The names of each of the below were altered.
Lebanon was about a hundred steps away. From where we were, we could see the red, white and green flag flying high overhead. Between Lebanon and us there were a few meters that were under UN control. Supposedly, there is an ongoing war, but there hasn’t been a formal conflict for years, beyond some misunderstandings. But still, the area is tense, because Hezbollah, the Iranian-funded terrorist group, operates in Lebanon and wants to destroy Israel.
We were waiting for the commander. He leads a large group of boys and girls whose responsibility is to protect the Israeli border from foreign threats. While we were waiting, two uniformed girls wielding long rifles were talking to us. They were very pretty but above all very young. They had only recently left school and now they were there, with a huge responsibility.
“There is usually no conflict here, unlike on the Gaza border, but every now and then there are provocations,” one of the girls told us. “A few months ago, for example, a Lebanese soldier pointed a gun at us, after we did some military training. Fortunately, the UN intervened and nobody fired.”
The girls smiled as they talked about their responsibility. One walked away and started looking at her iPhone. She took a picture of the landscape, which was overwhelming: the Mediterranean Sea, encircled on the right side by the mountains of northern Israel. It was cloudy, cold, and raining, but only lightly.
The commander arrived. He was tall but evidently young. Too young to be the commander. And he introduced himself by saying how old he was: “Hi, I’m Moshe, and I’m 25 years old.” He is in charge of the entire border with Lebanon. He covered kilometers of the conflict zone, subdued by the tension of a fight that can break out at any moment.
Moshe continued his military career because at the age of 25 it is no longer usual for someone who does not want to be in the military to remain in the Israel Defense Forces. Normally, young people do almost three years of service, leave the military career, venture on a months-long trip to the most exotic countries possible (most choose Latin America), and then, at about 26, they finally finish their university studies. It’s like that, it’s been like that for years, and it’s not a problem.
Perhaps Israel is the only country in the world with this dynamic, completely disconcerting for those who come from the West and, above all, from any Latin American country. In Israel, young people do not run away from the army. In Israel, the army is the youth. But they are not young people, they are children to anyone who is a little older than them.
Seeing a 19-year-old girl wielding a rifle and guarding the few meters that separate her from a terrorist organization that wants to kill her, automatically turns her into a child, which is moving. In most Western countries, at 19, a girl is thinking about nightclubs and uploading photos to Instagram… “But I don’t stop going to nightclubs,” Jana tells me.
“We live a normal life, with a normal social life,” she insists, she laughs. She shows me her Instagram: she is a normal young woman, with photos of her trips in Cappadocia or Petra. “If you want I can recommend some very good nightclubs in Tel Aviv,” she tells me after I told her that I had gone out drinking last Friday in Tel Aviv and had been impressed by the nightlife.
These are young people with normal lives, who also go to the Defense Forces. Let’s put it this way: going through the army is just another level of the educational process. You go to school, you go to the army, you go to university. Everyone goes because everyone wants to go.
The conversations on the eve of being drafted are about what you want to do during military service. Whether to be a fighter or be assigned to communications, music, or technology. Everyone wants to go into technology because they come out with tremendous skills that lead to a successful career in high-tech, which today pays in Israel like no other occupation.
A little over a year ago, Israel experienced one of its toughest moments in decades. Following a tense episode between Jews and Palestinians in Jerusalem, the Palestinian terrorist organization, Hamas, launched thousands of rockets from the Gaza Strip into Israel. This, of course, is not unusual. Almost every week a missile is launched from Gaza.
This time, however, Hamas crossed a red line. For the first time, the missiles were aimed at major cities like Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Missiles that went as far as they had ever gone before and were aimed directly at the civilian population. There were thousands of them. A rain of missiles on restaurants, art galleries, and bars. Surprisingly, there were almost no casualties. What kept the population safe? Or, rather, who? The ‘children’ themselves, of course.
