I was in my mid thirties; countless call-ups to reserve duty with my tank battalion; mostly infantry work in the Gaza Strip with my squad, my platoon. I was familiar with the Gaza Strip and I did not like it at all.
And, so it was to my surprise, that in my civilian capacity as the “big rig” hauler and roll-on/roll-off operator of the Kibbutz, my new assignment was to bring freshly harvested sweet corn to a packing house facility in … the Gaza Strip. Two 30 metric ton containers filled to the top, one on the truck and one on the trailer.
At that time, there were two entrances and exits into and out of the Gaza Strip from Israel. The first, about a mile from the Kibbutz I was a member of, the Erez Crossing. The second was further away, a detour around the Strip’s northern edge, past Sderot, south past Kibbutz Sa’ad and then west again towards Nahal Oz. That was the second crossing, the Nahal Oz Crossing. The corn packing and sorting facility was situated a short distance from the Nahal Oz Crossing, very near a huge fenced-off area of large propane gas containers.
I was on high alert. Gaza Strip: Danger; Propane Gas Tanks: Danger; and as I nosed the rig into the packing and sorting facility, seeing only local Palestinian workers, I sensed even more Danger. But, this was civilian life, wasn’t it.
Two men came to greet me, introducing themselves as Beno, Beno Moshe and Ami, Ami Saltzman. “We manage the facility for your Kibbutz. Roll the first container here, onto the hydraulic lift, and when it’s empty, move it to that conveyor to collect all the green stalks and leaves. Roll the second container onto the hydraulic lift, and you can go. We’ll radio your Kibbutz when the containers are empty and when you can bring the two flatbed units for the palleted and packaged corn. A bill of lading will be attached with the various market stops for the packaged corn. Oh, and when the container of leaves and stalks is full, the Kibbutz cows will enjoy a nice treat.”
Beno and Ami turned, and in perfect, and I mean PERFECT Arabic, spoke with their workers, the forklift operator (whose name I learned later was Rafik), handled wireless phone calls from distributors, kept the conveyor lines moving and the corn flowing, supervising the various inspection stations where bad corn was separated from the good.
One SMOOTH operation.
They had both designed and engineered the entire process, and had signed a contract with the Kibbutz to process, package and market the corn. What began as a small local operation soon turned into a nation-wide one. I would travel all over Israel, from the Syrian border in the Golan Heights to a farm in the south, very close to Eilat and EXTREMELY close to the border with Jordan.
Every time I entered or exited the Gaza Strip I was on high alert. I had an AK-47. On my knees, locked, loaded. Always. A nine millimeter Beretta hand gun holstered in the small of my back. Always.
I got to know Beno and Ami really well. Beno lived, with his wife and three sons, in a beautiful section of Ashkelon. He ran long distances with a group of friends from Ashkelon. He loved to tell me about what his wife had cooked, and how his sons were doing. All while keeping an eye on the operation, switching to Arabic whenever the need arose. We would meet up sometimes at the Kibbutz truck stop and restaurant and I would treat Beno and his wife to coffee and pastry.
Ami, whose real name was Amikam, born before 1948 and thus a native Palestinian Jew, lived in Nes Tzionah, a town south of Tel Aviv. He grew up playing with local Arab children and was completely fluent in that language. Ami handled the distribution end of the operation, although both he and Beno were always at the processing and packing facility.
As the years went by, through the terrible and difficult years of the first Intifada, Beno and Ami kept the local workers employed and paid them fairly. One of the men, a well-educated Palestinian, kept a log of who worked and what hours they worked, submitting the payroll and then distributing the wages. Along with that responsibility he brought a carafe of freshly brewed coffee. Every day.
Rafik, the forklift operator, expert mechanic, maintained the forklift and helped with the general maintenance of the conveyors and the packing machinery.
A haven within a turbulent world, run by the calm and professionalism of both Beno and Ami.
There was a lighter side to them also. They would invite us, the “us” being the corn growers from the Kibbutz, their spouses, the corn coordinator and liaison, myself, to this restaurant in Ashdod or that restaurant in Tel Aviv. When I told Beno I would be going to the US and Canada, Beno asked me to bring him a pair of Nike Air Jordan running shoes. We had endless discussions about the Kibbutz way of life vs. city and town life in Israel.
Beno and Ami shared humor with their workers, despite the turbulence outside of the packing facility. They told me to leave my AK-47 locked in the cab of my rig. I concealed the Beretta in the small of my back, draping my shirt over it.
Towards the end of 1990 the first signs of trouble began to show. A kid, no older than fourteen or fifteen looked at me and said HAMAS, drawing his thumb across his neck. Beno laughed and shrugged it off.
Some of the men stopped showing up to work.
Fully loaded with a flatbed of packaged corn on the truck, another on the trailer, I headed towards the Erez Crossing. A huge rock smashed into the driver’s side of my rig, breaking the mirror. I swerved towards the shoulder and jumped out of the cab with a burst of automatic fire from my AK-47 towards where the rock had come from. I fired several more bursts before continuing on my way to drop off the packaged corn at the various markets.
More often than not I took the Nahal Oz crossing either to enter the Gaza Strip, or to exit it. Turbulent times.
I left Israel in April of 1991.
On June 25th, 1992 two disguised Hamas murderers entered the corn packing facility. They carried burlap bags, and demanded to see the managers about packing onions grown locally in the Gaza Strip. When Beno and Ami said that they would not package onions, the two murderers pulled large knives from their burlap bags. While their own handguns were locked in their vehicles, Beno and Ami were murdered in cold blood. Not one of their Palestinian workers came to their aid.
Twenty eight years have gone by. Although I’ve lost touch with Amikam’s widow, I am still very much in touch with Beno’s widow, and with one of his sons, his youngest son, our family’s attorney in Israel.
Two of the orange and black bracelets on my right wrist. Two of many I wear every day, to remind me. To carry with me. To grieve silently.
To live a life worthy of their memory.