Friday, January 20, 2012

When the War Ended - the Last Look Back

I don't know the official day that Israel considered the Gaza War to be over. For me, it ended on January 21, 2009 - when I drove down and brought Elie home. It was a roller coaster at the end, a race against time, to see if he would be home for his brother's bar mitzvah or not. He was already working on his side to, at least, get a pass to come home for part of it. In the end, he came home the day before. A final post, if you will, when he told me (on January 20, 2009), "I'll tell you tomorrow, when I see you...."

I'll tell you tomorrow, when I see you... 
For those of you who have followed this journey...at least in the last few weeks, I'm sure you can imagine how incredibly sweet those words sounded to me. I spoke to Elie this afternoon and for the first time in almost a month, our conversation was relaxed. He has nothing to do. They are waiting there, hoping that the ceasefire will last...forever. 
They are ready to fire - if fired upon. They don't expect to be, but they are ready. They are also very ready to come home - to sleep in comfortable beds, eat and dress and just be normal. But not yet. Slowly, troops are returning home. I am not part of the upper circles where they decide on the order of standing down from a war. Elie's unit remains, though many soldiers have already returned home to their families, their jobs, their lives. In some ways, this waiting period is harder than others. They want to finish and be finished. 
We talked about what would have been, if they hadn't been called to war. They were to have gone for training. "Guess you had enough training, right?" I asked Elie.
"and then some," he answered. 
He told me they might give them a week off, as they were planning to do before the war. They might cancel the unit's vacation - a week where they take the whole group somewhere to relax. There isn't much time yet before the next rotation and anyway, they all just want to go home. Nearly as much as we want them home. 
"Guess what I ate for lunch?" he said at one point. 
OK, that's going to be a bit hard. It had to be something really good...or really bad. But which? Hoping it was something good, I asked "what did you eat?" 
"Steak and hamburgers." OK, that's about at the top of Elie's food chain. And then he explained.  
One of the father's of a boy in his unit came with a huge truck, a huge refrigerator compartment filled with meat - and made a barbecue for the guys. 
"How much weight have you gained in this war?" I asked him and heard him laugh. You can't imagine how wonderful that sounds. 
There were several times he started to say something and stopped. No, he can't tell me when his unit will move, where it will go. He can't tell me so many things. We talked a little bit about the rocket fire. Several times they were ordered to quickly take cover. 
He told me that his unit is located in a field, and today, for the first time, he saw in the distance that the farmer was beginning to reclaim his land from the army; watering the fields that were open to him. "He can't even come here," Elie explained. "This area is a closed military zone."
I told him about the broadcasts - how in the middle of a discussion, a different announcer would suddenly start talking "on top" of the other voices, "Alert in Beersheva. In Beersheva, an alert. An alert, in Sderot and Ashkelon. Alert in Sderot and Ashkelon. In Ashkelon and Sderot, an alert." 
I told him how I would start to pray each time I heard those words - "let it land in an open field and not in the city; let it land in an open field," knowing that even as I was thinking those words, the rocket had already landed. And then, I explained to my son, "then I realized YOU were in an open field. Then I started praying for it to land in the city," I joked and again he laughed.
We talked about his little sister, and the "trauma" of the false alarm here. "Ima, do you know how many times I heard the siren?" he asked. No, I don't know and I'm not sure I want to know. 
"Did anything hit near you?" God, I don't want to know the answer to that one. Please, please say no. 
"No," he answered. Thank you, God, for that! 
He started to say something else, but again stopped. "I'll tell you tomorrow, when I see you," he explained and it sounded so good. 
This evening for the first time in weeks, I mixed a batch of tuna-corn fritters. My mother made them when we were little; my sister makes them for her kids; I make them for mine. It doesn't beat steak and hamburgers, but it is something that Elie loves. Actually, I wouldn't be at all surprised someday to hear from Elie that he only eats them and pretends to like them because he doesn't want to hurt my feelings...but he, like the rest of my kids, do seem to love them. 
So, I made a batch for dinner tonight and will take several with me to give to Elie during the ride home. He can only leave with the other commander gets back. That commander lives along the route where I'll be traveling to get to Elie, "do you want to ask him if he wants a ride? I can pick him up and bring him straight to where you are so he doesn't have to take any buses." 
"I'll check," Elie said. A few hours later, I spoke to Elie again. "No, you don't have to get him," he said. "His father is driving him down." 
That made me feel good. Like the father who drove down and made a barbecue for Elie's unit, like the father who will drive his son down tomorrow, like my friends here who went this evening to visit their son who was in Gaza and returned, we all need to see, to hug, to talk. 
Many years ago, I wanted to help the Israeli army better explain why and how it does what it does. The army website was not well written and lead to misunderstandings and so I worked with a team of people to help improve the quality of the English on the site. After many months and considerable improvement, we decided the group of people would "stand down." 
I liked the term and the concept. You step up to a crisis, you meet it, you deal. I'm not sure I dealt with this war nearly as well as I should have. Many friends (whose sons were in more danger than Elie) handled the war with faith and grace. I don't think I handled it with either. In some ways, that was good. It let you - those of you outside Israel - see the very real picture of how much we as a society love our sons and how much they love our country.  
In some ways, I think I am standing down now. I will continue to write on the blog but it goes back to what it was a month ago, a place to share stories about life in Israel, especially those connected to having a son in the army. For now, though I have little faith this ceasefire will last beyond Hamas' ability to rearm, for now, we will sleep; for now, we will enjoy life and go back to whatever passes for normal in this country. 
I thought to make a separate post about this, but I'll include it here. Today, Hamas boasted that they had killed 1,583 Israeli soldiers in this war. Miraculously, according to them - they managed to kill over 700 in a single day. If I had to explain the difference between their society and ours, I could not have done it better than they did themselves. There are no celebrations in Israel today; no great triumphant rallies. We do not celebrate the deaths in Gaza; we regret more than words can express, that Hamas brought this war down on the heads of our people and their own. 
It would never occur to us to boast over the numbers of people who died in Gaza...not even those caught with guns and rocket launchers. What the Palestinians refuse to understand is that there are no winners in a war and so they lost, and so did we. There are orphans on both sides of the fence near Gaza, millions of dollars in lost earnings and damaged property. Tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of traumatized children. 
What did we gain? In a very real sense, what Israel gained was probably several months of quiet before the next round. Again my youngest daughter told me about the moment when the siren went off. This is a child who remembers everything, and yet, almost every day, she keeps telling me the story as if I had not heard it. "There was a rocket attack in Beersheva," she said to me today. 
"When?" I asked. Today, like yesterday, was quiet. 
"A long time ago," she said. 
Tomorrow, Elie will come home. "How are you?" I asked him and got his usual answer. 
"Fine." 
He does sound fine, but I'll know for sure tomorrow, when I see him and finally have a chance to really listen. When I see him tomorrow...



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