will somehow help the "peace movement," which is Aliza Olmert's obsession.
How she had the nerve to sit in the same room with Aviva Shalit, whose son had a lower army profile and demanded that the army allow him to fight in a combat unit, is amazing. Gilad didn't have to serve in Israel's combat units, and yet he chose to do so, while Ehud and Aliza Olmert's own children refuse to serve the nation...putting their own selfish whims above the needs of our people.
Like his selfish children, Ehud Olmert has spent that last 1,000 days seeing to his own needs and those of his corrupt government, while Gilad waited for freedom. Olmert gave so little to the effort to bring Gilad home and this is yet another reason why he leaves the office of prime minister in disgrace. But all of that is politics on a day when the heart breaks and words fail us. How is it possible that 1,000 days have come and gone and still Gilad isn't home?
Gilad's father has the right to speak for himself, for his family, to his son. And in doing so, he speaks for Israel:
"It's been a thousand days and nights since you were kidnapped by Hamas to Gaza, both we and you have been living in a nightmare, uncertain about your fate. A thousand days now that the State of Israel and its leaders, who sent you on your mission, have failed to find any solution that would bring you home, we are not even close.
"We came here exactly two weeks ago to demand of the prime minister to carry out the necessary moves to bring Gilad home without delay, before the end of your term, Ehud Olmert. The Israeli government you lead, as you like to say, sent Gilad on a mission he didn't come back from, and it is your duty to bring him back to the IDF, to his home, and to his family.
"We say to the prime minister today – you have two more weeks to act. To act with determination and creativity and to employ everything at Israel's disposal to save Gilad before it is too late."
Friday, March 20, 2009
Yesterday morning, Elie called as I was just leaving home. A few days ago, he'd confirmed that he would be coming home this weekend and expected to arrive in the late evening. I was surprised to see his number and quickly answered. I could hear in his voice a bit of frustration, a bit of anger, and, perhaps, even a bit of sadness. It was this last one, more than the others, that called out to me.
"I missed the bus," he told me. Actually, he hadn't. He'd skipped the bus because after all the other regular soldiers got on, the bus was full and he didn't feel it was right that he board a bus and leave someone else behind.
"When is the next one?" I asked as I made the right turn towards Jerusalem.
"I don't know," he answered, "maybe 3 or 4 in the afternoon."
I know where he is - he's far up north in the Golan, on a road that is little traveled by ordinary cars and anyway, by army law, he isn't allowed to accept a ride from someone he doesn't know.
"What can you do?" I asked.
"I'll wait by the gate and see if I can catch another ride from someone who's leaving."
"Want me to come get you?" I asked, quickly recalculating my schedule. It was around 8:00 a.m., a drive up north would take me the better part of three hours...that's 11:00 a.m, a quick grab and turn and I'd be back before 2:00 - maybe faster. Meeting at 3:00 p.m. - international teleconference; can't be late...I could do it. Just.
"You don't have to," and there was that voice for which I'd travel to the ends of the earth. My oldest daughter had once called me when she was very young. She'd been sleeping over at a friend's house and they'd been talking until late in the night. The rest of the family had gone to sleep; my daughter and her friend were finally ready to end their long conversations. The friend told my daughter to close the light and as my daughter wasn't familiar with the light, she ended up burning her hand on the hot light bulb.
Her friend was afraid to awaken her parents, lest they find out how late the girls had been chatting. My daughter called me and I went over and brought her home. Years and years later, my daughter told me that she was glad that I had come, that she'd been frightened, and that my going over there in the middle of the night gave her the feeling that I'd travel to the ends of the world for her - she was right, even though I only had to make a five minute drive.
After she told me this, I realized this is what I want all my children to feel, what I felt from my mother when I was growing up. And so, I continued past the turnoff to Jerusalem, down the highway towards the Dead Sea, to hook up with the Jordan Valley highway that races north to the Sea of Galilee, Tiberias, and onwards to Elie.
He was able to catch a ride with an army vehicle to bring him down off the Golan Heights and into the northern Galilee region, saving me about 30 minutes. He was tired when I got to him, only having slept about 4 hours the night before.
I had stopped by the mall in the morning to drop off a bank deposit and as I passed the bakery, I saw the chocolate pastries Elie loves, the onion rolls he often buys himself. I bought a few of them and had them in the car so that in the evening, when he was supposed to come home, he'd have them.
I offered it to him in the car as we began the drive home. A religious Jew washes his hands before eating bread. It's a healthy thing to do anyway, to wash before eating, but it takes on even more meaning as part of our religion. I had a bottle of water and offered to pull to the side of the road so he could wash.
"No reason," Elie said as he lowered the window. He was going to wash outside the window while I was driving a good 90 km. per hour. Now, there are laws of wind and laws of man and laws of God. Laws of God tell us to wash our hands; laws of man don't care so long as you drive within the speed limits and keep your hands on the wheel. Since I was driving, the laws of man didn't apply. Now the laws of wind are interesting. They say that when you are speeding along, the wind will carry a bulk of that water...right back onto the car and Elie's shoulder.
Elie laughed as he got soaked a bit; I laughed as I heard him laugh. Elie bit into the onion roll, devoured it, and ate another. He was heading home and after two weeks away, that's all that mattered. His being tired slipped away; his hunger was appeased. We talked almost the whole way home - of many things, of training, of war, of plans after the army and plans in the army, of friends he has, responsibilities he carries.
He's out doing the shopping now as we prepare for the Sabbath.
"It's settled, at least for now," Elie told me on the ride home.
"What's settled?" I asked him.
"I won't be home again for three weeks, well two and a half, anyway," he answered.
"The seder? You'll be home for the seder?" I asked.
"Looks that way," Elie answered.
You can't imagine the joy I carried with me as I raced down south...again. To the ends of the world, or at least the country, I would go for my children...and right back home again!
