Israel Defense Forces IDF: A Soldier's Story Of Disengagement

The IDF's humane heart and professional approach
has been felt by Jews, Christians and Muslims from Gaza and Turkey to India and Ramallah.

By Israel News Agency Staff

Jerusalem----August 24......The following was written by Michael B. Oren, an IDF Major (res.) in the Israel Defense Forces spokesperson's unit. His story illustrates and represents thousands of Israel IDF and police who with pride and pain who took part in Israel's unilateral disengagement peace process from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

The Israel News Agency salutes all IDF units, from the spokespersons' PR office, to the infantry, navy, intelligence and air force which with an abundance of patience, understanding, tolerance, respect and professionalism assisted thousands of Jewish settlers in moving from their homes to other cities inside Israel in the Jewish state's quest for peace and stability in the Middle-East.

Together with thousands of Jews, I sat on the flagstones before the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Israel.

The time was midnight on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, the day on which, according to tradition, invaders twice overwhelmed the city's defenders, destroying their Temple and crushing Jewish independence in Israel. Two thousand years later, a new Jewish state with a powerful army has arisen, yet Jews continue to lament on that day, and rarely as fervidly as now.

For the first time in history--ancient or modern--that state would send its army not to protect Jews from foreign attack, but to evict them from what many regarded as their God-given land, in Gaza. I would take part in that operation. In a few hours, I would leave my historian's job in Israel and report for reserve service as a major in the IDF spokesman's public relations office.

My feelings were, at best, ambivalent. I wanted to end Israel's occupation of Gaza's 1.4 million Palestinians and preserve Israel's Jewish majority, but feared abetting the terrorists' claim that Israel had fled under fire. I wanted the state to have borders that all Israelis could defend, but balked at returning to the indefensible pre-1967 borders. I honored my duty as a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, but wondered whether I could drag other Israelis from their homes or, if they shot at me, shoot back.

Nothing in my 25-year Israel army experience had prepared me for the horror of Jews fighting Jews, nor had any of the knowledge I'd gained researching Israel's wars.

The threat which the disengagement posed to the contemporary Jewish State weighed on me as I sat mourning the loss of its ancient predecessors. Then somebody greeted me: "Michael! Shalom!" I looked up into the smile of an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, white-bearded with silvery sidelocks. He pumped my hand for several moments before realizing that I had no idea who he was. "It's me, Amnon!" I was dumbstruck. Back in 1982, when he was a handsome commando, Amnon had fought beside me in Beirut. Now he was a Hassid. We spoke of our lives' divergent paths, and then, inexorably, about disengagement.

He swore that God would either save the Gaza settlements of Israel or punish those who dismantled them. I told him where I was going at dawn. The fact that I, at my advanced age, was still doing reserve duty in the IDF PR spokesperson's office made Amnon laugh, but only briefly. With words that I would hear repeatedly over the following days, he asked me how I could violate my sacred IDF oath to "love the Jewish homeland and its citizens" and to "sacrifice all my strength, and even my life" to defend them?

He reminded me that hatred between Jews had facilitated the Temples' destruction in Israel, and excoriated me for bringing ruin on this, the third Jewish commonwealth. Amnon, his old warrior self again, assailed me, "You should be ashamed."

Should I? In fact, the same code of ethics that binds members of the IDF also obligates them to "preserve the laws of Israel" and its "values as a Jewish and democratic State." Both the Israel government and the Knesset had repeatedly approved the disengagement plan as a means of safeguarding demographic and democratic integrity. In acting in accordance with those decisions, the IDF would be fulfilling one of its fundamental purposes.

But could that charge be reconciled with the task of emptying and bulldozing Israeli villages? Could the army, which through successive wars strove to "protect the lives, limbs and property" of enemy noncombatants, now forcibly evict a civilian Jewish population? These were the questions that challenged me and the 55,000 soldiers assembled in and around Gaza on the eve of the operation, the IDF's largest since the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

The answers were far from initially clear. While passing several settlements, Israel Defense Forces vehicles - my bus among them - were attacked by knife-wielding youths who punctured their tires. They stood in the hiss of escaping air, wide-eyed and defiant, daring the IDF to retaliate. But the IDF exercised restraint. Better to let them blow off steam, we reasoned, before the real confrontation began. Preparations for the mission meanwhile accelerated.

