Why Israel Fights: Life on the Gaza Border
Years ago in my misspent youth, as a film student at UCLA ,I saw a World War II documentary called “ Why We Fight.” So this is my go at it. But I’m not a good enough writer to do this one the way it ought to be done. I apologize for that up front. You won’t be able to feel what I felt yesterday in the warm embrace of a an amazing family who live in one of the small agricultural communities on the border they share the Hamas’s Terrorist enclave in Gaza, and who have been under almost constant fire for thirteen years.
I won’t be able to convey the emotion, the frustration, the courage, the grace, the anger at a world that refuses to see what’s right in front of them, the love, even for their so-called enemies, their unbelievable determination not to give in to the terror their terrorist enemies try day and night to instill in them, their determination to live their lives in peace in their own country, a right every American, Canadian, Frenchman Brit, you name it, takes for granted. And why not? Even if those countries go to war, no one is sworn to kill every last one of them. No one denies them their right simply to breathe. Besides, America’s and Nato’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in Bosnia and Kosovo are a world away.
This family’s war is literally a few hundred meters away.
Read that one again.
I didn’t say it was a few hundred miles away. Like, say you lived in LA and the war was in Las Vegas.
I didn’t say it was a few hundred kilometers away. Like, say you lived in New York, and it was at the other end of New Jersey.
I didn’t even say it was a few miles away.
The war they face and have faced almost constantly for thirteen years is about two thousand meters, as the rocket flies, from their front door. At least that’s the distance away from their front door that it was up until a few days ago when the first thirteen terrorists popped up like zombies from graves opening up on their front lawn! Except these weren’t Zombies on a cable TV series. There’s no way to switch channels on this one. These were terrorists, armed to the teeth with anti tank missiles, machine guns, grenades, handcuffs, tranquilizers, all bent on murdering, maiming, kidnapping and taking hostage as many of them and their children as possible.
Imagine if Afghanistan weren’t in Afghanistan. Imagine if it was on your front porch.
That’s their reality.
That’s where the war is. Quite literally in their front yard.
You have gophers that come up out of holes and eat your petunias, let’s say?
They have Hamas terrorists who come up out of sophisticated tunes, some of them built, by the way with your tax dollars!
A dear friend of mine, Vicki, is married to my high school classmate who has been one of my best friends since I was a kid in Israel fifty years ago. She knows I’m “down South” in the war zone. So is her son Benji who serves as a medic in the Homefront command. She said,
"Listen, if you want a shower or a chance to rest or a hot meal or even someone to wash your uniform, I have a dear friend in one of the border communities. She and her family have opened up their home to any soldiers in the area. And check with Benji and give him a ride down there too if he wants a break."
So I check with Benji, but he’s not getting any breaks today, not with the number of rockets Hamas is launching against our civilians. He’s on constant alert. But I’m not that important. If I want a break I can take it. I’d kill to stretch out on a mattress right now and take a nap. I smell a bit ripe because one tends to sweat a tad in a flak jacket. I’d love a shower and a change of uniform. So absolutely, I’m headed down to see her friend. Let’s call her Rachel. Not her real name because she asked me not to use it. So I plug the name of the community into the GPS and I’m off.
And the closer I get the louder the sounds of war and the more I have to pull off to the side of the road and take cover from the rocket attacks. The rockets don’t bother me as much as the mortars because there’s no warning with a mortar round. No siren, no Code Red alert on the radio, no phone app that says watch out, you might just get killed if you don’t take cover in the next fifteen seconds. Besides, the closer I get the less time there is to take cover. Fifteen seconds is going to seem like a lifetime in a few more kilometers.
Now understand, I’m a former kibbutznik. I know what a little agricultural village looks like. But reality begins to change the closer I get. The MPs have closed the road leading to this little community and the dozens of others down here. Only residents and military personal can get through. But I’m in uniform and flak jacket and show my officer’s I.D. and they wave me through, assuming obviously, I must be a fighter, a warrior on his way to take up his position on the front. In reality I’m a lazy so and so who wants a shower, a free meal and a cot.
But when I get to this little community the thing that assaults your senses first are the sounds of battle. It’s deafening and constant. Because this is where the war is. It’s not in Afghanistan or Bosnia or anywhere else far away. It’s not even like the wars of my youth in Sinai or the Golan Heights.
It’s right here! It’s in their front yard. I don’t mean their metaphorical front yards. I mean the front yard they water. Soldiers, and not any soldiers, not sad sack, rear echelon guys someone gave a weapon to, and said go stand guard at that latrine-type soldiers. I mean elite combat soldiers in full battle gear. I mean as good as it gets soldiers, weapons at the ready, helmets, flak jackets, locked and loaded soldiers. Except this isn’t an army base or some battlefield “somewhere” else, anywhere else, but here, in these people’s front yard.
