A personal account marking the 40th anniversary of the First Lebanon War in 1982
By David E. Kaplan
When Israel launched 40 years ago on June 6, 1982, Operation Peace for Galilee (‘Shlom HaGalil’) also known as the First Lebanon War against Palestinian terrorists based in southern Lebanon, 27-year-old David David was back living with his parents in Holon following his graduation in engineering at the prestigious Technion in Haifa. An army reservist, who had “long forgotten what it was like to be in uniform”, war was “the furthest thing from my mind.” Yes, like everybody in Israel, he was up on the news following the attempted assassination in London of the Israeli Ambassador to the UK by one of the terrorist groups operating out of Lebanon. Only a year before on July 10, 1981, the PLO based in Lebanon began shelling the north of Israel with Katyusha rockets and 130 mm artillery shells. Periods followed when civilians in the north had to live in shelters or as many did, move southward to escape the terror.
It was an untenable situation!
All this however was not on the young engineering graduate’s mind. Rather than catching up on the news, he was instead catching waves, surfing off Tel Aviv beach.
It was mid-summer, which meant time for fun.
Reality hit home – literally and figuratively – when returning from the beach his distraught mother came to him with papers in her hand:
“You have been called up”.
Both David’s father and mother had survived the ‘Farhud’ – the violent pogrom carried out against the Jewish population of Baghdad, Iraq, on June 1–2 in 1941. Leaving everything behind, their lives and livelihood, they escaped to the new State of Israel – a place of salvation for Jews. However, wherever there are Jews, it is never entirely safe and their son David was off to war.
“It was funny; the expected thing do when called up as a reservist was get your hair cut. Not me; I was suspicious about trimming my locks before going to war; maybe it was the Samson syndrome, so I went off to Lebanon in uniform but with a black slightly afro-hippy hairstyle,” relates David whose parents were so proud of their biblical surname felt it deserved repetition – hence David David!
On the road to Beirut, “a CNN correspondent tried to interview me. He remarked he found it strange how in the Israeli army some with no hair and you have plenty. I explained that I was a reserve soldier and had come from the beach. The main thing I told him was “that I am here’ hair or no hair.”
While war is ugly David is proud of how he and his comrades conducted themselves. He cites examples:
“Our food truck on the way to Beirut was bombed and there we were, 30 of us with no food and we arrive at a supermarket. All I wanted was milk and a chocolate. Loudly, we were collectively working out the exchange rate as we only had Israeli currency. Meanwhile, the shop owner was terrified; all these soldiers with firearms, speaking loudly in Hebrew; he suspected the worst. He was overwhelmed when the accountant in our group went up to him with all the money we collected and said in Arabic, “We do not have any of your currency but this is the equivalent in ours that you can exchange”. He could not believe it. He broke into a smile he was so relieved. I doubt any soldiers of previous invading armies over the millennia have ever so conducted themselves.”
On another occasion, David was in his amoured vehicle driving through a Palestinian refugee camp. This was during a later reserve duty in Lebanon and in Winter. “We always made a point when we saw children, to stop and offer them food if we had any. On one occasion as we came across a kindergarten it suddenly started raining hard. All the kids were rushed inside both because of the downpour but also because they saw us soldiers and in the tumult, one little girl was left alone crying outside in the rain. Although dangerous to stop so exposed in an unprotected area, we did, and I said, “keep alert; I’m going to take that girl inside”. I got out, took the little hand of the shivering and frightened girl and knocked on the door of the kindergarten. The teacher partially opened, looking terrified and then revealing surprise as she saw me – a soldier holding the girl’s hand. She grabbed the kid and shut the door as if trying simultaneously to shut out the complexity of war. I often think, of that little girl who would today be about 44-years- of-age, herself a mother and possibly a grandmother. Would she even remember the incident and if she did, what would her thoughts be?”
Asking what impact the war had, David replies that every year on Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day), during the celebratory fireworks, “I always think about Lebanon. The BOOM BOOM of the fireworks reminds of the noise of shells falling around me. This year I did not experience it and then I realized the fireworks were silent this year in consideration for dogs who become traumatized.”
David has reason to believe in a guardian angel watching over him. In the second week of the war, he obtained a brief leave of absence to attend a family wedding.
No sooner had David climbed aboard the Egged bus seconded to the military, he was told by the driver “to get off”. Only authorized to carry a maximum of 25 passengers, David was number 26. “I tried to argue; offered to sit on the floor, but the driver refused.” David got off the bus and upset that he might miss the wedding, he then noticed a military truck that was about to leave for Rosh Hanikra, the most northern Israeli town on the Israeli-Lebanese border. It had large tires on the back “I begged the driver for a lift to which he replied if I didn’t mind curling up with the tires.”
