Miriam Mandel Levi’s essays have been published in Creative Nonfiction’s anthology Same Time Next Week, Brain, Child, Literary Mama, Under the Sun, Poetica, Sleet, Tablet and bioStories. She lives in Israel with her husband and three children.
My Gaza War
People have asked me whether, when I immigrated to Israel twenty-four years ago, I imagined that my sons would one day be soldiers risking their lives to defend the State. I did not. Even after the Second Intifada, the 2006 Lebanon War and two Gaza wars, even after watching my friends’ sons, one after the other, join and fight in the Israel Defense Force (IDF), I still did not imagine that either son of mine would go to war.
But when I walked by the dining room table on July 17th, 2014 and read the evening headline on the computer screen: Israel Begins Ground Invasion, I imagined it. My knees buckled and I extended an arm to the table’s edge to brace myself. The operation for which my son Ariel had been training was underway; he would enter Gaza to fight Hamas. Two weeks earlier, on July 8th, in an attempt to halt months of missile attacks on Israeli communities, Israel’s Air Force had begun air strikes on Hamas facilities in Gaza. Sirens wailed across the country sending us running to bomb shelters and diving into ditches. When Hamas’ missile attacks did not abate, we all knew a ground invasion was inevitable.
Though I didn’t envision future soldiers, I knew my sons would one day be put through fire when they came with me to a routine medical appointment. My boys, then four and two, were enticed by the shiny instruments on the silver tray and moved closer to investigate.
“Don’t touch,” the doctor roared. They simultaneously burst into tears. “Don’t you yell at them?” the doctor asked me, flabbergasted. I didn’t. Yehuda, my eldest, was so sensitive he would pick up fallen autumn leaves from the sidewalk to return them to their mother branches. Ariel was always last in line to receive anything in nursery, pushed back by his more aggressive peers or allowing them to go ahead. How would my boys, raised by genteel Canadian parents become prickly Sabras, much less warriors?
When Yehuda received his draft notice, I asked my friends how they coped with having sons in the army. How did they sleep at night? “Head in the sand,” said one. “I don’t think about it,” said another. “Don’t ask any questions,” said yet another.
I followed their lead. When my sons were conscripted and came home in their uniforms toting guns, it all seemed about as real to me as the Jedi fighting the forces of evil with light sabers in a distant galaxy. Finding bullets in the pockets of their uniforms before I washed them was no different than finding loose change. Helmets and bullet-proof vests strewn on the living room floor were indistinguishable from knapsacks and shoes. It was run-of-the-mill for me to say, “Get your rifles off the kitchen table so I can set it for supper.”
Yehuda, drafted first, served in a combat support position in COGAT– Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories. Most of the time, his job kept him out of harm’s way. He issued transit and work permits to Palestinians at a checkpoint during the first half of his service and met with representatives of consulates and human rights organizations during the second half. Once, a terrorist wielding a knife ran amok at the checkpoint. Another time, angry Palestinian villagers surrounded the Border Police he was accompanying on a late night house demolition. But these were stories I heard days or weeks after the incidents occurred when the perilous realities had become rollicking tales of adventure.
Ariel, drafted two years later, was a soldier in Kfir, a unit trained in urban combat. As fortune had it, he spent the first year and a half of his service in training or training others. Basic training was followed by a medic course, and then advanced training in a commander course. At the end of the commander course, he stayed on base to train the next group of recruits. There also was intermittent guard duty, search patrols and arrests, but whenever I conjured an image of Ariel, there he stood, whiteboard marker in hand, at the front of a classroom.
All this adaptive distancing and denying came to an end when Ariel prepared to enter Gaza. As the prospect of danger loomed, I played the only card I had – the sprained ankle card. Ariel had sprained his ankle in a navigation exercise then re-sprained it while on a mission in the West Bank to find Eyal Yifrah, Gil-Ad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel, who had been kidnapped and then murdered by Hamas terrorists. He wore a brace to stabilize it.
“You can’t go into Gaza with a sprained ankle,” I said.
“Yes I can, Mom. I have a responsibility. My soldiers are counting on me.”
“You’ll re-injure it. You won’t be of help to anyone.”
