A quick note from Gaza during the withdrawal

[An email written to Katie, my wife, on August 17, from Gush Katif]

KT - It's about 1pm on Wednesday, I have a few minutes between assignments, thought I'd put a few thoughts and observations down in writing, about my activities and feelings.

From a personal perspective, my overwhelming feeling is one of pure helplessness and despair. Not, mind you, from the same sources of the many residents being evicted or those protesting the expulsion locally or elsewhere - not because I believe we should be here permanently. But because I just don't see the point, not now, not with the way things are in this region - no peace, no security, no Palestinian democracy or reform in the Pal Authority. Hamas and even Qurei in the PA say "first Gaza, then Jerusalem & the West Bank" (Hamas and Islamic Jihad and the others say "all of Palestine" of course). The timing is terrible and wrong - they killed enough of us and now we're running away. Hence my despair. My helplessness comes from our own political system's failings - Sharon was elected in direct and fervent opposition to Mitzna's campaign for a 'unilateral withdrawal' from Gaza - Sharon's slogan was "Netzarim and Tel Aviv are equal" - and so many people feel completely disenfranchised by the lack of legitimacy of the withdrawal policy. Though it followed the legal process it was and is utterly anti-democratic. But this isn't the place or time for political ramblings.

All that is at the strategic level of thought and government policy. At the personal level of feeling, my helplessness and despair are more palpable, and I assume more understandable. I stand outside Ganei Tal, where our friends Machla and Pinchas have lived and raised their family for 28 years, where we've spent almost every Shabbat Chanukah in the past two decades and many other happy times, and can't believe I'm at all involved in this operation. I certainly don't feel like I'm protecting my State or my community or my family and children, which I have always felt in over 15 years of military service. I thought I'd be able to help by offering a slightly broader perspective to the media - but I'm not sure at this point, in the middle of it. My influence is minor and tangential. I can't help Machla; even my sympathy seems pathetic. I bring a journalist to hear her story and it's clear I'm on the 'other side' even as I make every effort to get her story heard. I am far away from the minor outbreaks of violence in Neve Dekalim and therefore helpless to fulfill my other promise to myself, to step in and block police brutality if I am witness to it; perhaps today or tomorrow.

An observation: As you know, units of young soldiers who have guarded these communities continue to do so, patrolling and guarding the gates - against the danger of Palestinian Arab terrorists. These units have deep and wonderful relations with the communities they serve; families 'adopt' the soldiers and the relationship between the boys and the families are strong and emotional, lasting years after an individual soldier moves on. And now other soldiers are coming to evict these families from their homes. Sitting outside Ganei Tal, I observed a fascinating phenomenon. Adults and youth, and children, some as young as 4 or 5, demonstrated an amazing sophistication in discriminating between a "good" soldier (for lack of a better term) and those coming to throw them out. As I approach the gate, the children look at me with suspicion and hostility; a moment earlier and later, they're playing with the soldier guarding the gate. And he's the one with an M-16. (All police and soliders involved in the withdrawal in or near the communities carry no arms.) It reminds me of Yonatan at around age 5, coming up to an Israeli soldier in the street, saluting him and reciting the kindergarten-version of the prayer for soldiers of the IDF, and of the pride I always had - and you had, and, I think, my family had - of my own service. I had tears in my eyes watching the kids at the gate play with the young chayal.

But I don't want to leave the impression that the soldiers involved in this transfer operation are in any way "bad". Quite the opposite; you've seen the many images of soldiers - including officers - crying with the residents they're evicting. At this point, Wednesday early afternoon, we're still at the "talking" level in most of the communities, despite the announced deadline of midnight last night and the declaration of the initiation of the "forced evacuation" stage as of this morning. We are making every effort not to move into the arena of coercive force - though in isolated cases we must of course. And in responding to the demonstrators - as opposed to the residents - whose goal is to interfere in the process, the IDF is certainly forcing them physically onto busses and literally driving them out. About 300 were arrested in Neve Dekelim yesterday, of which about 50 will be charged formally. I wonder if some of our friends or their teenagers are among them.