I ask directions to Rachel’s house and get there and it’s locked. She’s not there. I go next door. Maybe I have the wrong house. This looks like the right one because someone has set up cots on the front porch. They’ve even put a TV outside. I’m already eyeing the cot I mean to sleep on. I knock on the door and a big-hearted woman with a smile that could light up the world comes to the door. “I’m making the pizzas,” she says. “But they’re not ready yet.”
“I’m Vicki’s friend” I say. “ She said if I was in the area....”
“What Vicki?” she says.
OK I must have the wrong house. “I’m looking for Rachel,” I say
“I’m Rachel “ she says.
“But you don’t know Vicki?”
“You must want the other Rachel. She lives next door.”
“Oh,” I say, “ She’s not home.”
“Okay,” She says, “So come on in. Sit down, rest. The pizzas will be ready soon. You want something to eat?”
This woman doesn’t know me from Adam, but I’m a soldier, so now I’m quite simply family, even though I have the wrong house, I have the right one.
The house smells of all good things. Onions and mushrooms being sautéed for the pizza, the aroma of coffee, dough beginning to bake like fresh bread in the oven.
It smells like home. But it sounds like war.
Artillery, tank fire, small arms fire, rockets and mortars. “How can it sound like war?" I think, "She’s making pizza. She has kids and two dogs, and Vegemite, if somebody ever wanted anything like that. But it’s a home, a normal home. Except there’s a war going on not miles away but a few thousand yards away."
She introduces me to her daughter and son, two of four or five kids she has. The daughter is 30 and a beauty, in that feisty, friendly, farm girl way. The son is a teenager, tall, handsome kid, very much being the man of the house while the father is away. In addition to the pizza and the onions and mushrooms being sautéed, I smell something else. I smell a story. I explain who I am, what I’m doing, and ask if I can interview her and her son and daughter about what it’s like to live literally in a war zone, under constant fire and threat of being killed.
“I don’t want to be interviewed,” she says.
The daughter says, “Come on Imma ( Mom), it’s a chance to unload, to say what’s in your heart.”
“I’m not unloading anything. I’m making pizza.”
Just then on the TV there is some kind of a report. It shows that rockets have just hit a few miles down the road.
“Imma,” the son says, again being the man looking after his mother and older sister, “They’re coming our way.”
The mother glances at the TV. Then she looks at her stove as if to see if there’s anything that needs attending to before the rockets begin to fall. I turn to the daughter. “What’s it like living like this?"
And the floodgates open up. I’m just someone to talk to right now. Someone whom she can tell what it’s like. The words come out staccato , pouring out of her, as if she can’t speak quickly enough to keep up with the emotion driving each word.” What’s it like? It’s constant.”
“We haven’t slept in two weeks,” the mother says, and I know I won’t have to ask another question of anyone. All I’ll have to do is listen. “I don’t know how we function. I don’t know what day it is. “
“It hurts your ears,” the daughter says, “when we’re in the reinforced room and the rocket hits, it changes the pressure or something, the shock waves, it hurts your ear drums.”
“I’ve already lost some of my hearing,” the mother says. “In this ear. I can’t hear well any more.”
Just then the code red alert sounds. We don’t have fifteen seconds here. We have five seconds. That’s it. There isn’t a bomb shelter outside because you’d never get to it in time. There’s a reinforced concrete room with an iron door.
The mother moves quickly to the front door and shouts to the soldiers who are outside like a mother hen, “Boys!” She shouts, “Get in the shelter. Now!”
Nobody messes with Mama Rachel and no one has to be asked twice. This isn’t like it is even ten kilometers away where people walk a little slower. Here it’s five seconds. Suddenly the tiny reinforced room is packed with soldiers, each with his combat weapon slung across his shoulder. People are laughing that it interrupted a good joke someone was telling. It’s the bravado of the bomb shelter and then the building shakes and the sound is deafening and the shock wave or change in air pressure or whatever it is whacks your eardrums. One rocket, two, and then another one, all of them close. Then there’s the all clear.
“The pizzas will be ready in a few minutes,” Mama Rachel says, patting some of her olive drab, machine gun-wearing baby chicks as they go back to their posts.
“That’s what it’s like,” says the daughter, “and it never ends.”
The son, a teenager, says, “It’s all I’ve known my whole life. Rockets falling. Mortars.”
