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Behind the Headlines: Gripped by Grief, Israel Mourns Loss of ‘so Many Boys’

The parents of Assaf Rothenberg long had the eerie feeling that their son would not return from Lebanon alive.

Voicing the day-in-day-out sense of foreboding felt by many parents of soldiers serving in Lebanon, the father of the 20-year-old paratrooper said, “For a few months already, whenever Assaf went into Lebanon, I felt that he might not come back.”

At 9 p.m. Tuesday, when the television first reported that two army helicopters had crashed over northern Israel, he said he and his wife “knew what happened.”

The Israel Defense Force “notified us later, but we already knew.”

The Rothenbergs were far from alone in their grief.

Stunned by the news that 73 Israeli soldiers and air crew had perished in the mid-air collision, the whole nation plunged into mourning Wednesday.

Throughout the country, people expressed shock, and then grief, over the worst military air disaster in the country’s history.

When Israel Television first interrupted its prime-time programming Tuesday night to announce the crash, thousands of families were thrown into panic.

In many cases, it took several hours for the Israel Defense Force to confirm the worst — or for the families’ sons, stationed in Lebanon and elsewhere, to call home and relieve their anxiety.

Although most immediate family members knew the fate of their loved ones by dawn, others had to wait longer.

All too accustomed to rushing to the newsstand to check whether someone they knew had been injured or killed in an accident or terror attack, many were shaken to find that the newspapers contained almost no information on the victims’ identities.

The reason: Many of the bodies had not yet been identified.

On Wednesday, the list of those who died grew progressively longer as the day wore on, and several funerals took place that afternoon.

Throughout the country, restaurants and places of entertainment closed early, in accordance with the Knesset’s decision to declare Wednesday and Thursday days of national mourning.

The Chief Rabbinate called for a day of fasting, to be followed by a mass prayer Thursday evening at the Western Wall.

The Education Ministry, which had recently ended a year’s worth of special classes related to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, encouraged teachers to discuss the latest tragedy with their students.

Although far from the site of the crash, the streets of Jerusalem were unnaturally hushed the day after. Most cafes and restaurants had closed by noon, despite the fact that they were permitted to remain open until 3 p.m.

Several places of business did not open at all.

“I didn’t want to come in at all today, but what could I do?” said Saida Shahat, the owner of a gift shop on Ben Yehuda Street. Tears streaming down her face, she said, “I couldn’t sleep.”

“They were all 20, 21 years old,” she said. “They were like flowers, and now they’re dead.”

Shlomit Ashur, an 18-year-old waitress at Big Apple Pizza, said she had just closed the pizzeria a few minutes earlier.

“There were several people here, mostly tourists, but I told them we were closing early and why. Everyone seemed to understand.”

About to enter the IDF herself, Ashur said she has many friends now serving in Lebanon.

“This morning I received a ton of phone calls from the boys to say they were safe. I’m relieved, but this is still a terrible tragedy.

“So many boys, how do you make sense of it? It doesn’t matter that I didn’t know any of them. These are all my people and it hurts.”

Those who personally knew the victims spoke of their commitment to peace and their love of life.

A physician at Rambam Medical Center who knew one of the victims, Vitaly Radinsky, a 33-year-old doctor who was serving in Lebanon as a reservist, recalled “a very quiet, very nice, very serious man.”

“Coming from the former Soviet Union, he had to pass many exams, and he did so with honors. He worked so, so hard, and we believed that he would attain great things.”

Radinsky leaves a wife and 6-year-old son.

The disaster took place at a time when a national debate had reopened on an old, sore topic: whether it was wise for Israel to remain in southern Lebanon, where it has been fighting a cat-and-mouse war with Hezbollah gunmen for years.

Israel established the 9-mile-wide security zone in 1985 to prevent cross- border terror attacks and to prevent the Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah movement from firing Katyusha rockets at northern Israeli communities.

But a steady toll of Israeli casualities over the years has more than once led to serious doubts about Israel’s strategy in Lebanon.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the crash site at Moshav Sha’ar Yishuv, a farming community located near Kiryat Shmona. No one on the ground had been hurt in the incident.

Netanyahu stressed that the tragic crash would not change Israel’s policy in Lebanon.

“We are not going to be deterred, and we are not going to relent,” Netanyahu told reporters. “We shall defend our country. We shall reduce the risks. Ultimately, we shall achieve peace, too.”

One of the helicopters crashed into a vacant house on the moshav. The helicopters were carrying large amounts of ammunition, and the impact set off a series of fiery explosions.

Netanyahu said army investigators did not yet know the cause of the crash.

A high-level commission began investigating the collision. Although the accident occurred during bad weather, military officials ruled out weather as a factor, saying that transport helicopters often flew in heavy rains.

Condolences, meanwhile, continued to pour in from around the world, including the United States, Egypt, France and Russia. Among the first to express their sadness over the loss of life were Jordan’s King Hussein and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat.

Netanyahu canceled a scheduled visit to Amman and postponed a meeting he had set with Arafat for Thursday.

The Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah group and Iran issued statements rejoicing over the Israeli deaths.

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