Usually I begin my mornings with breakfast. Today, I began with a siren. A rocket was aimed towards Tel Aviv… Fortunately, Iron Dome intervened before I could even make it down the five flights to the bomb shelter. There is a lot of concern over what will happen when Israel’s Iron Dome funding runs out. It is a really expensive system, costing millions and millions of dollars, and apparently Hamas still has a third of its arsenal left (meaning thousands of rockets left to be sent).
Tomer is in the green shirt.
We met with a soldier who served in Gaza today — Tomer Karasik, 33, a combat engineer in the miluim (reserves). Tomer served in Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza in 2002, 2008, 2012, and now 2014.
What do combat engineers do? He told us, usually combat engineers are the sidekicks, flattening land and removing obstacles so that soldiers and tanks can pass through. This time, he points out, they had the most important jobs, of finding and collapsing the miles and miles of tunnels built under Gaza, some as utility tunnels, but most as tunnels built deep into Israeli territory, for the purposes of attacking kibbutzim and kidnapping soldiers and civilians. These tunnels were built with the construction materials meant for houses, schools, mosques and hospitals, often by younger children forced to work deep under ground (my guess is that children were chosen for this work because of their size).
I asked Tomer why they couldn’t just use radar to detect all of the tunnels, and he told us that they’re just too deep under ground to be detected – 10s of meters. Sometimes the simplest techniques are best— once they find an entrance, they fill it with coloured smoke and watch to see where else it exits.
Military service is required for almost every Israeli 18-year-old. After the compulsory years of service, Israeli citizens continue to serve, sometimes for one month a year for training (in quiet times), into their forties. Being Israeli means that sometimes you will be called up and have to leave on a moment’s notice to fight. This was the case for Tomer in all the times in Lebanon I mentioned above (except for 2002, that was during his service). In 2012, he was called up to fight when his baby daughter was only a month old. He observed that he missed half of her life. Of course, all these people in miluim have day jobs. Most companies are supportive– Tomer told us that even though one of his projects fell through while he was away, the client stuck with the company because they were happy he had dropped the work to serve. That being said, people who are self-employed have a much harder time dropping everything. But this is what has to be done…
Tomer said that he and everyone else is so very grateful for all the support they receive from Israelis and others abroad. They receive small gifts that an army supporting thousands of soldiers often overlook, due to the complexity of field work. One particularly meaningful donation was a power generator, meant so that they could charge their phones in the field to stay in touch with home. Important, but something easily missed. Another wonderful gift was a box of bagels shipped over from Jerusalem. Army rations in Israel are not known for being better than army rations anywhere else. He says that anything they can do to up morale, or that can be done, is important. He showed us a picture of a watermelon dressed as a soldier.
I want to point out a couple of things he shared:
We often think of Israel having top notch military equipment. Yes, but not always. His battalion uses Armored Personel Carriers from the 60s, which in combat today, are only slightly more effective than minivans, as no one can see through the non-existent windows.
Golani, a well-known and respected infantry unit, has been incredibly brave in this conflict, entering tunnels alone to save each other, and they have suffered a whole lot of casualties. More than a couple of times did Tomer say that it was an honour to serve with them.
In connection to the so-called war crimes, Tomer is frustrated that people seem to miss a lot of their moral efforts. He points out that the army has given up so many tactical advantages in its efforts to avoid children, schools, etc.
I’ll add to this that Khaled Mashal, the head of Hamas, who lives comfortably far from Gaza in Qatar, pointed out a few days ago that Hamas would be targeting only military units if they had more accurate weaponry. I guess that completely excuses them for deliberately targeting civilians, like when they shoot at major population centers (note my sarcasm).
Tomer feels really badly for the Palestinian civilians. They’re leadership is doing nothing to help them or to improve their lives. Instead, they choose to fight and fight and fight.
Our conversation with Tomer gave us a lot to think about— much of what he said affirmed that which we knew or suspected, but he also taught us a lot about his experiences, and gave us a much fuller picture of what it means to be a soldier a war that is not only tactically difficult and dangerous, but also, emotionally challenging.
On the bus after, David, our guide extraordinaire, made sure that we were aware of a few other points. Intelligence found that most of the tunnels were meant for a massive Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) attack in Israeli territory (this was recently in the news here and in the States). It seems that Hamas intended on sending in hundreds, if not thousands, of fighters into Israeli kibbutzim and villages to murder and kidnap. How do we know the kidnapping? They found sedatives in the tunnels. And Israeli soldier uniforms too, so that Hamas fighters could disguise themselves.
A difference between terrorists and soldiers? Soldiers wear uniforms to differentiate themselves as combatants— this way the difference between fighter and civilian is apparent. Terrorists dress like everyone else, and hide among everyone else. As we’ve seen in Gaza, civilians make great human shields, and their deaths serve the PR battle, which unfortunately, Ḥamas is winning.
This was a very troubling albeit interesting and informative morning.
This afternoon we visited a place in a Bedouin village that gives women, often stuck at home with obvious duties and seldom educated, training in complex weaving, so that they can work and proudly earn money for themselves and their families. This place is called Lakiya. The women’s work is gorgeous and had it not been for the airline weight limits, I would have definitely bought a rug or pillow. Lakiya also teaches literacy and computer skills to Bedouin women.
The Bedouin have had some particularly significant challenges in modern society. Being a nomadic people, many live in unrecognized encampments as they prefer to not live in permanent towns, which means that many Bedouin lack the basics that come with living in municipalities — water, electricity, septic systems, education, and even mail (they don’t have addresses). This organization has given many of these women access to the beginnings of a better life.