“Thirteen years!” says the daughter, “What country in the world would put up with that? Thirteen years of rocket attacks? Would the Americans let that happen to I don’t know, San Diego, New York?…Texas? For thirteen years? Would France put up with that? Would England? What do you think Putin would do? And we’re supposed to ‘show restraint.’ Show restraint?! How much more restrained can we be? For thirteen years we’ve been under attack! Even after the last two operations in 2009 and 20012, when there was supposedly a ceasefire.”
“What ceasefire?” the mother says. "Every month Hamas would fire a rocket here, a rocket there, ten rockets, twenty in a month….”
“And Israel said, well it’s only a few rockets a week, so we can’t react to that,” says the son.
“A few rockets a week? Is the whole world insane?” the daughter says, not to me, not to anyone. To God maybe." Are they all crazy? Listen to that, only a few rockets a week and for them that’s normal! That’s how we’re supposed to live! Only a few rockets a week! Only what they call a drizzle of rockets! And we were restrained. We didn’t do anything because after all it’s only a few rockets! And I don’t even care about the rockets! But the tunnels, now! The terrorist tunnels. Right out there!”
She points to her front door, “Right out there!”
“You know what happened here today?” the son says.
“They tried to attack again. The terrorists.” The daughter says, "They came up out of a tunnel that just opened up in the ground. The army got some of them but then said that two were still on the loose so they tell you to go into the fortified room and lock the door.”
“Do you have any weapons in the house?” I ask
“What weapon?” she says, “They have anti-tank missiles with them! Anti tank missiles that can rip a tank apart and kill everyone inside, except this isn’t a tank. It’s my home!”
"So why do you stay here?" I ask.
“It’s our home!” the son says.
“I work in the dairy,” the daughter says. “Someone has to take care of the cows. Someone has to milk them, feed them. What did the cows do to anyone? We’re farmers. We have to take care of the farm.”
The Mother says, “I work in the day care center. There are still children here. I can’t abandon them. Someone has to take care of them. They’re children. So when the army said the terrorists were out there... I don’t mean a thousand meters away, they were somewhere within a few hundred meters from here. How fast can you run two hundred meters? That’s how fast they could get to us.”
“You know they want to murder us, says the daughter, as if revealing a truly dirty secret. "You know we’re the targets, don’t you? Not the army. They want us. We’re the Divine Victory they could have. To murder us, to take us hostage and drag us back through the tunnels into Gaza. We’re the targets.”
“So,” says the mother, “I’m in the day care center. I take the children into the fortified room and lock the door and say this is just an exercise. It’s just pretending. So we know what to do. Like a fire drill. I do puzzles with them, and color and promise them ice cream, and all the while I know there are terrorists out there and the only thing between them and those little children are our soldiers, the ones you saw on the porch, the ones you see patrolling our village, and the ones who are in Gaza fighting. What do you think they’re fighting for?”
“You think this is politics?” the daughter asks, “We’re what they’re fighting for! This is our home. This is their home! Hamas wants to kill us. And they say they want to kill us! They go on television and say we want to kill the Jews! They don’t lie about it. They announce it to the whole world and, what? They don’t see? They don’t hear?”
This beautiful girl suddenly grabs both sides of her head as if her head is about to explode with the insanity of the life she lives.
“You know the story about the Palestinian boy who got the transplant here? There was a boy…from Gaza and he needed an organ transplant and the mother brings him over here to Israel so we can save her little boy’s life. And that’s fine. I say it’s fine if we can help them, if we can save a life, a child’s life? Yes of course! Bring him. So whose organ gets transplanted? There is a Jewish boy, an Israeli boy who is killed in a terrorist attack and his father gives the ok to transplant his dead son, his murdered son’s kidney or whatever they transplanted, into the Palestinian boy from Gaza, to save his life. And they say you know who will get your boy’s kidney ? It will be a boy from Gaza, from the place that dispatched the terrorist that killed your son. And he says, yes I know and I want to do it. I want to do it, so they’ll see who we are and we’ll have peace. We’ll start with this boy and his mother. That’s how we’ll build the peace. So they do the transplant and the boy lives.
"And you know what the woman says? She says it on television so the whole world can see it and hear it. She’s not ashamed. She says, you saved my son’s life and you Jews have a right to be angry about what I’m going to say. That’s your right and I don’t care. Because now that you’ve saved him, when my son grows up, I want him to become a ‘Martyr’ and kill Jews, as many as he can!
"That’s who we’re dealing with and the whole world hears her and says well you know, you’re stronger than they are, so you know that’s okay, that’s the only way they can fight you. But we don’t want to fight them. We want them to live in peace and let us live in peace! And they shout it from the roof tops that they want to kill us and when one of them blows himself up, whether he kills Jews or not, their parents hand out candy and celebrate. If they kill a few Jews, they hand out more candy. But as long as he tried to kill Jews that’s the main thing. Then you can hand out the candy. Then they’re happy.
