Operation Pillar of Defense: From the Diary of a KKL-JNF Military Reservist

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

It always comes when you’re least prepared. Last time, in the Second Lebanon War, it began with a brief telephone call from the platoon commander to my place of work: “Come now. We’re in operation.”

Shmulik Dahan. Photo: Shmulik Dahan.

This time, it was a little more sophisticated – a voicemail message to my mobile phone on a Friday evening. There had been no real signs that the storm was approaching. On the contrary, it was an ordinary Friday afternoon characterized by that special Israeli pre-Shabbat tranquility that soothes away all troublesome thought. I was sprawled on the couch, just a moment away from closing my eyes completely, the scent of the carrot cake in the oven filling the entire house while in the background Dana, my wife, was calling the children to come home in time for the Shabbat candle lighting. Then, at the final moment before I drifted off into a dream: “Shmulik, get up! It’s from the army!”
“Emergency orders are in force. All reserve soldiers are required to proceed to their units at once!” That was the telephone message. Then, as always, I experienced that familiar sensation, like getting on a bike again after years of absence. The body tenses once more, flooded with adrenalin and operating as if of its own volition. At moments like this you don’t think too much. Under the anxious eye of my wife, I go down quickly to the storeroom, pick up my kitbag, which has been ready since the last war, wave to the children and share a final group “look after yourself” hug.
On the radio, as I make my way to the emergency base, I hear a report of an important meeting of the foreign affairs and defense committee and the mobilization of another 75,000 reserve soldiers. My wife telephones me from our protected room at home, and I can hear the wail of the siren rise and fall in the background: “A rocket’s fallen in Jerusalem and the children are frightened.” Not that I needed it, but it hits you all at once: it’s reached Jerusalem and you’re fighting for your home. This is no cliché of mutual responsibility. It’s a war for your own freedom and for your children’s freedom to play out in the yard without fear; it’s a battle to preserve your independence, your way of life, the freedom to live in accordance with your beliefs – to live a normal life even in a bad neighborhood with threatening neighbors.

Grad missile hit in Beer Sheva. Photo: Dudu Grinshpan.

The first two days pass quickly in “reserve tasks.” In the Fire Detachment, which is the combat division I belong to, we organize our equipment, sign out weapons and equip ourselves with food and other personal necessities. Someone says that he’s seen a headline on an internet news website saying it’s estimated that Israel is embarking upon a seven-week campaign. Our belief in the rightness of what we’re doing, backed up by sympathetic reactions from the general public, prepares us even for this length of time and this degree of self-sacrifice. On the personal level, I realize at once that I’ve got to tell my workmates that I’m going to be down south for the foreseeable future.
I’ve been working in KKL-JNF’s Resources, Development and PR Division for about a month now, before embarking on my journey to England, where I will serve as KKL-JNF emissary. In the meantime, the organization has been using my abilities and experience for a number of fascinating projects in the division. I quickly make a few telephone calls to cancel important appointments arranged for the coming week, including a preparatory meeting in London prior to my appointment there as an emissary. Everything gets put off, because I’m on my way to the firing line in the south.
The preparatory stage comes to an end, and the order is given to move south. The roads are overcrowded and long lines of armored vehicles throng the highways leading southwards. It’s a surreal journey. The winter landscapes of the south are astonishingly beautiful. I’ve always considered  myself an outdoorsman and a nature lover, ever since my days as an instructor in the Scouts, but from the day I joined the family of KKL-JNF, my awareness of the countryside, nature and the soil has increased dozens of times over. The eye becomes accustomed to this breathtaking beauty, to the downy green fuzz that carpets whole tracts of the Negev at this time of the year. Our breath is taken away by something else, too – by the Color Red air-raid warnings that sound every ten minutes or so, obliging us to leap out of our vehicles at once and flatten ourselves on the ground. I’m a comparatively young man, and I take care to keep fit, so the increasing frequency of these jumps as we proceed southwards doesn’t really affect me. But for Eitan, Shmueli, Yuval and Erez, the platoon’s designated “pensioners,” every leap, which in their slang they still refer to as a pazatzta,  takes its toll, and they need some time to catch their breath again on each occasion.

Damage from a grad missile hit in Beer Sheva. Photo: Dudu Grinshpan.

