Wounded Israeli Troops Yearn to Be in the Fight

An Israeli soldier is rushed to an emergency room at Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba, southern Israel's premier hospital.
An Israeli soldier is rushed to an emergency room at Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba, southern Israel's premier hospital. (By Uriel Sinai -- Getty Images)
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.

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