The unexpected details of war

Or, things you may not know about Israel during this conflict.

By Judy Lash Balint
December 9, 2023

(JNS) — The agonizing dilemmas faced by Israel’s leaders in dealing with Hamas’s evil manipulation of infants and the elderly are by now well known. Military and strategic analyses of the war against Hamas are widespread, but many no less important details of “Operation Swords of Iron” are still waiting to be told, and fill out the picture of a nation under duress, a nation with unique values.

A close friend with a son serving in Gaza, where the soldiers are not allowed access to cellphones, calls to tell me that her son’s commander sends a two-word text message every morning to assure parents everything is OK. As many reservists returned home during last month’s pause in battle, the Israel Defense Forces arranged Zoom sessions with a psychologist for women whose husbands are returning from reserve duty, so they’ll know what to expect.

There are many unsung heroes in this war—apart from the obvious hundreds of thousands of regular soldiers and security personnel. 

The Chevra Kadisha Women’s Unit works under the Chief Rabbinate of the IDF. Their job is to help identify and prepare bodies of women soldiers for burial. The unit was immediately called into action on Oct.7 and pulled 8- to 12-hour shifts for the next two weeks.

All the women serving in the unit are volunteers with previous experience as Chevra Kadisha helpers in civilian life, but since last summer they were all officially drafted and serve in uniform as reservists. 

The unit is headed by Avigayil Bar-Asher, 48, a mother of two who lives in Givat Yearim. In civilian life, Bar-Asher is a senior manager at AT&T. Many of the women serving under her are immigrants from English-speaking countries.

Before Oct.7, the worst incident the unit encountered was in 2017, when a terrorist drove a truck into a group of IDF recruits on the Haas Promenade in Jerusalem. Three women soldiers were killed. “No one could ever conceive of anything like this,” she said of the Oct. 7 massacre.

The terrible condition of many of the bodies was the most difficult thing for even the most veteran volunteers. “It challenged all the senses,” Bar-Asher stated. “The smell, the difficult sights because of the time that elapsed since the bodies were burned.  It’s simply heartbreaking and reminiscent of the history of the Jewish people,” she added.

Israeli performer Yehoram Gaon, 83, has performed for the troops for decades of Israel’s history. His remake of Naomi Shemer’s 1984 classic, “Lo Tenatzchu Oti”—You Will Not Defeat Me, has become the theme song of “Operation Swords of Iron” and the go-to for many of us when the news gets too overwhelming. Every time it airs on the radio, drivers open their windows and turn up the volume for all to hear.

Deborah Landau, a technical writer whose husband is in the reserves, felt a strong need to contribute to the war effort. Her Tel Aviv company gives employees a half day off every week to volunteer. While many Israelis have taken to pleasant work in the fields in the winter sunshine to replace the foreign workers who left at the beginning of the war, Deborah had to get her kids ready for school and couldn’t make it to the farm in time to start.  

She told JNS that she found a volunteer stint cleaning out the refrigerators and homes belonging to residents of Sderot, who were evacuated during the first week of the war and left in a hurry with food in the fridge. “I’m not bothered by cleaning out gunk and moldy stuff, and these people really need help. We could have done more, but I hope when these families come home, they will at least be able to plug in their fridge, buy food and enjoy being in their home again,” she added.

Parents of combat soldiers are particularly stressed, so it’s hardly surprising that some hospitals are reporting a significant increase in women in their 50s arriving at the ER with heart attack symptoms. Prof. Ariel Rogin, director of the Cardiac Unit of the Hillel Yaffe Medical Center in Hadera, notes: “This is the first time that most of the patients hospitalized in the cardiac intensive care unit are women.”

With so much emotional stress brought on by everything from the mixed feelings regarding the release of hostages whose relatives are still held by Hamas, to anxiety over loved ones serving on the front, to the ongoing reality of a “them” or “us” war, it should come as no surprise that many are turning to medications to deal with it. The Maccabi HMO, with 2.6 million members, reports an increase of 20% in the number of prescriptions for antidepressants and tranquilizers it wrote in October compared to previous months.

Other more sensitive war-related medical matters have required government decisions. Posthumous sperm retrieval (PSR) was first approved in Israel in 2003. The procedure allows doctors to remove sperm within up to 72 hours after death and freeze it. Before the war, families needed a court order to initiate the procedure, but now, the Ministry of Health’s legal adviser issued a temporary ruling lifting the need for court approval. To date, sperm has been taken from more than 35 men killed in the war.

Dr. Etti Samama, director of medical technology policy for the Ministry of Health spoke to JNS from the Ministry’s War Room, where relatives turn to get guidance on making an agonizing decision. “We provide professional input to the policy decision makers,” she said, while noting that most of those initiating the requests are parents of the soldier in question, not the spouse or partner. “We have to be very careful not to cause problems in the future.” The knowledge that a fallen son has left a memory can have a dramatic effect on the family, and it’s not clear that families or society are ready to deal with it, she explained.  

Israel’s national treasures also need to be protected from the stress of war; the Israel Museum stashed the Dead Sea Scrolls in an underground bunker, along with other irreplaceable items on loan from the Louvre and the British Museum.

Other details of the war that may get overlooked but make up the big picture: the soldier that took down the two terrorists responsible for the Nov. 30 Jerusalem terror attack was on a 24-hour break from Gaza and was on his way back to his unit.  The terrorists were from Sur Baher, the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood right next to Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, home of Ofir Engel, one of the teenage hostages released less than 12 hours before the attack. 

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