Wednesday, June 28

Backgrounder: Reporter's notebook on IDF Gaza foray (Podcast archive)

Preparing for Gaza: Uncertainty reigns

(This "reporter's notebook," covers the IDF preparations for an incursion into northern Gaza in 2002, in the wake of a particularly gruesome string of suicide bombings. The army decided to abort the foray to hunt down terror cells shortly before the unit was to deploy. This journal and audio are a personal report of that incident)

The call came at 1:30 a.m. Thursday morning.

I shuffle out of bed, and groggily answer the ringing cellphone.

“Is this David Bender?" the young female voice on the other end of the line asks brusquely. “Yes,” I reply, amid growing awareness that I recognize the voice and the background sounds as those of my army reserve unit’s liaison office.

My concern rises to the surface like a half-forgotten bad dream tailing me out of my slumber.

"This is a 'tzav-8' call-up. You need to arrive at the base by 9:00 am," she says, asking if I understand the instructions and other pertinent details. I mumble my assent, hanging up the phone as I fall back into a chair.

Stunned, I told my now-awake wife that no, this wasn't a drill and that no, they weren't kidding. Suddenly taken aback in a rush of confusion and inchoate fear, I drag down the dusty, readied backpack from the crawlspace over the bathroom, mentally going over the list of needed last minute supplies.

Later, deep in the heart of the night, we finish packing the bag, both finally comprehending that I was Gaza bound, and though uncertain, likely en route to harms way.

I arrived at the sprawling Negev-area base later that morning. Hundreds of friends and acquaintances - all brothers in arms - were already there, milling in and out of ragged lines, signing in and signing out on rifles, gear and webbing. Guys in the unit I hadn't seen appear for duty in years, aged and way past enlistment age were there, trying on wrinkled fatigues and lacing up stiff boots. Reports said we were at well over a 100 percent show rate. Fairly amazed, proud, and somewhat abashed at the plain show of patriotism, I went from group to group, catching up on news since our last term of service together.

The knowing looks between us as we backslapped and traded stories of times gone by wordlessly said it all. Our unit, together with many others, was preparing to go into operation against the Palestinian terror infrastructure in the Gaza Strip. Targets chosen in the wake of a lethal suicide bombing in Rishon Letzion earlier in the week.

Our unit's officers and noncoms, harried by a welter of conflicting orders and directives, quickly assign us tents and times to be at the firing range for infantry refresher drills as we lug the duffel bags, oily semi-automatic rifles, and personal gear across the covered staging area.

As we unfold rusty, creaky beds and unpack, Wexler from Eilat – both of us 15-year unit veterans - shows off his latest toy: a minidisc player and a collection of trance music discs to pass the time.

Presumably to be listened to sometime between assault and ambush.

I ask if he has any music from the previous century.

He grins at me over his 700 shekel sunglasses, thinks for a moment, and slides out Pink Floyd's art-rock classic, "Dark Side of the Moon," tossing it over to me. I insert the disc, hearing the multiple ringing alarm clocks and clinking cash registers, wryly smiling as I consider the album’s name in light of where we were headed and what I was doing when I first heard the album in a Houston, TX. high school so long ago and a world away.

Rumors are rife as we trade theories about the upcoming mission. For once the know-it-alls don’t. I can’t help but think about the 13 reservists blown apart in a dank booby-trapped alley in the Jenin refugee camp weeks earlier, the details palpable via grisly news reports.

I leave my cellphone turned off, partly to save batteries but mostly not have to answer inevitable questions by concerned friends and colleagues about my whereabouts. Palestinian intelligence - not to mention IDF field security - both likely tap the lines.

That night, while in classrooms studying bed sheet-sized aerial area photographs, we receive initial mission assignments.

Our battalion commander stands beneath a street lamp just before lights out, the assembled battalion sitting on the ground before him, and addresses us.

He prides us on our show-rate, speed of arrival and organization, and our willingness to take up arms for the nation’s defense.

“No one slaps around handcuffed and blindfolded prisoners,” he warns us.

No big words about glory and battlefield valor. Instead, he talks about purity of arms and the Israeli army’s code of battlefield ethics.

He then asks if any soldier is uncertain of his willingness to carry out the mission and go into combat.

Is there any man who has married and not yet consecrated his home?” “Is there any among you who is fearful, let his leave.”

A chill runs through me as his words evoke the Biblical call to the warriors of Israel.

On the battlefield, uncertainty reigns,” he reminds us, adding that events at ground level could change from minute to minute. We would soon discover the accuracy of those words.

Long after midnight, exhausted from the tension and unaccustomed efforts, we fall into fitful sleep in worn sleeping bags.

Awakened early the next morning, we gamely try to heed the tight schedule.

More infantry assault drills and shooting range practice. We expect to be on base sharpening our military skills throughout the Sabbath. The observant soldiers generally accepting of the order, assuming the nature of the planned operation comes under the heading of lifesaving acts, which defer Sabbath proscriptions.

The unit’s rabbi, however, himself uncertain of the minutia of Halachic Law on the issue, queries senior IDF rabbis over the absolute necessity of the Sabbath dry runs. He receives the go-ahead.

Late Friday afternoon, our battery commander addresses us, asking us if we fully understand what we are preparing for.

“Is there anyone here who is not ‘shalem’ (confident) about taking part in the mission?” He questions, echoing the senior commanders words the previous night. I sense the concern in his voice; see the worried look in his face as he speaks. He’s plainly apprehensive about the welfare of the soldiers under his command.

A few soldiers speculate aloud why the army chose middle-age reservists to carry our operations suited to infantry conscripts.

Mid-lecture late Friday afternoon, the battalion commander enters the classroom, smiles, saying there was a “change of plan;” we are going home for the Sabbath. Uncertainty reigns.

We quickly adjourn to prepare personal gear, racing the clock and highway traffic to be home before sunset.

I arrive home moments before the Sabbath begins, quickly showering and dressing intro festive clothes. The 24-hour respite goes by all too quickly, as my family and I share the shelter the Sabbath affords us before the gathering storm.

Refreshed and more psychically prepared for duty, I leave my wife and family behind as my ride back to base arrives late Saturday night.

We drive south in the dark, sharing few words, wondering what sunup would bring.

Rising early, we are back on the firing range before breakfast. We take turns going through the steps; shooting, running and diving, as the officer at our heels spurs us on.

Senior commanders tell us that we are likely to enter the Gaza Strip sometime that afternoon. The information comes as a surprise as we had planned to enter Gaza in forays a day or two later. Again, uncertainty reigns.

Helmet strap cinched tight and wearing full webbing, I slap an ammo clip in my M-16 rifle and ready myself for the solo assault tactic.

Go! The officer standing behind me shouts.

I raise my gun, aim and fire. Run several feet, slow - and dragging one foot for stability - fire again. Run, drag, shoot. Run, drag, shoot. I throw myself on the stony ground, take cover, aim and fire again. Picking off the targets in several brief volleys, I rise again to repeat the maneuver, a second and yet a third time.

Heart pounding, breathless, and sweating, I complete the maneuver. My officer slaps me on the back, congratulating me on a successful run: The target was peppered with bullet holes.

I take off my helmet, musing over the sterility of the maneuver compared to real battle, with bullets flying both ways. Another brush with the kingdom of uncertainty.

Someone’s cell phone rings; the caller saying the battery commander is urgently needed for aparley with senior officers. Rumors about the operation run riot through the unit.

He returns a few minutes later to tell us: The operation has been called off; we can pack and return home. Uncertainty reigns.

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