Once an idealistic soldier

For Etay Ziv, wounded in Gaza in 2012, not receiving aid from the Defense Ministry feels like the unkindest cut of all.

Etay Ziv, hiking with one of his children. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Etay Ziv, hiking with one of his children.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It was like a scene out of a war movie. Dust everywhere and this unbearable stench of gunpowder. The guys inside the APC were groaning, but I shouted at them not to open the doors and stay inside,” says Etay Ziv, recalling the day he was wounded a year and a half ago.
After 20 seconds, Ziv opened the door and called for help. The rocket that fell just a meter behind the APC made shrapnel tear through the armor, making the vehicle “look like a strainer.” As medics approached to tend the wounded inside, they noticed that Ziv had blood all over his back, but he insisted that he was fine and it wasn’t his.
“At first I didn’t feel anything; all I wanted to do was help my friends,” says Ziv. “But after a few minutes, I started to feel as if my back was being pounded with a five-kilo hammer over and over. At some point, I just collapsed on the road.”
Four soldiers were wounded lightly on that dreadful day. Ziv and Capt.
Boris Yarmulnik suffered the most severe wounds. They were taken by helicopters to Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba. Ziv had shrapnel all over his back, with one piece that penetrated just one centimeter away from his lower spinal column. In fact, it is there to this day. Yarmulnik suffered a severe head wound and died the next day in the hospital.
Ziv, now 36, lives in Kibbutz Moran in the North with his wife, Revital, and their two children, Noga and Shaked, aged six and four. In his mandatory army years, he served as a combat engineering soldier and was qualified as a squad commander. He signed another year as a company sergeant major in Battalion 601. Since then, he’s been going to reserve duty regularly.
It was in November 2012 when Ziv and his reserve unit were called for action in Gaza during Operation Pillar of Defense. He was having Shabbat dinner at his parents’ house with his wife and children when he received a phone call from his regiment commander. His orders were to leave immediately, turning the dinner experience into a very unpleasant one, with his mother and wife bursting into tears. It felt like he was leaving for war.
But it wasn’t quite the war scenario Ziv expected. After his unit had settled in at the Tze’elim army base in the South, they began a series of training, preparations and learning the directives of their operation. Every day they would get an order to enter Gaza and trained towards fulfilling that order successfully. The final order never came, as ground soldiers never crossed the border into Gaza during that operation.
And at the time, rockets from Gaza kept pouring into Israel.
“There weren’t any real secure spaces for us to find shelter in,” Ziv recalls.
“At all times, we had helmets and bullet-proof vests on. When the sirens went on, we had to run to the ‘safest’ place nearby. In our case, it was the APCs and D9s that we had.”
At the time of his being wounded, only a few hours before the cease-fire agreement, Ziv was already inside his vehicle when the siren went off. A few seconds later there was a huge blast of sound. From then on, his life changed forever.
Most of the shrapnel that penetrated Ziv’s back was rejected naturally by his body; the rest was taken out by the doctors at Soroka. But that one piece of eight-millimeter long shrapnel close to his spine had done most of the damage. By damaging the nerve system in his lower back, it caused him to limp for the rest of his life.
All the doctors Ziv visited said his situation would only deteriorate with time. His good foot is taking most of the strain (overloading it with pressure), and eventually will get damaged as well. His back is awkwardly curved and will get worse with time. He has trouble sleeping and can’t even walk up a flight of stairs.
Ziv stresses how this has changed his life.
“I used to do lots of sports. Soccer with my friends, hiking, playing with my children. I can’t even pick them up in my arms. It was my life, and I can’t have that anymore,” he says.
According to Ziv, at first he felt secure. For about a month he was under the care of the IDF, and they treated him with kid gloves, everything from getting his wife to the hospital by taxi to calling to ask how he was doing.
When he was transferred to the care of the Defense Ministry, the attitude towards him changed 180 degrees.
To describe the ministry’s Rehabilitation Department, Ziv uses harsh words: “First, they don’t take any responsibility over you. They think you’re a liar who just wants to grab money, so stop your acting and get back to your daily life. There was no check-up with my family, no psychiatrist for me or the family to see. My daughter, before even knowing what happened to me, wrote these notes saying how she missed me and wanted to play when I came back from reserves. To this day, I have her notes in my wallet.”
The Defense Ministry has different levels of handicap percentages, which result in varying compensation by the government. The first level is 10 percent to 19%; the next is 20 % and up. Ziv was diagnosed by the ministry’s doctors as 6% handicapped, meaning he gets no compensation or any recognition by the state.
“I went to three different doctors in the private sector,” says Ziv. “One diagnosed me with 20%, another 29%, and one professor recommended giving me up to 51% disability. I also had an EMG test on my weaker left foot, which proved I have damage to my nerve roots. But once you go to the medical committee of the ministry, they just ignore everything.”
The Defense Ministry responded to the claims with an official statement: “[Etay Ziv] was examined by the medical committees and was found eligible with a 6% handicap level. According to the law, with this level of disability, his treatment is transferred to his Kupat Holim health fund. Any disabled soldier who does not agree with the decision of the medical committee is entitled to request an appeal according to due process of the law and standards befitting handicapped personnel which is then examined by a committee. We did not find any such request of appeal by this reserve soldier. Additionally, any eligible patient who thinks his medical condition has changed and does not fit his current percentage level can be examined again by a medical committee within six months of his or her last examination by the committee.”
According to Eli Saban, the lawyer Ziv hired to help deal with his situation, an appeal had indeed been filed and Ziv is expecting an answer within the next few weeks. But Ziv is not enthusiastic about Ziv’s chances.
“These committees have no outside regulator. Not one public figure or just someone from the outside. Their interest, of course, is to please the ministry, cut the compensation to the lowest possible amount,” he said.
Even if they go to court (which they intend to do if they are rejected by the appeal committee), the judges cannot intervene with the medical question. Legally, the final medical verdict is the one made by the ministry’s doctors.
Even so, chances of winning are not so slim. Saban did not wish to disclose the judge’s name, but he claims that a judge in a district court stated that 60% of these cases are eventually won on appeal. That means that almost two-thirds of all pleas are being misjudged by the Defense Ministry.
“It’s all about money,” Saban says. “They’re trying to cut funds and lower the budget. But this policy is conducted at the expense of people who are truly handicapped like Etay and deserve better. It’s unfortunate that a person like him has given so much for the country and yet encounters a total renunciation of responsibility by the government.”
And that is the part that hurts Ziv the most. He remembers how different his attitude was before he was wounded: “I was an idealistic guy, raised in a kibbutz. I loved the army, never missed reserve duty. I was always the first to everything and did it all from the heart and with a lot of love. Even after the injury, I told my wife I was going back to the reserves – I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
What Ziv wants most is for the government to take responsibility for what happened to him.
“I just want to know that whatever happens in the future, the state will be there for me,” he says. “I want them to tell me, ‘You fought for us, and we will fight for you.’ As of right now, I feel like I’m left to deal with this by myself for the rest of my life.”