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June 2, 2012

Shabbat morning. Thirty years ago today was also Shabbat. We were living on the kibbutz, and it was our blessed day of rest and family. Four year old Noa was climbing on me, as I lay on my back in a meter of water in the kiddie pool. Eight year old Tal, already an ace swimmer, was diving head first into the deep end of the pool. Though there had been Katyusha rockets on the north, we were out of range. There was ease, gentle quality time in our Galilee home. Suddenly one of the veteran kibbutzniks was gesturing to me from the side of the pool: “We just got a message from your unit. You’ve been called up. You need to be at the meeting point in two hours.”

Called up for what? My heart racing, I jumped up from the water, kissed the kids and my wife goodbye, walked quickly to our little kibbutz house and packed a bag. Within minutes I was hitching a ride out to the main road, which was already teeming with traffic. In an hour I was already at the emergency gathering point of my supply unit where I did my reserve service a month a year as a munitions technician.

I met my fellow reservists as we received our gear. Within hours we were in position along the fence that borders Lebanon. As we waited tensely, a group of Chabad ultra-orthodox guys in black suits came along the line of soldiers. “Lay tfillin?” they asked, offering to assist us in wrapping our heads and arms with the leather thongs and small leather boxes that contain prayers. For them, a chance to do a mitzvah. For me, superfluous. Irritated, I nodded no, as one guy approached me. But as he walked by, the ominous moment weighing on me, I said to myself, “Damn, I can use all the help I can get!” and called him to return. In five minutes it was done, and I had unwrapped myself and returned the holy implements to the guy. Apparently, the tfillin worked! Three weeks later, when I left Lebanon, I had not a scratch on my body.

 We were a munitions supply unit, trucking convoys of artillery and tank munitions to the battle units we serviced. This meant that each of us was assigned to an ammunition-laden truck, as we made our way north intoLebanon. We traversed small towns, many of them already empty of residents who had fled the fighting. Already in the first days, there were reports of fighters, including young boys, with shoulder-launched RPG rockets emerging from doorways and firing on the convoys. We were determined and scared, and I was reminded of my father’s accounts of treating traumatized merchant marine sailors who crewed the ships that brought munitions toEurope during WWII. The sailors would joke that they needed parachutes more than life-jackets, because if the German U-boats struck them, they’d be blown sky-high. We camped along the way, organizing the convoys into the night. Our tension was palpable, and we too tried to stay calm by joking.

 We passed through some towns where, during those first days, people emerged from houses to shower us with rice and offer us hot, sweet tea. One woman explained to a group of us in English that she was happy we had come to free them from the control of PLO operatives who had taken over their village. She never imagined then that we would stay for 18 years.

As we entered one village, we rested for several hours, and I walked up to the town square. There I saw some 100 Palestinian prisoners, bound and blindfolded, sitting in the scorching sun, heads bowed, on the ground, guarded by our soldiers. One by one they were interrogated, and some of them were wounded. As our doctors crouched over the wounded, some of the soldiers stood over them, cursing the Palestinians and urging the doctors not to treat the wounded Palestinian fighters. One young doctor lifted his head to beg us to distance these soldiers so that he could do his job, and I tried to help out.

We made our way deeper and deeper north. We had been told that our mission was to push the PLO 25  miles into Lebanon, where their Katyusha rockets would no longer be able to reach our border towns. But it felt like more than 25 miles, and our commanders were not briefing us. From one guy’s transistor, we tuned into the BBC, where we learned that Israeli tanks were already surroundingBeirut,120 milesnorth of our border.

Until that moment, I had experienced no conflict about our mission. I lived in the north, I had seen the Katyushas’ impact on our towns, and I felt that yes, we had to do something to protect ourselves. Yet now, the discrepancy between what we were told and what was actually happening undermined whatever sense of purpose we had. It now began to look more as though we were being used to fulfill some unexplained agenda. We felt deceived, just as Menachem Begin would feel, manipulated by Arik Sharon, as the operation pushed forward.

 At night we slept in the dirt beside our trucks, awakening to the blasts of our heavy mortars nearby. At another small town, I walked up a hill and came upon a destroyed PLO jeep with Katyusha rocket launchers welded onto a stand in the back. In the driver’s seat was a dead fighter, his eyes and mouth open, the flies swarming over him. I was transfixed, caught momentarily in the profundity of the death of this man, my age, who had been on his way to fire upon us.

 On Friday, we moved into a village, and our company commander, a religious guy, ordered us to go through the abandoned houses and to bring him a white tablecloth. “Shabbat is not Shabbat without a white tablecloth,” he explained. As I grappled with the absurdity of his request, we entered the living room in one small house. On the wall was a butterfly collection in a frame. Someone had been there before us and smashed the glass. Why? The butterflies were askew, their delicacy contrasting so graphically to what we were doing there.

After another few days, we entered Sidon, just a few miles south of Beirut, and set up camp in the low dunes near the sea. We were ordered to scour the abandoned oil refinery. The lead force had been there before us, and much of the refinery had been destroyed. We went through the administration building, and in one office, a soldier had relieved himself in the middle of a desk. Somehow, I remember this moment as coinciding with my growing understanding that this incursion was raising more questions than it was giving answers.

My commander asked me to accompany him on his jeep on an errand, into the heart of downtown Sidon. Our army had already been there, and many structures were in ruins. “You see that building?” asked the commander. “PLO headquarters.” “How do you know?” I asked. “Obvious,” he replied. “Otherwise we wouldn’t have blasted it.” This same reasoning he applied to scores of additional blown away buildings as we drove. This was all beginning to get to me. My original determination was all but gone, and now what I wanted was just to get out of there in one piece.

