Two Deaths Bring Crisis Home to U.S.

By Vita Bekker

Published August 11, 2006, issue of August 11, 2006.
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HAIFA — For American Jews, the deaths last week of two immigrants to Israel — a soldier and a kibbutznik — brought the conflict in Lebanon closer to home.

Pennsylvania native Michael Levin, a soldier in the Israeli army, was killed in clashes with Hezbollah in the southern Lebanese town of Aita al-Shaab. Boston-area native David Lelchook was killed by shrapnel from a Hezbollah rocket that landed at Kibbutz Sa’ar, where he lived, about four miles from the Lebanese border.

The two added to the rising death toll from the conflict, which started July 12 after Hezbollah staged a cross-border raid and kidnapped two Israeli soldiers. On the Israeli side so far, 65 soldiers and 37 civilians have died. In Lebanon, the bloodshed has claimed the lives of nearly 800 people, according to news reports.

The funerals of Levin and Lelchook were widely covered by American media organizations, providing Americans with a more personal look at the conflict’s human cost, particularly on the Israeli side. But they also came amid the first signs of Israeli skepticism about the war. Levin, 22, was buried August 3 in Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl Military Cemetery. This week, he was also honored in a memorial service at the largest synagogue in Bucks County, Pa., that drew more than 1,500 mourners (see above story).

He joined the army upon immigrating to Israel at age 18. Like many other so-called lone soldiers, who immigrate to Israel without their families, he wanted to join a combat unit. When fighting broke out four weeks ago, he cut short a home leave with his family in America and rejoined his unit in Israel.

Lelchook, 52, was riding a bicycle toward a bomb shelter at Kibbutz Sa’ar when a rocket exploded next to him. Photos of his white dog, Duke — who reportedly refused to leave Lelchook’s body after the attack — were widely shown in the Israeli media.

About 200 people, who, according to news reports, had to scatter to shelters once air-raid sirens sounded, attended the funeral service at the kibbutz cemetery. Dull thuds of landing rockets were heard some distance away, the reports said.

Lelchook, who immigrated to Israel from Newton, Mass., 26 years ago, moved to the kibbutz in 1991.

Kibbutz Sa’ar, with 450 residents, has gained some recognition as the farming community where comedian Jerry Seinfeld volunteered in the 1970s. Lelchook, who worked in the kibbutz’s citrus orchards, was married to an Israeli woman and had two daughters. More Israeli casualties quickly followed the deaths of Levin and Lelchook. That toll added to a small but growing number of Israelis criticizing what they view as the insufficient results of the military campaign.

Particularly disturbing for many was the killing of a group of reservist soldiers Sunday in a single rocket attack. The newly called-up reservists were gathered near the Tel Hai cemetery, just outside the entrance to Kibbutz Kfar Giladi. A missile crashed down among them, killing 12.

Many Israelis lamented the loss, the deadliest Hezbollah attack so far, as unnecessary. They questioned why the group was huddled together in an open area so close to the border, and why the soldiers didn’t heed warnings by the kibbutz’s residents to take cover after a siren sounded.

In a column Monday, Nahum Barnea, a veteran political commentator for Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s most widely read newspaper, used the reservists’ death as a way to question Israel’s achievements in the current war. Their deaths, Barnea wrote, raise the casualty toll beyond what was estimated by military commanders at the July meeting in which the Cabinet decided to enter this war. The army had expected the toll to reach 90 soldiers and civilians all together, he asserted.

“We have gone beyond this number but have still not achieved the minimum — control over the majority of the missile launching sites, and a significant reduction in the number of rockets fired at the home front every day,” Barnea wrote.

The site of the reservists’ death, Barnea noted, holds a particular significance for Israelis. The group had gathered near the Kfar Giladi cemetery, where military hero Joseph Trumpeldor and seven comrades are buried in a mass grave.

The eight, who died in a failed battle against Arabs at the Tel Hai courtyard in March 1920, are buried underneath a statue of a roaring lion, representing their defiant spirit.

For the Jewish settlers at that time, he wrote, the battle of Tel Hai proved that the land could be obtained only with blood, not with money or by lobbying.

Barnea also contrasted the two events. While heroic songs were written in memory of Trumpeldor and his comrades, no such songs will be written about the 12 reservists, and no monuments will be erected, Barnea said.

He added that this is because they were killed by only one of more than 3,000 rockets fired by Hezbollah in recent weeks, which could have struck anyone in Israel.

Barnea isn’t the only one wondering out loud why Israel doesn’t seem to be reaching its goals in the fighting. But skeptical voices are still few. A poll published last week by the Ma’ariv newspaper found that 74% of the Israeli public supported Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s handling of the conflict.

That’s a huge change from 1982, when most Israelis opposed the war in Lebanon against Palestinian forces. In that war, political analysts said, between 600 and 800 soldiers died, adding to a sense of distrust in Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s government.

Some analysts said that the increasing death toll of civilians in the north — rather than the loss of soldiers’ lives — eventually may spark public opposition to the current fighting. In the 1982 war, few Israeli civilians were killed.

“The most difficult thing for Israelis, even those in Tel Aviv, is to see the loss of civilian life, the strikes on houses and the general lack of security,” said Hanoch Yerushalmi, a Hebrew University psychologist. “Never have the civilians in the home front paid such a high price.” Yerushalmi said that Israelis may tolerate the military campaign in the coming weeks, but that will change in September. The reopening of schools, the return of many people to work after summer vacations and the generally faster pace of life may result in impatience. “The government has a timeout until the pace of life goes back to normal,” he said. “But afterwards, there’ll be a lot of pressure to show results.”

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