Learning the lessons of Kerem Shalom

Have the ‘operational failures’ surrounding Gilad Schalit’s capture been corrected?

June 26, 2010 22:50
4 minute read.
Learning the lessons of Kerem Shalom

Kerem shalom closed 298. (photo credit: AP)

I was raised in apartheid South Africa by parents who taught me to speak out if I saw something wrong, and to fix anything I could. Which is why I still feel terrible that I didn’t say anything when I did almost a month of reserve duty at Kerem Shalom a decade before Cpl. Gilad Schalit was kidnapped there. Perhaps someone would have listened.

Our artillery unit was divided into groups of four, and we were dropped off at guard towers along the border with Egypt and Gaza. After a very basic shooting drill, we were ordered to split up in pairs, with each pair responsible for sitting in the tower for 12 hours and securing our position. While one pair guarded, the other would prepare meals, rest and sleep.

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My group, as it happened, comprised four new immigrants, two from France, one from the US and myself (I had made aliya eight years previously). Right from the start, I felt a pervasive sense of insecurity.

What if we were attacked by a group of trained gunmen? Could two soldiers hold them off? And would the others be able to help? Needless to say, I did not sleep well in our tent at nights, choosing to stay in uniform and putting my rifle under my pillow. When we were on guard duty, I always had the gun around my shoulders, causing them to ache by the end of the 12-hour shift.

I remember discussing our situation with one of my comrades, a French immigrant named Maurice. He tried to reassure me by noting that the Egyptian soldiers patrolling opposite us did not even have magazines in their rifles. Besides, he added, they received food parcels just once a week, while we got a daily delivery.

I was not reassured. How were these hungry Egyptians without bullets going to protect us from an armed assault by hostile gunmen? His answer was that they were there to protect themselves, and it was our job to protect ourselves.

AFTER SOME thought, I came to this shocking conclusion: If anyone approaching our position was not an Israeli soldier, I would shoot first and ask questions later.

The very idea of shooting someone terrified me, and I wrote the following poem while on a rest period, inspired by the location, Kerem Shalom, which means – ironically – “Vineyard of Peace.”

In a word, stop!
Stop the killing.
Stop the killing on both sides.
One death would have been too many
But there have been too many deaths
On both sides.
How many deaths will it take
For you to stop?
Stop acting like children,
Playing tit for tat.
When will you grow up
And realize that there’s another way?
Kerem Shalom, 1996.

AT THE end of the month, I was so relieved to have gotten out of there alive that I chose not to express my reservations about our situation when it came to the traditional group summation with our commander. I was wrong.

On June 25, 2006, Gilad Schalit was abducted by Hamas gunmen at Kerem Shalom after they crossed the border from the Gaza Strip through a tunnel dug under the security fence. Two soldiers were killed and three wounded. In response, the IDF launched Operation Summer Rains on June 28. The rest is history. Despite the military campaign, Hamas took control of Gaza, rearmed itself and strengthened, while Schalit has been in captivity for four long years.

The other day, I heard an interview with the current commander of the Golani Brigade under which Schalit served, Col. Avi Peled. He declared with confidence that all the lessons of the abduction had been learned, but he could not promise it would not happen again.

What both the interviewer and he omitted to mention was that Peled had been the commander directly responsible for the Golani soldiers deployed at Kerem Shalom during Schalit’s capture, and that he had been promoted to head the brigade a year after the abduction by Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, who himself rose up the ranks of Golani.

An IDF team that investigated the incident found there had been “operational failures” on the part of Peled and the brigade he commanded, but did not recommend punitive steps. So I was not reassured by Peled’s comments. Schalit’s family and the families of soldiers serving at Kerem Shalom or anywhere else along Israel’s borders probably share similar sentiments.

When a flotilla from Turkey left for Gaza to break Israel’s blockade last month, I immediately wondered: What happens if the passengers are armed? A friend said I should say something, or write something. I didn’t listen, thinking to myself that the army must be prepared for any eventuality.

In the end, it was only because of the quick thinking of the naval commandos dropped onto the Mavi Marmara that nine Turks and not nine Israelis were killed.

Now, four years after Schalit’s capture, flotillas are heading for Gaza from Lebanon and Iran – two countries unabashedly hostile to Israel.

What if they are carrying terrorists with heavy weapons and even anti-aircraft missiles that can shoot down helicopters dropping soldiers onto the boats? There, I said it. I have issued my warning. Now I can only pray that I’m wrong.

The writer is managing editor of The Jerusalem Post.

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