Sunday, March 15, 2009
We have a girl living on our block who chose to join a combat unit. She was given several options, and chose artillery. She was given other options, and elected to join a unit like Elie's with the same responsibilities. By the time she was entering the army, Elie was being given the task of commanding a unit of incoming soldiers. There was a 50-50 chance that Elie would have received her unit - another reason why Elie chose not to command a unit with female soldiers. They are friends of a sort; Elie is considered something of an older brother in the family and his being the commander of her unit would have been completely impossible.
So Elie opted to remain true to his religious beliefs and this neighbor's daughter entered basic training. They spoke on the phone occasionally, Elie encouraging her when she needed it. A few weeks after basic training ended, she had an accident in the army and broke her foot...badly. For months now, she has been home.
Tomorrow she goes back to the army to rejoin her unit, which has been stationed up north. Elie too is on the same base, though with a different unit. My neighbor called to ask if I wanted her daughter to take anything to Elie.
I called Elie, offering to send brownies, cookies, whatever. He's coming home on Thursday and expected to be out in the field for much of the week in training, so he told me not to bother sending anything. I'm glad he'll be home and didn't mind not sending anything...
...and then he called today and asked if I could send brownies. I think I smiled all day despite the dreary day. It's such a small thing, but I like that he felt comfortable to ask; love that he wants these pieces of home.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
I've been thinking a lot about these past two years; who Elie is now and who he was then. I love the idea of this blog. It means I can't deny what I was feeling, just because I'm not feeling it now. I went back to this time two years ago and wish I could comfort that mother. Your son will be loved, I want to tell her; your son will love the trust they put in him. He'll grow in ways you never imagined; become so much more...and still be the same. It won't seem possible, but it's true. Have faith and don't be afraid. You can survive it; he can survive it.
He'll have to point his gun with the full intention of using it, and you will survive that moment. He'll even go to war...and yes, you'll survive that too. It seems impossible that you could breathe and yet you will find a way. It isn't nearly so terribly frightening if you just take it one day at a time - even when you can't reach him.
But that mother couldn't hear what I could now tell her. She couldn't imagine being where I am now and she couldn't imagine knowing what I know now. I don't know that I have so many more answers than I did then...but somehow the questions don't seem nearly so urgent. I called Elie today, he was busy but we spoke for a few minutes - I could hear soldiers talking in the background. My son is not alone. The army recognized those amazing traits I had only suspected existed in Elie, found them, cultivated them, enhanced them. He still teases his sister, laughs and brings joy. May God continue to bless him, keep him safe, always to tease, to laugh, to lead, to live.
Monday, March 12, 2007
Well, after much rearranging of schedules, an officer from my son's division arrived and met with Elie to answer any questions he might have. What will he do the first day? Where will he go? What will he need to bring with him?
A drop-off site in Jerusalem - a bus to Tel Aviv - supplies doled out and assignments received. A trip to the basic training base in the south, two months of basic training. Another two months of artillery practice. Details of uniforms and schedules and visits home. These are the questions and answers a 19-year-old boy will ask. As he's old enough to vote and apparently to serve in the army, he doesn't need his mother to come along, but I have questions too.
How will I know when I need to worry and when I can be calm? I know the army needs to mold the boys into men, the individual into the unit, but will you protect the boy inside the man, the soul inside the individual? Sometimes my son is a natural leader - will you develop that trait, or seek to crush it?
Sometimes my son likes to talk and it isn't always clear where his thoughts are going - will there be friends for him there, comrades in arms - but also comrades in peace - to listen to him?
There is no one to answer my questions and hear my fears because I keep them deep inside where a part of me is crying at the thought of what is to come. Outside, I am calm (or at least I like to think I am) while inside I feel so scared. Perhaps my biggest fear is that the army is bound to change him and yet I love him just as he is. Every mother loves their infant, knowing that soon he will grow and crawl and walk and run. Now my son goes into the army and the next stage in his development is upon us. Today, he is more boy than man, though he would likely argue that. Tomorrow
will come soon enough.
I hear him teasing his sister and laughing upstairs - may God bless him and keep him safe, always to tease, to laugh, to lead, to live.
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
What does the ancient city of Shushan, Persia have in common with Entebbe, Uganda?
The answer is that both were places where the unbelievable became real; where the impossible became possible; where right beat wrong; where evil was vanquished and the innocent saved.
Let's start with the story most of us know. In 1976, an Air France plane was hijacked. The plan was en route from Israel to France, with a stop-over in Athens. On board, were just under 250 passengers. The plane was taken to Entebbe, Uganda where the true nature of the terrorists manifested itself. A Nazi-like separation was instigated; the non-Jewish passengers released. In a show of true heroism, the non-Jewish Air France crew members chose to stay with the Jewish and Israeli passengers.
One hundred and five people remained for days in horrendous conditions, threatened and terrified and then, on July 4, 1976, as the United States was celebrating its 200th birthday, Israel dared and accomplished the miraculous. The Israeli air force flew in, rescued almost all of the hostages, and took out the terrorists.
It was an amazing feat - people would have said impossible, if the Israeli forces hadn't accomplished it. The details were incredible - the long flight, the refueling, taking a black Mercedes (which had been the right model, but white, and so the Israelis painted it) to make it appear that the Ugandan president was coming to visit the hostages and terrorists, as he had in the past.
The thing about Entebbe was that it was a man-made miracle...delivered by God. Or, maybe it was God-given miracle...implemented by our soldiers. It took place in Entebbe, Uganda, but it was something very connected to the Jewish people and Israel. It was, in the truest sense, a victory of good over evil, an unexpected triumph against all odds. I remember thinking at the time that Hollywood couldn't have written it better. No writer could make up such an incredible story.
Shushan, Persia, was an ancient kingdom ruled by a selfish king who cared more for his personal pleasure than all else. He killed his wife because she embarrassed him when she refused to undress and dance before his aides, and then sought to replace her with another, picked out seemingly randomly. The king was easily swayed by an evil man named Haman.
