By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
BEERSHEBA, Israel, Jan. 5 -- Sgt. Natan Weitzman was creeping through the Gaza Strip on Saturday night with 17 members of his Israeli army platoon when a mortar shell landed in their midst.
Hours later, his brother said, Weitzman was in the intensive care unit of Soroka Medical Center having shrapnel removed from his heart. His life was saved, but his war was over.
In Israel, military service is a rite of passage -- an event that young men and women expect will be a defining part of their identities as citizens of the Jewish state.
But for many of the dozens of Israeli soldiers who have been wounded in the opening days of the ground invasion in Gaza, their war has ended early. In minutes, they were transported from the dark, dusty battlefield to the antiseptic wards of southern Israel's premier hospital, where they receive state-of-the-art medical care, doting attention from relatives, sweets from strangers and congratulations from politicians.
Many say they would rather be in Gaza.
"Even now, he says he wants to go back," Chaim Weitzman said of his younger brother as the 20-year-old soldier inhaled oxygen from a breathing tube and struggled to keep his eyes open.
Weitzman's desire to fight reflects a broader consensus in Israel that the military's offensive in Gaza against Hamas is necessary and just. There is little hand-wringing in Israel over whether putting troops in harm's way is the right thing to do. Military service is compulsory here, and it is widely accepted that Israel's adversaries must be confronted with force, even if the state pays a price in blood.
The escalating number of Palestinian casualties -- about 550 dead as of Monday night, including as many as 200 civilians, according to Palestinian health officials -- has not shaken that resolve.
But history suggests that the mood could change; support for Israel's 2006 war in Lebanon was extraordinarily high during the first week but dropped quickly as the Israeli casualty toll climbed and as Hezbollah continued to fire its rockets.
The Israeli toll from the Gaza operation rose Monday night, with fighting in northern Gaza leaving at least three soldiers dead, in addition to one who had been killed on Sunday, the military said. Medevac helicopters ferried wounded troops here from the Gaza border, and doctors rushed patients into the operating room for emergency surgery.
Earlier on Monday, the halls of Soroka hospital were filled with parents and grandparents who compared this war to their own experiences of battle, and insisted that it is just as vital to defending the Jewish state.
For veterans of past Israeli conflicts, the enemy in this operation is familiar, as is the terrain: Israel conquered Gaza in a 1967 war with Arab armies, and kept troops and settlers there until 2005, putting down two major Palestinian uprisings in the process. Since the pullout, Israel has conducted frequent raids into the territory, while Hamas and its allies have fired thousands of rockets -- many of them crude and homemade -- into southern Israel. In the past 10 days, major Israeli cities, including this one, have been hit by larger, more sophisticated missiles.
Now large numbers of Israeli troops are back in Gaza, a territory that slain prime minister Yitzhak Rabin once famously said he wished would "just sink into the sea." Israel has said it has no intention of staying in the narrow coastal strip over the long term, but intends to stay long enough to stop, or at least reduce, the rocket fire.
To Freda Kaplan, whose son was injured Saturday night, that is a vital mission.
"We're fighting for our existence," Kaplan said. "We'd rather this didn't have to be done. But this is a defensive war."
Her son had called after the Jewish Sabbath on Saturday evening to say that he wouldn't have cellphone service for a while, without elaborating why. Kaplan and her husband knew what that meant: He was going into Gaza.
"I felt a mixture of worry, pride and understanding that there was a job that had to be done," said Kaplan, who asked that her son's name not be published. Like other wounded troops, he would not speak for the record, citing military policy prohibiting soldiers from talking to the news media without permission. "If it's not my son, it will be someone else's son. So it should be all our sons together."
The next call came at 4:30 a.m.
Kaplan's son, a lanky and gregarious young man who wears a yarmulke, had been injured by shrapnel and was in the hospital. Kaplan drove through the night from their home in Israel's central coast to be at his side before he underwent surgery. The metal fragment that struck his forearm cut to the bone, but he was expected to make a full recovery.
"If he could, he would go straight back in," she said. "He's on a mission for peace."
The Soroka hospital is a modern facility of stone and glass, with a bust of Israel's founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, prominently displayed within a soaring entryway. Despite the chaotic scene unfolding just 25 miles away in Gaza, the mood in the hospital was calm. Israel was fighting a war, and everyone knew their roles.
Residents lined up in a hallway to give blood; there was no shortage, but medical officials wanted to have extra supplies just in case.
"When people see the wounded soldiers on television, they come here automatically," said Leo Rothschild, an official with Israel's paramedic service who said 170 people had donated by midafternoon.
Elsewhere, students distributed pastries, meticulously checking off soldiers' names as they made their rounds. Young men and women dressed in olive-green uniforms delivered bouquets of flowers to their friends and sat at their bedsides watching news coverage of the latest fighting.
One soldier's parents brought him a cake to celebrate his birthday. Two nights before, the soldier, Itzik, had been hit in the shoulder by shrapnel. Although he was feeling better Monday, he was in no mood for a party.
"I can't celebrate," he said from his hospital bed, waving the cake away. "My friends are still inside."
Weitzman, who had a piece of shrapnel removed from the surface of his heart, was alert and sitting up Monday afternoon. Heart monitors dotted his chest, and an Israeli flag hung prominently next to his bed. "He had shrapnel all over his body. One piece was a millimeter from his main artery," said his brother, Chaim. "It's a miracle."
The doctor who performed the surgery, Gideon Sahar, said that Weitzman was lucky to have survived and that quick work by medical units in the field probably saved him.
Sahar worked in a medical unit during the first Lebanon war in the early 1980s, treating patients as they flew by helicopter over the border and back to hospitals in Israel. His daughter serves in the army today.
With the rockets still flying from Gaza, he worries about his grandchildren.
"It's terrible to live like this. Our parents fought. I fought. Our children fight," he said. "When it's generation after generation, it's like a curse."