Thus the journey continues from one alert to the next, and a trip that on a normal day would have taken an hour and a half to two hours extends over almost four. But if we were under the impression that this was the high point of the welcome that the south was preparing for us, we were quickly proven wrong. As soon as we reached the troops’ assembly point, a prolonged salvo of missiles landed beside us. Even at such a tense and grave moment I tried to keep my cool and my sense of humor. When everyone stood up again I told my comrades that I didn’t imagine they’d felt so close to the soil since their first grade Tu BiShvat planting with KKL-JNF – and they’d certainly never before thrown themselves down upon it with such enthusiasm!
We very soon discovered that more and more missiles were falling close to us. We were told that the GSS had apprehended some local Bedouin who had been observing the assembly area and passing on information to Hamas. No wonder their rockets kept getting closer, until they hit two of our soldiers, who, very sadly, paid with their lives.
From one moment to the next, things grew increasingly complicated. We completed our exercises in the area around the entry point. Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi famously expressed his homesickness with the words “My heart is in the east and I am in the utmost west…” In our situation we could have rephrased this as “My heart, my eyes and especially my ears are attuned to the east, while I am in the far south.” We soon realized that we were waiting for a decision by the political echelon in the east, i.e., Jerusalem.

A wounded soldier lands at the hospital. Photo: Dudu Grinshpan.

Waiting is hard on the nerves, including those of the decision-makers, who see the overall picture in all its complexity, with all its possible ramifications for Israel, for the individual soldier in the field, and for the platoon, the battalion and the division. Waiting gives you time to think, and now we had plenty of time to reflect on the dreadful experiences undergone by residents of southern Israel every day for the past twelve years. It’s not until you get there, and the sounds, sights and fears are all around you, that you truly realize how appalling it is. It’s a situation you could never get used to, and in which you could never create a reasonable daily routine even if you wanted to. Very soon every dull thud causes the body to tense. Was that a missile landing, or just a door slamming? It really is like that. Sometimes you hear a siren, and sometimes the rocket falls unheralded.
At moments like this, the tension is transmuted into a desire for action. Understanding the situation makes us more aware: this state of affairs simply can’t continue any longer. It’s touching and very encouraging to observe the spirit of the soldiers around us. No one questions the necessity of the operation, and everyone is imbued with a sense of mission, ready to consent to any form of action the political echelon may decree. It’s not always like this: on the eve of war you can’t always expect to find a sense of shared purpose, especially in our battle-scarred and weary country, where every citizen regards himself as some form of chief of staff. 

Reserve sodiers. Photo: Dudu Grinshpan.

The battalion commander calls us together for another group discussion. By this point, we all know by heart what we have to do, and where we have to go when the critical moment arrives. After a number of tense days we’re restless. From the last discussion and from radio reports we gather that efforts to achieve a ceasefire are underway. The US Secretary of State has already landed in Israel and the Secretary General of the UN is here too. Everyone immediately understands what this means: as long as these high-ranking officials’ feet tread Israeli soil, we won’t be setting foot on the accursed soil of Gaza.
Don’t misunderstand me. We don’t thirst for blood. No one is eager for war. We’ve all got families, and on the other side, too, there are plenty of families who are not involved in any way and who are fearful of the terrorism that uses them as its hostages. Even though our fingers are already on the trigger, our minds continue to think rationally, and that’s just as well. Even at the most difficult moments of this operation, including the day we learned of a terrorist attack in the very heart of Tel Aviv, we took great pride in the knowledge that we serve in the most moral army in the world. This is an army that has no choice but to operate substantial destructive forces in densely populated areas and defend itself against the very personification of evil – an evil that fires indiscriminately at a civilian population with intent to sow grief and destroy, an evil that does not differentiate between a uniformed soldier and a child in the playground or an elderly person on a crosswalk. This evil has no face. It has only rocket launchers from Iran, Sudan and everywhere else that wants to see us wiped out.  

Security road Gaza periphery. Photo: KKL-JNF Archive.

And against this evil stands constantly the most moral army in the world, as it carries out surgical strikes designed to spare innocent civilians as much as possible. No other modern army has operated in this manner, and this knowledge is a significant component of our pride. So, when the announcement of the ceasefire came, there was no sigh of relief, either in the military assembly area or among residents of the south and center of Israel, which also found itself within rocket range this time.
When you live in the Middle East, and especially if you live in Israel, you very soon understand that you have to keep your feet on the ground, because the next outbreak of hostilities is just around the corner. The truth of this was soon confirmed: we had heard on the news that the ceasefire would go into effect at nine p.m., but an hour after that we were still being fired upon. We just gritted our teeth. Until the next time.
In the meantime, we’ll go back to the routine of repairing the damage, and, as members of the KKL-JNF family, to helping residents of southern Israel in particular. When I got back to work I was moved to see that KKL-JNF offices around the world were already engaged in emergency activities on behalf of residents of the south. This help and support is still being made available in order to build a better future for everyone in the Negev.

Security planting by KKL. Photo: KKL-JNF Archive.