reservists 298.88 AJ.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
As the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee's subcommittee charged with investigating the recent war in Lebanon began to hear testimony Sunday morning from a dozen reservists who volunteered to appear at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds, politicians proved to be a sideshow to the jeans-and-t-shirt clad men who came to tell their stories. Squinting and occasionally perplexed by the cameras thrust in their faces, officers and enlisted men, CEOs and students began to tell stories of long marches with no orders or goals, and lack of even the most basic equipment needed to fight a well-prepared enemy.
Subcommittee chair Tzahi Hanegbi opened the session saying that the MKs had published the advertisements calling for volunteers to testify because "we want to feel what they felt and understand what they want from the government of Israel."
Before testifying, the soldiers were asked if they would be willing to testify before other committees - including the Winograd Commission - and were reminded that because the committee does not have the status of an investigative committee, the reservists were not offered any immunity from proceedings against them as a result of their testimony.
Asher Menashko, an infantryman who also served in Lebanon during his regular service in the mid-eighties, described what seemed like a hopeless situation as he and his comrades reached the front. Although his battalion, he said, had just drilled a similar scenario of kidnapped soldiers and combat in Lebanon during an exercise weeks before the war, they were given no orders or goals when the situation proved all-too-real. "We walked into Lebanon without any clear orders like a flock after their shepherd," said the Nazareth-Ilit resident.
"We entered buildings to take cover which they then shelled until we thought that the building would collapse on top of us. Every night we moved "apartments" in the same village without any direction or orders." While his company left the battlefield licking its wounds, Menashko said that he believed that it was only a matter of good luck. Another company in his battalion caught without orders in a hostile town suffered fatalities as well as a number of wounded.
But Menashko's tale did not end there. He said that the battalion doctor was sent to the front without even the most basic flack jacket, but stayed in the field to care for the wounded. Once Menashko's wounded friends were evacuated to hospitals in Israel, he said, responsibility for their care was juggled through levels of bureaucracy between the Ministry of Defense and the IDF. "This sends a bad message to reservists - we are willing to sacrifice our lives for the army, but if we come home wounded, the government leaves us behind. They can't keep taking the reserve army for granted."
But, despite the disappointment conveyed during his testimony, Menashko felt good about the testimony. "I gave my point of view as a simple soldier," he said, and said that Hanegbi told him that his testimony was authentic and spine-chilling. "We have no other country and no other army and must be prepared for the next war," Menashko concluded.
The committee heard similar accounts from paratroopers and tankers, all describing missing bullets, water shortages, and unclear orders.
Two reservists stood outside of the committee room comparing stories of knee guards.
"It's not really so serious if you don't have enough to go around," a young paratrooper smiled. "You only really need one on your kneeling leg. So you just share, one each."
Etzion Harel, a population officer from the Home Front Command was the sole representative of the relatively-new unit in the first day of reservists' testimony. The former tanker-turned-social worker said that he was not meant to work in the north, but that he was quickly sent to Safed when commanders realized that one population officer could not possibly work with the over 20,000 civilians in the eastern sector of the Upper Galilee.
"With a lack of equipment and a lack of orders, the officers and soldiers did what they could," Harel said, describing how officers "borrowed" equipment from the hi-tech firms where they were employed. Initially, the entire emergency administration of Safed and surrounding areas had been allotted one computer with no connection to internet.
Harel also came prepared with a list of recommendations signed by four of the officers who served in the beleaguered Upper Galilee city. The list of possible solutions to problems that Harel and his officers noticed included the observation that bomb shelters that are used in everyday life are in better condition, and thus recommending that Safed utilize bomb shelters as day-care centers and synagogues during routine situations. He also recommended that the command increase the number of population officers, as only one per battalion which gives a ratio of one per tens of thousands of civilians.