"So when I see a woman on the television and she’s crying because her child has been killed in this war, I’m a woman, my heart aches for any child who is killed, it’s awful. But I think to myself, if this is the woman who wants her child to grow up so he can blow himself up while killing Jews, while trying to kill me or my mother or my brother or my neighbor, what’s the tragedy? Is it that the child didn’t live long enough to kill me? Is that the tragedy for her? Or is it that she’s afraid that if she doesn’t raise him to kill Jews, the Hamas will kill her, or kill him. It’s insane! Do you hear that? It’s insane.” Again she holds the sides of her head as if her skull is about to explode; as if it can’t possibly contain the insanity of it all.
“And we don’t hate them!” she says. “Do you understand? We don’t hate them. We had good friends in Gaza. We know there are good people there, and what kind of chance does a child have there to grow up not to want to kill me? That’s all he’s raised with, rockets and guns and hand grenades. They dress their toddlers up in suicide vests and take pictures of them. That’s like their Purim costume, their Halloween. Isn’t that cute? Isn’t that sweet? He’s a little suicide bomber. Here, we’ll take his picture and send it to grandma so she’ll be proud.
"We know they have a gun to their heads. But what should we do when they come to kill us? When they pop up out of the ground on our front lawn and want to kill us? What should we do? And the world blames us because not enough of us are dead? That’s the crime? We built too many shelters for our people, while instead of building shelters for their people they build terrorist tunnels to come and kill us? That’s our crime? That we spent money we don’t have, that we should have spent on education, to build the Iron Dome which saves us from their rocket attacks?
"And still we warn them first. We drop leaflets and send text messages and call them on the phone and say listen, we’re very sorry but we have to bomb you in a few hours so in order that you shouldn’t be hurt could you please leave? That’s what we do. And Hamas puts a gun to their head and says no, go up on your roofs and they celebrate their murders and they lie! My God how they lie! Here did you see this picture?”
She opens the internet and shows me a picture of a Palestinian family; father mother and child, all killed by an Israeli bomb strike. Except she shows me that this is really a picture of a Syrian family killed by Assad’s forces, in their civil war.
“That’s really bad luck, huh?” she says, “to be killed twice? Once in Syria and again in Gaza!
"And the world sees it and they don’t care. They open up their wallets and say here we have to give them money so they can rebuild. Like they did after 2009. You Jews destroyed their homes. They need concrete and steel to rebuild. They’re not going to make bombs out of concrete and steel. So the world pays for it and we let it in and no, they didn’t build bombs out of it. They built the tunnels that they dug to come and murder me and my family and my neighbors and their families. That’s what it went for! Did they build shelters for their children? Did they build schools for them? They hid their rockets in The UN schools! The UN just said it. That’s who we’re dealing with!
"And they fire them from mosques and crowded neighborhoods and we’re the aggressors? We’re the evil ones and they’re the poor victims? Egypt offered a cease-fire and we said yes. What’s that expression? Learn to take yes for an answer? We said yes! But they didn’t have enough dead babies yet. Not enough dead Palestinian babies, not enough dead Jewish babies. And the world looks and it doesn’t see. That’s what makes me ill. Not the rockets. Not even the tunnels and the terrorists. The world looks and it doesn’t see or it doesn’t care. And we tell them and it doesn’t matter. It’s like trying to empty the ocean with a tea spoon. It’s insane.”
After a few moments she calms down. "I’m glad you’re here,” she says, “I just had to get that all out. Just had to say it to somebody. Somebody who would listen. With all the tsuris (troubles), you know what? We’re not going anywhere. This is our home. Not just our country. Our home. And everyone in it is our family. I go to bed at night and I can’t sleep because I hear the gunfire and I think of those boys out there and I now they’re fighting for me! And here I am in a nice bed. Thanks to them."
“The Pizzas are ready,” Mama Rachel says and gives me a slice and then calls to the “boys.”
“Boys,” she says, “Here, eat while it’s still hot.”
I was with a Golani officer. Some of “the boys” had come out for a few hours rest. How were they doing?
“We’re strong. The guys are excellent. We’re going to complete the mission. We’re going to destroy the tunnels, and we’re going to put a serious dent in Hamas’s day (loose translation) and we’ll be victorious. Because we know what we’re fighting for. We’re not NATO. We’re fighting for our homes.”
Golanchick is an endearing term for a member of the Golani Brigade. “ Golanchick, “I say, “ If you want to get a shower and some rest and maybe some pizza, I have some dear friends. The woman’s name is Rachel.”
Dan Gordon is a Captain in the IDF (Res)