A couple barricaded themselves in their house with their two kids earlier this morning, threatening violence; they were patiently and professionally talked out. Similarly a young boy on a ledge outside his home. And reports of many other instances continue to flow in to our command center, where I am now. In light of my unhappiness with the overall policy as well as the way it's being carried out on the macro-level, I am at least comforted that on the micro-level, in each individual case, great care and sensitivity is being displayed by our forces, on the whole. In fact, one of my most emotional moments so far occurred prior to the inauguration of operations, in our briefing. Every commander who spoke to us - from the head of Southern Command through the commander of the police and of course the head of the Spokespersons Unit, as well as the lower-level unit commanders and other officers, not to mention the Chief of General Staff on the radio - spoke emotionally and eloquently of this being an operation unique in the history of the IDF. Almost all mentioned that these are our brothers and sisters; that they'd been sent here by governments both Left and Right; that they embody the true spirit of Zionism. All stressed the sensitivity and empathy central to all of our activities; many used the word "love" repeatedly.

The initial operation, BTW, from Sunday through Tuesday, was called "Operation Lending-a-Hand" or, more literally, "A Hand to Brothers" ("Yad L'Achim").

On another level, logistical challenges are overwhelming and the results are unimpressive, if not disastrous (from a media perspective). I spent over 14 hours yesterday (from 2am until 4pm) with 35 increasingly hostile journalists from around the world and from every media who were placed in a 'holding pattern' in 40-degree heat outside the entrance to Ganei Tal, denied entrance to the Moshav by the community's leaders, waiting for officers to come deliver eviction notices... who never came. But the IDF operations branch didn't bother to let the Spokespersons unit know they weren't coming. On less than 2 hours of sleep, after 10 hours in the burning sun, it wasn't easy to manage the frustration and anger of the press on the bus.

More on that angle perhaps another time.

Another issue: Earlier today Palestinians fired on Neve Dekalim. You recall Sharon's declaration "we will not withdraw under fire"? Well - since no injuries were reported, the IDF is not responding. I wouldn't want to live in a society where murder, rape & robbery were punished only when successful. If there are no consequences for attempted rape/murder/robbery, what real deterrence is there? Our strategic position having been decimated by this withdrawal, now our tactical position becomes weakened at every passing moment. Sorry for the pessimism; I think it's justified.

One more little thing, just to give us perspective. I played with Efrat's little 2-year-old, Shalem, in Machla's living room, surrounded by boxes, while Machla spoke to the reporters. We haven't seen her since Moriyah's Bat Mitzvah - you can't believe how similar she looks to Efrat - whom we met, of course, at that age exactly. She (Shalem) is a bright, cheerful, friendly ball of laughs; I bounced her on my leg - army boots are great for that at that age. She kept saying "sus!" (horse) and laughing. It wasn't only a nice break and the obvious "cycle of life" ideas going through my head. At that very point, Machla was talking to the reporters about her 25-year-old sofas, and being photographed sitting on them, and about how one the one hand she says to herself "just leave them, what do I need them for, they're so old, I'm moving on...". But then she says "These sofas are part of my life; I brought them here into my home, they're part o f me and who I am; I can't envision my living room without them." And I thought, and later told Machla, how I remember playing with Efrat, and Shaiki, and Tuli, and Merav, on those sofas. (You remember - they're pretty flat and solid and firm, great for bouncing kids on your knees.) Playing with Shalem in the same way, and the fact that Machla's taking the sofas with her, says something to me about continuity, about the flexibility of the human condition in spite of so many hardships, I don't know, it just comforted me somehow.

I can't in good conscience bring myself to think, or to feel, or of course to say to Machla or anyone, something as trite as 'life goes on' - but in a Frankel type of way, I guess I do feel that, from a Jewish perspective, even a Zionist perspective, Efrat's daughter Shalem, like our children, represent a certain staying-power, a permanence unrelated to where exactly we put down our roots.

Anyway - must finish up here. Am briefing a small group of journalists in 15 minutes and have to get up-to-date; am being interviewed by BBC radio at 3pm - tell your folks to tune in, if they want, around 1pm their time.

I send you my love - it was nice to speak to you this morning.

Aryeh

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