10 AM on Wednesday morning, January 10, 2024. I am standing in a hallway outside a ward of the Sheba hospital in Tel Aviv. Weeping, embarrassed. I am seventy-four. The two former IDF combat soldiers comforting me, seem very young. Probably in their late thirties to mid-forties. Close enough in age to my own darling boy, safe at home in the United States.
It is the third day of our private solidarity tour of Israel, arranged for the two of us, my husband and myself, by our longtime friend Joe Yudin, founder of Touring Israel. I am surprised by the upwelling of tears and emotion. For the prior two days, I held steady even when walking through the blood-stained killing grounds of Nir Oz and Kibbutz Be’eri in the Gaza Envelope. For those two days, I was saddened and horrified, yet still dry-eyed when we walked by the burnt homes of those who fought. Those who hid. Those who held out while their houses burnt around them. I was calm and focused when I heard from those who were able to save themselves and their families. Awed by the courage of those who, though wounded while fighting, survived to grieve for those they could not save.
We listened to a son, who could not save his mother. He heard her last words over the phone as she was was dragged out of her safe room and shot. Sadly, the safe rooms were built for the expected and frequent rocket attacks. They had no locks. They were not bullet proof. They were not built to save the people from an invading Hamas horde.
We were there to witness and to listen to those few survivors who after ninety days were allowed back into their Kibbutzes. We were there to hear their passion to repair and to return. We felt the intensity of their rage and their sorrow transmuted into the indomitable determination to build again. Am Yisrael Chai!
Israel though wounded, though betrayed, though angry, works on. Israel like the huge LG display in the conference room at the printing plant in Be’eri, miraculously, still works even with bullets embedded in its screen. Those bullets were sprayed into the conference room by the Hamas horde as they passed through on their way to kill people in their homes.
The people of the Kibbutzes were betrayed by Gaza residents who they believed were friends and employees, partners in peace, in around the Kibbutz every day. Among those “neighbors” were spies providing the detailed maps marking every house, every safe room. The Hamas horde attacked in four waves: First came the killers, then the rapists and kidnappers, then the burners, and finally, in their wake, the impromptu fourth wave of looters and destroyers from the nearby villages of the Gaza Strip.
Yesterday morning, I could listen and not break down as a representative from Zaka, the organization of mostly Haredi (ultra-orthodox) volunteers that deal with unnatural death. He quietly described the trauma of spending months finding, identifying and burying the dead who had been burnt, tortured, shot with bullets, battered with blunt objects or raped to death. I could sit quietly at a picnic table at the eerily empty NOVA festival field where 346 of 1,400 music lovers were kidnapped or killed, and believe against all loss and sadness, as the Israeli’s do: “we will dance again”.
I could feel admiration and hope when we toured the giant start-up in the basement of Tel Aviv’s Expo center. There, a massive response and distribution enterprise sprang up overnight, and still operates today, sending tons of donated supplies to soldiers, families of soldiers and displaced families evacuated from the north and the south. There “Brothers and Sisters for Israel”, using the very network that had brought 100,000’s to the streets in protests against the government before the morning of October 7th by that afternoon was rescuing families from the Gaza envelope, and by the next morning were meeting to distribute the already arriving donated supples.
In the third month of this terrible war, “The Brothers and Sisters for Israel” are beginning to look to the future and are starting up schools for the children of the displaced. With miracles of ingenuity, an all-volunteer force of thousands, self-organizes to solve problems big and small. University student volunteers designed and built a special acoustically engineered quiet environment for children with disabilities in an unused spa next to where the families are living. This took five days.
Yesterday afternoon, I could even sit frozen and not scream or run away during a briefing by the IDF security unit. That briefing included a seven-minute video with terrible images from car cameras, security cameras and most horrible of all, those taken from the GoPros of the Hamas terrorists as they rampaged, raped, killed and burnt their way through the Gaza envelope. Those images stay with me still. More chilling in its own way, was the very corporate looking Hamas battle plan booklet that I held in my hand. It laid out in detail the orders executed on October 7, 2023. However, neatly annotated in the footer beside the page number was the publication date— 2022. The plan was a year old, and as we were told by the Alma Institute, eerily similar to one published by Israel’s enemy to the north, Hezbollah several years before. And as we know, because they tell us so over and over again, this is still Hamas’s plan, Hezbollah’s plan, Iran’s plan.
The military and the government were not there soon enough on the morning of October 7th to protect their own soldiers or the civilians from the mass attack that came after 1200 rockets rained down. That morning shattered Israel’s sense of invulnerability and security. Each of those we spoke with, would say in their own way: “Hamas, Hezbollah they did not lie to us. They have said from the beginning, and publicly, that their purpose is to destroy Israel. We lied to ourselves. We chose to believe against all evidence and reason that a high-tech security fence, cameras, intermittent military deterrents, Qatar cash, and improved employment opportunities for the people of Gaza would keep us safe.”
