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A Parent’s Pride and Fear: My Three IDF Reservists

Being an Israeli soldier is a lot easier than being the parent of one, or more.

by
Michael Widlanski

Bio

November 20, 2012 - 12:00 am

Soldiers wait to be called, and their parents die a little bit inside during this wait.

Our three sons are infantrymen, reserve soldiers who expect to be called to active duty to finish the business of putting the Palestinian terrorists out of business. They are ready, literally, to answer the call. They left their cell phones within easy reach on the Sabbath so their unit commanders would have no trouble reaching them

Sara and I are proud parents who did our national service a while back, but we both know a few things about speaking to and/or fighting with Arabs. We know defeating Hamas and jihad is not something you can accomplish from the air. But going in on the ground means exposing your soldiers — especially your infantry — to risk.

Daniel, 28, who just got engaged this month, also trained as a medic. He has been looking at places for a wedding in May. Yoni, 26, the jazz pianist in the family, is from the “engineer” branch where they have taught his dexterous fingers to prepare and to dismantle devices more destructive than a piano. Lately, he has been attached to some hush-hush infantry unit whose name he will not tell us.

Elad, our 23-year-old, is from the elite sayeret (patrol) units of the Golani brigade, where the boys love to snack on barbed wire and go on 70-mile hikes with a full pack. Elad’s idea of a good time is doing push-ups and pull-ups — a regimen that he inflicted on his campers last summer in Camp Ramah, where he was the sports counselor.

None of the boys has a military career or thought of one, and none of them is especially bellicose or spends spare time tracking and hunting animals, but they have each been trained to fight to protect their country from external invasion and from the more insidious threat of terror.

Sara and I know what wars are like. Sara’s brother Yossi nearly burned to death when his vehicle was hit by a Syrian anti-tank missile in the 1973 war. He was knocked out, ammunition inside his armored personnel carrier (APC) exploding around him. Fortunately, Yossi regained consciousness and pulled himself out.

It took him months to recover from burns over his whole body, and he still carries some shrapnel in his chest. Well past his 50th birthday, he was a reserve infantry colonel doing almost 60 days a year of active reserve duty.

I was a war correspondent for Israeli Army Radio — Galei Tzahal — in Lebanon during the 1982 war, and this gave me a chance to go all over Lebanon using my Arabic, French, and English to get some interviews off the beaten path.

Israel overturned the PLO terror state in Beirut and southern Lebanon, which was similar in many ways to the terror state run by Hamas in today’s Gaza Strip. One almost never got real news out of Lebanon in 1980-82 that the PLO did not like, and one almost never sees a report from Gaza today that Hamas does not like.

The PLO and the Syrians browbeat the Western press corps in Beirut. People like Tom Friedman and John Kifner of the New York Times and Robert Fisk, then of the London Times, and reporters from the Associated Press and Reuters did not probe too hard into PLO or Syrian actions nor report how some reporters were harassed or even killed.

Kifner was among a group of reporters kidnapped by a Palestinian group, but he did not report it until an Israeli official embarrassed him by going public with the story.

Like Kifner, Friedman also pretended the PLO was a benevolent presence.

Friedman and Fisk willingly believed much of obviously false Palestinian claims about Israeli participation at the Sabra-Shatila massacre, with Fisk also describing Israelis as behaving like Nazis. Somehow, neither man showed much enterprise reporting on Syrian massacres of Syrians in 1980 and 1982. I wonder why. (Today, Friedman likes to claim that he invented the term “Hama Rules” for Syria’s Hama massacre, but that really only took place when Friedman wrote his book about Lebanon when he was safely outside Lebanon.)

These same “intrepid” reporters lovingly passed on every bit of PLO propaganda, including the farcical nonsense that Israeli bombings had caused 600,000 homeless in southern Lebanon, when the entire population of southern Lebanon did not even reach that number. (A fuller description of how the press interacts with terrorists appears in my book on terror.)

After the 1982 war, we discovered how the PLO kept the population of southern Lebanon under its thumb, and I suspect that if Hamas gets sharply curtailed, we may suddenly discover that whole apartment complexes in Gaza City have been built atop concrete bunkers housing Grad missiles and Fajr-5 rockets.

This pattern of the press playing patsy for Arab-Islamic terrorists has repeated itself to greater or lesser degree in many subsequent conflicts, with Hezballah even digging up corpses and taking bodies from refrigerators in order to stage “mass killing” pictures in 1996 and 2006 in Lebanon.

Just after the 1982 Lebanon war, I met Sara. Someone noticed our common interest in Arabs and Arabic, and brought us together. Sara teaches Arabic by profession, but today she is a mosaic artist. I am an orientalist/journalist/political scientist, and my doctorate studied how Yasser Arafat used his broadcast media to hold power.