Like the Arabs that hijacked the plane to Entebbe, Haman had an intense hatred of Jews. Like the terrorists, he singled out the Jewish people and convinced the stupid king to sign an edict dictating that all the Jews of the kingdom be executed on a specific date. In a time and place where the king's rule was absolute, this was indeed the very death sentence it seemed to be. As clear and seemingly pre-ordained final solution as could be.
The hero, or perhaps I should say heroine, of the story of Shushan, was a beautiful woman named Esther. The king chose her after he killed his first wife. She was, though few knew it, a Jew. Her uncle Mordechai heard the plan to have the Jews killed and he and Esther worked to expose it.
The long and short of the story is that they succeeded. Haman and his evil sons were killed; the Jews were saved. On the very tree that Haman had wanted to hang Mordechai, Haman himself was hanged. There was incredible justice in this, incredible triumph. It is a story that is centuries old, even longer, and yet still excites the listener as we hear it read twice each year on the joyous holiday of Purim, which we have just celebrated.
So - Shushan and Entebbe have in common the simple triumph of good over evil. No where in the Megillat Esther (the book we read each Purim), is the name of God used, and yet, like Entebbe, God was in all of the details, there every moment - in Uganda, and in Persia.
I thought about these two places, these two impossible odds. An impossible flight over long distances, over hostile countries, to land five planes in the middle of the night, and sweep in and rescue more than 100 hostages in a "surprise" raid, is astounding. To overcome a king's written edict and save a people condemned to die, is amazing.
Elie wasn't home for Purim. He was on a base, far up north. At night, someone came out to the field where they are camped and read the story of Purim to the soldiers. In the morning, many of the soldiers, including Elie, hiked back to the base to hear the story read again.
This is why we have an army - to fly to Entebbe, to protect against the Hamans of our generation. These are the stories that remind us of why we are here, Who protects us, and how good will triumph over evil and save the day.
Happy Purim, Elie.
Friday, March 6, 2009
We had a few minutes to talk on the ride home. He'd brought me mud, he warned, and we talked of his laundry and what needs to be washed with what.
"How was the Golan?" I asked him.
"Muddy," was his answer.
"Did you do any shooting?" I asked him. He was supposed to have assisted in a training exercise for paratroopers, but I had heard of fog in the north several days and assumed that the conditions were too dangerous for at least part of the time to allow for this.
"No, not at all," Elie answered.
"The weather was that bad?" I asked.
"No, today the weather was fine."
"So why didn't you shoot today?" I asked.
"Cows," Elie answered.
Um...one of my concerns with having a son in the artillery is that the loud booms of the cannons, even with ear plugs and the thick ear protection the army offers, will damage Elie's hearing. I didn't think anything would happen to his ability to form words and so I asked for clarification.
"What?" I asked.
"Cows," Elie answered again.
"Cows?" I asked. OK, if his speech is fine, it must be MY hearing.
"Yes," Elie said.
You see, cows had wandered into the firing range where the practice was going to take place. And so the army canceled a major exercise, lest the...the cows, be injured.
"Couldn't you...like...call their owners and tell them to move them?"
"Ima, the Golan is full of cows," Elie said simply.
Would other armies cancel an exercise for this reason? Man and machine had been brought to the Golan for this exercise. There is a cost to all things in the army. Money to move equipment, officers to oversee, planes flying, and so much more. For a week, Elie and his team were stationed ready to offer the necessary backup for the paratroopers to have their exercise. A simulation of real war. Smoke, explosions...and, apparently cows.
I can't see Hamas or Hezbollah caring about a bunch of cows; I can't see NATO rescheduling a massive training event. I just can't see what my ears knew I'd heard.
This week, my son came home with clothes filled with mud. Despite a massive rain storm, the worst of the season, the army was ready to proceed with an important exercise. The storm - hail and rain, wind and fog, didn't cancel the exercise. It only delayed it. In the end, it was the cows.
Thursday, March 5, 2009
It isn't clear what was in the mind of the tractor driver who plowed into a police car. It seems his intended target was a bus load of children sitting in a bus on the side of the highway. What is unbearably clear is that the immediate hope of the driver was to harm, to kill.
This is the new weapon - the BMW black sedan that was rammed into my son's unit a few months ago, the tractors that have been used repeatedly to injure and murder. I talked to Elie about the tractor incident - he seemed as resigned as the rest of us. His only comment was that this is probably in some sick way a good sign, "it means they can't get explosives through as easily."
Yes, I guess that is the bright side of a sad situation, but it doesn't make driving past a tractor any easier these days in Israel.
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
According to the United Nations, Israeli forces fired into Lebanon yesterday. It seems there was a wall on the Lebanese side which had a mural painted on it. The mural showed a Jewish star (like the one that appears on the flag of Israel) with a clenched fist coming out of it. It's a popular design I've seen before, as if their strength will break the flag and the State of Israel. In this case, on the wall in Lebanon, someone added the name used by Hezbollah to refer to the Second Lebanon War of 2006, "Divine Victory."
Of course, they call that war Divine Victory and we call it Divine Stupidity because that's how we fought it and of course, there is a direct line between that war and the troubles we had recently in Gaza. The actions we took, or didn't take, in Lebanon, emboldened the Palestinians, made them think that we would accept endless rocket attacks...and of course, we, unlike the Palestinians, really do learn from our mistakes. And so, what Hamas learned was that we could be defeated. What we learned is that in order not to be defeated, we must fight properly - including bombing a mosque if it is used as an arsenal, a school if it is used to store weapons.
