August 16, 2006

A Truckload of Goodwill

Undeterred by the Heathrow shutdown I turned up for last Thursday’s night flight to Israel. I had no business there and no formal holiday plans. I just felt I needed to be there, perhaps to help out friends and family whose breadwinners had been called up for reserve duty.

On the trek to the El Al gate it was bizarre not see or hear a single cellphone. In this respect at least, the Islamists were succeeding in their assault on Western freedoms and turning the clocks back on progress. Calling home, I couldn’t remember the last time I had used a normal payphone. The Chassidim looked forlorn without their oversized tallis bags and had to conform with the rest of us and our clear plastic bags.

By the following evening I was enjoying a Friday night meal with my cousins in Jerusalem. Ronit and her son-in-law Adi are paramedics in Magen David Adom. They told me of the plight of besieged families in the North and how grateful they were for the few supplies that MDA and others were able to bring. Home Front Command seemed about as unprepared for citizens in shelters as the IDF Command were unprepared for terrorists in bunkers.

One remarkable thing about Israel is the leverage of personal power. The vast majority of private aid organizations and soup kitchens that have helped the nation survive suicide bombings, recession and the Gaza expulsions have been created by very ordinary people with resources measured in love rather than money or influence. This week, in a small but special way, I joined that exclusive club, working with my cousins on the plan we hatched that Friday night.

At 8 am, on the first morning of the ceasefire, we turned up at a wholesale meat plant in Jerusalem’s Romema district to load up 700 kilogrammes of pre-packed chicken and meat meals into a rental van donated by a hi-tech company. Then, on to the supermarket to fill the remaining space with diapers, rice, canned foods, sugar, oil and any other essentials we could think a family might need after a month of siege. And, for good measure, we stocked up with drinks, cookies and snacks for any soldiers we might meet along the way.

Against a steady stream of homebound troops in their armoured vehicles, we wound our way up to Kiryat Shemona by midday, heading for the home of Ofer, an army reservist and local community volunteer. There we unloaded the perishables into ice-cream freezers Ofer had rigged up in his backyard. Within a couple of hours, 18 families had already been allocated their food and necessities.

With the soldiers’ goodies still on board, we pressed northward towards Metulla and – what used to be called – The Good Fence. Apart from the odd Katyusha craters in the roads, damage was surprisingly light. But on closer inspection it could be seen that the rocket payloads were lethal, with signs of ball bearings having torn through even the metal barriers at the roadside. We passed an open field in which some 40 tanks were parked. Their lowered gun barrels seemed to reflect the exhaustion of their crews, tasked with vanquishing in 48 hours an enemy they were held back from engaging for over 3 weeks.

Standing on a Metulla street corner, you can literally see into the front rooms of Lebanese houses on the opposite hillside. It was hard to believe Israelis here had been living tooth by jowl with feral Hizbullah neighbours for so many years. Pressing further we reached the Lebanese border and parked at a 100 metre gap in the fence beyond which an unmanned IDF tank stood in a ploughed-up field. I stepped into Lebanon.

But just one step.

Around the corner we delighted an IDF camp with gifts of drinks, cookies and snacks together with packets of wet towels to clean themselves up. Patting tankists on the back often raised a plume of dust. “From London??” they marveled. Many just couldn’t believe that sane people would choose Israel as a destination in wartime, let alone bring goodies all the way up to the front line.

Our cargo hold finally emptied, we headed back down towards Kiryat Shmona. But there was to be an unscheduled stop. Adi turned the van into the empty car park of Tel Chai cemetery. In the centre of the car park was a pile of rocks surrounded by memorial candles topped with a blue and white flag. This was the spot where 12 army reservists were horrifically killed by a Katyusha which landed in the middle of their briefing assembly. It was a truly heartrending scene, surrounded by bare and blackened trees scorched by the explosion. Wedged in between the rocks of the makeshift memorial I noticed the charred remnant of a pair of spectacles.

As we wound our way back through Kiryat Shmona and Afula, the sadness of Kfar Giladi soon gave way to the heartening sight of makeshift banners on the roadside welcoming the troops on their homeward journey. An outpouring of goodwill as spontaneous as our own private mission that day.

Whilst many soldiers will be back with their families this Friday night, the vast majority have remained on station, with few illusions about the ceasefire lasting very long.

Over the past four weeks we may have seen the worst of Hizbulla.

But we have also seen the best of the ordinary citizens of Israel.


Add to Technorati Favorites Tweets by @ZalmiU