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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Blood Brothers

*for Tzur and Shabi, Yoni and Roey*

Here is a translation of an article published this weekend in the Yediot Aharonot newspaper:

Blood Brothers / Tsadok Yehezkely and Yossi Yehoshua

The bodies were laying in the back room of that damned house in Bint Jbeil. 8 bodies, their faces covered. Across the wall, in the other room, the group of fighters sat silent. It was a burdened silence.

These were perhaps their most difficult moments, the heaviest mission on the longest day in the lives of the youngsters of company C: guarding the silent bodies that only a few hours ago were their friends and commanders. Roey the deputy battalion commander, and Alex the deputy company commander, and Asi Namer, their immigrant from Australia. And Amihai the platoon commander, Idan and Ohad, and the two Shimons. No one thought to shed a tear. Not now. Definitely not in public. This is how they were raised. That in Golani you don't cry. Surely not when the battle is yet to be over.

The moments continued and stretched for what seemed like eternity. A few were anxious for darkness to fall over the village so the dead friends could be taken out of here. Brought home. It was as if someone decided to put them to the greatest test. Except now they knew they had to stay ready in case the battle started again, that Hizballah fighters will try to charge again to get a soldier. Dead or alive.

Outside, in the open square, between houses and a mosque, more evidence of the bloody battle that went on here from dawn to noon were strewn about. 12 bodies of Hizbullah fighters. 5 other bodies were laying behind the mosque. They too were intended for evacuation that night to the Israeli border, but these bodies were left outside on purpose. For the fighters of the bruised and bleeding 51st battalion they were a sort of crucial proof that despite the heavy price - there were no doubts how this battle ended on that nightmare of a Wednesday, and how the campaign for the village will ultimately end. "For us it's like rain. We got wet, but they got soaked. We took some, but they took more" said Colonel Ofek Buchris when darkness came down on Bint Jbeil. "And the moment will come when we will put an end to them".

It sounds simplistic at first, even numb, almost outrageous. But on that difficult night, in the Golani command room situated just a few kilometres from the battlefield, Buchris' words reflected a deep sense of confidence and determination. In his eyes this is the only perspective a fighting soldier can have in the midst of war. And if anyone can say these things and mean them, it is Buchris, Golani's mythical fighter.

Buchris is one that has been there already, that can put things in perspective. He was there, leading that 51st battalion during Operation Homat Magen, when 5 of his soldiers died in the terrible battle for the Jenin refugee camp. "We didn't give up then and we didn't give up now" said Buchris, who was injured twice himself. The first time he came through and came back. The second time he was very badly hit, and from that injury he also returned to the army.

This war caught him on the way to taking the position of commander of the Western brigade, stationed on the Lebanese border. In the meantime he is the sector's Special Ops officer, and ever since Golani got heavily involved - he and the brigade commander Colonel Tamir Yedai (who was also twice injured in the past) have become figures the soldiers look to in time of crisis. Drawing encouragement. Relying on advice.

A few hours before entering Bint Jbeil on Sunday night, some of the battalion's young platoon commanders came to Buchris for tips from the veteran fighter. "What's up guys, scared?" Buchris smiled with understanding. "Of course we're scared", they confessed, but immediately clarified: "But willing to pay the price."

This is a possible explanation for the massive gap between the shaken reaction on the homefront to Golani's day of horror in Bint Jbeil, and the silent, painful restraint expressed at the Golani command room and the fighters themselves in the field beyond the hill. When the flood of commentaries and dark forecasts was debated on TV, they were pertinantly dealing with planning the evacuation of the bodies and the continuation of the campaign.

The atmosphere was not one of depression. Some soldiers sat playing backgammon, and the oldest reservist, Avi Batito, made black coffee for the minister Gideon Ezra who came to visit and found the time to suggest he maintain his health and get rid of the cigarettes. Only afterwards did he go to prepare the stretchers for the bodies that would be evacuated at dawn. "Brother", he said, "tears you will see only at the funerals. Not here."

"It is not a failure and not a dark day, not a crisis and not a disaster" Buchris says, responding with disgust to some of the definitions that were given to the battle. "There was a clash between us and them. This is war. Not a volleyball game". And here is the point: these soldiers, especially their commanders, knew well what they were getting into. There were no delusions. Especially not since 5 soldiers from Egoz, the brigade's elite unit, were killed in a missile ambush at the neighbouring village last week.

"In Gaza, you work knowing you can't get hit by anything worse than a bullet, and if you go into a house nothing will happen to you. Here you are not sure of anything", said the officers that took part in the fighting of the past few days. "They are much better than them (the Palestinians), much more skilled, much more ready and better equipped."

After the tough battle of Bint Jbeil no one dared to blame faulty planning or shaky intelligence. To the contrary. Mid-day Sunday the commanders of the forces that were going into Bint Jbeil assembled for a set of orders. All the darkest forecasts there are were raised in this briefing.Whoever was there and didn't fall asleep from exahustion couldn't have been surprised from black Wednesday. "We were told and warned", said an officer that attended the briefing. "We were told that they were very highly skilled in fighting and they were waiting for us. Most importantly: we were to remember that there was no way of surprise from our part. That we were going straight into the lion's jaw. But there was no choice, because we are fighting for our home. I, at least, came out feeling my chances of a safe return were fifty fifty at best."

