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First Person: I’ve never experienced a war

Harriet Gimpel (courtesy of Harriet Gimpel)

Harriet Gimpel (courtesy of Harriet Gimpel)

JERUSALEM, July 24 (JTA) — The first Friday of June 1982, I was on the pool deck at Hebrew University. Radio broadcasts replayed tapes of Abba Eban at the outset of the 1967 Six-Day War. Initial reports were broadcast on “Operation Peace for the Galilee” — soon to be called Israel’s Lebanon War — which extended over the next 18 years in the form of an Israeli security zone in southern Lebanon. That Saturday night, my flatmate returned from Haifa to our Jerusalem apartment. I grew anxious as she described the tanks and military vehicles heading north. I recall the university during those days: official notices announcing which professors had been called for reserve duty. My roommate derided my anxiety: “This isn’t a war. You don’t know what the Yom Kippur War was like,” she told me. Indeed, in 1973 I was a 14-year-old high-school student in suburban Philadelphia. In June 1982, when I had to move to another apartment I enlisted my cousin’s help, since the friend who had offered to help was called for reserve duty. The first weekend he was on leave, he brought me cherries from Lebanon. Jerusalem was safe and serene. My friends and peers were on reserve duty. I could appreciate that I was not experiencing war. In those years, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Voice of Israel refrained from reporting military casualties on Shabbat. From Friday evening through Saturday one could entertain the illusion of a pause in the exchange of fire. During the week, anxiety pervaded the serenity of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Months and years went by. The Israeli presence in Lebanon became a given and loss of life a constant, neither deterring nor interfering as other security threats arose. Living in Tel Aviv in 1987, my then-husband and I cynically reflected on the intifada having begun when we met. During the 1991Gulf War, when I lived in Tel Aviv, we regularly donned gas masks. With a lapse in Scud landings, we drove to Holon to visit a new immigrant family. In a vast field along the road between Holon and Tel Aviv, dump trucks were busily digging on a Saturday afternoon. Since Saturday is our national day of rest, this clearly was related to the emergency situation. My husband assumed the area was being cleared for anticipated casualties, which he recalled had happened on Israel’s northern border during the Yom Kippur War until bodies were moved to proper burial. That evening, the news reported that Patriot anti-ballistic missile batteries were to be installed in Holon. Casualties from the Gulf War were minimal, but no news was spared us on Shabbat as CNN came into its own. The IBA and the Voice of Israel followed CNN’s example. Post-intifada, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands in September 1993 with PLO head Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn with President Clinton. There was hope, and skepticism. Then Rabin was assassinated. With elections imminent, terrorists blew up Jerusalem buses and Tel Aviv cafes. The second intifada, starting in September 2000, provided too many years and opportunities to write friends and family of the frustration, tension and anxiety, too many homebound evenings. I would occasionally go to Tel Aviv — the seemingly safer alternative to Jerusalem — for a cup of coffee on a Friday morning. I recall taut facial expressions exchanged from car to car at traffic lights as the radio announced deadly terrorist attacks. I moved to the Golan Heights when the second intifada tapered, but my instinctive Jerusalem reaction whenever I heard an ambulance — “where?” — remained. But I quickly remembered that ambulances in Tiberias, the Golan or around Lake Kinneret were indicative of car accidents or heart attacks — civilian emergencies. There was a calm to life along this border. I moved back to Jerusalem a year later and Jerusalem came back to herself, recovered from yet another trauma. Ehud Olmert spoke of realignment. The country’s resilience allowed me to momentarily renew faith in quiet fronts. The southern town of Sderot suffered missile attacks from Gaza, just as Kiryat Shmona had suffered Katyushas from Lebanon in 1982. Then, Ashkelon was attacked. An Israeli soldier was kidnapped by Hamas. Israel invaded Gaza. Two soldiers were kidnapped by Hezbollah along the Lebanese border. Katyushas hit Nahariya. Katyushas fell at sites often hit prior to 1982. Reminiscent of that summer, Israel retaliated. With troops in Gaza and airstrikes over Lebanon, I reminded myself: This is nothing like the Yom Kippur War, and I know I’ve never experienced a real war. Last week, Katyushas fell in the Golan Heights. No injuries. Safest border. In Jerusalem, just an intended suicide bomber caught last week. Warnings of a suicide bomber’s penetration to Tel Aviv. In Haifa, repeated Katyusha attacks over the past 13 days. Lebanese civilians victimized by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s aggression. I am in my safe haven of Jerusalem. Cafes were crowded late last night as I drove to the grocery store. I swam this morning and went to the office. Jerusalem cafes looked crowded — not surprising, considering that more than one-third of the population of northern Israel has fled south. I know I’ve never really experienced a war. I made dinner. I no longer have friends fearful of being called for reserve duty; now it’s our children and their friends. I called Yael. Her son completed an officer’s course in the Israel Defense Forces three weeks ago. I asked where he is: somewhere up North. I called Ofra. Her son is a tank commander; with relief in her voice, she said he was coming home for Shabbat. Hugging the man by my side as we watched the evening news reports of destruction in Haifa today, I moved my fingers over the scar where the Egyptian bullet went through his stomach immediately following the announcement of the cease-fire that ended the Yom Kippur War. Tonight I asked him: Is there a sensitive nerve there? Do you feel anything there? “Yes,” he replied. “That is where I feel nothing.” And here in quiet Jerusalem, I have never experienced a war. Harriet Gimpel, who has lived in Israel since 1980, has worked for various international Jewish organizations and is a freelance writer and translator.

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