At Re'im, a dust-enveloped tent city, an embedded American correspondent and I observed a battalion drilling their anti-riot techniques. Women and men, religious and secular, native-born Israelis and immigrants from Russia and Ethiopia, they had left their usual army jobs as teachers, flight engineers, and navigators to join the disengagement force. When asked about their feelings on Gaza, they insisted that their personal opinions were irrelevant, and that as soldiers, their duty was to carry out the instructions of the legitimately elected government.

The assignment, they admitted, was tough, but essential to defend democracy. That night, we watched the battalion's officers, many of them Israel combat pilots, poring over aerial photos of our targeted settlements, Badolah and Netzer Hazany. Booklets were passed out detailing the legal authority by which soldiers could request settlers to evacuate and arrest those who refused.

We listened as the IDF battalion commander reminded his soldiers of the three weeks' intensive training they had received for this, and reiterated the need to show sensitivity to the settlers' pain but also determination to achieve their objectives. He wished us all good luck. A few hours later, at 4 a.m., we moved out.

In a combat formation of twin columns we approached the settlements. With their gates barricaded, their houses swathed in smoke from burning tires and refuse, these looked, indeed, like battlegrounds. But we came unarmed, wearing neither helmets nor flakjackets but only netted vests emblazoned with the Menorah and the Star of David. For nearly a month, teams of IDF psychologists and rabbis had been quietly convincing settlers that disengagement was a reality and urging them to refrain from violence.

Still, from behind the gate, youngsters pelted us with eggs and paint balloons, while many parents berated us with words reminiscent of Amnon's - "You disgrace your uniforms!" - and worse, "You're no better than Nazis!" The Israel Defense Forces soldiers bore both the eggs and invective impassively, and when a bulldozer broke through the barricades, they filed into the streets. More onerous challenges awaited them inside. The mother of a child who had been killed by terrorists had locked herself in his room, together with gasoline tanks that she threatened to ignite. Another family whose son, an Israel naval commando, had fallen in Lebanon, was also hesitating to leave.

In home after home, teams of officers and NCOs listened patiently while settler parents pleaded with them to change their minds and not to evict them, wailing and tearing their shirts in mourning. Women soldiers played with weeping children, telling them stories, hugging them. Eventually, though, each of the families was led onto the evacuation bus, leaving the soldiers emotionally drained but also resolved to proceed to the next household, the next excruciating tragedy. The severest test of the battalion's fortitude - and humaneness - occurred in Badolah's synagogue, where the settlers were afforded an hour of parting prayer. But after two hours waiting in the blistering sun, the soldiers decided to enter. The scene that greeted them was shocking: settlers clutching the pews, the Ark and the Torah scrolls, or writhing on the floor. The troops tried to comfort them, only to break down themselves, and soon soldiers and settlers were embracing in mutual sorrow and consolation.

Ultimately, the settlers were either escorted or carried, sobbing, onto buses. But their rabbi, stressing the need for closure, requested permission to address the soldiers, and the battalion commander remarkably agreed. So it happened that 500 troops and 100 settlers stood at attention, with Israeli flags fluttering, while the rabbi spoke of the importance of channeling this sorrow into the creation of a more loving and ethical society. "We are all still one people, one state," he said. Together, the evicted and the evictors, then sang "Hatikvah," the national anthem - "The Hope."

Israel disengagement from Gaza, originally scheduled to take three weeks, was completed in almost as many days. A few injuries were incurred, none of them serious, and no Israelis were killed. Only two of the troops refused to carry out orders, and in one case, a unit of religious soldiers stood and watched as their rabbi was evacuated. While the settlers' overall restraint should be recognized, the bulk of the credit can only go to the IDF.

Never before has an army relocated so many fellow-citizens against their will and in the face of continuing terror attacks with so extraordinary a display of courage, discipline and compassion. I retain many of my forebodings about disengagement - the precedent it sets of returning to the 1967 borders, the inducement to terror. About the army's role, though, I have no ambivalence.

The same army that won Israel's independence, that reunited Jerusalem and crossed the Suez Canal, has accomplished what is perhaps its greatest victory - without medals, true, and without conquest, but also without firing a shot. In answer to Amnon, I am not ashamed but deeply proud of the IDF, its strength as well as its humanity.

Mr. Oren, senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, is author of "Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East" (Presidio, 2003).

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