Forty in Quarantine
Photo by Ramy Kabalan / Unsplash

Forty in Quarantine

Dror Poleg

Today is Israel’s 72nd Independence Day. It is also my 40th birthday. I am celebrating it in New York, where I now live with my wife and daughter. My parents planned to name me Arbel, the name of a mountain overlooking the Sea of Galilee. But since I was born on Independence Day, they called me Dror — an ancient Hebrew word for ‘Freedom’.

On my 20th birthday, I was a soldier in the Israeli army, stationed in Lebanon. My home base was a fortified outpost on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean and the beaches south of the ancient city of Tyre.

The view was not something people typically associate with the Middle East: Green hills, divided by fertile valleys, flowing into a deep blue sea. According to Greek Mythology, Tyre was the birthplace of Europe, a Phoenician princess who gave her name to the continent next door.

But Lebanon is very much in the Middle East. Almost every morning, we would wake up to a volley of mortar bombs, courtesy of the local Hizbollah warriors. Mortar bombs are loud, but mostly harmless — as long as you stayed indoors. Their most common victim was the main water tank. Every time it blew up, we had to stop showering for a few days until a convoy arrived with a new one.

Convoys were irregular. And they, too, got blown up or shot at every now and then. Most of our casualties were a result of such attacks. But there was no other way to get home. Convoys were scheduled to run once a week, at varying times and days to “confuse the enemy”. But they would often get canceled due to intelligence reports or an actual attack. As a result, Israeli soldiers were often stuck inside or outside, waiting for the next one.

And since our home base was inside Lebanon, being outside meant going directly home — without any other base to report to. My Israeli home, the one I grew up in, was a mere 60 miles to the south of my Lebanese outpost, along the same coast. Soldiers in other armies usually travel far away to kill and get killed. They are sent away for a few months or years. Those who make it back try to adjust. Those who manage to adjust go on with their lives.

Israeli wars are a bit different, especially the one I was in. Stuck between the First Lebanon War (1982) and Second Lebanon War (2006), Israel’s “Middle War” with Lebanon was unique. So unique that it did not have an official name, an emblem, or, for that matter, a goal. It is a war that was never declared. It lasted for about 18 years and took the lives of thousands of people. It boasted no sweeping battles, only a trickle of deaths, a slow grind that was easy enough for everyone to ignore.

The Middle War was absurd. In theory, we were stationed inside Lebanon to prevent attacks on Israeli civilians back home. In practice, most of our efforts were focused on not getting killed. This was not our personal decision (or instinct); it was the strategy of the military as a whole. Getting killed would make it politically costly to justify our presence in Lebanon. And if we couldn’t justify our presence, we couldn’t stay in Lebanon (and get killed). In theory, that led to a policy of “restraint” — staying inside enemy territory but trying to avoid the enemy. In practice, it meant that Israeli soldiers were sitting ducks: Too deep inside to remain safe and too restrained to defend ourselves or deter the enemy.

Often, when we identified an actual group of militants planning to fire missiles on our country (or on us), we were not allowed to do anything about it. There was always a reason. Sometimes, the Israeli government did not wish to “escalate” ahead of a visit from a foreign dignitary. Or to derail unspecified progress in the peace negotiations with Syria. Or to upset the Americans, Russians, Europeans, or its own public.

We would see Hizbollah set up their mortar and missile launchers. We would see the missiles fly. Sometimes they would hit our outpost. Sometimes people got injured. Sometimes people died. In the twelve months I spent in Lebanon, four of my eight teammates were injured.

One morning, I came up to replace Tal and Eran at our observation station. We had the best view in the house since it was our job to identify things before they happened. The night shift was ending, and so it was no longer necessary for the two of them to sit together. It was my time, alone.

A few weeks earlier, someone brought a “Panini Presser” toaster from home. Normally, soldiers were not allowed to connect any outside appliances to military sockets. But this is Lebanon and anyway, our observation station was off-limits to anyone else in the outpost.

The toaster was a hit. As I walked in to start my shift, Tal and Eran were busy making a “pizza” from sliced white bread, yellow cheese, and two packets of ketchup that one of them pocketed in McDonald’s on the way to the convoy. “We’re waiting for the cheese on the side to get toasted… come back in a few minutes”. I got an unexpected break.

