The young men from reserve battalion 9211 greeted each other with quiet handshakes and embraces on Israel’s Memorial Day by the rose and flag-covered grave of their friend David Smidov.
“It’s a difficult day,” Ori Bushari, 26, said on Monday.
Bushari had been friends with Smidov since the day they were drafted together nearly eight years ago and was just a few feet away from him when a Hezbollah mortar shell ended his life on Aug. 9.
On this Memorial Day, known in Israel as Yom Hazikaron, there was an especially bitter pain mourning those killed in Israel’s most recent war as the country asks openly if its leaders bungled how the war was fought and if it was even necessary.
Smidov, 25 when he was killed, was one of the 119 Israeli soldiers killed in a war that only recently was given a name: the Second Lebanon War.
His battalion comrades know that the shell that exploded near their friend could easily have hit them.
Bushari quickly sketches out the formation the battalion walked as its members climbed a path north into Lebanon toward their destination: the village of Marjayoun.
The X he marks at the front of the marching line represents the company commander. He was just one behind, to the right of the commander. Smidov was three men behind Bushari.
“We heard the mortar falling, hit the ground and then heard the cries of someone shouting for the medic,” Bushari said.
Smidov was badly injured and died almost immediately.
“It’s just a matter of luck, it’s not something you have control over,” Amir Binyamin, 29, said of the mortar fire.
In past years Binyamin said he had attended Memorial Day ceremonies for a former commander, but this year he was compelled to be here, next to Smidov’s grave.
“This time I was there when it happened,” he said. “I was only a few feet away.”
Smidov’s grave and the those of other soldiers killed in ! Lebanon were scattered through bloc 7 of Mount Herzl, the national cemetery. Next to them were parents, siblings, fiancees and friends huddled protectively around the headstones as the country engaged in a national day of mourning.
There was no room to move Monday at Mount Herzl. People stood packed together between the narrow rows of graves and under the shade of pine trees as a two-minute siren went off in memory of the dead.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke at the ceremony.
“On this special day we are all one bereaved family,” he said.
But as members of the reserve unit noted, few people seemed to be listening closely to the prime minister.
Olmert is hugely unpopular and will soon face the findings of the Winograd Commission, which has investigated the way the government and army handled the war.
“It’s part of the aftermath of this war and the leadership,” Bushari said. “As people say, they hate the state, but they love their friends. That’s why they go to reserve duty.”
The battalion will meet again next week in the Negev Desert when they gather for a week of training exercises.
Professor Yaakov Bar-Siman-Tov, an international relations expert at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the pain this year is different from the past. While it is always excruciating to lose soldiers in battle, most Israeli wars have been fought with the belief that the state had no other choice.
Israelis had the sense that if enemy nations were about to destroy you, “you had to defend yourself, otherwise the country could face total destruction,” Bar-Simon-Tov said. “There is nothing harder than burying one’s children, but at least there was a feeling that the sacrifice stood for something.”
In the case of the war in Lebanon, “there were so many miscalculations in decision-making and it was not clear of the need to go to war,” Bar-Siman-Tov said. “Today with all the pain we feel over the kidnapped sol! diers, t here is the question of whether or not we could have come to a different scenario.”
Smidov, who was to have started studying architecture last fall, was called up for reserve duty just after returning from a holiday in Prague with his girlfriend. In Prague, friend say, he had asked her to marry him. On Monday she stood by his grave.