Tuesday, August 23, 2005

A Soldier in Gaza

An incredible article from the viewpoint of one older Israeli reserve soldier:
Together with thousands of Jews, I sat on the flagstones before the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The time was midnight on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, the day on which, according to tradition, invaders twice overwhelmed the city's defenders, destroying their Temple and crushing Jewish independence in Israel. Two thousand years later, a new Jewish state with a powerful army has arisen, yet Jews continue to lament on that day, and rarely as fervidly as now. For the first time in history--ancient or modern--that state would send its army not to protect Jews from foreign attack, but to evict them from what many regarded as their God-given land, in Gaza.

I would take part in that operation.
The soldier, Michael Oren, then touched on the terrible internal battle each soldier had to face.
My feelings were, at best, ambivalent. I wanted to end Israel's occupation of Gaza's 1.4 million Palestinians and preserve Israel's Jewish majority, but feared abetting the terrorists' claim that Israel had fled under fire. I wanted the state to have borders that all Israelis could defend, but balked at returning to the indefensible pre-1967 borders. I honored my duty as a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, but wondered whether I could drag other Israelis from their homes or, if they shot at me, shoot back.

Nothing in my 25-year army experience had prepared me for the horror of Jews fighting Jews, nor had any of the knowledge I'd gained researching Israel's wars. The threat which the disengagement posed to the contemporary Jewish State weighed on me as I sat mourning the loss of its ancient predecessors.
Many soldiers had to face friends and family, and everyone had their own opinion.
Back in 1982, when he was a handsome commando, Amnon had fought beside me in Beirut. Now he was a Hassid. We spoke of our lives' divergent paths, and then, inexorably, about disengagement. He swore that God would either save the Gaza settlements or punish those who dismantled them. I told him where I was going at dawn. With words that I would hear repeatedly over the following days, he asked me how I could violate my sacred army oath to "love the Jewish homeland and its citizens" and to "sacrifice all my strength, and even my life" to defend them? He reminded me that hatred between Jews had facilitated the Temples' destruction, and excoriated me for bringing ruin on this, the third Jewish commonwealth. Amnon, his old warrior self again, assailed me, "You should be ashamed."
Should I? In fact, the same code of ethics that binds members of the IDF also obligates them to "preserve the laws of Israel" and its "values as a Jewish and democratic State." Both the government and the Knesset had repeatedly approved the disengagement plan as a means of safeguarding demographic and democratic integrity. In acting in accordance with those decisions, the IDF would be fulfilling one of its fundamental purposes. But could that charge be reconciled with the task of emptying and bulldozing Israeli villages? Could the army, which through successive wars strove to "protect the lives, limbs and property" of enemy noncombatants, now forcibly evict a civilian Jewish population?
Interestingly enough, he mentions as an aside a point worth noting as he discusses the difficulties the soldiers faced:
These were the questions that challenged me and the 55,000 soldiers assembled in and around Gaza on the eve of the operation, the IDF's largest since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The answers were far from initially clear.
Many have lamented that if only the IDF took so much care into their planning and carrying out of operations against terrorists, so much more could have been done. This is undoubtedly an exaggerated claim, but it is interesting that this operation on its surface carried more weight.
The article on its surface makes the settlers look somewhat bad, though if one looks closely it is clear that rabbonim (rabbis) and others were working hard to make sure there was no violence. The violence of a few (many who were not even from Gaza) sadly reflected poorly on the many who were against it (as I mentioned here).
While passing several settlements, IDF vehicles--my bus among them--were attacked by knife-wielding youths who punctured their tires. They stood in the hiss of escaping air, wide-eyed and defiant, daring the army to retaliate.
With their gates barricaded, their houses swathed in smoke from burning tires and refuse, these looked, indeed, like battlegrounds.
For nearly a month, teams of IDF psychologists and rabbis had been quietly convincing settlers that disengagement was a reality and urging them to refrain from violence. Still, from behind the gate, youngsters pelted us with eggs and paint balloons, while many parents berated us with words reminiscent of Amnon's--"You disgrace your uniforms!"--and worse, "You're no better than Nazis!"

The tough task which faced the soldiers will never be envied. Each had to think to him or herself that this would all be for the best; or even if they did not think it would be, they could hope and pray. Even if they did not believe in the cause, they could still think that they must follow orders; if they do not, what is to stop others from following their lead? Only chaos could result from such a response. Instead, they were...
Women and men, religious and secular, native-born Israelis and immigrants from Russia and Ethiopia, they had left their usual army jobs as teachers, flight engineers, and navigators to join the disengagement force. When asked about their feelings on Gaza, they insisted that their personal opinions were irrelevant, and that as soldiers, their duty was to carry out the instructions of the legitimately elected government. The assignment, they admitted, was tough, but essential to defend democracy.
Booklets were passed out detailing the legal authority by which soldiers could request settlers to evacuate and arrest those who refused. We listened as the battalion commander reminded his soldiers of the three weeks' intensive training they had received for this, and reiterated the need to show sensitivity to the settlers' pain but also determination to achieve their objectives. He wished us all good luck.
But saying it is essential to democracy and carrying out one's orders are two completely different things: Every house had its own memories that it wanted to share.
The mother of a child who had been killed by terrorists had locked herself in his room, together with gasoline tanks that she threatened to ignite. Another family whose son, an Israeli naval commando, had fallen in Lebanon, was also hesitating to leave. In home after home, teams of officers and NCOs listened patiently while settler parents pleaded with them to change their minds and not to evict them, wailing and tearing their shirts in mourning. Women soldiers played with weeping children, telling them stories, hugging them. Eventually, though, each of the families was led onto the evacuation bus, leaving the soldiers emotionally drained but also resolved to proceed to the next household, the next excruciating tragedy.
Almost every house had a loved one who was murdered; a best friend who will never be seen again; a sibling who will be scarred for life. Each family has its own story, and what instance can remind them of their story more than this? I cry just seeing the pictures of these families, many of them holding up pictures of their father who was shot driving home from work; their child who was murdered while playing in the backseat. How did the soldiers find the strength to do their jobs, seeing and hearing the stories thrust into their faces? Even though they were expecting all of this, actually facing it is a completely different story.
But they did face it, and they handled it well. What was portrayed very well in the article was the incredible brains, heart and sensitivity the IDF showed. Many people I spoke to this week said that for all the sadness and tears this week, there was an incredible positive which stood out, and that was seeing the soldiers: How they acted; how they carried out their orders; how they treated people; and how they cried.
Ultimately, the settlers were either escorted or carried, sobbing, onto buses. But their rabbi, stressing the need for closure, requested permission to address the soldiers, and the battalion commander remarkably agreed. So it happened that 500 troops and 100 settlers stood at attention, with Israeli flags fluttering, while the rabbi spoke of the importance of channeling this sorrow into the creation of a more loving and ethical society. "We are all still one people, one state," he said. Together, the evicted and the evictors, then sang "Hatikvah," the national anthem--"The Hope."
Mr. Oren sums up the feelings many of us share, at least in part, as of this moment:
I retain many of my forebodings about disengagement--the precedent it sets of returning to the 1967 borders, the inducement to terror. About the army's role, though, I have no ambivalence. The same army that won Israel's independence, that reunited Jerusalem and crossed the Suez Canal, has accomplished what is perhaps its greatest victory--without medals, true, and without conquest, but also without firing a shot. In answer to Amnon, I am not ashamed but deeply proud of the IDF, its strength as well as its humanity.
We are all proud.

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