So this mural, of the star and the fist, is painted on this wall. And, according to the United Nations and their friends in the Lebanese army, an IDF patrol fired five bullets at the wall, which was 20 meters away, and hit it twice. The UN deems this a "serious incident." Interestingly enough, maybe I missed it, I don't remember the UN having such a sharp and instantaneous reaction to the last three times some group in Lebanon shot katyusha rockets at northern Israel - where there was a lot more damage than a wall being hit by two bullets.
But the funny part of this comes in with the Israeli army reaction. It was basically the equivalent of an "oops."
I have to admit that my first instinct was slightly different. The first thing I felt was worry that they had accidentally shot in artillery and I thought of Elie in the north. Once I found out it was 5 bullets, none of which hurt anyone, 3 of which missed everything, and 2 of which hit a wall which happened to have anti-Israel graffiti on it, I have to admit I gave a bit of a smile.
See, on the one hand, it's not hard to believe an Israeli soldier took exception to the mural. It is hard to believe he actually fired intentionally at it. And, if he did open fire, intentionally at a wall that was merely 20 meters away, how the heck did he miss it?
If I were his commanding officer, THAT would be my first question! Elie seems to indicate that hitting anything within 100 meters is no big deal...so, how DID that soldier miss a WALL that was just 20 meters away? Unless, of course, it really WAS an accident...in which case, we are back to one of the ironies of life. Isn't it funny that a soldier who accidentally shot...managed to actually hit, of all things, an anti-Israel mural?
The best part, of course, is that there are probably a bunch of Lebanese soldiers contemplating this very question right at this moment...did they do it on purpose...but if they did...how could they have missed....and, if they didn't do it on purpose...wow, how'd they manage to hit THAT wall?
As for the Israeli reaction, that too is so perfectly Israeli. No big deal. Just a wall. No sweat. Oops.
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
Puzzled in Gaza
February 5, 2009
I’m an English Jew and frequent visitor to Israel. I was deeply disturbed by the reports of Operation Cast Lead (OCL). So I spent Wednesday 28th January 2009 in Gaza taking a look for myself. I left Tel Aviv at 6.30 a.m. by taxi and arrived at the Erez checkpoint at 7.15 a.m. I cleared Israeli passport control using my press card, crossed the border alone, on foot and arrived in Gaza, where I was met by my guide a 27 year old Palestinian journalist, who wore western clothes and a close shaven beard. He asked me if I wanted to meet with Hamas officials. I explained, I’m a poet and freelance writer who’d come to see the damage and civilian suffering caused by OCL, not to talk politics and asked him to choose what to show me.
We drove away from Beit Hanoun to the ancient olive groves of Jebalia Reyes Hill which my guide said Israel had bulldozed because Hamas fired from them. Downhill I saw in the Abu Ayida family’s isolated compound the flattened remnants of several large houses and factories and a few small guard’s houses. A family member, Taisir Fouad told me the 3 cars in the rubble were a Mitsubishi and two Hyundais, that $5,000,000 of damage had been sustained by the Abu Ayidas (this was not a general residential area) and that he and his 10 children had previously lived in a 900 square metre house and were now living in one room in Jebalia.
I noticed a white kid goat’s head and hooves it’s body was covered in debris and a black and white goat, it’s large stomach was rock solid under the gentle pressure I applied to it with my shoe. My guide took me into the only Abu Ayida house left standing, which he said the Israelis had used as a base. It had two storeys and my guide thought it measured about 700 square metres. Its concrete exterior was unclad. I hadn’t expected the internal grandeur, the floors were marble and the chandeliers were amber glass. Outside and to the North of the house I was shown a flat piece of land where I was told the Israelis believed there were tunnels. I began to walk over to take a look but my guide told me to stop and follow him.
In the rubble of a guards’ house. I saw a buckled red wheelchair which I was told belonged to a young girl who lived alone with her mother. I picked up a sheet of Arabic writing from the ground which my guide told me was the homework of a child not more than 10 years old. I asked my guide and an old man who had now approached us, whether I might keep the homework sheet. They said I could. I have it still.
How many people died here I exclaimed to my guide. No one, came the reply. The Israelis leafleted and telephoned a warning to each house and factory half an hour or forty five minutes before they came. I was incredulous. How could they possibly ‘phone everyone? My guide said they have all the telephone numbers here, each of us has identity cards. They know everything about us. I asked him where all the people went and he told me everyone went to relatives in Jebalia. I tried unsuccessfully to get one of the Israeli warning leaflets that day.
To the north of the smaller houses, in a dell, there were 50 odd small khaki tents neatly erected in perfect rows. I neither saw nor heard any sign of activity from them. When I asked who’d erected them or who was using them my guide said he didn’t know. I asked him to ask the old man and was told that the old man didn’t know either but he thought it was a charity. The old man said, look at our fate and I have suffered 60 years because of Israel. There were no other people at the site other than the two who’d approached and spoken to us. My guide offered to take me into the tents to find out more about them but I refused and asked to go to Jebalia City. It was 9.30 am.
At 9.50 am when we arrived in Jebalia its unclad 1970’s concrete low buildings looked intact and their open shopfronts were hung with vivid kaftans . The roads were partially tarmacked and I saw some tank marks. The women on the streets wore jellabeya and some were veiled. Donkey carts were far more common than cars and small groups of sturdy looking unaccompanied children walked about wearing old fashioned woollen jumpers. I didn’t see any sweatshirts.
Puzzled by the City’s vibrant atmosphere I asked to be shown Jebalia refugee camp and arrived there at 10.10 a.m. Its teeming unmade-up streets were much narrower than those of Jebalia City, its dwellings run off narrow alleyways from the main street buildings where as many as 10 related families build homes in mutual proximity.
My guide told me that each of these tiny homes has an average of 10 children. I saw the remains of the Imad Akhel mosque which my guide said was bombed after Israeli warning leafleted and ‘phoned in the vicinity. 4 girls and their mother from the Fatah Ba Alusha family who lived in one of the maize of dwellings which still stood in the adjacent alley had died. Had other civilians left the area before the bombing? My guide said they had. Was the mosque really the Hamas arsenal Israel said it was? My guide told me to look at the secondary explosion on U Tube.