After listening to hundreds of hours of Palestinian radio in Arabic, I know a few things about Palestinian discourse, nuance, and threat. This background is a mixed blessing, because it really hurts me during this period of tense waiting — when we are glued to TVs, computers, and radios — to watch the carefully coiffed TV news hosts mouthing the regular inanities about “the cycle of violence.”

Hundreds of rockets and mortar rounds have fallen on southern Israel in the last week, and thousands more have fallen in the last few years, mostly since Israel withdrew on its own from Gaza.

We still give electricity and water to the Gazans, although no one has ever explained to me why.

Most Israelis I know also do not know why, and most Israelis have common sense. They also stick together in times of war, even or especially when air raid sirens go off in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

At sundown on Friday, we got a siren. At first I thought they had started doing the Sabbath siren in this part of town, but it was a loud and eerie siren, with up and down wailing. That is an air raid siren. We are on a new street, and the siren is really in tip-top shape.

People were going to synagogue and some were just walking about in the German Colony section here, mostly tourists. The tourists got really scared and started running, and about 50 people huddled in our garage area because we are the nearest safe place to Emek Refaim Street in the German Colony. “Emek Refaim” literally means “Ghost Valley” in Hebrew, a kind of humorous name for an area that is always crawling with tourists. Thank God it was a false alarm. The terrorists shot something in the direction of Hebron or whatever, and it fell in an open field somewhere.

Afterwards, Hamas radio bragged that they hit the Knesset.

That reminded me of the big Arab claims during the 1967 war. Cairo radio broadcast — in Hebrew – that their forces had struck Tel Aviv and that their forces were proceeding on all fronts. The problem was that they used the wrong Hebrew word for “front,” instead using the word for “brassiere.” The result was: “Our forces are proceeding on all brassieres.” The Israelis had a good laugh, and we hope this war ends with a laugh and not a whimper.

As for Israelis, you have several kinds. In Jerusalem, we go to synagogue, go to the post-prayer Kiddush, eat our herring and kugel (maybe chulent), pray and go to sleep. In Tel Aviv, they go to the pubs, unless there is an alarm, and then they go to friends in another town. In Ashkelon and Ashdod, the newest sport is to go out to the anti-aircraft batteries and to watch the show. The police had to be called in to tell the folks (“the folks” is my tribute to U.S. politicians and media) to find some other form of entertainment.

And then there are the out-of-work politicians and know-nothing reporters who take up the airtime on radio and TV saying nothing, but trying to push their own careers.

Sometimes they remind me of the guy at the funeral who likes to build himself up by crawling on top of the corpse: he spends time talking about himself, so much time to remind everyone what a friend he was of the guy who just died.

Well, we in Israel are not dead. We feel very much alive and we do not need the has-beens and never-was-es of Israeli politics like Shaul Mofaz, Tzipi Livni, etc. of the moribund Kadima Party trying to recapture a moment of air time with the hapless media hype types.

So far we have been very lucky, partly due to the careful strategic planning of the army and of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, but also due to the terrific performance of the new anti-rocket system known as “Iron Dome” which has hit over 90% of the incoming rockets headed for populated areas. The system is designed to ignore rockets that are headed to empty fields, because each “Iron Dome” projectile costs about $40,000.

And yet, there have been three deaths and more than a dozen major injuries. The people in Kiryat Malachi, south of Tel Aviv, were taken by surprise because they had never been targeted before. Three people died. Several infants were injured. Do you think their parents will be interviewed on CNN or BBC? I doubt it.

There is a pretty good chance we will have to do some ground operations in Gaza, because you cannot defeat terror only by air strikes. The first part of the war was about decapitating the Hamas terror leadership and hurting their long-range rocket capability. But our real strength is the people in Sderot and nearby towns, who have been attacked for more than a decade. We should salute them. And now we owe them. We owe it to them to remove the threat. We are doing a good job, and we hope God will help us.

Like other Israelis, Sara and I are long-time observers of the Arab scene, especially the Arab terrorist scene. We are under no illusions that mediation by Egyptian, EU, Turkish, or American officials will convince Hamas and jihad fanatics that we are not “the sons of monkeys and pigs” — as one Hamas official said again, yesterday.

When EU mouthpiece Catherine Ashton speaks of a need for a “proportional” Israeli response, we realize we are dealing with someone who does not have a clue about warfare, strategy, or justice. The police do not use “proportional force” when fighting murderers, and Hamas jihadis want to murder an entire society.

Another leader who does not understand this is President Barack Obama, who says he supports Israel defending itself — as long as it does not really fight too hard.

At times like this, most Israelis know we have to protect ourselves, and no one else will do it for us. Our problem is that we are also parents.

We really wish it did not have to be our children going into battle.

Dr. Michael Widlanski is the author of Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat. He is a former reporter, correspondent, and editor respectively at the New York Times, Cox Newspapers, and the Jerusalem Post. He was Strategic Affairs Advisor in Israel's Ministry of Public Security, and now teaches at Bar Ilan University.
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