The toughest battle of this war began with a whimper, shortly before 5 a.m.

"Run-in", the voice on the brigade radio network said. "Injured soldier". The voice reporting from the field sounded calm. It is what he should have done. But it didn't reflect the holy terror that began minutes earlier around a house on the hill on the Eastern outskirts of Bint Jbeil.

"Fire and shouting, fire and shouting", described Israel Friedler, a company commander with the 51st battalion moving towards another house 100 meters away. Whoever was closer, at the heart of the action, described it as "awful fire. an inferno. Everything - and from all sides".

To Friedler's fortune, it wasn't his company that was caught in the ambush. A matter of pure chance. A roulette. Just hours before, the battalion comander handed out the last missions of the night. The idea was to get hold of some houses that were strategically located and gave better control of the village houses. It was to be the final act of a succesful night, before the fighters settle in to rest. In reality it was going into a planned trap.

But even at that point, at the height of distress and suprise, there was no loss of control. The firing was answered with firing. Grenades were thrown and exploded within the force, and those that survived threw back. The distance between the soldiers and their enemies was just a few meters. "We could see them", said one of the fighter almost with a sigh of relief. Finally, the elusive enemy, face to face. "You find yourself acting automatically, as if on instinct", said Ram Boneh.

This testimony is repeated by everyone. Boneh didn't even notice his arm was hit by shrapnel and it was bleeding. In those moments, he learned something of himself. It was in that moment that the fear that accompanied him and his friends was gone. "There was no time to be scared" said Boneh. Had he found a split second to understand what was happening, he might have lost his life. But these impulses that were embeded into these soldiers in a year and a half of training anf joint operations also took the biggest toll. Out of the 8 casualties, most lost their lives trying to rescue the injured and even the bodies of soldiers that died before them.

"What was driving all of us", one of the injured soldiers would say later, "is that Hizbullah would take one of our soldiers. Injured or dead. It didn't matter." Colonel Buchris says: "it was clear to us they didn't just want to kill. They were charging because they wanted a soldier." That fear, as well as the order to pay any price to prevent Hizbullah from coming out of this battle with an Israeli soldier - stood at the base of this bloody fight. Whoever took part in it describes a sort of primitive battle almost unpercievable in terms of modern warfare led by guided missiles and smart bombs. Whoever came out tells of a feeling of "life or death". A fight for survival in its most basic form. It's either me or you.

So primal in its essence was the fight, so lacking in technology and tactics, that the company continued in action even when it lost its commanders one by one. The battalion's deputy commander Roey Klein, followed by deputy company commander Lieutenant Alex Schwartzman, followed by the platoon commander Amihai Merhavia. Without them, the job fell to the battalion commander Yaniv Asor and junior commanders. "We essentially lost almost the entire chain of command" said one Golani officer in the shock that settled in hours after the battle, when they just started making sense of it. At the heart of the chaos, command of company C was given to an officer that was just pulled out of company commanders course. He will graduate form the course in another time. At the moment the company is his.

Evacuating the injured to the helicopters was probably the prize action of the entire battle. Sayeret Golani soldiers transferred one by one under fire to the heli pad, a few hundred meters from the battlefield, which would later recieve the awful definition "annihilation zone" by the commanders.

There was very little emotion in this battle. Cries of pain, yes. Tears, paralysis and terror - no. "Emotions are irrelevant", Buchris would later say with the pride of a commander that has lived through a similar horror and now saw his replacements emerge from a similar experience. Bruised and battered, but not beaten.

In the command room - the bomb shelter of a village that became a super modern war room - dealing with emotions was the most difficult. On a massive black and white screen the entire village was seen through the eyes of the MRPV. The running figures, tiny white specks, were very visible. The radio became frequented with reports. "Flower" (injured) and another "flower" and finally "oleander" (casualty) and another and another. These officers sat there watching gravely, their eyes focused on the small figures on the screen, every now and then falling. Only the guesses remain. Who fell. Us or them. "It's the most difficult feeling there is", said the deputy brigade commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Alian. "You wanna be there more than anything".

At the end of the battle, on Wednesday night, brigade commander Yedai decided to get to his wounded force in Bint Jbeil. He wanted to hug. To give a warm word. At dawn, shortly before the sun rose on the hills, he led the stretcher march to the foot of the hills. Stretcher by stretcher, carried by the soldiers of the 51st battalion. They insisted on it. It would be the only way they would carry the bodies of their friends to the "Puma", the armored personnel carrier. "It looked like a funeral march", thought company commander Friedler, a 26 year old immigrant from Brazil, who himself was injured in the fight, "a funeral march in Lebanon".


Anonymous PRiX said...


1/8/06 3:06 PM  

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