Seeing Jabalia Refugee Camp’s market was an astonishment , the open fronted shops hung liberally with huge fresh carcasses of meat and vendors carts, piled high with pyramids of beautiful produce stood in the middle of the road while shoppers came and went about their business. Some of the red radishes were the size of grapefruits. I told my guide that no one in England would believe this abundance. That we all thought they were starving. He told me that everything I could see was produced in Gaza.
My guide emphasised that he wasn’t a refugee but a very proud Palestinian. He brought me to his grandparents’ birthplace, Shi Jaya the old city, east of Gaza City. The police station had been destroyed. It wasn’t built by Hamas, my guide said, they seized it. The Al Omari mosque, the oldest mosque in Gaza City was beautiful. At the newly renovated Al Basha Palace, where Napoleon had stayed when he came to Gaza, Mamluk animal symbols patrolled the ancient rough hewn walls. I met three young women graduates in Jellabeya there and one a poet, spoke softly meeting my eye, and said education is our power, we are suffocating here, we are dying slowly, I want to travel abroad but I can’t because I’m not married. That is our way.
Heavy set men hovered behind the young women and broke the intensity as they offered me white coffee (not coffee with milk), which I accepted and enjoyed. The poet indicated a very young fair haired member of her group, who she said was already the mother of twins (I’ve always thought bearing twins heroic and I told her) she told me that her husband’s factory in Sallahedin street had been bombed. That from Netzarim, to the Erez crossing, all the factories were destroyed.
I said I’d seen the Abu Ayida family’s factories. She continued, in Attatra five people in one family died. The poet then interjected, what will you tell your children and grandchildren when you get home? I answered that I would tell them that she and her friends were clever and determined and would find answers because of the intelligence and bravery I’d witnessed in them. I suddenly noticed a stern eyed woman had come out of the Palace and approached our group and that my guide had disappeared down the entranceway stairs. I felt I had to leave quickly for everyone’s good and went down to find my guide and driver waiting in the car.
Once inside I fiddled with my ‘phone and noticed I’d been messaged on my English mobile at 11.59 a.m. Marhaba, Smell the jasmine and taste the olives. Jawwal welcomes you to Palestine. For Customer Service Please dial 111(chargeable) (sic). I showed my guide the text saying that I liked the terms in which his ‘phone company expressed itself, he smiled and I became more relaxed.
The streets of Gaza City were wider than those in Jebalia City. The buildings were 70’s concrete built. The shops were hung with giant cooking pots. There were cars on the roads and a steady stream of people on the pavements. I saw intact marble clad buildings with blue tinted windows which my guide said were new residential developments that had yet to be completed. He said that during OCL the streets of the city were deserted until 4pm because Israel warned people not to go out. But when he showed me the main Hamas National Forces Compound just past the Al Hejaz petrol station, he did say that a neighbour of his, Ashraf Abu Al Qumboz, died of injuries he got from walking past at the moment it was bombed. The compound was rubble save for radar or satellite dishes that looked like cobwebs on metal poles. My guide said 10’s died there.
Time and again I saw surgical destruction of huge buildings that everyone said had been full of Hamas. The low numbers of Hamas I was told had died begged the question where Hamas were now?
My guide glanced at a neatly dressed young man with a squared off beard guarding the Jawwal building. He said they continued even during the war, directing the traffic and arresting looters. All day I’d felt the menace of these hawkish, athletic men I’d seen occasionally on street corners but everyone including my guide behaved as though they were invisible. They weren’t like the other Palestinians I’d met or seen who generally moved or sat in groups. I asked my guide if he was Hamas, he said he wasn’t. I asked him if Hamas knew this, he said they did. A friend of my guide, a female English literature graduate from the Gaza University had joined us by this stage, she was extremely beautiful, wore a western hairstyle, trousers and a large diamond ring on her right hand. Later my guide said to me privately, her fiancé’s a rich guy, there’s no middle class in Gaza.
My guide took me to the Shiffa hospital . It comprises 6 concrete buildings which my guide told me Israel had built 30 years ago. The hospital floors were very clean and the atmosphere was very ordered. My guide was bringing me to meet Amira Kerem a little girl whose 2 brothers and father were beaten and killed in the last 2 days of OCL (her parents were divorced and she had a step-mother but I wasn’t told where her step mother was during the attack) Amira got out of the rubble and lived alone with her injuries for three days before she was found in the empty house she’d stumbled into, which belonged to Imad Eid, a journalist who used to work for BBC’s Arabic office in Gaza. I asked my guide and his friend if they knew the date she was found but they didn’t answer.
To my right as I arrived at the hospital was a low wall on either side of which there were sliding metal barred doors, which were open. I asked where those doors led and was told it was the intensive care unit for our (sic) fighters. A large group of men in suits, two with long thin white fringed scarves edged in green and black and red swept through the barred doors to my right I didn’t see where they went. I asked who they were and my guide told me they were inspecting the hospital. I asked him where they were from and he answered, Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia. I didn’t see any people that I recognised as ethnic Malays or Indonesian in this group of men.
They looked at home and in charge of the hospital there was an unmistakable and unchallenged authority about them ,everybody stood back and looked down as they passed. No one, my guide and his friend included, looked at them with the curiosity one might expect foreign dignitaries to engender. (I myself had been the subject of interest wherever I went, even before I was introduced). A few moments later a stocky built, 60 year old woman with dyed black, immaculately coiffed hair, wearing expensive European shoes and clothes came out of the same barred doors and walked by me flanked by four men, she looked proud and totally disengaged from her surroundings and was similarly deferred to. I didn’t see where these people went.
