מ' חזר מעזה כדי לספר

is 35, married with 3 kids. He lives on a moshav in the North, and for the past 4 years has taken a break from active reserve duty. On October 7, he donned his uniform and drove south.  In his daily live, M. is a sexual health educator.  He decided on this profession after taking a workshop that I gave at the school where he was teaching.  He decided to work with young people on violence prevention, healthy coupledom, and the dismantling of traditional oppressive masculinity – also towards other men.  I thought that someone who sees reality through feminist glasses, and who is an ally in the struggle against violence towards women and in favor of gender equality, will certainly have insights and thoughts about the war in Gaza, about masculinity, “the brotherhood of fighters”, and about the reserve duty that he had just completed.  I picked up the phone and we set a meeting.  This is his story.

From the start it was clear that we had been sent into something we might not come out of.  There was an understanding that this was not normal reserve duty.  We didn’t know anything. As far as I knew, there might be terrorists on Route 6.  So off we went, just as we were. This was the beginning of one of the most painful experiences of my life.

I felt alien, different.  I felt that I love my comrades, but I don’t want to speak their language.  That I’m supposed to express aggression – and when I do that, I scare myself while also understanding where it comes from.  I was in a huge inner conflict.  Everyone around me, their motivation, the reason they got up every morning, was revenge.  I felt that this motivation would kill us all, and I wanted to return to my children.  How much did I want to?  I’m not willing for my children to grow up without a father who was sacrificed at the altar of this thing.  In my inner reckoning, I started thinking about my kids growing up without their father, about my wife living her life without me.  No.  I’m not willing to pay that price.

This contract, that begins at age 18, even as the conditions of your life change, you’re still chained to it. It took me a long time to understand what was happening to me.  I told myself that when the time comes I need to take my things and go, but as long as I’m conflicted, I don’t move.

You work on an automaton

Revenge Aggression

When I was a 20 year-old commander, I would check how my soldiers would handcuff prisoners.  I would tell them, “If you close the handcuffs too tightly in revenge for what you think they did, then you aren’t being a professional”. I didn't mind standing between them, receiving criticism. I was a good and popular commander. In this war, I discovered that I no longer have this power. I saw Palestinians taken to the back of a Hummer, and soldiers beating the hell out of them. I saw soldiers venting their rage on Palestinian property for no reason. And I’m watching from the side and thinking, 'Damn, what am I doing here? Why am I not hugging my kids? And why am I not rising up against what I’m seeing?'

The brutality is so blatant, and you’re completely unable to stop it. It really shook me and I'm ashamed that I didn't stand up against it. That I gave up, felt it was a lost cause. That killed me. That I saw it right in front of me and couldn’t find the courage to speak up. And in this unbridled violence, driven solely by vengeance, our division commander was the leader. He was nicknamed the 'TikTok Battalion Commander.' He risked our lives every moment of the war, for no operational reason. And his deputy, his hobby inside Gaza was to enter houses and set them on fire. Just like that. In the process, he burned a lot of intelligence material. And there was no way of knowing if there were any captives hidden below or in the attic. He went from house to house and set them on fire. He didn't know if there were soldiers in the area that could be hurt, if there was explosive material that could blow up. Just the daily risk of human life at the most childish level imaginable. For no reason."

Israel at War

Fear, Loathing and Helplessness

Facing all these aggressions was the commander of an elite unit. An educator, an amazing person. I think this war took something out of him that he will struggle to regain. I felt really sorry for him, his soldiers boycotted him, they didn’t trust him. He saw everything that was being done and had no way to respond. It was uncontrolled and very difficult.

What makes you, as a commander, popular in a toxic environment? What makes people trust you? Not the same things that make them trust you in a non-toxic environment that isn’t soaked in horror stories. In the place where we were, if you didn't participate in the very extreme, political, toxic discourse, you would lose popularity. I saw people around me fading, disappearing into silence, paralysis.

Many non-operational, dangerous things happened around us. The climax was an encounter where we’re still not sure what happened. In my time in the army, I’ve never seen someone throw a grenade when you don't know what and where. People shoot just to shoot and then yell ‘proper fire.’ There's nothing proper about it.

What do you think motivated them?

Fear. Insane tension and intense, overwhelming fear. But if you don't distinguish between fear and vengeance, people start to think, 'How am I going to come back from Gaza without marking an X on my gun?' During the ceasefire, there was a lot of indiscriminate shooting. Machine guns volleys. I don't know if they hit anything or not. On one hand, it’s clear to me that we’re not committing genocide, that’s not the story here. On the other, teose terrified 25-year-olds are sitting on a balcony or in an attic, and there’s a ceasefire.  They’re told not to shoot unless they see a weapon.  So they shoot out of fear. And if they hit something, they become heroes. Those are the rules of the game.

Human Tapestry

If I Hear You Talking Fear...

Once we went to refuel a vehicle, and there was this sweet guy with us who was having half of a panic attack. He talked about how he promised his parents he'd come back, how terrified he is, and how he doesn't know what to do. And then the guy who was with us, a bereaved brother now, an amazing fighter, lit into him: 'If I hear you talk about your fear one more time, I'll f-k you. And if you really feel that way, then get out of here because you're weakening everyone by talking about it.' It was an insane moment. Not only did that guy hear it, but everyone did. I thought to myself, 'Look at that. Bullying isn't just a fourth-grade thing, it can also happen at age 35. If you say what you feel, I'll f-k you.'

