Fourteen Soldiers

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 10 — By the end of the day, we got the official news. It’s hard to describe what 14 soldiers killed means in a country like this. Every soldier killed here is an enormous loss — this is a small country. The news carries stories about him, his family and often, why they made aliyah and from where. Funerals, unless the family requests otherwise, are covered on the news. The hourly news announces the location and time of each funeral across the entire nation — it’s at moments like those that one feels that living here isn’t a matter of being a citizen of a certain country, but rather, of being part of an extended family.

Both Israeli television stations went on constant uninterrupted coverage for the entire evening. Thirteen dead in Jenin, another officer killed in Nablus, by friendly fire — another indescribably tragic consequent of the sort of war we’re choosing to fight. We all know why these soldiers are dying. It’s because there are significant pockets of resistance in the Jenin camp, but there are also lots of unarmed civilians. So we can’t — or won’t — just bomb the place from the skies. Therefore, we send these soldiers house to house, have them watch as the Hamas fighters use those very same civilians as living "bulletproof vests," and we try not to kill anyone we don’t want to kill. Usually, it just means that it takes more time. Yesterday we paid a much heavier price for that policy.

All the soldiers killed were reservists, which means that they weren’t only sons and brothers — they were husbands and fathers, too. Guys who’d already done their share years ago, but who when called up, didn’t ask any questions, and even though they’re not young anymore, even though they’re not in the physical shape they used to be in, and even though there are many more people in the world who need them now, willingly and dutifully went into the camp to do what needed to be done so Israeli restaurants, buses and hotels would stop exploding.

When the reservists were called up last week and the week before, there were those who’d said it wouldn’t work. They’d never come. People are tired of the fighting, the wars and just want peace. This is the young generation, it was said. They’re critical of our policy with the Palestinians. Some will come, most won’t.

Not so. 95 percent showed up, much higher than in previous call-ups. Many had been out of the country for Passover, and they flew back within hours. So many showed up, that some had to be turned away. The numbers were so massive that for the first day or so, the army didn’t have enough weapons for them all. They ran out of food, and residents of local towns and cities (even the farthest front is just a short drive from many Israeli population centers) started cooking and baking for the soldiers until the army could get its act together. This morning’s news on the radio, talking about one of the soldiers who died yesterday, told that he’d been given an exemption from the recent call-up because he had another significant security position inside the country. But he fought the exemption and insisted on going to the front. His funeral is later today.

No one I know here wants this war; but almost no one I know thinks we can do without it. Israelis understand why we’re fighting this.

The rest of the world, of course, doesn’t. We’re going to have 14 funerals today because we won’t fight this war the way the Russians fought in Grozny or the way the United States fought in Afghanistan — from the safety of the skies. There’s not one single building in all of Grozny that wasn’t bombed — the Russians knew the price they’d pay if they tried to do it the way that we are. If Israel hit a hospital from the skies the way that the Americans did not too long ago, just imagine the world’s reaction. We’re going to have 14 funerals, and there are now who knows how many orphans and widows because despite what the world says, we don’t do things the way the rest of the world does.

Palestinians claim we won’t let their ambulances in Jenin. Truth or not? I don’t know. But I do know that two weeks ago, we stopped a Palestinian ambulance with a child in the back on a stretcher, but under him, soldiers found an explosive belt. Palestinians claim that we’re not letting them clear their dead from the streets. The Israel Defense Forces claim that it’s a lie, and that the Palestinians are leaving the bodies there intentionally for good footage for foreign TV.

Who’s telling the truth? I don’t know. But last night, as even Israeli TV showed a long line of Palestinian corpses, neatly lined up under blankets but lying in the streets, my son, Avi, said, "Look how nice we are to their dead people." I had no idea what he was talking about — they looked pretty bad to me. When I asked him what in the world he meant, he said, "Remember when they caught those two soldiers who’d gotten lost in Ramallah and killed them, then hacked them to pieces and the Palestinians dipped their hands in the soldiers’ blood and danced around? Abba, we never do that."