I climbed the stairs to room 522 to visit Amira Kerem , felt ashamed as I took my turn after a bored news crew removed their tripod-they’d read their blackberries as they’d filmed . Amira looked about 11. I admired her lilac knitted hat with tiny artificial pearls sewn on at regular intervals. At first she was impassive. 3 of her female relatives sat to her right, companionable and lithe in their long dresses. I stayed with her for a while and eventually made her laugh, my guide, as ever, interpreting. Her visitors joined in and we all voiced hopes for peace. I took out my recorder and asked what they wanted me to tell the people of England and they didn’t answer. But they continued to smile at me as I left. A woman who’d been one of the blackberry transfixed film crew, tried to engage me in conversation outside Zeitun’s room, I had no heart for her.
I visited Mona al Ashkhor who my guide explained had lost the use of her left hand and lost her left leg below the knee after she ran toward Al Fakhoora, the UNRA school, which was hit in OCL, because Israel said Hamas were firing from the vicinity. Her mother and her aunt sat to her left as did her first cousin, whom she told me she loved very much. I asked Mona what she would like me to tell the people of England, my guide interpreting, she replied I am very happy. Today for the first time I left my bed and am able to sit in a chair.
The hospital seemed very quiet. I saw empty beds there. I saw clutches of young athletic men with squared off beards in the corridors on the lower floors and a group of them stood behind a solid metal door on a landing from which someone I took to be a doctor emerged, pushing past them. He was close shaven, had a western haircut and wore fashionable glasses. He moved down the stairs as I ascended them, I caught his eye and he looked down nervously and accelerated his pace.
I asked my guide where all the dead were, he told me they were in all the cemeteries of Gaza. That sometimes they’d buried 5 at once. He told me that the majority of the 5,500 people wounded in OCL were receiving medical treatment in Egypt and Jordan. I was bewildered by the fact that I’d not seen any press photos of the hospitals treating these patients. But I said nothing.
We left Shiffa and at Abu Mazen square I drove past a large new building made of stained pine and hewn stone, it looked part Swiss chalet and part mosque. My guide told me this was Mahmoud Abbas’ house and pointed out the Hamas militants guarding it.
My guide took me to Tallel Howa, Gaza’s biggest residential area, which he explained was totally occupied by Israel during OCL. It comprises square, 5 storey, concrete apartment buildings. I saw the burnt out Al Kuds hospital, where government officials used to be treated. There was the rubble in El Hillel street, which had been a medical warehouse. Nearby I saw an ambulance in a parking bay which looked as though it was a concertinaed flat pack, a section of the building above its parking bay had collapsed onto the ambulance. I saw buildings spotted with what my guide told me were sniper bullets.
I saw a four storey building, with just the far right hand window of its top floor blown out, the external wall around it blackened. I asked my guide was that window broken by something going in or by something coming out? He explained that the damage was caused by Hamas firing from inside the building. I saw damage to the Al Aqsa University. I asked my guide how many were killed here, he said that thousands had left and gone to stay with relatives after Israel had telephoned and leafleted the area. He said the buildings were almost completely empty when the fighting took place and that 30 people died in the battle. I saw the remnant debris of the Ministry of Prisoners , my guide told me 6 Hamas were killed in that explosion. Neither my guide nor his friend furnished me with replies to my enquiries as to the dates and times of events, saying as they’d said all day, you can see it all on the internet.
After Tallel Howa my guide explained that he was going to take me to Al Samoun where a war crime took place. We drove through the farming neighbourhood of Zei Tun, the road was neatly verged with sabar cactus and the olive groves were well pruned. At 12.45pm we turned off past the Rajab Company for Petroleum sign to the site where my guide told me 31 members of the Al Samouni family were killed. He said there was no resistance there, this family of farmers were Fatah. I passed an orange painted metal shipping container which was buckled , as though by an explosion, not crushed. It was not possible for me to look inside it.
The area which had previously comprised about 10 four storey houses where 160 members of the Al Samouni family lived was flattened, with the exception of one house. The area had also housed a chicken farm and some dead fowl floated in the water that was collecting in the extremely deep square craters surrounded by the house rubble. The destruction of the houses at Abu Ayida didn’t leave craters as far as I remember the ground was flat. Here there were buckled metal supports deep into the ground under each house. These craters were as empty as scoured pots. The air smelled heavily of chicken shit.I pulled from the rubble a medical x-ray (of two connected metal pins in someone, named in Arabic’s lower vertebrae) and a red coloured, adult sized sweatshirt. After asking my guide’s permission, I kept them.
My guide told me the Israelis had ‘phoned the entire family and told them to go into the house ahead of me and then bombed it, killing 31 people. I could still see the house standing. But it looked as though it could have been burnt inside. It was built of unclad concrete and was 4 storeys high and about 400 square metres in size. Its top right hand window had been blown out from within. The washing line below it still hung with clothes. I couldn’t ask to look inside. With the exception of the window I’ve mentioned the building looked intact externally. Its roof was undamaged as far as I could see. I didn’t feel able to ask for any further explanation than that I’d been given.
There was a large open sided black tent on the Al Samouni compound containing about 25 men either standing or sitting on white plastic chairs. Two sat near the entrance on the floor. There were also two small carpets propped up with a stick one some feet to the right of the black tent and one twice as far behind it. These carpets made small shelters for women and children. I visited one where 2 women and 4 children under 3 years old, sat on a small carpet laid on the rubble . A 13 year old boy stood outside to the left. The women fed the children rice. My guide told me that the eldest woman, Iftisan Al Samoun, lost a teenage daughter and son when her house was bombed and two of her sons were now in hospital in Egypt. I asked her what she wanted me to tell the people of England and she gave no answer.
