Friday, October 14, 2016

Reflections on War (appeared in Consequence Magazine Spring 2016)

On a hot and humid August afternoon, I meander through the narrow paths of Kfar Saba’s military graveyard, my eyes sweeping the rows of the uniform bed-like tombs. I halt at the edge of Plot 5. Among the cypresses, erected tall and dark over the bright tombstones, I find Yuval Dagan and Hadar Goldin’s final resting places. Their names are engraved on pillowed headstones—the two buried side by side.
            As I crouch by the graves, the title of Tim O'Brien’s book, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, floats in my mind. Dagan, who was twenty-two years old, had died in July 2014. Goldin was twenty-three when he was killed later that same summer in August. Both were casualties of the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Both lived in Kfar Saba, my hometown. Gazing at their names, last year’s war throbs in my memory.
            On a Monday afternoon last July, I heard a strange cry. At first I thought it was a gleeful child, then I thought the child must be in distress, and then I didn’t know what to think. I rushed out to my porch, leaned over the metal banister, and scanned the street. The squeals continued from the right. I bent forward, the banister pressing against my abdomen, when from around the corner darted a middle-aged woman—a doleful stout man supporting her gently by the elbow—bawling and slapping her face with both hands, a small black handbag swaying by its strap from the crook of her other elbow.
            “Why, why, why,” she cried. “I wish I was dead, I wish I was dead.”
            Two young IDF soldiers—pallid, mouths agape—scurried behind the couple, and the four disappeared into the next-door building.
            “What’s going on?” I asked a man who stood in the street.
            “I think their son was killed in the war,” he replied in a thick voice.
            I thought: this mother will never be happy again. Not in a real way. These parents are now separated from the rest of us—to join the Family of the Bereaved. 
            Driving by the military graveyard that evening, I glimpsed a tight knot of people beneath a large white marquee where my neighbour, Yuval Dagan, was being buried. Lit from within, the tent floated in the dimness. Dozens milled around. I thought again of the mother; the grief that must fill her to the rim, flowing in tidal waves and uncontrolled bursts. And the years stretching ahead.
            Sooner or later this war will end, I thought as I drove away. Conclusions, reprimands, rewards, and denial will be expressed by army officials, politicians, the media, and the general public. The living will go on living, leaving the fallen behind; remembrance will not breathe life into their remains.
            I was glad I had no sons, but then remembered my four-year-old nephew. Yuval Dagan was once four. Then five, then seven, then.
            In the morning, piles of green plastic chairs and long folding tables were arranged in the driveway underneath my bedroom window. The shiva, a week of Jewish mourning usually spent in the mourners’ home, took on a different shape.
            At dusk, about a hundred mourners, many young soldiers among them, began assembling in the driveway to mark the start of the shiva. Chattering groups of all ages sat at the long tables covered with blue plastic tablecloths, sprinkled with soda bottles and bowls of fresh fruit. A few industrial fans laboured to disperse the heat. The driveway’s walls were hung with small Israeli flags.
            I itched to join the gathering, listen to stories about the dead young man, meet his high school friends—feel the warm embrace of a grieving community. But I didn’t quite know the family. Returning from the beach that evening, I walked by, wrapped in a towel and shedding sand, wishing to be invisible. I always found it difficult to apply the Israeli approach of embracing normalcy in the face of terror and violence.
            That week, dozens of mourners clustered together in the shared driveway, often spilling into the street. Every morning and late at night, I could hear the grievers’ prayers through my window, interrupted by the occasional yowls of alley cats carrying out their territorial feuds.
            On the following Friday, August 1st, an Israeli soldier named Hadar Goldin was kidnapped by Hamas during a fight in Rafah. That Saturday evening his family made a public appearance, their despair leaping off the television screen, pleading with the IDF to remain in Gaza until their beloved was found.
            The next day, based on evidence found in the battlefield and other considerations, the Army’s Chief Rabbi confirmed Goldin’s death. Soon it was also revealed that when Hamas militants dragged Goldin down one of their tunnels, 150 civilian Gazans had lost their lives as the IDF implemented the "Hannibal Directive.”
            Named after the Carthaginian military commander who preferred to commit suicide rather than surrender to the Romans, the order, drawn up in 1986 by a group of top IDF officers, states that at the time of a kidnapping the main mission becomes forcing the release of the abducted soldiers from their kidnappers, even if it means causing injury to the soldiers.
            It basically intends to prevent the need for prisoner exchanges, no matter the price.
            Those 150 Gazans received no warning before the army indiscriminately opened fire in a densely populated area. I suppose anyone near a kidnapping incident could get caught in the crossfire, but in that case “no matter the price” referred to the locals. A nauseating spasm sliced through my stomach. I swallowed the curses that stung my tongue. What’s the use. I imagined a future from which we would look back at the present with nostalgia and regret.
            I wished to shrink into a tiny dot, roll on the floor, and fall down a bottomless crack. To never be found. Awash with a wave of weariness, I entered my bedroom, ignoring the pieces of paper sent airborne by the fan, and flopped on the bed to stare at the ceiling, the air pulsing with the ventilator’s hum, the restful whiteness above, folds of paint ruffled its surface, clouds formed, then some flowers, a bird took flight.
            I closed my eyes to a curtain of black.
            When I was eight my mom told us to draw the black curtains over the windows at night. My dad wasn’t around. None of the dads were around. When I was eight, my younger sister and I would rush down the stairs to the bomb shelter when the sirens went off. My aunt, who lived in the apartment above us, happened to paint the shelter shortly before. She covered the walls with babyblue clouds, large flowers, butterflies, and birds.
            We lived on the second floor of a four-story building. There was a thrill of excitement for my sister and me when the sirens went off; we dashed down the stairs with tingling feet. We sat in our beautiful shelter, read our books, ate our snacks—waiting for the second alarm, the one that told us we could go home.
            Mostly worried we’d run out of reading materials, my sister and I did not know that Dad was driving trucks loaded with ammunition, nor that the enemy was closing in on us from all sides. Surrounded by cheerful images dimly lit by the bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling, Mom was the only solid presence in that underground world.            
            Dark and dank, that year Yom Kippur stretched to no end.

