Full-scale wars, which Israel has fought many times in the past, and major army operations, which Israel has found itself in during recent weeks in Gaza and Lebanon, usually bring stories of troop maneuvers and military analysis, call-ups of the reserves, and civilian sacrifices. The human side of war is often hard to picture from a distance, particularly when the fighting involves Israel, a country that few Americans, even American Jews, have visited. To create a fuller picture of Israel’s current military operations to our readers, The Jewish Week this week begins a series of reports on a few regular people in Israel, Israelis and Americans, all young women, who provide firsthand accounts of what life is like in wartime.
Inbal Nachum/Soldier:Easing Children’s Fears
Inbal Nachum is a private in the Israeli army, but rank doesn’t matter to the people with whom she spends her working days. To kids, she’s just Inbal.
Nachum, who finished high school last year and was inducted in January, performs her army service working with children in fallout shelters. Assigned to a unit of women soldiers with counseling training, she was based for a recent five-week period in Sderot, a Negev town that came under attack by Hamas-fired Kassam rockets from the nearby Gaza Strip. Nachum’s job: make nervous children less nervous.
Then Katyushas started flying across the Lebanese border at Haifa and other cities in northern Israel last week. “There’s a war starting,” she was told. “We need you to go up north.”
Now she is based near the border, and is taken by minibus each day to a fallout shelter, an underground room or two full of scared children.
“They don’t know exactly what’s going on,” says Nachum, 19, a native of Netanya. “We calm them down. We need to make sure they’re safe. We talk to them, we listen to them.”
That can mean dancing with the children, from infants to pre-teens. Or playing with them. Or singing with them. Nachum, a trained singer, does “popular songs, children’s songs,” she says.
Her work with the civilian population is an adjunct to the headline-making service of the male combat troops. “People regard us as very important,” easing the children’s fears and giving the parents some respite, Nachum says. Inside, she has heard missiles exploding outside.
Her workday, 10 to 12 hours in “different shelters … a few shelters a day,” ends in early evening.
“We go in pairs,” unarmed, carrying helmet and flak vest, she says. It’s hard work. “It’s not a very comfortable place to be.” The rooms are “very stuffy and hot.” Few have fans.
The soldiers’ khaki reassures the kids, Nachum says: “When they see us in uniform, they automatically feel this is someone powerful. They really look up to us.
“They welcome us,” she says. “When we leave, the kids really don’t want us to leave.”
The summer semester began with a bang for Hannah Davis (not her real name), an American college student studying this year in Israel. The day after her ulpan classes started at the University of Haifa, Katyusha rockets, fired by Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon, started falling on Haifa. “We didn’t hear anything.”
Then, a few days later, on Sunday morning, she heard. “It was just ‘boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.’ It was pretty loud. It could wake you up if you were sleeping.” After several hours in a “safe room,” a dorm room reinforced against rocket attacks, Davis was given a choice from the university administration: go back to the U.S. or go to the dormitories of Hebrew University, in Jerusalem.
Davis, 19, a sophomore at SUNY Albany who lives in the New York City area, chose Jerusalem. The school bused the students down. “I’m here for the year,” war or no war, she says. “I would have gone to Sar-El,” the Hebrew name for Volunteers for Israel, “if they had closed the program” at the University of Haifa.
This week Davis was back to studying Hebrew, in the relocated ulpan program. “Just trying to be normal,” she says.
“Not at all. I still feel safe in Haifa,” she says. “I trust the government. I feel safer in Israel than in America, even with this.”
But her father, who has never visited Israel, is nervous. He asked her not to use her real name in this interview. “My dad’s paranoid that his daughter will become a target.”
Davis and her parents will decide soon if she will stay in Jerusalem or return to Haifa, once the campus reopens. “I’m hoping to go to Haifa,” she says. When the fall semester starts in October, she plans to study political science at the University of Haifa, as she originally planned. “That hasn’t changed.
“I am a Zionist,” says Davis, who has visited Israel three previous times. “I won’t leave at the first crack of terror — if that means staying here while being bombed, I’ll stay here while being bombed.”
Daphne Zilber/Metulla Resident:
‘It’s Constant Stress’Some time with friends and family, some work, some traveling.
Daphne Zilber had a busy summer planned in Metulla, her family’s home for four generations, during her time off from college.
Instead, she worked a few days as a staffer for a birthright israel group, underwent an emergency appendectomy in Safed, and, while recuperating back in Metulla, had to spend time every day in emergency shelters.
The fighting in Lebanon began four days after Zilber left the hospital. “I just heard cannons firing,” says Zilber, 23, a senior at SUNY Buffalo. Israeli cannons. From her bedroom window, she could see the shells exploding in the Lebanese valley across the border, a few hundred yards from her home. And she could hear Hezbollah missiles hitting Metullah. And there was the sound of Israeli helicopters overhead.
She knew one soldier, a classmate of her sister, who was killed in battle last week. He was buried Sunday in Kiryat Shemona, a nearby town, but Zilber couldn’t go. “There were Katyushas falling” on Kiryat Shemona “a half-hour before the funeral.
“It’s constant stress,” Zilber says. “You can’t sleep because of the constant shelling — non-stop shelling since July 12.”
It’s even harder on her pets, a dog, cat and parrot, which she had to leave behind when she left Metulla Tuesday on the advice of defense officials. A great uncle, a lifelong farmer, stayed behind. “The old-school farmers are not going to leave,” she says.
Security alerts are a normal part of life in a border town, says Zilber, who lost count of how many she has heard in her life. “Every few months we would have warnings to go into shelters.”
Now, instead of a siren, a message on a beeper tells Metulla residents when danger is at hand.Zilber and her mother drove to Tel Aviv, where they are staying with friends. “How long? I don’t know.”
In Tel Aviv, she says, she will go to the beach, see old classmates and army pals, and update her on-line blog journal (ubisraeli.blogspot.com) that she started last week to present an accurate picture of life in Israel during the war.
“This was supposed to be my vacation,” she says. “It’s not too much of a vacation.”