The IDF is great — but not perfect

Me, in full battle gear. (courtesy)
Me, in full battle gear. (courtesy)

Israelis and Zionists in the Diaspora have reason to be proud of the Israel Defense Forces. Its victory in the War of Independence — despite being vastly outnumbered and outgunned by the Arab armies —deserves to be considered as a Bible-like miracle.

The dismantling of the Arab world’s armies and the elimination of their air forces in six days in 1967 ranks as one of the outstanding military achievements of the 20th century.

And in 1976 came Operation Entebbe, perhaps the most amazing feat of them all. One hundred Israeli commandos were flown 2,500 miles, much of the journey close to Arab territory, to Entebbe Airport in Uganda. There they rescued 102 hostages, held under armed guard, with the loss of only four hostages and one Israeli soldier (Yonatan Netanyahu, the brother of the Israeli PM). That mission was an almost unbelievable epic tale worthy of the ancient Greeks. — or at least a very imaginative Hollywood writer.

Unfortunately, not every IDF operation can be like Entebbe. Despite its reputation for efficiency the IDF is manned by soldiers who sometimes botch things up. I was involved in one such screw up.

One of my reserve call-ups in the late 1970s involved activities on the Lebanon border in and around one of the farming villages situated literally across the street from that country. On the other side of the fence demarcating the border was a hill that went straight down perhaps 200 yards into a valley, The hillside and the valley were in Lebanon.

One night, another soldier and I were supposed to guard Israeli soldiers laying mines on that hill to prevent terrorists from coming up to attack the village. Each of us carried the American-made M-16, an automatic rifle that was the standard weapon in most IDF units at the time. In addition, we were given a light machine-gun of Belgian manufacture, complete with belts of bullets neatly folded into a metal box — or perhaps a canvas pouch, I can’t remember which. The first bullet was in the machine gun, which would have to be cocked to be fired.

I carried the weapon with its container and bullets down the steep hill in the dark, with no missteps. 

We spent the night in total darkness, talking and trying not to fall asleep — and wondering what to do if the soldiers mining the hill were attacked, for we could see nothing.

At the first light of dawn, our assignment ended — mining the area in daylight when the other side could see where the mines were being placed obviously would be a waste of time — and we started up the hill, with the other soldier lugging the machine gun and attached bullets.

As we walked, he tripped and, unbeknownst to us, broke the belt of bullets, leaving three still in the machine-gun.

At the end of every assignment, we were trained to clear our weapons. First we were to face the uninhabited area in Lebanon, lift up the metal cover holding the bullets in the gun and remove then. Then, we were to check a second time to make sure there were no bullets in the chamber and finally pull the trigger in the empty gun. (I needn’t add that bullets left in a gun are extremely dangerous.)

But my fellow soldier and I were dead tired from our “all-nighter.” Instead of pointing his gun toward Lebanon, he pointed it toward the village. He didn’t check to see if a bullet was in the chamber, because he had not seen the chain of bullets fall out when he tripped, was unaware the chain had broken and assumed incorrectly that no bullets remained in the gun.

He cocked the gun and pulled the trigger. Three bullets screamed toward the houses in the farming community. (I don’t want to put all the blame on the other soldier; I saw him face the houses in the village with the gun and his failure to check that there were no bullets still in it and said nothing. Neither did the IDF sergeant in charge of seeing that we ended our nighttime assignment properly and safely.)

It’s said that God has a special place in his heart for schlemiels. Whatever the reason, the bullets flew off into the morning sky without injuring anyone.

Reserve soldiers save Israel money by allowing the Jewish state to field a smaller standing army. They tend to show up when called, and most are veterans of three years of regular IDF service.

However, some reserve soldiers, like those in my unit, were immigrants who had no previous military experience. Although this was the only such incident that I experienced during my 14 years of reserve duty, the story shows the risk of deploying untried men in combat-like situations.

About the Author
Aaron Leibel was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1942, eventually receiving a Ph.D. in political science. In Israel, he lived in Jerusalem and Kibbutz Kfar Giladi. He worked at the Ministry of Health, as an apple farmer, and as a hotel administrator before becoming a journalist. Aaron was a senior writer for Newsview magazine and editor-writer for The Jerusalem Post, and then, after returning to America, he was arts/copy editor and reporter for the Washington Jewish Week newspaper until his retirement in 2014. He continues to write reviews and articles for Washington Jewish Week and reviews for The Jerusalem Post. His memoir, Figs and Alligators: An American Immigrant's Life in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s, is slated to be published by Chickadee Prince Books early in 2021. It is available for preorder in paperback.
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