Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Our Daughter, The Officer

4 January 2006

Today, Keren, our Yemenite daughter, became a lieutenant in the Israel Defense Force. The ceremony at which about 40 young women became officers in various armor units (Keren is an Engineer) was held in the fortress at Latrun. The symbolism of swearing in new armor officers here is obvious and compelling.

Keren was very happy today as she was told just a few days ago that her job will be in support but at her current base in the southern Negev (about 45 minutes north of Eilat). So Keren got to smile her wonderful smile as her Israeli and American parents, an uncle, some friends from West Orange and a bunch of her friends. After the ceremony we adjourned to Rishon Letzion to drink, eat and let the political conversation begin.

Keren, now 21, lived with us in Millburn for about six months during the 2003-2004 academic year. Keren fits in neatly between Molly and Jessica (who are a few years older) and Rebecca who is a couple of years younger. Her parents are Maurizio, whose family emigrated from Italy, and Nurit, whose family is from Yemen. Keren worked in our part of New Jersey as a youth ambassador (that's the best translation I can do of "Rishonim"). She worked mostly with Jewish teenagers, including the children of Israelis for whom she led a Hebrew-speaking scout troop. (Keren herself is a Young Diplomat.) Mostly she's remembered as a wonderful kid who, having earned her driver's license just three weeks before coming to America (and having learned to drive in Israel where highway fatalities are still the leading cause of death), was given a car and set loose at night in northern New Jersey. She never caused any physical damage and the damage to the three or four cars she went through was minimal. Nevertheless, she did build something of a reputation. So, when she went home and was drafted the Army made her an instructor in the civil engineers. Teaching Israelis how to drive heavy equipment and personnel carriers. No matter where you are the army remains the army.

Keren, being a smart kid, and personnel carriers not being items that wilt from simple fender benders (it helps to be made from armored steel and have no fenders to bend), was offered the opportunity to go to officers' training school. The first four months of the six months course was general training taken by hundreds of candidates, male and female. The last two months were training for specialized jobs, with the group divided into combat, support and non-combat jobs. The women still go to support and non-combat units.

Keren has been unhappy because, rather than the training position she thought she was heading toward, she was being trained to allocated troops and resources based on changing conditions in the field. This meant that if additional troops were needed to help move casualties, re-take a position, or set up roadblocks, Keren would be one of the people who selects the available soldiers and machinery and sends them in. This is a job that you can do perfectly but still know, every day, that another soldier may be killed or maimed. Also, you often get to do it in or close to area you would not want to drive through without your armored personnel carrier and a lot of guys with guns. Far better to decide who gets to train in "live fire" areas and who gets to drive the armored vehicle through the obstacle course. And do it on a Negev base well out of the line of fire.

Fortunately, her original base commander decided to get her back. She's not entirely certain what she will be doing but she won't be doing it in an unsafe place and won't be directly sending other young people into danger. All of her parents are relieved, though we know that this will mean that someone else's kid gets to step up and do a nasty job. This is the part of Israel that I admire the most and which definitely sucks the most.

Here's an example that is all too easy to pick out of the newspapers. During Hanukah, Israeli intelligence received a number of warnings about suicide bombing attempts. A prime target would have been the many public children's parties in places like Tel Aviv. Ori Binamo, a 21 year-old lieutenant, was ordered to take his squad and set up a surprise checkpoint inside the security fence but on the road to Israeli cities. Ori stopped a taxicab with Palestinian plates. Three passengers, strangers to one another, were sharing a ride. One passenger was about 18 or 19 and looked very nervous. Ori asked the kid to step out and pull up his shirt. The kid stepped out and detonated the bomb belt, murdering Ori, the cab driver and another passenger. Had someone not sent Ori to that spot, had Ori not done his job, the homicide bomber could have made it into Tel Aviv. The heavier-than-usual bomb and all the nails taped around it would have had an even more devastating effect if detonated inside a crowded room. Keren did not know Ori but Maurizio thinks she knows his girlfriend.

In the US, young people go into the Army and sort of disappear for long periods, especially if they get assigned overseas. In Israel everyone and everything is always close to home. The good news is you get to see your child at least once a month. The bad news is that's because the "front" is also your front yard.

A few days ago, on the train from Haifa to Tel Aviv (a beautiful ride on new equipment - Israelis have discovered how to commute by train - I'm not certain if this is a good or a bad thing though anything that keeps them out of cars is probably a good idea - soldiers in uniform ride for free), we sat across from a young woman with Sergeants' strips and an armor patch. Like one of my daughters (who shall remain nameless so I can go home and not have my throat slit), her acne has mostly but not entirely cleared up. In her breast pocket was a pink pen. She puts on her headphones and falls asleep. Probably on her way back to her base or post after a weekend at home.

The British built Latrun during the 1930s following Arab riots. It sits on a hill over the main route between Jerusalem and the sea. There was a time not so long ago when holding Latrun meant you could choke off Jerusalem's supply line from the west. After the UN partition, the British handled the place over to the Arabs who used it for that very purpose. The Israelis tried to take the fortress as part of their efforts to lift the siege of Jerusalem but, after suffering terrible casualties, failed and instead broke the seige by building the "Burma Road" to bypass the fortress.In 1967, the IDF took Latrun and the hills and vallies around it. Suffice it to say that no one thinks any of this is ever going back to the Arabs.

The fortress is now at the center of a memorial and museum to armored warfare. Surrounding the fortress (the walls of which still show holes and craters from artillery and rifle fire) are dozens of tanks, mobile artillery pieces and other mechanized war machines. The picture on the left shows Maurizio in front of a 160 mm mortar. He rode one these into Beirut in 1982. That's me on the right in front of a tank converted into a mobile bridge. Sharon used these to cross the Suez Canal in 1973 where he proceeded to disrupt the Egyptian supply lines and, crossing back, surrounded half the Egyptian army, forcing them to give up and go home. There are also tanks that are currently in use. These have low, sleek profiles and are packed with electronics giving them the ability to hide behind a hill and still hit a target on the other side of the hill. The collection also includes numerous examples of armor captured over the years. Which is how the Israelis have a German, WW II model anti-tank gun given up by Syrians who got it from the Russians who captured it from the Germans. Plus a number of other Russian, British and American built tanks used for and against the country. If you have an interest in serious military hardware, this place is a must-see and is easy to get to as you travel between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

The final picture is Keren with her American parents.

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