In the summer of 2014, I had the misfortune of spending about two weeks in the Gaza Strip fighting what seems in retrospect to have been a meaningless war. For better or for worse the experiences I had during that time were intense and traumatic and are deeply etched in my memory.
I’ve been interested in Israeli history and politics since I first came to Israel in 2009, but since my experiences in the military, I’ve spent a lot more time trying to make sense of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in general and the 2014 Gaza war specifically. I have learned a lot about the conflict and I have started to develop some ideas of how we can work towards ending it which I enjoy discussing with interested friends. Beyond wanting to learn about historical developments, my experiences have led me to re-evaluate with greater nuance and depth the conventional wisdom and accepted philosophical approaches towards issues relating to Zionism.
Today however, on Yom Hazikaron, instead of speaking more broadly about the conflict or Zionism, I think it is valuable to simply remember the lives of those who have been killed. I believe that understanding and internalizing the human toll of the conflict is an important prerequisite for any discussion on the topic. In the following post, I would like to write about the people whom I encountered during the war of the 2014, both of them killed. Although not an overtly political post, writing about the death of a Palestinian as well as an Israeli reflects my belief that all victims of this conflict should be remembered today regardless of nationality.
The two individuals who died in Gaza are Roee Peles and Turkiyyah al-‘Abed Mohammad al-Bis. I didn’t know Roee well, in fact I had only met him once or twice. Some of my friends who knew him better all said he was a sweet guy. After his passing, I learned that he was born in Tel Aviv. He was a particularly bright student who loved volleyball and soccer. Roee also excelled at the study of English, supposedly being able to pass as a native speaker, a rare talent for an Israeli. He began his army service in March 2012 in the same special forces battalion that I would join a few months later. He distinguished himself early on in his army service as an outstanding soldier and was sent on the fast track to becoming a commander. He finished his commander’s course with high marks just a few weeks before being deployed to the Gaza Strip.
He was killed in a lookout position on a rooftop in Beit Hanoun during our last night in the city. We were supposed to continue our push deeper into the city that night but plans were changed last minute. Roee was hit directly by an anti-tank missile which I heard later was launched a few kilometers away. Roee was the only soldier killed by that missile possibly because his body physically shielded the others from the full lethal force of the missile. I happened to be listening that night as the events were being reported over the radio to our company radioman. He first reported numerous injured—one seriously–but it almost immediately bcame clear from the description of the wounds that the injured soldier had been killed. I only found out the next day who he was. Roee was 21 years old when he died. Today he would be 24 years old; he would likely be a recently released soldier perhaps travelling the world, contemplating what he would like to study. Apparently, he had already taken the standardized university entrance exam and scored so highly that he would have been admitted to any program he liked. We will never know what he would have studied, what he would have accomplished or how many more lives he would have affected. From what I’ve heard and read, Roee was an inspiring and lovable person to be around, whose memory is held dear to all those who were close to him. A monthly Kabbalat Shabbat service is held in his memory and an annual volleyball tournament on his birthday. He left behind his mother and father, and two sisters.
I never knew Turkiyyah al-‘Abed Mohammad al-Bis; in fact I didn’t even know her name until I recently found it online. When Turkiyyah died, she was 77 years old; she may have been a grandmother. Perhaps one day I will find out. She lived in the poor Bedouin village of Umm al-Nasr at the northern edge of the Gaza Strip. Umm al-Nasr was one of the first areas IDF ground forces entered during the ground incursion stage of Operation Protective Edge. When we arrived, the village was almost entirely deserted but we heard that large numbers of people were seen fleeing as the shelling of the village started. A tunnel dug in the area by Hamas crossed the border, opening near the kibbutz Netiv Ha’asara. The village consisted primarily of dirty little shacks cobbled together out of scraps of corrugated sheet metal and tarps over a sand floor with a few concrete houses among them. It took a few days until the engineering corps was able to find and demolish the tunnel. At one point during the day, a friend of mine thought he saw someone moving around in the row of shacks behind our position. About half of my team was sent to find out what it was he had seen. We began to cautiously and thoroughly comb the houses.
As we entered one of the houses, I found myself standing over what seemed to be a large fabric sack filled with something. After a few seconds, I realized it was actually the corpse of an old woman. She was wearing a winter jacket and lying in the sand. The side of her face that was visible had a large gash where a large piece of shrapnel had penetrated. The skin around the wound was bone white and there was a pool of dried blood in the sand beneath her. She had probably been killed a day or two earlier. I don’t know why she didn’t flee with the rest of the village—maybe she couldn’t physically make it as they fled in the middle of the night. It didn’t seem like they had many cars in the village; the roads were pretty much all sand. We pulled out of the village the next day or so. I recently read in the Palestinian media that she was proclaimed dead at the hospital the day after we left. I wonder what her life had been like until that point. Where was she born? Who was her family? Who did she leave behind? I hope that one day I’ll know more. But for now, at the very least, I have a name, a name for that disfigured face which haunts my memory.