November 8, 2007
Israel booming but helicopters may be an omen of trouble ahead
On a recent morning, as Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak ratcheted up warnings that Israel was preparing to launch a major operation in the Gaza Strip, I stand on an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) lookout a few hundred yards from Gaza, as two dark Apache helicopters swoop down and fire on a nearby hill.
The helicopters let loose an intense barrage, dispatch their flares, bank sharply and return to attack again. Lt. Col. David Benjamin, the former IDF legal adviser in Gaza, suggests we leave the lookout and move behind a nearby rock. Meanwhile, IDF jeeps race across the path alongside the border fence in front of us.
Benjamin explains that these actions occur on a daily basis up and down the border. Just as the IDF works constantly to keep a small patch within Gaza clear of terrorists, so, too, Hamas makes efforts every day to get through, over or under the fence -- and to engage the IDF. Hamas' success rate has been minimal, he says, and their casualties significant, "but they're still coming, still trying, every day."
The key issue, Benjamin emphasizes, is Gaza's border with Egypt.
"We patrol our land border, and our Navy patrols the sea border," he says, "but the Hamas weapons are smuggled in under the border with Egypt."
Benjamin notes that he drafted some of the legal paperwork that effected the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza two summers ago. "I told my commander when I handed him the documents that we were making history. He said, 'Don't be so sure -- we might be back.'"
Nearby in Sderot, kids play outside during a teachers strike, even though Qassam rockets strike in or near the city every day. As Sderot suffers from the barrage and the flight of thousands of residents, Vice Mayor Aron Malka tells me that crime is at an all-time low and going down.
The community coming together in time of stress, I ask?
"No," he says, "the Bedouins have disappeared" because of the Qassams.
Living in Sderot is "like being in a prison of life," Malka says.
He smiles just a bit when told that artwork from the traumatized children of Sderot is touring venues in Los Angeles.
"That gives us hope," he says. "The Jews will learn of Sderot, and it will give us the strength to stay." Malka was born in Sderot 42 years ago, and he and his family are clearly staying, despite not having a shelter in their house.
Up north, white U.N. helicopters patrol what is supposed to be the Hezbollah-free area north of the Israeli border to the Litani River. Retired Col. Kobi Marom, former commander of IDF forces in the north, points to a helicopter hovering over a Lebanese road that his convoy used to transit regularly.
"Once a man stopped at my truck," he says. "I was going to check him out, but before I could open the door, he exploded on my truck." Marmon and his reinforced command vehicle survived; an officer in the vehicle behind him died.
Metulla, which sits as close to Lebanon as West Hollywood sits to Beverly Hills, reflects none of the scars of last year's battle. The main streets and malls of Kiryat Shmona, likewise, have been repaired, and everyday life has returned. When I visited this area during the war last summer, I heard the pounding of IDF ordnance flying into Lebanon; this year I hear the sounds of commerce and traffic.
Yet Marom points north and shakes his head.
"They will try attacking IDF patrols again, soon," he says of Hezbollah. "Nothing is more important to them than showing that they can fight Israel."
On the outskirts of Kiryat Shmona, we stop at a memorial to 73 soldiers killed in the crash of two troop transport helicopters 10 years ago.
"I was the commanding officer, and I was here within five minutes," Marom says, "but there was no one to save."
My driver, Roni, looks at the memorial and does a double-take.
"My son was born the night of the crash," he explains. "We celebrated his birth, and then one hour later news of the helicopter crash came on the TV. I saw the name 'Shai' twice -- there were two soldiers named 'Shai.' It just clicked -- we named our son Noam Shai."
After a while, Roni looks at me.
"There's so much meaning here," he reflects. "Or maybe you just create meaning to keep yourself here."
Israel is booming. Ben-Gurion Airport is on track for a record year. Entrepreneurs and foreign investment are flooding the zone. Hotel rooms are a precious commodity. On my recent visit I saw more construction cranes (more investment) and fewer shomerim at restaurants (less fear of suicide bombers) than ever before. And yet I flew home with the feeling that, one day soon, helicopters will again create meaning in Israel.