At the helm

Yom Kippur war hero, Zvika Greengold, steered Ofakim through the war with Hamas.

Ofakim sign 88 248 (photo credit:
Ofakim sign 88 248
(photo credit:
There were moments after the first Grad rocket hit Ofakim at the start of Operation Cast Lead when Mayor Zvika Greengold felt almost as stressed as he had that first night of the Yom Kippur War. The tank he commanded then stood alone blocking a Syrian armored brigade on the narrow road to Golan divisional headquarters. "It was very difficult," he said this week of the rocketing. "The sirens had not gone off, so there was no warning. The rocket struck a house. There was panic. The city's emergency services were not functioning." Greengold, the most prominent hero to emerge from the Yom Kippur War, was in command once more in a war situation, this time as the newly appointed head of Ofakim. The city of 27,000 is perhaps the weakest of the peripheral towns in the Negev with a long history of a dysfunctional municipality and nearly a third of the population supported by welfare. The city was so off the beaten path that even Hamas neglected it, raining rockets down on neighboring communities over the years but never on Ofakim, until close to midnight on the third night of the war. The city's suddenly exposed vulnerability added to the residents' sense of terror. "He was cool," said Maj. Amir Ben-David of the Home Front Command, who witnessed Greengold's performance after the rocket hit. "He said, 'You take the family to a hotel; you clean up; you do this and you do that.' Despite the fears, he ordered the sirens retested. He was in command." Greengold, 57, did not have heroics in mind when he took up the Ofakim appointment in September. He had had a successful career after army service as an industrial executive, including a stint as director-general of Israel Oil Refineries and a similar posting in Puerto Rico. Interviewed in his Ofakim office this week on the first day of the cease-fire, Greengold traced his path to the drab Negev town from his entry into Israeli lore as a 21-year-old lieutenant on the Golan. "I was operating then on instinct. I am acting now out of self-awareness. But the connecting line is concern about the fate of the Jewish people." BORN IN Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot to parents who had survived the war in Europe, he found himself on the first night of the Yom Kippur War blocking a Syrian tank column on the Tapline road leading to Golan headquarters at Nafah. He skirmished for more than an hour in the darkness with the Syrians, who had difficulty outflanking him because of the boulder-strewn landscape. On the radio net, commanders unaware that his was a solitary tank referred to him as "Force Zvika." Among the things that passed through his mind that night, he would later say, was an awareness that the Holocaust his parents had survived was suddenly relevant again, a sense that he stood between an enemy and the prospect of his people's annihilation. When reinforcements arrived, the Israeli tanks charged and almost all were immediately hit, including Greengold's. He was wounded but took command of the only tank remaining operational. His battle ended hours later on the perimeter fence of Nafah when he and another tank knocked out the last of a large Syrian tank force which had reached the military base. When Greengold finally pulled himself out of the turret, he collapsed and was taken to the hospital. He would be awarded the country's highest military decoration. The sense of despair that suffused the country after that war, Greengold would feel again after the Second Lebanese War two years ago. "I felt bad. The sense of national security had deteriorated. There was governmental instability, corruption." Living in the Misgav area, where Arabs outnumber Jews, he felt the growing pressures of Arab nationalism as the Arab population in the Galilee increased and the Jewish population declined because of negative migration. "The Zionist vision was to build a home for the Jewish people while giving the minorities equal rights," he said. "But this simple vision had been forgotten. There is in fact a battle against the Jewish state by some among the Israeli Arab community and we stand helpless." He decided to become involved in politics and ran for office in his Galilee regional council but failed to make it. In the campaign, he opposed permitting Arabs to move into Jewish settlements in the area for fear that this would start a process which would end with the settlements becoming Arab villages. Greengold derides his being labeled a "racist" by a writer in Haaretz for expressing such views. "I come from a family which had almost been totally destroyed by racism. But I've been to Poland and saw what happened when we didn't preserve our interests." As Greengold came to see it, Israel had lost the sense of purpose that had driven its founders. After the Six Day War, he said, the country had polarized - "between those who believe in Messiah Now and those who believe in Peace Now." The majority of the population occupied the space in between, bereft of ideology or vision. "The earlier values like settlement on the land and a socialist society had been emptied of content. The big cooperatives had collapsed. So had many kibbutzim. Youth groups didn't succeed in creating alternative values. In an offhand way, society drifted towards Western culture, capitalism, as if we were living in Liechtenstein, not next to Gaza. This has fed the illusions of our enemies that we are about to collapse. This is what [Hizbullah leader Hassan] Nasrallah meant when he referred to Israeli society as being like a cobweb that can be blown away." Although he had once believed peace with the Arabs to be possible, he no longer does. "There will not be peace. There will be arrangements, which will rest