Friday, August 19, 2011

A Fallen Orev in the Attack near Eilat

The soldier who died yesterday was one of ours. For over an hour on the afternoon of Thursday August 18, heavily armed Palestinian terrorist squads attacked civilians and soldiers on the southern desert road leading to Eilat. Eight Israelis were killed, and more than thirty wounded. Moshe Naftali, 22 years old, was, like me, a sergeant in the Orev reconnaissance battalion. His Orev unit is part of the Golani Brigade. Mine is attached to the Paratroopers. Besides the color of our berets, the training and duties asked of us is mostly the same. Before his unit began patrolling the site of yesterday's attack, my unit was responsible for security in the area. Had yesterday's attack take placed six months ago, the soldier under fire could easily have been me.

Before I joined the army, I tried my best to sympathize when Israeli soldiers and civilians were killed by terrorists. As a soldier charged with defending the state of Israel, my feelings today are very different. If civilians are killed, like the Fogel family in March, I am frustrated at my--and the army as a whole-- failure to not do more to prevent such attacks. When soldiers are killed, I am reminded of my commitment to make such a sacrifice even as I fight a frustration that comes at not finding myself closer to the action. Casualties also remind me that the relatively calm security situation in the last three years is deceptive. Violence in this region is never far removed from daily events. As a combat soldier (in name, if not in present reality!), yesterday's attack is a bloody reminder that several months of calm in no way reduces the risk of the work we do.

As the rumors ripped around my base yesterday afternoon, it was difficult to grasp what was really happening down in the southern desert. First we heard a bus had been blown up. Once that report was updated to a bus taking fire from marauding terrorists, everyone on base spoke of heavily armed terrorist squads at loose in Israel's southern desert territory. Then came reports of rocket fire. Was Eilat the target? Were the rockets originating from the Egyptian controlled Sinai desert or the Palestinian Gaza Strip? And what were we, what was the army, doing in all this mess to get the situation under control?

By nightfall, authoritative news finally reached my base and I learned of the series of attacks on traffic along the main highway to Eilat, as well as the military response. The Israeli army had actually been prepared for an incursion in the area by Palestinian terrorists for several weeks. So while the exact timing of the raid surprised security forces, soldiers were in place to prevent a greater tragedy. Handcuffs found on the bodies of the terrorists suggest that a key goal of the attack was to kidnap soldiers, ala the (kidnapping of Gilad Shalit near the Gaza Strip, plus the) Hezbollah attacks on the northern border that prompted the war in Lebanon in July 2006.

Had soldiers been kidnapped, or had the army not succeeded in preventing more civilian casualties, there is a good chance that yesterday's violence could have spiraled into a larger conflict akin to the war in Lebanon or the fighting in Gaza in January 2009. Thankfully, that bullet seems to have been dodged. If not for a laundry list of laudable reasons (prevent further bloodshed and misery), then at the very least for one selfish one: Nothing would make the menial duties I am presently engaged in until the end of my service further demoralizing than if a conflict erupted and instead of participating in what should be the cumulative test of my service, I am left behind on base cutting weeds and collecting garbage.

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