And simple and naive as it was, it was 100 percent true. From his perspective, we are, indeed, pretty nice to their dead people. But go tell that to the French.

Last week, when the siege around the Church of the Nativity began, many Israelis understood why we couldn’t just go in their and take them out, but the frustration was palpable. If it were Israelis in a church or a synagogue and Palestinians on the outside, how long would the "siege" have lasted? Everyone here knows the answer to that. When the Palestinians burned down the synagogue at Joseph’s tomb and turned it into a mosque on the first days of the intifada in October 2000, the Vatican interestingly didn’t get very upset. When they later destroyed the Shalom al Yisrael Synagogue near Jericho, one of the oldest in the world, European liberals didn’t lose sleep. But now, they simply can’t wait to bring peace to the region and stop the bloodshed. A true tribute to European humanity.

The siege outside the Church of the Nativity began when the weather here was much worse. The skies were dark, it was cold outside and it was pouring rain. Most of the soldiers were in tanks, and a few were in surrounding buildings, but still some were apparently assigned to positions out in the cold rain, where they stood for hours on end making sure that none of the armed Palestinians who’d taken refuge and hostages there could get out.

According to stories those soldiers told, residents of Bethlehem used the opportunity to shriek at them all afternoon. One of the common refrains, according to the press here, was, "Get out of here. We hate you. The world hates you. And look, even the heavens hate you."

I don’t know if the heavens hate us. If they do, I assume we’re in good company. And the Palestinians do hate us, that’s for sure. With good reason some times, with less now. But the world? The world hates us?

My first reaction was that they were simply wrong. That’s what my grandparents’ generation used to say, but now, that’s all passed. But you know what? They’re right. The world does hate us. For the "genocide" that we’re perpetrating? I don’t think so. For not letting Palestinian bodies get buried? No, not that. For the undeniable hardship, hunger and fear that innocent Palestinian civilians are undergoing in the territories while we search for (and find) dozens of bomb factories, thousands of explosives, RPG’s and countless other weapons they’re not allowed to have? In part. But I think it’s something else. It’s for having the audacity to protect ourselves. For meaning it when we say, "never again." For not trusting "them" to take care of us — we’ve tried that before. It didn’t work out very well.

Or maybe they don’t hate us. Maybe they’re secretly delighted that no war can be made to look like a Monet landscape, so they can finally point their fingers at us and say, "See, they do it, too." Then, maybe, what they did wasn’t so horrific, so unique, so unforgivable. But their problem is that we know better. Because one thing we Jews are good at is remembering. And Israel’s made it into a fine art.

We won’t forget the 20th century and the world’s complicity, and today, when we bury 14 more sons, brothers, husbands and fathers who didn’t have to die this way — except for our decision to do this fighting the hard way — we’ll remember what the world said about us this week.

The Norwegians are upset that they gave Peres the Nobel prize. If memory serves me correctly, Peres and Yitchak Rabin shared the prize with someone. But the Norwegians don’t have any regrets about the recipient of other half of the prize? I doubt that it’s us that the heavens really hate.

When I got home from work last night, I asked Avi how his day in school had been. "Weird," he said. Why, I wanted to know. "Because we had a ceremony for Yom HaShoah, which was nice, but then we had the most stupid discussion." I asked him what was so stupid about it. "We were talking about whether that sort of thing could ever happen again." I asked him why he thought that was such a stupid discussion. "Abba, because we have a strong army, America is our friend and look out there now — we take care of ourselves." That’s it, once again — the plain truth, free of all the nuances that sometimes hide the simple truth — all out of the mouth of a 12-year-old.

A couple of minutes ago, Avi left for school. He got on his bike and rode away in a great mood. Proud, secure, confident. That’s a hell of a lot more than Jewish kids in Europe had a few decades ago. And for that matter, it’s a lot more than Jewish kids have in Europe this week. That, of course, is why we will simply not forget. That is exactly why we need this country. And that is why we’ll fight to keep it. No matter who hates us.