Israelis regard soldier deaths in Gaza as a price that must be paid

Yaron Shor, whose 21-year-old son Barkay was killed during Gaza operations, talked about his son's commitment to serving Israel from the family's mourning tent in Jerusalem Sunday. (Griff Witte/The Washington Post)

The knock on the door that Yaron Shor had feared for 21 years came late last Monday evening.

“Please tell me he was wounded,” Shor implored his visitors.

But he instinctively knew the truth. His firstborn son — handsome, generous and eager to serve in his country’s military — was dead, a casualty of a conflict in Gaza that has claimed far more Israeli soldiers than the two previous wars combined.

“The nightmare of every parent in Israel is three officers knocking on your door,” a red-eyed Shor said Sunday as he observed the traditional Jewish mourning period among friends and family at his home in Jerusalem. “It could come in the middle of the day or the dead of night. But you know it’s the end of a life.”

The grim ritual has been repeated 63 more times across Israel in recent weeks, including in the early hours of Sunday when a soldier thought to have been abducted was confirmed to have been killed.


But despite a casualty count that is high by modern Israeli warfare standards, the toll has provoked little of the second-guessing that has marked past Israeli conflicts. Instead, the public has remained broadly united in viewing the deaths as the price that must be paid for confronting Hamas.

“The government has been very successful at convincing the Israeli public that there’s a real threat from the tunnels being dug under Gaza, that the best way to deal with the tunnels is to send in troops, and that there’s a cost that comes with that,” said Yagil Levy, a professor at the Open University of Israel who studies the military’s relationship with Israeli society.

The casualties in this conflict are, of course, still overwhelmingly weighted toward Palestinians, with more than 1,800 killed. Well over half of those dead are civilians, including at least 354 children, according to a U.N. estimate released Sunday.

By contrast, the vast majority of Israel’s dead are soldiers; three civilians have been killed by rocket fire from Gaza, even though Hamas and its allies have launched more than 3,000 attacks.

Israel’s sophisticated Iron Dome antimissile system has all but neutralized the threat of those rockets. But to destroy the extensive network of tunnels dug under the soft sands of Gaza and southern Israel, the military sent in ground forces this past month.

The result is the highest casualty count for Israeli troops since the 2006 war in southern Lebanon, when 119 soldiers were killed. But unlike in that conflict, which produced a painful reckoning within Israel over whether the nation had shed its children’s blood in vain, there has been little evidence of such anxiety this time.

That’s despite the fact that the conflict has now raged for 27 days with no conclusive result and no indication that Hamas is prepared to yield.


Israeli soldiers and friends mourn during the funeral of Israeli Army 2nd. Lt. Hadar Goldin at the military cemetery in the central Israeli city of Kfar Saba on Sunday, Aug. 3. (Oded Balilty/AP)

Levy said the absence of hand-wringing over the death count is partially the result of a military that has become more ­self-selective in recent years. Although the Israel Defense Forces remain rooted in the principle of compulsory service by nearly all Israelis, soldiers are increasingly allowed to volunteer themselves for front-line combat duty, Levy said. “They’re choosing to be there,” he said. The result: less of a backlash when they are killed.

Amotz Asa-El, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a think tank, said the public’s willingness to stomach casualties also has to do with the nature of the threat.

Hamas rockets and tunnels “represent a direct hit at our society,” he said. “We are personally targeted — each and every one of us — in our homes.”

Israelis have been particularly haunted by the discovery of the tunnels and the fear of Hamas fighters emerging from the sands to drag captives back into Gaza. In recent days, Israelis have widely circulated a rumor of plans for hundreds of Hamas militants to use the tunnels to carry out a mass terrorist attack over the upcoming Jewish holidays.

Israel’s military said Sunday that nearly all the known tunnels had been demolished and that the majority of troops had been withdrawn from Gaza. But the effort has come at a significant cost.

On Friday, two Israeli soldiers were reported killed, and a third, Lt. Hadar Goldin, was thought to have been captured after coming under attack while attempting to destroy a tunnel near the southern Gaza town of Rafah. His fate was uncertain until about 2 a.m. Sunday, when the Israeli military’s chief rabbi and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon — a distant relative of Goldin — knocked at the family’s door.

Thousands of Israelis — many strangers — turned out for his funeral at the military cemetery in the town of Kfar Sava on Sunday afternoon. Troops sporting the purple beret of Goldin’s unit looked on as Simcha Goldin urged his son’s comrades to “take the Torah with you day and night and be good Jewish fighters.”

Barkay Shor was among five troops killed last week when Hamas fighters used a tunnel to infiltrate Israel.

The 21-year-old — the eldest of Yaron Shor’s four sons — had volunteered for front-line combat, part of what his father described as a track record of service that included long shifts in the ambulance corps.

“What was so special about Barkay was how eager he was to provide charity to others,” said Yaron Shor, his checkered shirt torn at the lapel in a traditional symbol of mourning. “He died protecting the civilians behind him. We are very sorry for his death. But we can’t say he died for nothing. He died for the right cause.”

Orly Halpern contributed to this report.

Griff Witte is The Post’s London bureau chief. He previously served as the paper’s deputy foreign editor and as the bureau chief in Kabul, Islamabad and Jerusalem.
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