A soldier dies, Israelis mourn

Morale remains high, but political support may ebb with casualties

April 05, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RISHON LEZION, Israel - It was Monday when the engineering student, an Israeli army reserve officer, drew his troops together and joked to the photographer, "Take the last picture of this force."

On Wednesday, the student-turned-officer was killed, shot down by a sniper while poised to lead 40 soldiers on a house-to-house search at a refugee camp in Jenin in the West Bank.

Yesterday, soldiers, students, friends and family gathered to bury 29-year-old Moshe Gerstner, piling rich red dirt over his grave and then wailing a mourner's kaddish that pierced the quiet of a cemetery near dusk.

"The soldiers were ready to follow him anywhere," said Tzahi Altresku, 34, an electric company repairman and reservist whose boots were still covered with the mud of Jenin.

In an effort to protect its citizens from suicide bombers, Israel is sending its soldiers, including reservists like Moshe Gerstner, into the West Bank to take up positions and assume the perilous task of rooting out Palestinian extremists.

Five Israeli soldiers have been killed and 52 wounded since the country's "Operation Defensive Shield" was launched last Friday.

In a tiny country with an army sustained by conscripts and reservists, the death of one soldier affects not just one family, but a web that includes school, work and neighborhood.

Nearly everyone here knows somebody involved in the military operation. It is Israel's largest in decades, with more than 20,000 reservists called up, some moving directly from office jobs to front-line posts.

In employing such a force, Israeli politicians know that the country can sustain only so many military casualties before political support might ebb.

"The limit is very low," said Avraham Rotem, a retired general. "You cannot talk about hundreds or thousands. You cannot talk about such numbers. It is much, much less."

The nature of the Israeli military ensures that security is a family matter. Every 18-year-old must serve, although there are plentiful exemptions. Male conscripts serve three years, females two years. Combat reserve duty stretches until an Israeli reaches the mid-40s.

According to Charles Heyman, editor of Janes World Armies, Israel has about 120,000 men and women in its active military, including 80,000 conscripts. Heyman said the military also can call on up to 400,000 reservists.

But he said Israel faces a problem in calling up the reserves.

"You can only keep those guys in uniform for so long, otherwise the country grinds to a halt," he said.

The call-up can take many forms - a knock on the door, a phone call or a coded message over the radio. So many people responded to the latest call that some were told to go home.

"This is very nice," said Rotem, who served 20 years in the military. "If anybody wants to see what you can call the determination or the mood in Israel, this is a very good key to judge it."

Three weeks ago, 28-year-old Yaron Henig was pulling a shift in customs for an overnight delivery firm. A few days later, he was in the Gaza Strip.

"You just press the pause button of life," he said.

Gadi Sassoon, 40, manages a bank, where he grapples with customers over interest rates. Now, he wears the uniform of a major, his girth stretching its midsection, an M-16 rifle slung over his shoulder.

"This is not like the regular American army," Sassoon said. "I'm not just the leader of my soldiers, I'm their friend. It is based on goodwill and commitment to the mission, less on orders and the chain of command."

He said he lives in a split world.

"You are never completely a civilian, and you're not a soldier all the time," he said.

When he serves in the army, he said, his wife has a lot more work to do, his bank assistant must take on additional tasks and his two children must cope with fear for their father.

"Duty affects everyone around me," he said.

And the death of one reservist affects so many others.

At Gerstner's funeral there was an outpouring of grief and rage. Fellow students clung to one another. Soldiers stood by. His mother, father, brothers and grandparents huddled together and sobbed.

The unit commander, a proud-looking man named Joel Strick, said in a voice choked with emotion, "We shall beat the evil and clear the area of the murderers."

An honor guard wearing the purple berets that signify the Givati Brigade, a unit whose roots can be traced to the country's War of Independence, fired a 21-gun salute.

After flowers were placed on the grave, some filed by to touch the red dirt. Others gathered in a corner of the graveyard and remembered their friend.

Gerstner, the eldest of four sons, had been married for 1 1/2 years and was an engineer for a hi-tech firm called Applied Materials. He was two months from receiving an advanced engineering degree when he was called up two weeks ago as a reserve major.

Nobody could believe that such a man could die, not one who in earlier call-ups had survived a bomb blast that left shrapnel in his left side and a gunshot that left a bullet hole in his helmet.

"We still have the helmet," said his brother Shlomo, taking deep breaths and greeting other mourners between sobs. "Twice he was wounded. He was in many situations under fire. He was a big, big fighter."

Gerstner's fellow soldiers recalled a man who was fearless. But they could not come to grips with his death.

"No one wants this death. It's not worth it," said Erez Ratzon, a 32-year-old reservist with a five-day stubble of beard and a ponytail.

The soldiers lingered by a stone wall near the freshly covered grave. Few noticed another grave next to Gerstner's.

Beneath wilting flowers was a stone marker honoring Eran Gad, "a good redhead full of pride for all of us."

He was killed March 3 in the West Bank, yet another Israeli soldier lost.

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