That same bully, who was part of my team and was clearly out for revenge, with no respect for other approaches, told us that during Operation Protective Edge, he slapped a friend who was having a panic attack. And I thought about how many Israeli soldiers experience some level of anxiety and are responded to with violence. I remembered a situation at the beginning of the war, when I went to repair a soldier's weapon and saw a "red alert” in the Galilee. I realized my kids were with my sister and my wife was so far from me, and I completely collapsed. I cried my eyes out in a corner of an armory. Wow, did I cry. I was done for. I was there alone. I stopped crying, wiped myself off, and went back. No one knows. If that guy had seen me like that, he would have slapped me. It would have brought out some very intense violence in me.

Later on, I caught up with the same guy with the panic attack. I said to him, "Bro, your parents aren't sleeping at night. Go home. What can happen?" When I said that to him, I began asking myself too, what are you doing here? You could be one of those fathers pushing their kid in a swing right now. I felt like I was betraying myself. I know I'm not a fighter. This thing of dying or taking lives hasn't been my story for many years. So I told that guy what I needed to hear myself.

Pain Can Coexist

My Children

There's a norm in the army that you leave your kids and go. You can say, 'I haven't seen my kids in a month. I don't know if I'll ever see them again.' And that’s normal, everyone's cool with it. Me, my skin is tearing. I have to. It's a ‘maternal” feeling.' Yeah, I know men go out to defend their home, and Dad is strong and has a rifle, but I'm torn apart. I haven't found anywhere in this environment where I can say, "Damn, I can't do this. I want to be with my kids."

One day, the platoon commander got really angry with us. He asked, "Why are you all so homesick? Homesick. Homesick??? That's what you say about a 19-year-old who runs home to have a beer with his buddies. I'm not homesick; this is existential. I have an extension of my organs somewhere up north, and I need to go to them. That was when I realized that I was on the list of people who are okay with dying, and between you and me, I honestly don't mind dying. But I'm not ready to accept that my kids’ life will be screwed up. And that's a dissonance I can’t bridge. Feel normal with. I’ve only been home twice, and both times I looked at my sleeping children and thought, ‘I’m stuck.  I can’t go back and I can’t stay here.  I can’t die.  I can’t live.  I can’t talk to the guys, I can’t be silent.’

The Life That Is No More

Watch a Man Lose It

 

I found myself dealing with things I had never dealt with before, like being mocked for who I am. People would say things like "You're acting like a girl," or worse, ‘Your words weaken our ability to win’. By that, they mean talking can lead to doubt, caution or emotion.

In the early days of the war, we were experiencing a tsunami of death. It was everywhere. It was piled up, beyond all proportion. None of us was prepared to see what we saw, it was awful. Our officer, our team leader, basically lost it. I saw it right in front of me. We were on a night mission, we saw hundreds of bodies, everywhere. I saw he wasn't sleeping, that he was stressed, sweating. He said to me, "They're on their way to Jerusalem now, aren't they?" I asked him "Who?" "Hamas, Nohba, they're on their way to Jerusalem." I told him "No." And he continued: "My wife and kids are in Jerusalem." I told him "Yes, they're safe. You're here. Hamas is there. And they're not on their way to Jerusalem." "Ah, okay."

I told him to try and nap but he couldn't. He fell on his face. He fired into the air inside the base… he completely lost it. When we saw that, the guys immediately acted like teenagers: when something really crazy happens, you escape into cynicism… dark humor. Darker than dark. I looked at them and I was shocked. How are we not stopping? The man lost it right in front of us. I asked to see the mental health officer, but after having left the reserves four years ago, I had lost my standing, and no one answered my call. They told me "Go on, leave us alone." I watched us all sliding down an emotional slope.

The Battle for the Doorknob

Alright, Revenge

 

There's something about how we got into this war that changes you forever. You're in Gaza, and there's a drone above you, and the drone can drop an RPG on you. And around you, rivers of blood. Massacre. There were days when I couldn't help myself and I read witnesses’ statements about October 7th and about the sexual assaults, and I said to myself, 'Alright, revenge. Pity the Gazan who falls into my hands.' When the pictures come back to you and you see the extent of the destruction and injury, that’s the voice that rises within you. From what I saw, I couldn't believe people were capable of doing such a thing. It doesn't make me a hateful person, but I can't see "peace" and it breaks my heart. It becomes tied to profound existential questions, like, will we be able to live here? The soul absorbs violence, and that violence isn't going anywhere. We've received a critical mass of violence, and it's something we're stuck with.

This is an existential war. I go and I fight. And I think there's something amazing in the ability to acknowledge that there is a war while still continuing to believe. We're in a tragic situation, we didn't want it, and I think that if men in the reserves had a slightly broader emotional spectrum, they would also be better, more disciplined soldiers. The question I'm left with is how can I learn to understand the complexities of the situation, to be less binary. Not "winners or losers," but to understand that it’s just painful. To understand that we are broken. Why aren't we breaking? How is it that we can't deal with the pain? How are we left only with anger?

