Because I have lived in Kiryat Arba, Israel, for 32 years, bored Shabbos guests often ask me, “Well then! Living near Hebron you must have seen a lot of violence in your day, isn’t that so?” After recovering from their use of the expression, “in your day,” I realize that they are right in a sense. I have seen violence. Here is the story of when that happened.
In 1988, at age 33, married with one child, I did 95 days in the Israeli military, away from home, learning to be an artillery soldier. Startled to discover that I could actually learn something that didn’t involve conjugating verbs or declining nouns, I chalked it up as a positive experience and moved on. A year later I was called up for a 17-day reserve duty, including all of Succot, to guard in a prison for Arab stone-throwers at Anatot, Jeremiah’s birthplace. Then, half-a-year later, I was called up for my first five days of artillery war games, in the Negev desert base of Shivta, somewhere south of Beersheva.
There were actually several firsts involved. Not only was it the first time I would be trying out my artillery skills since my course and my first time at Shivta but also the first time I was meeting my regular unit. At Anatot, I had been an outsider, temporarily attached to a group not my own for bureaucratic reasons. Here, at Shivta, I would be meeting my team, the six people I had been assigned to go to war with. Together, the seven of us would man a 155-millimeter Howitzer. It was not “our” Howitzer – that one was new, reserved for us in a warehouse near Ashkelon, to be used only in case of war. Still, we were being given the keys to a Howitzer, albeit a used one.
A Howitzer, by the way, is a tank that shoots up to 20 kilometers away. Seven team members work in it and, when absolutely necessary, can live and sleep in it. There was a driver, a commander, a loader/shooter, an aimer, and three outside staff, including myself. Besides our team, 14 other teams of seven would likewise be with us for these war games, making up our battalion. The plan was for each team to practice a lot of dry runs, and then, the last two nights, to go out and shoot a lot of bombs in the desert, aiming for accuracy and speed, trying to simulate actual battle conditions. Then, on the fifth day, at about noon, we would quickly be heading home. At least that’s what we were told.
Well, most of it turned out true. After some shooting practice with regular rifles, we set out a short distance into the desert and practiced all the skills I had learned in the course. We ran with measuring rods and rammed the rods into the earth, we measured distances between the rods and the Howitzer by counting steps, we attached Shabbos clocks on bombs, and, most of all, we carried 41-kilogram (90 pounds) bombs from one place to another and helped load them onto the Howitzer deck.
At night, in the dark, inside the Howitzer, we checked to see that we could all distinguish five different types of bombs just by feeling them. The first two nights, after practicing all day, we returned to the base and slept in tents.
On the third day, we got back into our Howitzer and did not drive for two minutes the way we had before. This time we drove for half an hour. I did not realize just how big Shivta was. We were heading deep into the desert, to the firing area. We passed some cows. Were we in the firing range already? That night, for the first time, after two days of practice, we would be shooting for real.
All day we practiced over and over, doing all the things we had to do to prepare for shooting accurately at a target miles away. The larger goal was for us to be able to stop in mid-field during a battle, and set ourselves up as quickly as possible to be able to shoot accurately. This involved the combined efforts of our team of seven, plus the efforts of a team of young lieutenants who were off somewhere else, doing mathematical calculations.
Night arrived. We continued practicing. The moment came for our first live fire. We all put in our ear plugs, and… fire! There were two explosions, that of the Howitzer as it fired, and then, much fainter, that of the bomb as it hit the ground several miles away. Then the report came in from the lieutenants reporting what corrections were necessary. Our team shot twice more. You don’t make final decisions about how to correct your aim until you’ve shot three times.
We went through this process through much of the night, traveling in the dark, stopping, running to set up, shooting, making adjustments, seeing how fast we could shoot accurately. At the end of the night, four hours were reserved for us to sleep outside the Howitzer in the moist tank tracks. If you’ve never slept in mud, I recommend it. It builds character.
The next morning, we got up and started the whole thing all over again. Driving around, stopping, setting up, running around, carrying bombs, putting them on the deck. We heard a rumor that that night, the last night of the war games, we would be participating in a mock-battle, actually shooting over the heads of hundreds of young infantry soldiers. This was more serious. This time we wouldn’t be shooting past hapless cows but past real people.
Night arrived and we all did our jobs. It was an art knowing when to have the ear plugs in and when to have them out to hear what was happening but not to go deaf. I had mine out at just the right moment, and I heard the lieutenants over the loudspeaker say, “Bulls eye! Don’t change a thing!”
Soon after that, the war games were over, and were declared a success. Once more, we found a nice place to sleep in the Howitzer tracks, trying to stay warm in the dewy night. Four hours later we got up and eventually attended a series of follow-up meetings with the officers to hear what the generals thought of our performance. Then it was noon.
We weren’t sure if we were going to be fed, but in the end we were, and it was after 1:00 p.m. when we finished. It was time for 150 young and middle-aged reservists to give back our gear and go home.
There was just one problem. It was the hottest day of the year, in the middle of the Negev, and everything depended on one 18-year-old boy, the base supply corporal, manning the supply shack and taking back and recording all our gear, and that boy announced that he was going to be sleeping in his locked barracks until four p.m.
Well, Battalion 540 wasn’t about to take that lying down. Here we were, 150 men waiting to go home to our wives and families, and an 18-year-old boy was telling us to wait three hours in the sun? The nerve!
Before you could say, “Hillary-Clinton-email-archive,” a riot had started. Four of our burliest soldiers were ripping the door of the boy’s barracks off its hinges. They rushed inside, found the boy lying in his green army pants and tee-shirt, and they literally picked him up and carried him out to the supply shack, as he thrashed around trying to free himself. It didn’t matter. They were bigger.
Then they surrounded him, making sure that he signed everybody out. At one point he actually succeeded in calling the military police, but when the police arrived and saw what was happening, they took the side of the rioters.
I came home from those war games in a state of shock, but after a few days I recuperated, and lived to tell the tale, many times.
So, it is true. Living in Kiryat Arba, near Hebron, I have indeed seen violence – I won’t deny it – and you, kind reader, have just heard about it.