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A PLAQUE by The Israel Project in memory of the 64 IDF soldiers who lost their lives during Operation Protective Edge.(Photo by: Courtesy)
When the boys come home
If our young people feel that their leaders have no vision and that everything has gone back to the way it was before, there will be, quite rightly, a thunderous outcry.
I have recently been visiting bereaved families. It brings me in contact with the diverse faces of Israel, who are united in shared anguish. Outside the houses of mourning, only a short distance from staging areas and the troops in Gaza, daily life continues now in the streets of our cities in the normal way. That’s good.

Worry and fear remain below the surface even now, but on the whole the public gets over it and shows inner strength. Gradually, the war in the South appears near an end.

We had three weeks of intensive searches for the three kidnapped boys and then four weeks of fierce fighting. The more Israel opposes a cease-fire agreement – I hasten to add, there is certain logic behind this opposition – the greater the force will be needed to continue defending the South.

It’s a long time since we were involved in a three-dimensional conflict of this kind, where we needed forces in the air, at sea, on the ground, and even underground. It was an active, aggresive war. Now, a war of attrition appears imminent, with ongoing sporadic rocket fire, casualties and above all, the wary expectation of a surprise renewal of hostilities.

As we approach the possible conclusion of Operation Protective Edge, it is still not clear how the war will actually end, but now is the time to look, not only at what happened, but at what will come next.

The State of Israel and Israeli society owe so much to the fallen soldiers of Operation Protective Edge and to their comrades in arms.

Thanks to them, we were saved from a great tragedy that would probably have hit sooner or later, and from a war that might have broken out when least expected.

A war of attrition is still possible – the two parties might continue to battle, but the opposite seems true. The state of alert will go down, and we will redeploy these massive forces. Reservists will return home, and soldiers will go back to their daily routines. Has anyone given any thought as to how to compensate them for this most recent chapter in their young lives? What are we going to do for them? The young men who fell on the Gaza front left great pain and moving stories behind.

They had beautiful dreams but had as yet accomplished little. Their lives were just beginning; they were still at the threshold of the future.

During my visits to the South, and when I move from a house of mourning to the daily routines of the street every night, I ask myself: What lies ahead for these young men and women in Israel? Where are we leading them? The young soldiers have borne the brunt of the conflict. Israel’s large conscripted army, one of the largest in the Western world, usually manages our very long borders. This did not work during Operation Protective Edge.

Therefore, with troops concentrated in the South, we had to call-up tens of thousands of reservists, some of whom served as back-up for the regular army and some of whom set up in other regions.

When soldiers come home from war, they are never the same again. Those who came back from the Yom Kippur War in 1973 led the greatest revolution the State of Israel had known. Then the political turnabout in 1977 brought down the Labor Party and put the Likud in power. The soldiers who returned from Lebanon started a long protest, which eventually led to a withdrawal in 2000. The fighters in the Second Lebanon War in 2006 forced the minister of defense and the chief of staff to resign.

Against this background, I expect that today’s soldiers will demand, and justly so, that the State of Israel offer not just war which requires them to put their lives at risk, but also the opportunity and wherewithal to live full and fruitful lives when the war ends.

Of course, the obvious answer is peace. We say this after every war, and nowhere is it expressed better than in our songs. But, having been through a war or two myself, I know that the conflicts do not always end in peace, nor even in a political settlement. Anyway, as we say over here, you can’t pay for your groceries and you certainly can’t buy an apartment with that.

The social protests in the summer of 2011, only three years ago, taught us that unrest simmers under the surface, and no more than a spark can set it aflame. If our young people feel that their leaders have no vision and that everything has gone back to the way it was before, there will be, quite rightly, a thunderous outcry.

They will demand what they deserve: a reasonable cost of living, opportunities for education and employment, affordable and attainable housing. They may find that, in these matters, no real revolution occurred.

The prime minister somehow manipulated the response to the Trajtenberg Committee and its conclusions evaporated into thin air, leaving the middle class, to which most of the soldiers belong, with the burden.

This must change now. We must find ways to do right for the soldiers of the summer of 2014 first and foremost. It is a large group of people, but we must give them a new beginning on the day after they finish serving. They deserve it. If Israel manages to come out of this battle with a long period of quiet and relative security in the South, it is primarily thanks to them. If Israel does not understand this and does not recognize their contribution to the degree they deserve, another revolution will come.

MK Dr. Nachman Shai (Labor) is deputy speaker of the Knesset, a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and a former IDF Spokesman.
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