Many of my fellow soldiers were having the same thoughts. The ten days had begun to wear on us. We had been told 25 miles. We had been told 72 hours. Many of us were older than I and had left businesses and farms, assuring their families that they would be home in a few days. Now, after a week and a half, some of the guys began to lose it. There were violent fights over rations and work details. We had been sleeping on the ground, no cots or mattresses, and people were getting edgy. One morning a guy awoke screaming, as he discovered a poisonous snake in his sleeping bag along with him. Some of the nights, we had heavy mortars firing into Sidon from a position right beside us. We had to sleep for sixty seconds at a time, between salvos. I awoke in the middle of one night to hear the driver I had accompanied on the convoy weeping.

 At that time in my life, I was working part-time as a psychotherapist in the regional center for families, doing group and individual therapy. The next morning, I approached the battalion commander and told him that I was a therapist. He leaped up with joy. All the army’s field psychologists were serving with the advance forces. But he was aware that, though we were only a supply unit, some of our guys were falling apart and that something had to be done. Within an hour, he had set me up with a tent with the mandate to determine who was truly in crisis and who could be expected to pull himself together and keep functioning.

So began the second part of myLebanonexperience. At night, I was conducting and organizing convoys of ammunition. During the day, I held office hours for weeding out the “fakers” from the truly traumatized. The responsibility was harrowing. Several times, I concluded sessions by asking the soldier for his weapon and escorting him personally to get him shipped home. It was not difficult to ascertain who had decided to put on a show in order to get sent home. I quietly made the decision, in some cases, that if the guy was desperate enough to concoct a story and feign symptoms, he was not going to be much use to us anyway. But there were others that I worked with for several sessions in order to help them confront the stress.

A relatively quiet day arrived, and one guy took initiative and organized a homemade shakshuka meal for our group. Having eaten army rations for nearly two weeks, the eggs swimming in tomato sauce and peppers and local tomatoes that someone had found, smelled and looked like home. We feasted and relaxed a bit. By afternoon, one of the ingredients in the shakshuka was taking its revenge. The entire group was assaulted by killer diarrhea, and long into the night we repeatedly staggered just beyond the perimeter to explode our agony into the dunes. We were drawing lots for a 48 hour leave to go home. I lucked out.

I was released in the evening, and caught rides with various army vehicles, arriving at the Rosh Haniqra border crossing after midnight. I set out hitching my way home. At 2 AM, I reached Carmiel, the small northern city on the road that led to my kibbutz. In a makeshift lean-to under a bare bulb, stood a middle-aged woman in an apron, a stack of homemade sandwiches and thermoses of hot coffee on a table before her. She was volunteering to be there for soldiers like me, and at the sight of her, a welling up of tears and a choking throat overcame me. The awareness that I was back home in Israel, that it was safe here, and this smiling woman waiting to bolster my flagging spirits with fresh bread and coffee, just pushed me past self-control. After downing a sandwich, I hugged and thanked her, and then caught a ride toward home, arriving to awaken my family at dawn. What joy!

The next evening, I learned that there would be a demonstration against what had clearly become a full-scale invasion and occupation ofLebanon. I decided that my way back to Lebanon would pass through Tel Aviv, as I joined the demo, uniform in my bag. How completely Israeli an experience, to be demonstrating against the war I was fighting. Why didn’t I refuse to go back, if it was so clear to me that the war was already going far beyond the originally stated aims? I felt committed to my fellow soldiers, I believed my friends in Sidon needed me there. I couldn’t see letting my friends down. So when the demo ended, I hitched a ride north, and crossed back into Lebanon for another week.

 One afternoon, during that last week, we had some time off, and I walked over to the sea, dropped my clothes on the beach, and plunged into the cool water. I swam out about100 yards. Coming up for a rest, my head barely above the surface, I suddenly heard shooting. I looked back to the beach and saw two Israeli soldiers out for a walk, who had decided to fire into the sea, apparently just to pass the time. They clearly didn’t see me, and I heard the bullets whine past my head. I began screaming my lungs out and waving my arms, until they noticed me.

 I had had it. To come home in a bag, because some of our guys were bored, the last straw. I made my way back to the beach, and from that moment all that guided me was taking care of myself and my comrades. I had long since stopped volunteering for various tasks, and I pulled into myself as far as I could. I began to speak out among the guys, and my commander was not happy with me.

That’s it, my minor role in a major war. It was a war that led to 18 years of pointlessly trying to impose our will on another people. We expelled the Palestinian leadership from Beirut, but inTunis they only regrouped, strengthened. Three months later, in September, Arik Sharon and Israeli commanders knowingly enabled Christian Phalangists to massacre hundreds of Palestinians. 400,000 of us demonstrated in Tel Aviv and Sharonwas forced to resign as defense minister. This was the war that created Hizbollah, with whom we are left to this day, as they stockpile missiles that can now reach far into Israel.

 Perhaps because I was clear about opposing what we were doing there, I escaped being called up again for reserve duty inLebanon, but many others continued serving there, and many more Israelis and Lebanese died. I’m always amazed that in the various deals to release Palestinian prisoners,Israel insists on distinguishing between terrorists with blood on their hands and those that don’t. Are anyone’s hands here blood-free? I know that mine are not, and all I can offer is my determination to continue seeking a way through to a time when none of us will ever have to go to war.

 This morning my daughter was over with the kids. As I mentioned in passing that I mark 30 years since that time, Naveh, my six year old grandson, asked, “Am I going to have to be a soldier too?” All I could say was that I hope not, that we will find our way to peace and that his national service will be something, anything other than soldiering.


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One Comment
  1. Thanks so much for this, Yoav. I remember this war from the wife’s point of view. Both those in the field and those taking care of the children felt betrayed by our leaders. For me, it was the beginning of the end of the Zionist dream.

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