            The dappled afternoon light dances upon the tombstones in Kfar Saba’s military graveyard. A long hose snakes out of a field faucet; multi-coloured watering cans dangle from a five-pronged vertical rack; flourishing plants and personal mementoes carefully placed on each gravestone—the dead soldiers certainly receive meticulous care.
            For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.
            Wars are fought aboveground; perhaps the Palestinian and Israeli dead fuse underground.
            The first Intifada broke out soon after I had moved to Jerusalem to attend college, hitting the Israeli capital the hardest; people were knifed in public spaces almost daily. The bus I took to school, crossing Arab neighbourhoods on the east side of town, was often stoned. Once, a rock hit the window right beside me. I jumped out of my skin, deeply grateful I’d been too lazy to open the window for air, as I usually did. Peering through the dark, I glimpsed two Arab schoolboys glaring at the passing bus. During my years in Jerusalem I developed a habit of looking over my shoulder whenever I walked in the street—a nervous tendency I haven’t completely shaken off to this day.
            Then in October 2000, while driving on the highway between Tel Aviv and Haifa with a friend, heading to a peace festival, we inadvertently stumbled into the second Intifada. Redirected by black-clad police, I gasped for air, my heart gripped tight, as an angry mob of Arabs descended from their village uphill, clasping heavy rocks.  
            I sometimes wonder: would things have turned out differently if the fight was not over such a tiny piece of land? When I was young, people were saying everyone here would coexist peacefully if we were as large and scantly populated as Texas. I’ve tried to imagine both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sprawled over that vast faraway land. All I could conjure up was an image of an arid landscape dotted with cattle and giant oil pumps.
            I suppose some struggles belong only where they take place, yet I wonder what sort of future this crazed land might hold for my nephew.
            Box me up and ship me home.

            Pebbles are strewn upon Dagan and Goldin’s marble beds, as is the Jewish tradition. I shift rocks of various hues, joining them into a heart, one on each grave, and wonder if these two young men knew each other. I glance at the patch of grass beside Goldin’s grave, the last in the row, drawing an imaginary box in the vacant plot. I think of the one who’d someday occupy this yet unclaimed space.
            Perhaps it will be filled with someone I know!—the thought jolts me. 
            Then I think of the parents.

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