mainly on our strength. But strength is not just military. It has to be based as well on a healthy society and a correct dispersal of the population. Israel cannot afford to have a thinly occupied periphery." THUS IT was that Greengold was motivated to respond to an Interior Ministry tender last summer for acting mayor of Ofakim even though he had no municipal experience. His model was another Yom Kippur War hero, Amram Mitzna, who for three years had been serving as the acclaimed acting mayor of Yeroham, elsewhere in the Negev. After being vetted by the appropriate committees, Greengold was appointed by Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit. Greengold had never been to Ofakim, although he had trained often enough at the army base at Tze'elim, not far away. Its very innocuousness made the task more exciting for him. "I didn't see myself being satisfied with technical changes, like balancing the budget. My object was to begin an upward spiral in the quality of life. If I could make the city normative, not to say prosperous, that would be my contribution." Ofakim had been established in the northern Negev in 1953 as a small urban center serving a hinterland of rural settlements established at the same time. The city's original settlers were from Romania and Morocco, but in later decades they would be joined by Russian immigrants and groups of haredim. In more recent years, about 100 Palestinian informers from the West Bank and Gaza were permitted to settle in the town. Ongoing political instability would be an important factor in the town's stagnation. No mayor would be elected to a second term and some would be unable to complete a single term. The intrigue-ridden municipal council was dispersed by the interior minister in August 2006 after the mayor was found to have made unauthorized appointments. A former Ashdod mayor, Arye Azoulay, was appointed in his place by the ministry but he resigned after only one year. In addition to Greengold, a new council was appointed, made up, like him, of people residing outside Ofakim but with municipal experience. Greengold was still coming to grips with the job when he found himself caught up once again in a shooting war. The existing municipal infrastructure was totally inadequate to cope with the emergency, unlike other towns in the area like Sderot and Netivot which were well prepared. Fortunately, however, Greengold received powerful reinforcements in the form of Home Front Command, whose unsung performance in Negev communities during the war is no less noteworthy than the battlefield strategy of Southern Command in Gaza. Under the command of Maj. Danny Alyagon, a reserve officer who in civilian life is head of the southern region of the Israel Bar Association, up to 100 soldiers took charge of emergency services in Ofakim for the duration of the war alongside Greengold. Within 48 hours, they converted a large, empty shelter into a command center with furniture, computers, telephones and with charts on the walls providing newly prepared databases on Ofakim's infrastructure and population. Soldiers hastily refurbished some 50 public shelters. In parts of the city where no shelters existed, Home Front Command trucked in 80 enormous concrete water pipes, two meters in diameter, from the Mekorot water company and set them up on the streets to provide ready shelter for nearby residents. Volunteers painted them in cheerful hues. Only one rocket hit inside the built-up city, but several hit in open areas around it. However, the rockets fired at Beersheba, 20 kilometers to the east, passed over Ofakim so its sirens sounded 30 times during the war. Psychologists from Home Front Command counseled residents in stress, and women soldiers spent time with children in the shelters. Dozens of volunteers also came to Ofakim to offer assistance. Other local government entities like Rishon Lezion and Gush Etzion also sent assistance, including garbage trucks, to keep municipal services going. Greengold himself made daily rounds of the neighborhoods and delivered a recorded telephone message to residents every day. He ordered flags raised around the town and saw to it that the streets were kept clean. The postwar depression he felt in 1973 and 2006 is not what Greengold feels now that this war is done. The coming years will be turnaround time, he believes, for this piece of Zion he has staked out as his personal project. Within three years, he says, Ofakim's isolation will be ended with the arrival of the railroad, connecting it to Tel Aviv, an hour away in one direction, and Beersheba in the other. "The budget has been allocated and there's a clear timetable." Beyond that, he says, Ofakim will tie in to the biggest infrastructure project the country has seen - the transfer to the Negev of major military bases and other facilities. "This is going to bring billions to the Negev and new kinds of employment, not just textiles and food as in the past. It's also going to bring quality people and some will come here." Despite Ofakim's problems, says Greengold, its educational system is sound, but the youths leave after completing army service. "My hope is that when the beautiful new people begin moving here and there is a railroad and employment opportunities, the youths from Ofakim and the surrounding villages will decide to live here too. That is my vision. This is what I'm working on. I don't rest a minute." His appointment officially expires next September but the interior minister, whoever it will be after the coming elections, could decide to extend it for several more years. "Yes, I'm enthusiastic," says Greengold. "I found here the challenge I was looking for. My commitment is total. I will stay as long as they let me." Force Zvika has taken the high ground and is not prepared to pull back. The writer is author of The Yom Kippur War.