It was a typically hot day in late August of 2006, but I was enjoying the breeze high atop Mt. Gerizim, almost 3,000 feet above sea level. I was taking part in a military course that was touring the West Bank. An officer was pointing out the Nablus casbah in the valley far below us where some of the fiercest battles of Operation Defensive Shield had taken place, but my mind was on other, more recent combat. While the Second Lebanon War was by that point officially over, my infantry unit, the Rotem battalion of the Givati brigade, was still in South Lebanon. I was two years into my mandatory service then, and those years had been mostly peaceful. But the summer of 2006 had been very different.
My unit had been called up north fairly late in the war, because it had been busy fighting the battles of Operation Summer Rains in the Gaza Strip. Those battles had started in late June, when the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured by Hamas on the border with Gaza. Barely two weeks later, Hezbollah attacked an IDF patrol on the Lebanese border, killing three soldiers and capturing two more; Israel declared war. I had spent much of that summer on the northern border but hadn’t seen much action, aside from the constant barrage of Hezbollah rockets that I quickly grew used to. In mid-August the United Nations had brokered a ceasefire, but Israel was taking its time withdrawing its forces, and many of my friends were still on the other side of the border.
It had been an odd, lengthy war. On the border, as my unit received conflicting orders for operations that seemed to change several times a day, I would read in the newspaper about how the battles were progressing. The war was fought mainly from the air, and the Israeli leadership was torn between those who wanted to keep it that way and those who thought that only a massive operation on the ground would win the war. By war’s end, over 100 of my fellow soldiers had been killed—nearly a third of them, tragically, on the very final days of the war, when the U.N.-brokered ceasefire was clearly in sight and a ground operation finally authorized. Over 40 Israeli civilians had been killed as well, in Hezbollah rocket attacks on towns and cities in Northern Israel. And yet this hadn’t felt much like war, certainly not like the stories I’d heard from my father about the Yom Kippur War of 1973. The battles were scattered and the enemy mostly in hiding. Barely two hours’ drive from the border, in Tel Aviv, the cafés and beaches were as packed as ever. I saw this for myself the day the war ended and I got to go home for the first time in what seemed like forever; I didn’t know what to think. Whether or not Israel had actually won remained an unanswered question.
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