An Israeli Soldier
By Matania Ginosar
To the surprise of most people, the evacuation of all the Jewish communities of Gaza, and a few in the West Bank, went much more peacefully that any one could have expected. The emotional pain was intense on both sides, the people evicted and the Israeli security forces too. Most of them did not welcome the evacuation, but despite the dire warnings, violence and casualties did not happen; it was almost peaceful.
We have to thank both sides for the maturity they demonstrated in this painful situation. The public apologies by the Israeli President and Prime minister acknowledging the evacuees suffering were calming. To appreciate the sensitivity of the security forces I would like to paint here a sketch of a young Israeli soldier I met last year. He might have been one of the military man in Gaza. Try to understand him a little better as you read this story and you will feel proud of the young generation guarding Israel now. Israel is in very good hands.
I entered the clean, air-conditioned bus and proceeded slowly to my seat. I was not in a hurry, and after glancing around at the other passengers, many young soldiers, I noticed that I was seating directly over the open baggage compartment that just swallowed my big, dirty, backpack. I had no choice, I could not move elsewhere since the seats were assigned. Let's hope no one has a bomb in his suitcase below, I thought. Then I remembered the energetic guard at the entrance to the bus station, a Yemenite lady that searched my backpack a short time earlier. She was so dedicated, efficient, systematic, and careful, there was no reason for me to worry. She was our "guardian angle," she deserves all the salary she was getting and much more, I thought.
The young soldier did not move much as I struggled past him to reach my seat near the window. I nodded my head to him in a slight greeting, sat down and watched him for a few moments as he continued to listen to his CD player. We probably have nothing in common to talk about, I thought. He was a young Israeli soldier on his way to his unit, and I was a retired scientist on vacation traveling to see my brother on a kibbutz.
The driver started to shut the door when some twenty feet away a young soldier waved her hands frantically to him as she ran to our bus. Rega! Rega! (a minute! a minute!) she shouted.
The driver reversed the process, opened the door widely and went down to put her luggage underneath me.
I looked around the bus and saw a young,, lovely lady soldier sleeping in such a convoluted way on her seat, I wondered how her back could take it. She was out to the world the minute we started and only woke up to get refreshments when we stopped. A minute later she was out to the world again. She probably had quite a night.
The young soldier seating next to me was solidly built, had wide shoulders, and his uniform was nicely pressed. We smiled briefly to one another as our eyes met, and I turned to view the passing landscape. We were in the upper Negev, on our way to Beer Sheva. The land was almost flat, like much of Israel, and with more communities scattered around than I remembered from my visit four years earlier. They sure build very fast there. After awhile I noticed that my seat mate let his earphones down and was somewhat bored from the similar, and to him, a well-known scenery.
I introduced myself, and told him I am traveling to see my brother in a kibbutz near Eilat.
"Shmee Zeev, (my is name Ze-ev) my base is not far from that kibbutz"
"You are back from a nice vacation?"
"A very short vacation. Almost no vacations are given, we are on duty most of the time."
"Kama yameem? How many days?"
"Days? Just a day."
"A day? But it takes five hours to Tel Aviv? "
"And another hour to my home north of Tel Aviv."
"Is it worth it? So much driving for such a short time?"
"Just a few hours, that's all I had with my family, but it was worth every minute I spent with my Savta (Grandmother)."
"Maanyain (Interesting)." And I nodded my head.
He wanted to say more but I looked instead at the fast moving scenery through the large, tainted window. The sun was hot and clear outside, but inside it was cool and reasonably quiet. Just the hum of the diesel engine and tires.
After a few minutes I felt Zeev wanted to talk again and I pulled my self from the window, and looked at him in an open expression seeking his words.
Savta is something special, he emphasized, that is why it is worth two days bus rides to see her.
"She is 92 years old, a survivor of the Holocaust."
"Not a young lady."
"She is, she is. If you saw her you would realize how young she really is."
"What is she doing?"
"She just published her book on her experience in the horrible camps."
"At this age?"
(I recently published my own book on my life in the Israeli underground and knew first hand how time and energy consuming is the effort.)
"Amazing" I said.
I told him that I served in the Israeli Air force decades ago and he did not pursue it. He was bubbling with desire to tell me about his family.
"And how is the rest of the family?" I asked.
