At the Jerusalem think tank where I work, one of the offices has been dark for almost two months. Noam (not his real name), the bright, articulate, British-born researcher in his mid-thirties, was called up for routine reserve duty back in early December. We all missed his dry wit and pithy insights as he spent almost a month brushing up on his army training. Noam returned to the office full of amusing stories about life in a tent in the desert with his old buddies, and promptly went about picking up the threads of the work he'd left a few weeks earlier.
Less than ten days later, the Gaza war broke out and Noam and his platoon were among the first of the more than 6,500 reservists who received emergency call-up orders, known here as Tsav Shmoneh. That made sense, Noam, said, since they were the most up-to-date in their training...
Yesterday, after almost three weeks in Gaza, Noam was back. This time, the stories he told were less amusing and the strain showed in his eyes. Noam and his wife are expecting their first child, but that didn't mean he could speak to her directly while he was away. Almost all the soldiers who were sent to fight Hamas in Gaza had to hand in their cell phones and had no direct contact with the outside world during the battle.
For Noam, this was a good decision. "It meant we focused only on the matter at hand," he explained. "I couldn't have made it down there if I had been distracted by anything else."
Noam described how his platoon entered Beit Lahiya on foot--through the remains of Dugit--one of the 22 Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip destroyed by the 2005 "disengagement.". Weighed down by a pack of 45lbs and dressed in full battle gear, "we kept on sinking into the sand," Noam recounted. "Whenever any soldier in front stopped, that meant most of us behind just fell backwards into the sand. I felt like a turtle," he said, with a wry laugh. There was no way to pick yourself up independently, he explained, someone had to come and drag you out--while under fire.
Noam didn't want to tell us much more about his time away--we couldn't possibly understand what he had been through since the last time we'd seen him.
"It'll take a while till I get back to normal," he whispered, as he returned to his office and quietly closed the door.