We, the Palestinians, have shed this blood

Our Layers of Immunity Are Crumbling

During the war, I couldn't talk to my wife. I didn't have the words. I totally avoided it… I didn’t know what to say, and on the phone there were explosions in the background all the time, and the kids got scared and started asking what's happening. When I came home for a brief break, it was worse than being in Gaza. Coming home and finding my normative life, a man who simply lives his life, is too much to bear, too sharp a transition. And it pains me to realize that this is the model my kids see. My son draws battle paintings and says, 'Dad, I drew you defeating Hamas.' This isn’t clear to me. I'm in a state of tension that blurs my consciousness. I have no doubt it's related to the portrayal of masculinity, to my father, to memorial days, to very deep layers of genderization.

When I was released after two months, my wife looked straight into my eyes and said, "Listen, Boobi, you are the love of my life. If you go back to Gaza, I won't be married to you anymore. I'll take the kids. I can't live like this. I can't live in fear even one more night." It was tough. But it's clear to me that I belong to her. I belong to her much more than to this story. It's not a dilemma at all.

Why were you released after two months?

After a complex event, both operationally and socially, I told my comrades that I'd enough and that I was looking for another place to do my reserve duty. I realized that with this battalion commander and sub-commander, I could die for nothing. Not because of a battle for Be’eri, but because of some idiot. So I sat down with the platoon commander who immediately understood me and said, 'Find another place, I might do the same thing down the road.' He also suggested that I seek therapy, so I wouldn’t have to deal with this alone.

My comrades go from being angry at me to being disappointed. They're not okay with me. We've changed. We used to be a group that got together, lit a bonfire, and talked until dawn. Now the conversations are fragmented… our bond has gone through something heavier. We're different now.

I understood that there are things in the army that I have to deal with. Actually, my greatest trauma in the army was basic training. The fact that I wasn’t in control of my body and I was betraying my soul, and hearing my inner voice saying, ‘this isn't who you are'. And yet I keep going, even as it wounds me. You’re betraying yourself. You betray yourself and you can't forgive yourself. When I would come home from basic training, after acting like an animal all week and joking with the guys, at home I would shut myself in my room. My mom would ask me what was wrong and I'd tell her, 'I have no soul. I'm finished.' In the war, I felt that same dissonance with my family and with feeling like I’d betrayed my soul. It's heavy stuff, man. The fact that at work I deal with my masculinity made this war more painful. It’s possible that the more you expand your emotional range, the stronger you become, but also your layers of immunity break down. That doesn't serve you well when you're in the heart of Gaza, with a bunch of people who conscious-wise are some kind of 'Nohba'.

I have bouts of sadness. I sit on the couch for an hour, sad. My wife is also still recovering from two crazy months of fear and worry, and the kids… we're recovering, going through it together. My soul did something clever to escape the war. I copied/pasted its intensity into my life, as a way to escape. I piled tons of work on myself. I don't have a minute to myself, which is terrible. I need to find a way to filter, to cancel things, to take care of myself, but I don't have the strength for it. It's unbelievable how much this resembles war. This need to justify your existence and run away from yourself through activity. My wife tells me 'You're not in the reserves but you're also not here.' This will be the story of hundreds of thousands of Israeli men who will be released. That's our modus operandi. 'I was just in a once-in-fifty years war and my nights are soaked in it, so I'll go back to the office.' It's insane.

Grow Old Under Fire

Mom and Dad

My father was a brigadier general, a career soldier. A general, an animal. A very impressive man but exactly the opposite of me in this context. Sometimes I ask him 'Dad, with your friends from the Yom Kippur War, did you ever process?' He says, 'Stop bullshitting me.' That's my father. He's a special story. My mother repressed it. While I was in the war, she sank into a mantra of 'I know nothing will happen to him and he'll come back'. It's a crazy coping mechanism.

I feel like my relations with my parents are rapidly returning to routine. It’s also because I have my wife and kids, so they're pushed aside. But I wanted my mother to hug me, I thought 'Mom, forget my wife and kids for a second, I was afraid for us'. My wife is the wife of a reservist, but what about my parents? And when you return, everyone needs to be euphoric that you came back, but that euphoria meets your immense pain and sorrow. And you can't deliver. When I came back, we had a family weekend. I felt alien and detached. I only felt calm when I sat with people who were heartbroken. When I sat with people who were euphoric about my return, I felt like a fish out of water.

I'm still processing all of this. I'm not stable. My inner conversation is intuitive, not coherent like it was before. Since the war, I feel a lack of control, a lack of direction. In the past, I was very organized, but now I don't know where to start and how to finish. I feel like I've told you a lot, I hope my words will validate the experiences of other reservists. I know that finding the words to describe your experience can save your soul. For example – on October 7th, we were frightened, surprised, abducted, failed, and didn't perform as we wanted. Where's the leader who will come and say 'Your heart is shattered? So is mine. What have we come to, what madness…'

Validation. There's nothing like validation. It liberates us.

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