On Sunday morning, our granddaughter’s husband Yosef (last name intentionally omitted) was given a 24-hour leave after nearly a month straight in Gaza. We hadn’t seen or spoken to Yosef, a member of the IDF Nahal Brigade, in nearly six weeks. While in Gaza, he had no phone, and for the last four weeks, our only news was through a supply officer who periodically went in and out of Gaza to make sure the troops were properly supplied. Yosef’s wife Batsheva had spoken to him a few times when this same officer let some of the soldiers use his phone to call home.
Yosef is a special young man. He is a “Hesdernik,” doing his army service sandwiched between two stretches of learning in Yeshivat Maalot. During Sukkos, he had handed in his equipment, including his machine gun, as he had finished his required year-and-a-half of service in the Army. We were all happy that he would return to the life of a yeshivah student, especially because his wife Batsheva was pregnant with their first child. Imagine spending your first year or so of marriage in the Army, only seeing your young bride every few weeks and then being exhausted from the training and the various duties your unit is assigned. Not your Hollywood-style romance novel. But Yosef and Batsheva never complained. Yosef wanted to serve the Jewish people and the Jewish state, and Batsheva gave him 100 percent support. Whenever we saw either of them, there was always a big smile on their faces and their eyes shone with love and joy. We were proud of them and of Yosef’s dedication to am Yisrael.
On Sunday morning, we bought a two-liter jug of fresh orange juice and an assortment of fresh fruit that Yosef hadn’t savored in nearly two months. The drive to Tel Arad, the place chosen by the Army, took us into the desert, where families of nearly 300 soldiers congregated with their loved ones. Hugs, smiles, and shouts of joy abounded, despite the constant wind that pelted all of us with sand particles and turned all our clothing brown. Spirits remained high and the camaraderie among the soldiers and between the families was moving and emotional. To reach Tel Arad from our home involved a 90-minute car ride. Many families traveled much longer. Knowing we would be seeing our soldiers made the time required to reach them flash by.
Those who visited the Nachal Brigade that day manifested the love and esteem that Israelis have for our soldiers. Sunday is a workday in Israel. Nevertheless, entire families took off from work and school to spend time with their citizen-soldiers. In our case, not only did all of Yosef and Batsheva’s parents and siblings attend, but in addition, many friends of Yosef made this arduous trip to the desert. One father-and-son team drove 130 km to see Yosef, stayed for three hours barbecuing franks, burgers, and a special steak for our warrior, and then drove back home. Similar stories describe the day of each soldier who had been given this temporary respite from the war in Gaza.
Our joyful visit included stories of the battles and the conditions in Gaza. Yosef stressed that while he wanted to be home with his family, there was work still to be done. Too quickly, the visit came to an end. Hugs, kisses, and tearful goodbyes were exchanged, and it was time to leave. The meeting in the desert was fleeting, and our soldiers were still on duty. We pray that the L-rd will watch over them and protect them.
When I spoke to Yosef about his views on the ceasefire that was scheduled to end on Tuesday morning (the latest news is that there may be a two-day extension), he expressed his happiness at the brief break in the fighting and being able to see his wife and family. He was pleased that some of the hostages were returning to Israel and that his efforts and those of his comrades had helped achieve this goal. But his job was not finished. There are those who have strongly criticized the ceasefire. Their view, which has some validity, is that it only serves Hamas’ interests. Many who are outside of Israel take an especially hard line and argue that the destruction of Hamas is the only endpoint that matters. The hostages and Israeli soldiers, in their view, represent a sacrifice that may be necessary to ensure Israel’s future.
Living in Israel, one understands that after 50 days, the country needed to have at least some of the hostages – especially the children held by Hamas – returned to their families. The joy experienced over the past few days, on the release of what now amounts to approximately 50 Israelis, has been palpable. Our spirit has been elevated and the mood of the country is more positive. The families of every returned hostage have argued for the return of those still held by Hamas. At the same time, they all support the destruction of Hamas.
Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, previously the Head of Naval Operations and a member of the elite Shayetet commandos, and currently the Army spokesperson, has stated that Israel’s war against Hamas has two goals: 1) Destruction of Hamas as a viable ruling entity in Gaza, and 2) The return of the hostages. The IDF believes that these two goals are intertwined and achievable. During the ceasefire, Hagari stated that the preparation and planning for the next phase of the war has continued unabated and uninterrupted. The Chief of the General Staff of the IDF (the Ramatkal), Herzi Halevi, repeatedly emphasizes these same goals. These career military officers, together with Benny Gantz (National Unity), Gadi Eisenkot (National Unity), and eventually Yoav Gallant (Likud), members of the War Cabinet, with long and outstanding military experience, all supported or at least did not publicly oppose the present ceasefire. Even Bezalel Smotrich (National Religious Zionist) voted in favor of a ceasefire. Only Ben-Gvir (Otzma Yehudit) opposed the ceasefire, whereas the head of the Mossad, David Barnea, was a major implementor. Given the overall support of Israel’s military and political leadership for a limited ceasefire, it is hard to believe that right-wing American Jews are better suited to make the opposite decision.
Those opposing the ceasefire may argue that Israel’s leadership is caving to external pressure. The EU, the UN, the Abraham Accord signers, Saudi Arabia, and most importantly Joe Biden have “forced” Israel to make a bad deal. Perhaps this was a “bad” deal. Perhaps Hamas gained a tremendous amount from the pause and will be reinvigorated when the battle resumes. However, one doubts that Israel’s leaders give any weight to the view of the UN. Likely, they do not give great weight to the EU or the rhetoric of the Arab states. They likely do give weight to the opinion of President Biden, but that is because Biden has proved to be a faithful ally from Day One of this war. He has given Israel both the material and moral support to conduct the war. Despite rising pressure from his own party, he has not called for the war to end, even after 52 days of fighting and 52 days of strong domestic opposition. The bombs, missiles, rockets, armaments, Iron Dome components, etc., and the lobbying for congressional support continue unabated. Just yesterday, President Biden stated that while he supports a longer pause to free more hostages, after the war Hamas will not rule in Gaza. Can we really expect more from the US President?
Ultimately, regardless of internal or external pressures, this hostage exchange comes down to the fact that as Jews we always “Choose Life.” “U’Vacharta BaChayim” is one of our most sacred principles. Saving the lives of these hostages, especially the most vulnerable women and children being freed during this pause, is something that the vast majority of Israelis support. It behooves our Diaspora brethren to support Israel’s choice, as well.
Dr. Naider is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry and Chemistry at the City University of New York. He lives in Rehovot and has two grandsons in the IDF. The opinions in this article are his own.