It possibly saved David’s life!
“We started to drive and at about 500 metres, two missiles struck the bus I would have been on, causing multiple casualties. The tires shielded me from most of the blast with pieces of shrapnel piercing my face and finger. I still have a piece lodged in the finger and every time there is pain it reminds me of the war.”
David did manage to still attend the wedding and returned a day later on aboard an IDF military helicopter. “Once we entered Lebanese airspace we were pounded by enemy fire and missiles but the crew took all the necessary evasive actions to redirect the incoming missiles and we landed safely. It was very scary. That was one hell of a wedding to attend – both getting there and getting back!”
ROAD TO DAMASCAS
There were moments for David on this road but hardly what one can describe akin to biblical revelations. David can honestly claim to have captured 25 Syrian soldiers without firing a bullet or injuring anyone. In charge of an important machsom (military roadblock) at Bhamdoun, east of Beirut, “Anyone going to Syria had to pass through me. I examined all identification papers and travel documents and my good grasp of Arabic, having studied it at school, would serve me well. One day, a group of 25 men arrived at the roadblock and each presented me with their papers. They explained they had been in Lebanon and were now returning to Syria. I noticed in each of their ID papers, the same word جندي (“jundi”), which I knew meant ‘soldier’. I quickly deduced this was a Syrian Commando unit that had fallen behind our Israeli lines and were trying to return to their area. They had obviously ditched their weapons and uniforms and found civilian clothes. Without raising any alarm, I casually over the radio called for the Shabak (security service) who quickly arrived and took the group away as captured Syrian prisoners.”
When not engaging the enemy, Bhamdoun proved full of surprises. “We had no access to showers but came across an abandoned villa with a natural hot spring swimming pool. It was a real treat.”
Also abandoned was “a synagogue we discovered. It was once used by Jews visiting this resort town. We honoured its past by some of us praying outside its walls.”
On a lighter note, “a IDF military bulldozer had just completed digging a trench near our checkpoint when the driver looked up at a nearby hill, saw some soldiers and said I’m finished here; I’m going there. I said to him jokingly, ‘maybe you will come back; maybe you won’t’. He asked, ‘What are you talking about?’ I said those are the Syrians. ‘WHAT?’ he bellowed. He never realized how close he was to the frontline, He said “I’m outta here. He turned his bulldozer around and headed back in the direction of Beirut.”
Pressing David as to what helped him get through the war he replies:
“It was humour-often very black humour. Look, we had no proper food;, nowhere to shower; to sleep properly but what we did have was very high moral and humour .We were always telling jokes and funny stories and laughing loud at everything. This is how we got through this war. Also, sharing stories about our lives.”
Merging the two, David explains that whenever a person received a parcel from a loved one, it was “a big occasion shared by all. It was opened in front of everyone. One day, one of us received a parcel from his girlfriend. We were sitting in a cherry orchard; the whole of Lebanon seemed to be one big cherry orchard – they were everywhere. Anyway, he opened this parcel from his beloved and inside was none other than a box of cherries with a note “Because I’m so sweet, I know this will remind you of me.” We could not stop laughing; even the Syrians must have heard us.”
Missing loved ones was alleviated on one occasion when out of the blue an IDF mobile phone truck arrived at David’s base and “we had access to it for the day to phone our families, friends and girlfriends. Cut off as we were, it was wonderful and we did not want the truck to leave. And then a miracle happened. At the end of the day, the truck could not leave, there was a problem with the engine but of course, no problem with the phones. For three days we used the phones. To this day, I am convinced that it was no ‘miracle’ but some talented soldier in our unit who had craftily disabled the truck’s engine. After all, we’re Israelis!”
Forty years later, there is still no peace for Israel with Lebanon. It was once falsely believed that Lebanon would be “the second country to make peace with Israel”. It has proved not to be. Under the grip of Hezbollah and Iran, it may prove to be the last.
However for my good friend David David living with his South African-born wife Henrietta (née Wolffe) from Cape Town in Rishon LeZion, to the question of whether there will be peace one day, he replies:
“I hope so; and when there is, the first thing I am going to do is take my family there and see all the places where I was. The place is beautiful – trees, water, mountains. It is breathtaking. That is the paradox that there is also war with the beauty. Not only with Israel but more with itself. When the war is all over, I will return.”
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