I walked back to the main hall. The outpost had a single telephone that connected to an operator that could connect you to any number in Israel. There was usually a long line, but this morning, the phone was free. I called my parents. My dad said something about a group of soldiers who died in a different outpost elsewhere in Lebanon. My mom was asking how I am doing. Suddenly, an alarm went off, and the PA system was shouting “outgoing! Outgoing!”.

“What’s happening?”, my mom asked. It’s just a drill, I said. I have to go. I don’t know if she heard any of the explosions. I ran to the observation station. As I opened the door, I saw a cloud of dust, and Tal and Eran bumped into me on their way out. In Lebanon, even the injuries are not clear. You rarely get hit by a bullet. More often, you get a mix of shrapnel from whatever the mortar bombs or missiles happened to hit — cement, plastic, metal.

Tal and Eran were now lying on the floor in the main hall. They were covered in blood, with holes in different parts of their uniforms and bodies. One of them had a hole in his palm that you could see through. The other had a metal bar stuck in his right thigh; it stopped there after going straight through his left leg. The doctor and a couple of paramedics were now awake and tending to their wounds.

I finally found the time to feel dizzy. I sat down on the floor, trying to stay conscious. The rest of my teammates woke up and joined me in the hall. A few hours later, a special convoy that came up to take Tal and Eran to a proper hospital brought with it a new officer for us.

His name was Noam. I showed him the door to our observation station and we walked inside. A TOW Anti-tank missile was perched on the ledge of the window, pointing immediately at one of the chairs. On the wall behind the chair, a narrow hole was made by the missile’s charge. Anti-tank missiles don’t explode like bombs. They release a “shaped charge” of concentrated air that was originally designed to pierce metallic armor.

If Tal hadn’t gotten up to check on the toaster, the shaped charge would have cut him in half. I know because a few months later this happened to another soldier in our outpost. His name was Rafael, a new immigrant from Latvia. He was not a member of my team. He was standing at a smaller, less heavily-equipped observation station when a missile hit him. It took the army two weeks to locate his torso. At his official funeral, they buried only his legs.

Noam, the new officer, and I started cleaning up the mess left by the missile. I was terrified. Earlier that day, I saw two of my friends get perforated. Now I’m back in the same place and can’t even turn on any of the devices that are supposed to identify the next missile. And to make things worse, some of the stuff that got blown to pieces was made of materials that should not be touched or inhaled without special gear.

“In a few days, the next convoy will bring some new equipment and workers to re-pour the concrete wall”, Noam said. “In the meantime, we need to set up a temporary observation station elsewhere along the perimeter”. The temporary station was utterly exposed, located in the northeastern corner, at the highest and most visible point of the whole outpost. And because our equipment was damaged, I was using simple binoculars. That means that If I could see the enemy, they could easily see me as well.

A few minutes into my shift, mortar bombs started falling. Every attack begins with mortar bombs. They are cheap, they are loud, they are easy to set up— providing cover for the more elite units that operate more precise missiles or try to kidnap soldiers. I have never been more terrified. I sat on the floor, my head between my knees and my hands on my head, praying that this thing would end.

Our whole presence in Lebanon was absurd, and my own presence was the epitome of it. On the floor of an unequipped observation station, under fire from an enemy I could not see, struggling to fulfill my duty of not getting killed in order to help the politicians back home justify my own presence.

A few weeks later, we had an opportunity to hit back at the people who hit Tal and Eran. I was eating a doughnut when I noticed three men walking in formation in one of the orchards a couple of miles to the north. It was dark, but I could see on my monitor that they were carrying heavy bags. Hizbollah liked to strike during sunrise when they could see us better and we could barely see them. Nighttime is when they set up the equipment and waited.

It was a few hours before dawn. But we were not allowed to simply fire at the suspects. They were located beyond the “red line” — the northern border of the “security strip” of Lebanese territory held by the Israeli military. Any action beyond the red line required approval at a very high level, sometimes from the prime minister himself.

In the meantime, I kept my eyes on the three men in the orchard. I reported their activity to the Brigade HQ back in Israel. They reported it to the Division HQ, which looped in General Command, which sought approval to take down the target. After twenty minutes or so, Dana came up on the radio and told me we have permission to fire. Female soldiers were not allowed into Lebanon, so the radio operators at Brigade HQ were the closest thing we had to a mother figure. “Good luck”, she said.