I asked her where they slept at night and she said that they were living with relatives and only came here during the day for the press. I rolled the red sweatshirt I’d picked up and put it behind her to buffer the terrain. She acknowledged the gesture imperceptively by edging her buttocks back very slightly on to the sweatshirt and said that they’d lost many clothes. The younger woman told me that the 13 year old boy was her brother, the two small children were her cousin’s and that she and her brother had lost their mother. But, inexplicably, she smiled at me and Iftisan all the while. I asked my guide why people weren’t angrier in Gaza, he said they were for two days but then it was over. That Allah decides fate.
As we left Iftisan’s small shelter another young boy tried to coax us to the second womens’ shelter but I chose to watch the men’s tent from outside for a while. Two copies of a rather worn, large plastic banner depicting the dead, edged with barbed wire and pictures of fighters wearing white headbands with black Arabic writing on them, were hung behind the people my guide told me were the mourners. I asked my guide who were the people in the photographs on that banner. He said they were the victims of the genocide. I asked what the fighters which edged the banners signified and he said nothing, the militants made the posters for the mourning family. He explained that the female victims were each represented by a rose, since it’s not the custom to depict women. I asked my guide‘s friend if she could see the names of the dead from where we stood and she said she could. She read the names into my recorder for me.
Layla Al Samouni
The martyres of the Samouni family
In the large tent and the two small shelters, men ate and women fed babies green rice and meat with grey plastic spoons from identical large round blue plastic trays covered in silver foil. I have kept one of those discarded spoons. I asked my guide where the food came from. He said a charity.
When I asked Iftisan Al Samoun which charity sent the food, she met my eye earnestly, said she didn’t know and invited me to eat some. I didn’t accept. I never saw the women eating.
I saw the family elder in the mourners’ tent wearing a red and white scarf, turban style with a roll up sticking upright out of its side like a feather.
I asked if I could go into the tent to pay my respects. My guide said I could. A large handwritten page lettered in black and red hung on a string between the two posters, as I looked at it one of the men standing behind the elder slipped it behind the poster. I asked my guide to read it to me and he approached it, pulled it out and slipped it back again quickly, and said it was just a condolence letter.
I began to speak to the elder, my guide translating, to ask what happened, he pointed to each picture on the posters and began a narrative which generally described the number of children the individual had, or in one case pointed out that the man was very old. But finally he said in terms, of one man that he’d emerged with a white flag and been shot.
Of the roses depicting women, he clasped his breast with his right hand and said some were breast feeding when they were killed. I asked him how many of his family still survive, he said half. I expressed my earnest wish that no more ill fortune should fall on his family and we both cried. A younger man took the roll up out of the elder’s turban and gave it to him assertively. The men in the tent looked at me quizzically and my guide looked tense. He and I left.
My guide told me there were 10’s of cases like this. It was 1.30 Israel was going to close the border at Erez between 3 and 4 and I’d been advised by journalists to be there before 2.30. We began to head back.
All day there were children everywhere. I asked my guide why they weren’t at school and he explained there were 2 shifts. I asked them if the schools were good and my guide said at the moment the children are only being taught how to hate. The day’s interchanges had always been circumspect and my reaction to this direct comment was to joke that if I taught my childen to go right they went left, if I said sing they spoke, if I said cut your hair, they grew it. I said to my guide and his friend, you are such intelligent young people, you’ve got the internet, don’t tell me you can be taught anything you don’t want to learn. I went on to say that the poor children we’d seen on the streets of Jebalia, had no such opportunities for now-at this point the driver who’d been silent all day handed me his ‘phone and showed me a photo of a dead baby with its left leg bone exposed and my guide resumed his explanations- that this was a baby buried in rubble and partially eaten by dogs before it was discovered. A small UN coach passed us as we passed the high walls of the UNRA compound. I couldn’t see the damage from the road but my guide told me it was assessed at $12,000,000. Beyond it on a whitewashed wall, I saw the only graffiti of the day (with the exception of the Israeli operational notes on the Abu Ayida house) it was a geometrically stylised heroic depiction of fighting between Israel and Hamas.
Back in Jebalia City I drove past the reinforced concrete UN school, at Al Fakhoora, in front of which Mona Al Ashkor was injured. The school was on a street corner. My guide pointed to the road perpendicular to the one we were on and indicated the buildings to the immediate right of the school from which he said Hamas fired mortar shells. His friend showed me the rocket marks on the road in front of the school. My guide told me that Israel had leafleted and ‘phoned to tell people that there was Hamas activity in the area and that the school would not be a safe shelter. But 40 people, including Mona Al Ashkor, were running towards it nevertheless when the satellite directed silent missile hit the road. My guide’s female friend said Israel could see the civilians. Could have hit Hamas and pointed animatedly to the same building from where my guide had indicated Hamas were firing. I asked my guide and his friend if Hamas had provided any air raid shelters or any advice to Gazans on how to conduct themselves either during reprisals from kassam or grad missile raids or during OCL. They both said there were no shelters or procedures in Gaza. I asked if any of the wealthy Gazans built shelters in their houses. My guide said yes, some did. But his friend contradicted him.
As we approached the border, I asked my guide and his friend to list places I hadn’t seen where civilians had died. They listed, Ezbet Ahued Raba, Rafah-scores died, Khan Younis -more than Rafah, Bet Lahia-scores and many other places of destruction. As they spoke a Hamas guard stopped us just before the Gazan border. I gave him my press card and my passport. He addressed me very harshly as Green and then made direct inquiries of me which were clearly designed to intimidate me. He seemed to be asking me a question in English about what I’d seen but was clearly unable to understand the polite and co-operative answers I gave. He returned my passport and held my press card for longer than was comfortable and asked my guide questions for several minutes and then spent several minutes questioning my guide’s friend- who was an exceptionally attractive girl in western dress (who took my email address because she writes too). Both my guide and his friend seemed very uncomfortable. The driver was not required to show any papers and hissed through his teeth and generally displayed aggressive impatience with the Hamas guard.
