Igniting fires and tension, an inspiring South African couple in Israel responds to terror by sponsoring clubhouses at military bases
By David E. Kaplan
At midnight on the 25th March 2019, I recall the last sound I heard before dropping off to sleep was a clap of thunder.
Five hours later, I awoke to another BOOM! This time it was not thunder but the deafening sound of a missile having landed nearby destroying a house near Kfar Saba in the centre of Israel, injuring seven.
It was a reminder that the murderous intent of those who govern Gaza extends far and wide.
It further reminded the writer of a visit to a number of army basses close to the Gaza border a few months earlier organised by ‘English-Speaking Branch of the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers’.
There were fifty in our group who were invited to the official opening of two new army-base clubhouses, sponsored by Dave and Rae Kopping, a couple originally from South Africa. It also provided an opportunity to learn firsthand how the Israeli civilian population in the small towns and kibbutzim near Gaza were coping under the constant threat from attack from below the ground from tunnels and above the ground from rockets, mortars and inflamed kites and balloons.
As I write recalling that visit, I cannot fail to reflect that the loud BOOM that awakened my family last week and had us scurrying off to the bomb shelter was nearly a daily occurrence to the brave and resilient Israelis living in the south.
While Israel battles politically to get its ‘house’ in order regarding Gaza, Dave and Rae Kopping ‘enlisted’ in their own way to provide club ‘houses’ for soldiers at IDF bases near the border.
They began four years earlier following Operation Protective Edge in 2014 when the IDF had to protect Israeli civilians facing a daily barrage of missiles from Gaza for 50 days. The Koppings showed their heartfelt gratitude by donating a clubhouse at the Palmachim Airforce Base for the Drone and Helicopter Pilots. “They operate under enormous pressure, protecting us from this constant threat,” said Ray at the official opening. “They deserve a special place to unwind and relax.”
Four years later, what had changed was not the political but geographic landscape with expansive swathes of black cutting across the North Western Negev countryside caused by incendiary balloons and kites sent from Gaza and landing on fertile fields. This was all too apparent from the bus window as we saw once green fields now black from the fires caused by the balloons and kites.
As my companion on the bus remarked “how sad that kid’s kites and balloons in Gaza are weapons of death and destruction.”
As a running commentary to the visual horror playing out on a blackened somber ‘stage’, our guide related how much livestock and natural wildlife had perished in the fires.
The Kopping clubhouses replete with comfy couches, coffee tables, kitchenettes, TVs and sound systems, honour – like the earlier one at Palmachim – the memory of the Kopping’s daughter Greer-Rose Sandler who sadly passed away fourteen years earlier from an illness, and Rae’s brother Isaac Melcer, who was killed in the Sinai during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. “He was a tank commander who served under General Ariel Sharon,” reveals Rae, “and had only been married a year.”
“What better way to honour their memory,” adds Dave, “than to know that Greer-Rose and Isaac’s names will be forever associated with those who protect Israeli citizens from harm.”
The day proved an eye-opening window into the life – with all its complexities – of the civilian population living ‘Under Fire’ near Gaza, and the role the brave soldiers play in providing protection. Entering the first base, ‘X’, we noted with surprise that far outnumbering the parked tanks, were giant bulldozers.
We did not have long to wonder why!
Earth-moving equipment usually associated with construction elsewhere, were used here to counter destruction “as we dig up the earth in search of terror tunnels,” explained a young soldier. A recent immigrant from the UK, he related a recent incident when they were out nearby on patrol.
“We were walking along single file in the fields, when we passed a plastic pipe protruding from the ground. There was nothing unusual about this, as the area is always scattered with farming equipment.” That was until one soldier, keeping up the rear, “looked back and noticed a slight sudden twitch of the pipe.”
“That’s odd; there’s no wind,” he thought!
“Rega (“wait”),” he bellowed.
Doubling back, the patrol discovered it was an oxygen tube for the terrorists deep below who were digging a tunnel, and “we radioed in for the bulldozers.”
Relieved by their discovery, “We also knew from our intelligence there were fourteen more tunnels to locate.” Last year, the IDF destroyed a 2km long Hamas tunnel that entered 900 meters into Israeli territory. The problem is, “The terrorists need to be on the job for us to detect any subterranean movements.”
Such is the day in the life of a soldier protecting Israel’s southern communities – a game of cat and mouse.
The name of the 2014 war, “Protective Edge” had a resonance about it as “protection” is what this conflict is about. On a personal level this was brought home when a soldier asked, “Anyone want to try on our bullet proof gear?”
Some did, and were surprised by the weight, and left wondering how soldiers patrolled for hours wearing it in the blazing heat. There was sadness as we were reminded “that one of our comrades, Staff Sgt. Aviv Levi, was killed last week, by sniper fire.” He had been wearing the very same bulletproof jacket! The answer to the predictable question of how the bullet lethally penetrated – “special bullets made in Iran” – was met by a collective sigh.
Moving on to the second base, ‘Y’, we saw from the moving bus, more fields black from fire – a patchwork of this new type of warfare of kites and balloons, which much of the world media presents as “child’s play”.
Passengers flicked away with their cameras in disbelief.
Arriving at the base, we were escorted by young male and female soldiers to the new Kopping clubhouse for the official opening. Members of the Kopping family spoke as did some soldiers, who explained how tense this new warfare was.
Said one soldier, “We know how terrified the civilian population is of terrorists coming up through tunnels who could murder them. It is our job to find these tunnels and prevent this.” A responsibility fraught with anxiety, all the soldiers appreciate after tough days on patrol, “we now have a clubhouse where we can relax and unwind.”
Another female soldier expressed how proud she was to be serving in a combat unit, and this writer could not escape the thought that their peers elsewhere in the Jewish world would be at universities…. here they were immersed in the “university” of life – protecting “our family – Israel.”
Later, seated for lunch in the army dining room, a young soldier, an immigrant from the Argentine, addressed our group:
“These are tough times for the civilian population and for the soldiers. It is a tough war, but we are trained, and we are equipped, and we are inspired – not only do we know WHAT we are doing but WHY we are doing.”
Yes, these are “tough times”, but so are these ‘kids’ – tough and proud – proud of their country, proud of their units, proud of their service, and proud of each other’s capabilities. The camaraderie was palpable. There was much food for thought to ‘digest’ beyond the lunch!
Witness To War
Our tour concluded with a visit to the Black Arrow Memorial, west of kibbutz Mefalsim near the Gaza Strip.
Operation Black Arrow (In Hebrew: “Hetz Shachor”) was an Israeli military operation carried out in Gaza on 28 February 1955 while under Egyptian control. It was in retaliation to Fedayeen terrorism unleashed by President Gamal Abdel Nasser who broadcast on August 31, 1955:
“Egypt has decided to dispatch her heroes, the disciples of Pharaoh and the sons of Islam and they will cleanse the land of Palestine….There will be no peace on Israel’s border because we demand vengeance, and vengeance is Israel’s death.”
As we stood at the Black Arrow Memorial, we saw balloons flying from Gaza in the distance then descend on fertile Israel fields and suddenly there was a blazing fire. We were witnesses to war. Over six decades later, the message from Gaza remains:
“…vengeance is Israel’s death.”
For more information on the English-Speaking Branch of the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers, contact volunteer Ian Waldbaum at Tel:
(054) 4745 092.
(Feature picture credit: Tamara Cohen)