So, on that third morning of our solidarity tour in Israel, when I walked into that hospital room, I realized that I too had been lying to myself. There was the young soldier, a wounded medic, alert, ready for guests. His arm is bandaged. His hand and wrist were blown off in combat in Gaza. He stayed conscious long enough to instruct his squad on how to treat his wound. His fifth operation before beginning rehab and being fitted with a prosthetic is scheduled for the next day.
Seeing him, hearing his story, I realized I was not prepared for the truth of how deeply and profoundly I was touched by this new, still forming post-October 7th Israel. When I saw his mother sitting there, with her brave face, that was my moment of not only understanding, but feeling what it means to have no degrees of separation.
Post-October 7th Israel is a valiant and vulnerable nation. This war has been waged for 102 days and counting. Unlike the United States, there is “no over there” for Israel. No oceans, no distance from the battlefields. Unlike the United States, where less than 1% of the adult population serve in the military, in Israel 4% of the population was mobilized on October 8th. Emptying the work force of the young, even calling back into uniform elders in certain specialties.
Israel’s trust in an invincible military was broken on October 7th. As was their belief that those ruled by Hamas would be deterred by economic inducements or intermittent military deterrents. Trust broken, there is anger, there is shame, there is sorrow, but there is no separation. The majority of Israelis are either called up and serving in the IDF, or have family and friends who are called up, or are waiting to be called up. Our guide was frustrated because the IDF considers him “too old”. So, he takes action as a member of the armed civilian security team in his Kibbutz to the north, and as a volunteer on call 24-7 to take care of all the families of “his old unit”. He is also a father, whose son may soon be deployed in Gaza.
Our greeter at the airport was a young woman reservist who had been released from service in Gaza the week before to return to university. Our driver from the airport to the hotel, now “too old” had served in two shorter wars and had a daughter and son deployed in Gaza. We were with a Druze family and a friend of theirs in the North having lunch, on a day when nine members of a Combat Engineering Battalion tasked with destroying the terror tunnels in Gaza were killed. As we ate delicious honey cake for dessert, their friend received the news. His son, a member of that same battalion, was safe and was being deployed outside Gaza the next day.
In our breakfast conversation with an Arab Israeli journalist, he mocked the international press for its unfounded accusations of apartheid. Arab Israelis are serving as judges or Knesset members, as a large fraction of the medical profession, as students in universities and in the Border Patrol and police. He hopes that in the future, more will be able to serve in the IDF. Twenty years, after the event, he is still regrets that his brother was rejected by the IDF despite ten years of service as a member of the Jerusalem Police force before volunteering.
Almost everywhere in Israel, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, cousins, friends, aunts, uncles, children all wake up every day either at war or waiting to hear what has happened to their loved ones who are at war. Everywhere there are the photographs and names and ages of the kidnapped. I wear on a necklace given to me by her brother, the name and image of Carmel Gat. A talisman of hope that she and the others, babies, grandparents, brothers, sisters still live and will come home. This is a traumatized and shaken nation, valiant in its vulnerability, but vulnerable all the same.
This was our tenth trip to Israel over seventeen years. A land we have walked from south to north and everywhere in between. Usually in the spring when the irises, the desert flowers or the cyclamen are blooming. We completed the Israeli National Trail on my 70th birthday by walking up to Jerusalem. So, deeply attached to this small, young country, since the morning of October 7th, I have felt an unassuageable compulsion to go to Israel. To see the people. To know first-hand what they have gone through and are going through. To show my support. To bear witness. To stand with Israel in Israel.
Before going, I was worried that we would be a distraction, or a disruption, or perceived as inconsiderate by coming to a country at war. But those worries were groundless. Often, we were told, how glad they were to see us. How much our solidarity visit as private citizens was appreciated. And most of the time, we were told we were the first tourists from the United States since October 7th.
By going to Israel now, I learned that is possible to be there as a witness. My very presence a support as Israel faces an existential threat and perceived isolation. Though in a war zone, I never felt fear even once, surrounded as I was, by a country alert, alive and focused on keeping everyone safe. I was strengthened by seeing and hearing and feeling the resilience and spirit of the people of Israel as they face vulnerability and danger. Though, it broke my heart, as a witness, “having come to comfort, I left consoled.”
So, on that third morning, when I had regained my composure, stopped crying and recovered from my deep embarrassment, we went back into the young soldier’s hospital room. He was with the two veteran combat soldiers. They are volunteer wounded combat veterans from “Brothers for Life”. They will be with him and his family every step of the way to recovery, providing living proof that though wounded, he too, can still “choose life”.
The young soldier, looking rather dapper in his blue scrubs, was standing tall, smiling, ready for his picture to be taken with these two rare but welcome visitors from the United States. His mother was still sitting, quietly and drawn in on herself, not smiling —- she has other children still deployed in Gaza.