“Mom, soldiers fight with injuries all the time. You know I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t go in. Try to see the bigger picture. It’s my turn to let other kids be safe at home with their mothers.”
I thought back to the days when he was a kid, safe with me. The second Intifada began in 2000, seven years after we immigrated to Israel, when my children were nine, seven and four. We lived in a sleepy suburb of Jerusalem where most of the time I was able to shield them from the violence – kidnappings and suicide bombings – raging across the country. We didn’t own a TV so they didn’t see frightening screen images. My husband and I were their sole source of information about the outside world and we used parental censorship liberally. On one occasion, when a terrorist infiltrated the city in which we lived, the police ordered inhabitants to lock the doors and close the shutters. The children and I `huddled in a fort of pillows and blankets and brandished our Lego swords as the helicopters hovered overhead sweeping the hills with searchlights.
When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 and Israel was under threat of chemical attack, the Home Front Command instructed every citizen to carry a gas masks at all times and prepare a sealed room. I covered the windows of my bedroom with polyethylene sheeting and sealed it with duct tape. Then I furnished the room with a battery operated radio, flashlight, bottled water, and snacks and games for the children. They couldn’t wait for the chemical warheads to fall so they could tear open the bags of Bamba and play Twister.
I wished I had Ariel safe with me in that sealed room. I wished we could move back temporarily to enemy-less Canada where he would work a summer job cleaning swimming pools and enjoy Blue Jays games on weekends. I wished I could march into Gaza instead of him and give those terrorists a piece of my mind.
We Israeli mothers are supposed to be proud of our brave, idealistic sons. We’re supposed to be courageous like they are. But as my son readied his gear for the offensive, all I felt was a fierce instinct to protect him and desperation that I could not.
The morning after the headlines announced the beginning of the ground invasion, Ariel called to say he would be out of phone contact. I tried to put on a brave front but broke down. I told him I loved him; I told him to come home safely, each word embedded in a sob, then I passed the phone to my husband. “May God watch over you and your soldiers,” he said, steady and strong.
After that conversation, mothers of soldiers told me how important it was not to break down on the phone with your son. “They have enough to worry about,” one mother told me. “You don’t want them worrying about you too.” When the war ended, I asked Ariel about the hardest moments. Though he had been in the heart of the fighting in the Shuja’iyya neighborhood of Gaza City, a Hamas stronghold, he recalled the moment we said goodbye on the phone. “It was harder than anything else.”
With the start of the ground invasion, I joined the community of Israeli mothers, wives, sisters and daughters who have sent their loved ones to war. There is hardly a woman in this county who hadn’t experienced what I was experiencing for the first time. I felt nauseous, faint, short of breath. Innocent sights, sounds and smells were suddenly threatening. The rustling of leaves was the enemy hiding in the bushes. Toast burning recalled the smell of destruction. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. Completing a simple task, like paying a bill at the post office, was daunting.
That Friday morning I forced myself to stay in routine and do my usual errands. With dark sunglasses and a wad of tissues, I headed to the stores. Everywhere I went, I cried. “My son is in Gaza,” I explained to the store clerks. They nodded sympathetically, took my hand or uttered a prayer, “May he return safely along with all of our sons.”
While shopping, a thought occurred to me. If I bought gifts for Ariel, he would come back to get them. The gifts would guarantee his safe return. Momentarily buoyed by this notion, I bought a bag of his favorite chewy fruit candies and the latest Eshkol Nevo novel. Over the coming days, I doubled my efforts by washing the sheets on his bed, taking his pants to the seamstress to be hemmed and ironing his shirts. My fear ebbed but only slightly.
On the way home from my errands, my cousin Rivka called. I knew her son-in-law was also in Gaza; he served in the 669 Combat Search & Rescue Unit. She was calling to see how I was managing. “I can’t do this Rivka. I can’t. I’m falling apart,” I said between gasps. “I’m buying candy for Ariel to lure him home. I’m losing my mind.” She told me that when her husband fought in the Yom Kippur war she heard no word from him for five weeks. I could hardly fathom enduring the uncertainty for that length of time. She told me she found ways to cope and assured me that I would too. She said that some people need to follow a constant stream of news, while others impose a news blackout; some prefer to be alone while others seek the company of family and friends; some pray; some do good deeds; some seek distraction. She told me it would take time but I would find my way and her words reassured me.