After being on the border with Lebanon, we went to a unit of the very famous Iron Dome. The pompous name simply conceals a square missile launcher, which is not as gigantic as I thought. The device stands alone, in the middle of the asphalt, a few meters away from the buildings of the military unit. It is a small area, where the necessary maintenance of the missile launcher is done.
In short, the Iron Dome intercepts missiles flying from Gaza (or any other origin) aimed at civilian populations. If a missile is going to fall in the middle of a farm or a little-traveled street, it will probably not be intercepted, because each missile costs thousands and thousands of dollars, and Israel’s defense involves a multi-billion dollar expense.
It is unfair that what stands out is that missile launcher, which does not really look that intimidating. It is unfair because it is not automatic and behind the Iron Dome, there are dozens of soldiers, who are the real Dome.
“In this unit, we operate the Iron Dome,” Ronel announces proudly. “I come from Australia, arrived about 12 years ago in Israel, and came mainly because I wanted to be part of the army,” he says. He, of course, is very young. He is 22 years old. Two other companions, 19 and 21, introduce themselves. “Here we are in charge of reloading the Iron Dome with missiles. We do maintenance on them and operate it.”
“It is important to insist that the dome is not automatic. There is a team that works 24 hours a day and is on standby to intercept every missile that is detected.” Someone asks him how this works if they have to fire each missile to intercept another. Ronel says yes, but clarifies, “It’s not a red button and that’s it. It’s more complex than that.”
Their pride in being part of the Iron Dome is palpable from afar. It is contagious. They are heroes, without a doubt. If thousands of families didn’t die in Israel a year ago, it was thanks to them. And they know it, but we must acknowledge them: the responsibility is gigantic. So much responsibility is frightening, and it is in the hands of young people.
While they were talking to us, they were lined up, and on the far right, almost imperceptible, there was a little girl, very adorable, who did not speak. Ronel introduces her: she is Alea, the commander of the unit. The boss, the one who gives the orders. She introduced herself. She was 22 years old, but she looked 17, with freckles and her hair in a ponytail. She didn’t talk much, she was shy. “There are about fifteen of us living here, who make sure everything with the Iron Dome runs smoothly. We do military exercises and try to have a normal life within the unit. We eat and sleep here.”
I started talking to Alea and asked her if she wasn’t afraid of being where she is. She told me that it happens to her, but that she has to avoid being afraid. Then I asked her what had been the most difficult moment so far. “Last year, in May, it was raining missiles, the dome intercepted them but they don’t disappear, of course, but fall also as projectiles. We had to lie down, hands on the floor, and hope that none would fall on us. It is difficult, because I am the commander, and I must be brave and firm. I am the one responsible for keeping the morale of my soldiers high.”
Alea told me that she wants to be a lawyer and that in a few months she will be leaving the army. She will travel to Latin America, probably to Medellín and Rio de Janeiro.
That surprised me about the Israeli army. In this country, the commander is not behind his men and women, but in front. He doesn’t lead from a barracks or the rear. At one point we asked a general how he kept the morale of his men intact, and he answered, bluntly, without hesitation, “By example.” Then he added: “I have never asked my men to do what I am not willing to do. If we have to jump, I jump first. If we have to run, I run first.”
And that I furthered in an honest conversation with Isaiah, a 19-year-old military man who ate a hamburger without letting go of the rifle slung over his shoulder. “That’s the way it is. There are those who believe, from the outside, that we are in the army for an ideological, or nationalist reason; but it’s not like that. We are in it for ourselves. Because I know that people my age come and take risks and I can’t refrain from that. Because I know that when I am here, I have to protect my partners because they protect me. And because I know, above all, that if my commander does something I have to be able to do it too.”