I could not shoot them myself. They were too far for an M-16. Instead, I had to pass the coordinates to a separate unit. They had the range, but could not see the target as well as I could. It was a joint effort. They hit the target, but there was still movement. I guided them further, they hit again. And again. And that was it. We were all so happy. The doughnut I was holding got squeezed amid all the excitement. My uniform was covered in strawberry jam.

The next morning, Dana informed us that the Lebanese media is reporting that several “farmhands” were killed in an orchard by “indiscriminate Israeli fire”. In the movies, you get to see the action from multiple angles. In a real battle, it’s often not clear what actually happened. The fire dies out, and everyone crawls back into their caves.

The Lebanese media often lies about such things, but there is simply no way of knowing. Three men, walking in formation in the middle of the night, carrying heavy bags in an area where missiles have previously been shot from. Sounds plausible enough that they were Hizbollah warriors. But it is equally likely that they were farmhands. In real-time, you go with your gut.

Sometimes your gut saves you. Once in a while, mortar bombs are accompanied by a ground attack. Hizbollah knew that the odds of taking over an Israeli outpost were slim. But a combined attack can create enough confusion to allow them to kidnap a soldier or get close enough to plant a bomb that would blow up the next day’s convoy.

On one such attack, I ran to my assigned station on the dugout along the western perimeter. I was outside the main outpost, reasonably protected from rifle fire, but exposed to more substantial weapons. As I was scanning the dark horizon, I noticed a silhouette of a head, moving slowly towards me about 30 meters away. I was a reasonably good shot, and such a short distance is nothing when you have an M-16 with an optical gunsight.

“I see a character outside the western perimeter. Are any of our men out there?”, I radioed the outpost’s central operations room. No, I was told. Something didn’t make sense. The head in my gunsight was wearing a helmet. Hizbollah warriors usually didn’t. We were being bombarded and shot at, I identified a plausible enemy, I verified that our own people were not active in the area I was about to “clean up”. But I did not shoot.

The whole thing lasted less than a minute. The silhouette continued moving up the slope, more visible with every passing second. At first, I could make up only the head, then the neck, then the arms holding a rifle, and then the armored vehicle the man was riding on — standing upright through the top door. Hizbollah does not use such vehicles. It was one of ours. Under fire, the driver must have neglected to report that he was heading out west. Thank God I did not shoot.

A few days later, I caught a convoy back home. Every time I crossed the border, I was essentially on vacation. I would catch a bus or a ride to Haifa, and from there a train to my hometown. While at home, I was just a 20-year-old with nothing to worry about: I didn’t have to work, I didn’t have to study, and I didn’t have the need or the time to “adjust back”. I was only there for a few days, until the next convoy takes me back to the war.

That was my routine during my 20th year. Two weeks inside Lebanon, sleeping in a bunker, waking up to mortar bombs, seeing people lose their limbs. And one week at home, going to the beach, partying, drinking, and walking around people who had no idea that there’s a war going on.

A month after my 20th birthday, Israel decided to withdraw its forces from Lebanon. Ehud Barak promised to do so if he got elected, and he followed up on his promise. Barak was previously Israel’s most decorated military hero. As Prime Minister, he had the courage to end the war that no one ever dared to officially begin.

On the day of the withdrawal, I was at sea. I joined a special fleet of navy destroyers to provide cover for the retreating forces on land. We cruised along the Lebanese coast, looking into the valleys. Since I knew the local houses, roads, and operating methods, I could support the ship’s crew in case we had to blow anything up. At some point, I went below deck for a nap.

I woke up in Haifa. The withdrawal went by peacefully. I stepped off the boat and walked to the train station. I called my parents and told them I was back on Israeli soil. This was twenty years ago, minus a month.

Last week, a friend forwarded me a social media post about a former Israeli outpost in Lebanon that was converted to a resort. I looked it up on Google Maps. Then, I tried to find my own outpost. I knew our engineers blew it up before we left. In its place, there is now a restaurant. The online reviews say it’s good. Some of them included photos of the food and that beautiful view of the Mediterranean.

In one of the photos, a middle-aged man was smoking a hookah next to a table with a big plate of hummus and other salads.

It looked delicious.