When 12 more families joined the IDF's bereaved

A 'Post' reporter's account of the bitter day he arrived for reserve duty in the Second Lebanon War.

kfar giladi 298 ap (photo credit: AP)
kfar giladi 298 ap
(photo credit: AP)
August 6, 2006, 12:05 a.m.: The phone rings. Shabbat has been out for less than four hours. The new week looms with more trips up to the northern border, trying to make some sense of the strange war going on in Lebanon. An automated female voice asks me to punch in my service number and a split second before the voice goes on I understand: "The emergency procedure has been activated. You are to report to your unit's emergency gathering point at 8 a.m." Eight hours is a long time in which to assemble your kit, cancel all appointments and readjust the girth of your army belt. 8:30 a.m.: Dozens of reservists sit on the ground by the Shalom Hartman Institute parking lot, in Jerusalem. No one knows where the buses are or when they will depart. None of the handful of officers has any idea where we're headed. A few phone calls later we find out that the advance party is already in the Golan Heights at the emergency storage base. We are advised to ignore the IDF movement orders (aimed at preventing traffic jams) and, instead, to make our way up North in private cars. 11 a.m.: The Jerusalem Post office. There's still no official information about the big reserve call-up or any indication of a big military drive into Lebanon, only reports of more Katyushas falling all over the North. An hour later, just before I'm leaving town, the first report comes through: A worse than usual bombardment near Kiryat Shmona with a still unclear number of casualties. The news editor asks me to make a detour on the way to my unit. 12 p.m. - 2 p.m.: The Jordan Valley Road is empty - no one to see me speeding north at 150 kph. I'm trying feverishly to use my cell phone to find out what the hell's happening up North. It seems that a group of soldiers were hit next to Kfar Giladi, but it's still unclear what unit they are from. The reports on the radio are becoming more cryptic as the minutes go by. It's forbidden to mention that soldiers have been killed before their families are notified - the public is simply being told that "Israelis have been killed." The normally stoic Army Radio reporter on the scene is overcome by emotion as he tries to describe the carnage around him. My brother calls - a lawyer at his firm was in the Kfar Giladi area and hasn't made contact since noon. Do I know anything? (Sorel Harlev was critically injured in the attack. Since then he has made a partial recovery, married and returned part-time to his job between treatments.) All I can do is push down harder on the gas pedal. 2:45 p.m.: Kiryat Shmona is a ghost town. Two kilometers further on, there is a roadblock with TV vans parked nearby. Friends say "hi" and notice my army uniform. No, the army isn't letting them further in, they say, but they have all the details: Twelve reserve soldiers were waiting for transport to their units when the Katyushas hit. I begin walking up the hill. Military Police also take note of my uniform, assume I have a reason for being there and let me through. 3 p.m.: The wounded were evacuated two hours ago. Even the bodies of the fallen soldiers, or what was left of them, have been cleared away in long, white bags to a distant corner, out of sight. A team of IDF chaplains are scraping the blood off the stone wall outside the Kfar Giladi cemetery. Another team is walking around the cemetery grounds, searching for human remains between the graves. A siren warns of another incoming wave of Katyushas and the chaplains take shelter between the tombstones. The parking lot looks just like any another reservists' gathering point. In one corner a small gas cooker has been set up to brew black coffee. Ammunition boxes are strewn around so that M-16 magazines can be filled. Dusty green kitbags are piled next to colorful backpacks. Some foam mattresses have been lain out behind the bushes, in the shade. Only the soldiers are missing - the reservists who had gathered here from all over the country, aged 22 to 52, have either been killed by the Katyushas or evacuated. A few of their burnt-out cars are still smoldering nearby. At the other side of the cemetery, another group of reservists is waiting for transport - their only defense is a small, concrete toilet. 4:30 p.m.: Up in the Golan. Thousands of reservists are arriving by car and bus outside the base. Each battalion has its own field where the kitbags and weapons are being distributed. The officers say they still don't know where we're headed. We sign in. We're out in the open, well within Katyusha range, but the only defense we have are a couple of camouflage netting shades. 5 p.m.: Over the years, we were promised that when the day came that we were called up to war, up-to-date equipment would be waiting for us in emergency storage. Instead, there are only the old, long M16s - no light machine guns or sniper rifles or third-generation night-goggles. The kitbags were last packed in the early 1980s; they include packets of green military postcards. No one had heard of cell-phones when they were thrown into the kitbag. Disgusted, I pull out my laptop and begin typing my story. 7:30 p.m.: Night begins falling over the Golan, and the Galilee is lit up beneath us. Katyushas and IDF artillery shells paint flaming golden arcs across the sky. Sirens can barely be heard from the old loudspeakers in the camp, but no one takes heed. We don't have anywhere to take cover as it is. 9 p.m.: I'm about to email my story to the paper. The radio announces the names of the 12 soldiers who fell near Kfar Giladi. Eliahu Elkriaf, 34; Yosseph Karkas, 41; Shmuel Halfon, 41; Shlomo Buchris, 36; Daniel Ben-David, 37; Maryan Berkowitz, 31; Ziv Betzaleli, 28; Roi Yaish, 27; Yehuda Grinfeld, 27; Shai Michalovitz, 21; Gregori Aharanov, 34; Mordehai Boutboul, 28. Twelve reserve soldiers just like us - called up last night and awaiting orders when the Katyushas hit. 10:15 p.m.: The battalion commander assembles us. "Thank you all for coming," he says quietly. "We don't take it for granted that less than 24 hours ago you were all civilians and you dropped everything to come here, knowing the risk."