Serving their country

No matter how tough the political situation, soldiers in Gush Etzion know they always have somewhere to go.

Nearly six years ago, Dr. Shmuel Gillis of Karmei Tzur was killed by Palestinian gunmen, who fired at his car while he drove home on the tunnel road linking Gush Etzion to Jerusalem. A senior hematologist at Hadassah-University Medical Center, Shmuel was the father of five children. While sitting shiva at home, recalls Gillis's wife Ruthie, she began to think about her husband's stints in miluim (reserve duty) as an army doctor. "I remembered one time, when he came home from miluim, and he told me that at his age he could already be the father of most of the soldiers he served with, and as a father figure he thought we should do something nice for the soldiers," she says. "At first, when I remembered this, I felt angry at the soldiers that they weren't there to protect my husband," she admits. "But on the other hand I thought, as Shmuel said, that we should do something to support them, like create a warm corner where they could come, feel appreciated and have a piece of cake." A few days later, Tzachi Sasson, an electrical engineer and father of two from Rosh Tzurim, was shot to death by Palestinian gunmen while he drove home on the same road. "Ruthie came to visit me while I was sitting shiva and she told me her idea and asked if we could do it together," says Osnat, Tzachi's wife. "I thought it would be an amazing thing to do for Tzachi - he had been a platoon commander in the army and was always like a father to his soldiers. He loved to give, and I thought it would be fitting for me to continue what he did during his life, even after his death." After enlisting the help of about a dozen other residents of Efrat and Gush Etzion, a large crate was erected at the Gush Etzion Junction to house the venue, and very quickly that crate became the Pina Hama ("Warm Corner"). Today, it is a sort of haven visited by hundreds of soldiers on any given day, most of whom stop by for just a few minutes' break from their routine of patrols in the area or are on their way to Hatmar Etzion, the large army base nearby. "We always find a reason to stop by here and get a cup of coffee and a piece of cake," says Assaf Tzabach, 22, a tank commander serving near Tekoa who stops by the Pina Hama while waiting for his unit to pick him up. "It makes you feel good to know people care enough about you to set up a place like this. They know we're here guarding them, and it's nice to know that they're thinking of us, too." Manned by 14 volunteers a day, the Pina Hama is open from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m. from Sunday to Friday and serves soldiers caf -style foods, including coffee and tea, cakes, cookies, muffins and even freshly popped popcorn - all donated or baked by residents of Gush Etzion. In fact, every item, from the plastic cutlery to the juice machine and air-conditioning unit, has been donated by individual families or organizations in Israel and abroad. According to Gillis, this is the only place of its kind in Israel completely operated by local residents, and was the first in the country to devote itself entirely to soldiers. "We wanted to make the soldiers happy, to encourage and support them, and we also wanted to make a connection between the soldiers and the settlers," says Gillis. "Rather than them just protecting us, we wanted them to meet us face to face, because I think it's very important for them to see how much we appreciate what they're doing for us." Inside the cozy corner, the soldiers' gratitude is obvious from the moment one walks in - dozens of flags representing IDF units hang from the ceiling and hundreds of individual soldiers' tags are pinned to the walls. On many, the soldiers have written thank-you notes addressed to "the aunts," which is how this place is often referred to because of the maternal nature of the mostly female volunteers. "Do you want lentil soup?" Devora, 45, asks a group of soldiers from the Shimshon Unit who enter in full gear and sit around one of the tables. The lentil soup has just arrived from a local restaurant, and as it is a cold winter day, the soldiers nod their heads eagerly as Devora, who volunteers every other week, ladles soup into bowls. "It makes me feel good to be here because it gives me a way to say thank you," she says as she hands the soldiers the steaming soup bowls. "These soldiers put their lives on the line for us, and I want them to know people care about them and appreciate what they're doing. It's the least I can do." Two more soldiers come in and take muffins from a basket, while Maya, 20, a soldier at the Hatmar Etzion base, asks Devora for coffee. "It's nice to know that people care about us here, where we can come and get a warm drink and a warm word," she says as she sips her coffee. "I never would have come to this part of the country or met these people if it wasn't for the army, and I'm so happy I did. There's not a soldier in the area who doesn't talk about this place." The atmosphere inside is jovial and warm, but at the entrance are two framed newspaper articles about Gillis and Sasson, harsh reminders of how the place got started and why it's surrounded by thick - albeit colorfully painted - cement barriers. Though the area is sometimes depicted as a quiet suburbia, more than a dozen Israelis have been killed in the Gush Etzion area since 2000. In one of the most recent incidents, three people were killed and three others wounded in a Palestinian shooting attack at the junction on October 16, 2005. Suddenly called back to the base by their commander, the soldiers from Shimshon quickly throw away their bowls and run out to their jeep, shouting thank-yous to Devora as they leave. Sitting around the tables, other soldiers from the anti-aircraft unit termed "Stinger" are playing a game of backgammon and talking to Maya and Tzabach. While the soldiers will often get into discussions over whose unit is better in their few minutes of down time and despite the tension of serving in the settlements, politics rarely enters the discussion, says Meron, 20, a soldier in the Stinger unit. "Sometimes there are soldiers who don't understand why they're serving here, and the image of settlers in the media is often very negative," he says, "But when you come here you see that they're normal people, they're just like us, and it really makes you think." Indeed, Ruthie and Osnat say one of the reasons for the establishment of the Pina Hama was to encourage a positive relationship between the soldiers and the settlers, which in today's political climate, says Osnat, is especially important. "Our goal was to make that connection with the army, to let the soldiers know we trust them and to let them feel our gratitude and warmth for protecting us," echoes Ruthie. "I think the soldiers really feel the love here, and I think every volunteer feels how grateful the soldiers are that someone is caring for them. I know our husbands would be proud."