"They are doing well. My mother and Stepfather came from Russia in 1991. I was seven years old. "
"And your Savta? "
"She was the one who urged us to come. She did not give up. My parents were very uneasy to drop everything and start a new life in a new country, so far away. My father is not Jewish, you see."
"Yes, I see. I thought that newcomers from that period and place received a lot of help to come. Apartment subsidies for a year, food allowances. Free lessons in Hebrew and adjustment to Israeli life. Free bus tickets, and so on."
"Yes, we got a lot, but, we thought that the assistance we received was all a gift. We found out it was partially a loan. We are paying it back, in installments. They want to use it for new immigrants."
(I thought he would be unhappy about the unexpected payments they are making, but I did not see a trace of disappointment. He loves his country he told me with a smile.)"
"It was very difficult for us then," he continued, "despite the help."
"What did your parents do?"
"My stepfather is a scientist, mathematician, and he could not find work in his field for a long time. He simply worked odd jobs, menial jobs, as a grocery cashier and as a laborer too. My mother was a doctor in Riga, Latvia, where we actually came from. She was the head of a medical department in a hospital there."
"What did she do?"
"The only professional job she could get was a registered nurse. The medical level in Israel is much higher than in Russia, he said with a satisfied smile. She became a nurse and studied at night to be an Israeli doctor. That was difficult, and it took her several years to finish. My father eventually got a professor position in the university here. He is quite satisfied now."
"She is a head of a medical department in a large hospital near Tel Aviv. We are very happy and well situated now. Savta is living with us, in our modern, big apartment, and she a dynamite. So full of life. She is the center of the family."
He quieted down from his enthusiastic story about his family and was reflecting quietly about his life, it seemed.
"I love it here, I have many friends in my unit, but I want to transfer."
"It is not really very active here. We are near the Jordan border. The Jordanians are doing their best to stop terrorism from their side and we have nothing to do, but patrol the border at regular intervals.
I want to transfer to a really active unit, in Gaza, where they really need us, where each of us is busy and actively guarding the country. I applied several times to transfer to the Golani brigade. They are the top. And I was rejected. Too many applicants. I have to wait my turn. I don't know how long it will take and in the mean time I am wasting my time guarding an unimportant border here."
He was quiet for a while and then proceeded."I wish we could finally have peace with the Palestinians. They are so miserable. Such a bad life for them. And we can not really do anything. They shoot at us, we have to defend ourselves.
We have strict 'rules of defense.' If an Arab is holding a fire bomb, I can shoot at him because I am in a real danger, but after he throws the bomb I cannot shoot at him, he does not have any longer a weapon dangerous to us, and he can leave and attack us another time. When they are caught they play innocent, 'not me, I did not do it.' It is very dangerous to defend ourselves under these strict rules. "
"So what did you do?"
"We finally got smarter, we use snipers to see more clearly who is ready to attack and finish with them first. We need peace. I feel so sorry for the Palestinians. I am sure many of them want peace too, but they don't dare to speak."
(I was surprised about the seemingly contradiction. He wants to transfer to a more active, fighting unit and also feel so sorry for the Palestinians. But he did not see it as a contradiction. Other Israelis expressed themselves in a similar way and I wanted to understand it better. I listen again.)
"You see," he continued, "in the inspection posts we use profiling, looking for young males between 18 and 25 years usually. But the Palestinians understand us very well. They know we don't like to bother older people, younger people, or pregnant ladies so, they use 15 to 18 years old. Then women, then pregnant women, We let ambulances go through fast, so they used ambulances for weapons- so our profiling expanded. You see, he continued, I don't want to stop and search older people, or young ones either. But what can we do? We caught a 12 year old transferring suicide belts into Israel. We have to search every young kid now. I hate it. But how do we get peace?"
"Not long ago," he continued, "a young pregnant Palestinian was about to cross the search post and looked funny to a lady soldier. She told her to stop and they found she was transferring explosives into Israel in her false pregnancy sack. So now, our lady soldiers have to search all pregnant women too. What a lousy job. We don't like it. I wish I did not have to do it. But we don't have a choice. "
He then turned on his cell phone-almost all Israeli soldiers have cell phones, and called his unit. "Hay guys, its me. I am not far from you, just ten, fifteen minutes. Please delay the patrol, I want to join you. Please just wait a few minutes. I will get there soon."
A few minutes later he waved to me and smiled while leaving the bus, he hurried to his unit, which was not far from the bus station in the hot and lonely Arava.
from the October 2005 Edition of the Jewish Magazine