A member of my high school class is currently in an IDF officer-training course. His unit assisted in the disengagement. Below is an exerpt from an email (edited for spelling) he sent out to members of our class, telling about what he witnessed at Atmona. It is a very moving account, and I believe it captures a side of the story that has not been told enough: that of the soldier who was ordered to do something that a short time ago was unthinkable, and who did what he did out of the belief that it was for the ultimate good. Since I was not there, I do not believe that I have the right to make any judgements.
Monday night we received orders to pack up and move to Gush Katif, the main bloc of Israeli communities in the southern Strip. We arrived at my old stomping grounds as the sun was setting, except this time I was there to forcibly evacuate Israelis, not to protect them. we entered Rafiah Yam at night, the southern westernmost town in Israel. All of its residents had already evacuated, and the army was to use it to house its soldiers. We waited around in the dark for a while, then our Mem-pay (Company Commander) sat us all down and began to speak.
He told us that he had volunteered us for a special mission, and that it was voluntary on our part to participate. The pre-Army yeshiva in Atzmona had decided that it would voluntarily leave at 11pm, and hour before the midnight deadline. They wanted a company of officer cadets to escort them, and that was our job. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, Atzmona is a legend. The name itself means ‘toward strength’, and the yeshiva has produced hundreds officers and commandoes over the years, who go on to become leaders in Israeli society. It is not only a physical place; it is a spiritual and educational path. When you hear that someone learned at Atzmona, you automatically have a sense of reverence for the person. The head rabbi, Rafi Peretz, is a combat pilot who preaches the importance of unity of the Jewish people and sacrifice for the community. Even though he had worked for years to build the academy, and despite the loss in front of his eyes of five of his students at the hands of a terrorist while he gave a lecture, he was willing to lead his students out peacefully instead of taking the risk of creating a fracture in the unity of the nation by resisting his army. Even in its darkest hour, Atzmona was able to be an example for everyone.
On the bus ride on the way, a cadet who had learned there before the army and watched two of the students die in the attack stood to talk a little about his experiences there. He told us that when they would finish their morning run on the dunes, led by Rabbi Peretz of course, they would all gather round and sing a song from Isaiah ‘those who run will not tire’. While we were waiting to go in to Atzmona, we circled up and sang the song that the cadet taught us-its usually a happy and uplifting song but we sang it solemnly. We drove on in and encountered some early teenage girls who had established a makeshift roadblock on the way to the yeshiva. We thought that they might hold us up for a bit, but they opened it for us and sang “we love the IDF”. But when we got off the buses and lined up to march to the yeshiva, a group of young boys started hurling slogans at us and demanded that we refuse our orders. Not nice, but it’s to be expected. We reached the gate of the academy when one of our officers told us that they weren’t ready for us yet inside, so we turned around and marched back to the bus, giving the little protesters a momentary victory.
After a half hour we marched back in the dark, and walked to the outside of the study hall/synagogue. We could see inside the windows, about 30 yards away, and the place was packed inside. They were nearing the end of their last prayer, and almost everyone was crying and swaying. After the prayer ended, we heard them sing the Hatikvah , the Israeli national anthem. Then they got into a circle (Jews do that a lot) and started singing. And what was their first song? In a resounding display of not everything in the world happening by coincidence, they started with the very song from Isaiah that we had sang while we waited for permission to enter. We stood there in the night and watched and listened to them sing, until one of our officers told us to go in and be with them. On the way in, the commander of the southern region, Gen. Dan Harel, passed me on his way out. I didn’t know what to expect when I walked in, whether they would be angry at us and refuse to talk to us, or whether they would let us help them in their time of grief. I was happy to find it was the latter. The scene upon entering was unforgettable- the entire hall was one large circle of men with arms around each others shoulders, soldiers and students and rabbis, all singing. The commander of Givati was there, as was the commander of the officers school. Many students were sitting there in shock on the benches, not believing that their most fervent prayers had not been answered. Many bawled aloud in each others arms. Two students went to kiss the Torah scrolls up front for the last time. The singing and crying went on for twenty minutes, with the rabbi going around and comforting each one of his students. He was smiling. Finally, he told them all the time had come to leave for the last time. Slowly they started to file out. i didn’t know what to do, so i went to a number of them and simply told them “thank you”- for what they had done, for being willing to live there for the rest of us. after the room emptied, the students started taking their bags down to the buses waiting for them to take them to their families homes. I saw the commander of Givati, Col. Eyal Eisenberg, and Rabbi Peretz with their arms around each other. Col. Eisenberg was crying and the rabbi was whispering something to him. they stayed that way for several minutes. I offered to help one of the students help with carrying his things to the bus, and he accepted. His name was xxxx, from Kibbutz Yavneh, and he was going to enlist in the elite Sayeret Matkal unit in a number of months.
I called my former lieutenant, xxxx, who was a product of Atzmona. He couldn’t believe it when i told him that it was gone, it just didn’t register for him. He was angry too, and told me that the country was no longer a good place, that i should go on back to Boston. Of course, he didn’t really mean it, but the fact that he was saying that meant that he was wounded deeply by the process. i asked him if there was anything i could do, and he told me in a tired and broken voice that if i could bring him some sand from Atzmona, that would mean a lot to him.
And then the buses left and were gone, and the yeshiva, which had until minutes before been a place of spirit and learning and most importantly, life, for years was quiet and empty.
I felt like we had killed something.
Then it was midnight, and from then on, there would be evacuation by force.