At the border my guide and his friend were driven off quite suddenly and with a screech of tires leaving me alone at the Gazan checkpoint, a wooden hut. I was held up by the passport officer and asked how I found the situation. I went through all the notes I had taken and he left me with no alternative but to take down the following dictated additions; Attatra American school bombed by F16’s, Abu Drabba village,El Kashef, Dr. Zetina Al Ha Esh the gaenocologist who works at Tel Hashomer hospital in Israel lost 6 members of his family-go and see him, a Jordanian hospital has entered into Gaza. He could see I didn’t have a camera but he asked me if I had taken any pictures on my mobile ‘phone. I said I hadn’t.
His fellow customs officer, a much burlier man, seemed at this point to get bored and waved that I should be let through. I walked on the dust from Gaza through the concrete corridor on the approach to Israel where I saw a porter with a long railway-platform trolley with 4 cases and numerous carrier bags full of what looked like High Street shopping. The young man was slight, wore trainers and looked very confident. It was 2.30 it took me an hour to complete physical security checks and re-enter Israel. Watching the journalists go through the process was very interesting. I heard a woman journalist say to a colleague, I always come out at night because I’ve got kids. A press office department head who spoke on his mobile ‘phone about a story and video he’d had to bury because the lady involved had a husband who’d worked for the UN for years and he’d lose his job and all his pension rights and who knew what else, if the story got out. The relief in everyone after arriving in Israel was openly expressed. No one at passport control asked anyone that I heard any questions about their trips to Gaza.
Monday, March 2, 2009
This commitment, along with many similar promises from European and Arab countries, comes just days after a rocket slammed into a school in Israel, causing massive damage. I didn't hear the UN condemn this attack, nor did I hear President Obama suggest the US would be interested in rebuilding the school.
According to the principal, if the attack had happened 24 hours earlier or later, rather than on the one day of the week when school does not meet (Saturdays), at least 30 children would have died (read here that one classroom was probably obliterated) and another 100 injured (read here classrooms on either side of the destroyed room).
Today, children in Ashkelon didn't go to school because parents refused to send them to what could easily be a death trap. Parents are complaining that the schools aren't fortified. One parent said that approximately $600 per child is needed to fix the schools in Ashkelon so that they can withstand a missile attack. Perhaps Secretary of State Clinton would spare a mere $600 per Israeli child who lives in the war zone? I'm sure it would come to a lot less than $900 million.
More importantly, we are losing sight of something more basic. Schools should be fortified to withstand lightning and earthquakes. Perhaps tidal waves, not that Israel has seen anything like a tidal wave in centuries or more. What other natural disasters might occur - schools should be the first to be fortified, but a missile attack is not a natural disaster. It is not natural to target children, nor is it anything close to normal to celebrate when they are among the dead and injured.
Perhaps I am naive, but I still want to be angry that Israel must fortify its schools against incoming missiles and I am still not ready to suggest that the responsibility lies with Israel to protect rather than Hamas to stop attacking.
Along with that - Gilad Shalit is still being denied the most basic of human rights - communication with his parents and a visit from international first aid volunteers to confirm his physical condition. I'm sure that $900 million dollars could at least buy him that visit.
European and Arab countries have offered more than 4 billion dollars in aid to rebuild Gaza. Again, if $900 million would buy Gilad a visit, perhaps 4 billion would buy his freedom. The world has focused on the concept that Israel must release over 1,000 terrorists and murderers - perhaps what is wrong here is the simple assumption that this equation needs minor tweaking but in essence is correct. Gilad is not a murderer or a terrorist. He was simply a 19 year old boy, a young soldier protecting his country. If the aid being offered is to better the situation of the every-day Palestinian, than along with that should come an immediate and profound improvement in Gilad's life. No aid should reach the Palestinians until two basic realities are established:
- No more rocket attacks
- Gilad Shalit is free
Until these two realities are met, I'd like to put forth to the American people one more simple fact. What Israel knocked down once...it can easily knock down again if the Arabs again use these locations for bombing Israel and planning attacks.
If you build it...it will fall, again - if Gilad doesn't come home and the rockets don't stop. Yesterday a rocket was fired at Israel. Sunday, a rocket was fired at Israel. Saturday 6 rockets were fired, including the one that damaged the school in Ashkelon. It is only a matter of time before Israel is forced, again, to respond to these attacks.
Until the rockets stop and Gilad comes home...do you really want to pour $900 million dollars into Gaza?
Sunday, March 1, 2009
The joke went like this:
"What happens when a paratrooper makes a mistake?" he asked me.
I looked at him as he answered, "a paratrooper dies."
"Ouch," I answered, not really liking the joke.
"What happens when artillery makes a mistake?" he continued.
Well, if he was going to follow through and tell me an artillery man dies, I was going to be positively miserable those few days before he entered the army. "I'm not sure I want to know," I answered.
"A paratrooper dies," he said with a grin, knowing what I was thinking.
Elie told me last week that they are about to start training up north. It's a shortened period because of the war. It can't be changed because the army runs on a clock. Soldiers enter the army at certain times of the year and others are discharged. The cycle continues, month after month, rotation after rotation, year after year.
A month of this rotation, even more actually, was taken up with the war. "Do you really need more training after all the shooting you did at Gaza?" I asked him.
"We need to train doing other things," Elie explained. "Lebanon and Syria are not the same as Gaza."
When I asked him what he meant, he explained that the army had to take into account the differences in land and population centers and so the way they fight is different. So for the next month, Elie will be training for the possibility of war in the north. But for the next few days, before that round of training will begin, Elie and his unit will be helping the paratroopers in their training exercises.
"Does that count as training for you?" I asked.
"No, all we have to do is shoot where they tell us to shoot."
"Live ammunition?" I asked.
"Yeah, of course," he said - and then he told me the joke again about what happens when artillery misses.
"Don't miss," I told him.
I could hear the smile in his voice, "we won't, don't worry."
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