I talked to Isaiah about the notion that young people have about this military life. I asked him if there are people who try to avoid being recruited; who protest; or who run away from their duty. But he said no, at least in general terms. Obviously, everyone is unique and has his ideas and his principles and his dreams and desires; but in general, military life is completely inscribed in society. It doesn’t matter if you are Jewish or of Russian, Uruguayan or American origin; if you are black, Arab, gay, male, female, disabled, like art, or hate guns. Everyone wants to, must, and does go to the army. And for everyone, there is room, without prejudice or discrimination.
“In the army one builds the strongest bonds. I have experienced with my partners what I have not experienced with anyone else and probably will not experience with anyone else. We really are family, we are brothers, and that alone makes us committed to stay here and give it our all.”
There are moving stories of how Israeli servicemen have given their lives for their fellow soldiers. There is that of Roi Klein, a hero—“hero, he is,” Isaiah insists to me—who, as a commander in the battle of Bint Jbeil, during the 2006 war with Lebanon, threw himself on a grenade thrown by the enemy. He died, but saved the lives of at least eight soldiers. Before he died, Klein quoted the Jewish prayer of Shema Yisrael (hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is one).
Nathan Elbaz, in 1954, did something similar: he sacrificed himself with a grenade so that his comrades would not die. Here, it is true that no man stays behind. Another commander was shot in the temple for turning back and rescuing a wounded soldier in Gaza, who did survive.
That, of course, reinforces the commitment of every young man in Israel to military life. But it is only a stage, for most. Not all of them, of course, are dedicated to military life (although it is quite attractive, as they receive very good salaries and privileges).
Most live the stage, without sacrificing their social life (because they all keep uploading to their Instagram stories the pictures of the bottle of tequila or the hookah at the bar during the weekends); and then they continue their normal life—normal, for us, who shy away from the idea of walking around under camouflage and a rifle. Some leave the military life but enlist in a kind of civilian reserve, so they are called back to wield a weapon when needed.
Ah, the gun. They never put it down. They never leave it. They even take them home, when they go back to their parents’ house on weekends so that mom can wash their clothes while they spend the early morning with the rest of the military, but now without uniforms but with Blundstone boots, Zara shirts, and perfumed. They party like nobody’s business because Tel Aviv is well known for its intense nightlife. And that contrast is, of course, disconcerting.
For parents it’s tough. Loir, 68, with three children and two grandchildren, told me: “It’s always very difficult. When I went to the army, I hoped my boys wouldn’t have to go too. Now that they went, I hope my grandchildren don’t have to.” It’s hard because you always hope that the latest war will be the last. But it never has been. One war is followed by another. And the children go, en route, risking the worst.
“For us, it’s a source of pride, but bittersweet. My youngest boy finished the army last year and now he’s in Cancun, on a trip. He wants to be a journalist. When he got out of the army, I rested. I still have my three children with me, so I’m lucky,” Loir told me. He dreams of peace, of more children not having to hold a gun, but he knows that reality is far from that.
At dinner, Isaiah quotes Golda Meir to me: “If they lay down their arms, there will be peace; if we lay down our arms, we will disappear.” I don’t know if the quote is really hers, but it is true: Israel is in the middle of a neighborhood that wants its demise. All its neighbors, since the birth of the Jewish state in 1948, have sought to annihilate it. They have not been able to. Israel remains intact as a modern state, as the only democracy in the Middle East, with liberal cities not so different from New York or London—unthinkable in Riyadh, Tehran or Ramallah. The key is the Israel Defense Forces, founded on May 26, 1948, fourteen days after the creation of the state.
“Here in the Iron Dome we have a motto, which I want you to repeat with us,” Ronel told us. “The dome is iron,” he began. “The people are made of gold!.” We all clapped. It was moving. In the end, those ‘children,’ with their dreams, their social life, their tastes, principles, and desires, are heroes. Heroes of a particular country, which has resisted thanks to Moshe, Ronel, Alea, Jana, or Isaiah. It is growing and revolutionizing the technological world because its young people defend it and defend their people, who are happy and love their routine despite the missiles.