Friday afternoon I busied myself with Sabbath meal preparations, my hands chopping and mixing while my mind jumped waves of panic. My laptop was next to me on the kitchen counter open to three English newspaper sites and two Hebrew ones. Reshet Bet blared over the clanking pots. Another soldier wounded. Another infiltration. Another soldier killed. It wasn’t just Ariel I was worried about, it was my friends’ sons, Mordechai and Yoseph and Noach and Ariel’s friends Yehuda, Berkeley and Elie. Weren’t these little boys in baseball caps roughhousing in my back yard? My thoughts held me hostage in a room of terrible possibilities. The sound of a car motor outside meant an army vehicle had arrived to impart bad news. An innocent neighbor knocking at the door was the Angel of Death come to tell me the worst had happened.
The Sabbath brought reprieve. The absence of news reduced my level of anxiety. I found comfort in communal prayers. In synagogue that day, I read the first chapter of Jeremiah, which eerily described the Iron Dome defense system and seemed to foretell Israel’s salvation, “For behold, I have made thee this day a fortified city and an iron pillar and walls of brass against the whole land…And they shall fight against thee; but they shall not prevail against thee for I am with thee, says the Lord.”
In the early evening I took a walk along a quiet street that overlooks the Judean hills. The sky was a somber grey but the clouds were lit amber as if a fire glowed in each one. Suddenly, a large flock of starlings flew high overhead. It flew in the shape of a plane with a column down the middle and extensions on either side. The birds flapped their wings in perfect synchrony. Somehow, at that moment, a calm settled over me. There was a greater order. Events were not happenstance. I may not have had control over Ariel’s fate, but Someone did.
I don’t recall praying much to that Someone during the war and I’m embarrassed to admit it. I have a friend who recited the entire Book of Psalms every day and another who made an hour-long trip daily to the Western Wall daily to ask God to protect her son. What kind of mother and Jew was I?
In Jewish liturgy there are three types of prayer: petition, thanksgiving, and praise. Writer Anne Lamott calls these prayers: help, thanks and wow. Thanks and wow come easily to me. There aren’t enough moments in the day for me to express the gratitude I feel for the myriad of blessings in my life. Praising God for the beauty and wonders of the world is second nature.
But ‘help’ is tough. Maybe because I didn’t grow up in a religious family and was over-schooled in the virtue of self-reliance. Maybe because I don’t entirely trust the Writer/Producer/Director of this show, I’m wary of requesting specific outcomes.
If I had believed God would accede to my request and engineer the war according to my specifications (all soldiers return unharmed, decisive victory for Israel,) I would have spent the war weeks prostrate on a prayer rug. But God runs the world the way He sees fit. One must be circumspect in one’s requests. When I prayed, I asked for strength and courage, for everyone, one way or another, to come through. Here and there I crumbled, Just bring him home safely, I’ll do anything if You just ….
As the days passed, I found ways to make the intolerable tolerable. I limited news updates to twice a day and immersed myself in work. I went to the gym, though I didn’t feel like it, and exercised rigorously. I organized a support meeting for mothers of sons fighting in Gaza and participated in efforts to collect toiletries and snacks for soldiers stationed on the border. In the evenings, my husband came home early from work so that I wouldn’t be alone.
Family and friends called and emailed messages of love and support. A work colleague galvanized the women in her community to bake cakes and cookies for the soldiers and arranged to have them shipped to the Gaza border, all in the merit of Ariel’s safe return. People we hardly knew came to the door with home-baked bread and cakes to express their solidarity.
Ariel called from the border when he could. When I heard his voice, my defenses toppled, I felt awash in relief. But as soon as we hung up, fear had me in a stranglehold again.
On August 5th, nineteen days after it began, the ground invasion ended. The sirens stopped howling and an uneasy quiet returned to the country.
Sixty-six soldiers died in battle. Many more were injured. For their mothers, the knock at the door was not the neighbor.
Ariel came home to eat the chewy fruit candy.
I may not have spent the war in the tunnels of Shuja’iyya, but I didn’t know if I would ever see my son again. Living with that fear was the hardest battle I have ever fought.