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WARFARE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Tears, Resolve, Questions at Israeli Military Funeral

July 27, 2006|Laura King and Tami Zer | Special to The Times

REHOVOT, Israel — In the small, sunbaked cemetery, the sounds of muffled weeping blended Wednesday with a father's steady incantation of the Jewish prayer for the dead, recited over the casket of his soldier son.

At least 33 soldiers, sailors and pilots have been killed in Israel's 15-day-old war in Lebanon, nine on Wednesday alone. Funerals like this one are taking place almost daily in towns and cities across the country.

On this day, hundreds of friends and relatives, neighbors and fellow soldiers gathered to mourn 20-year-old Yaakov Smilag, killed Monday when his Merkava battle tank was hit by Hezbollah fire outside the Lebanese border village of Maroun el Ras.

Another soldier died in that battle. Two pilots were killed the same day when their helicopter went down on the Israeli side of the border.

Neighbor Yaffa Levy wept, holding her hand to her mouth, remembering the boy she had known by his nickname, Koby.

"I'm ready to get on a tank myself and do the job instead of our youth getting killed," she said. "He was just a flower, his life hadn't started yet."

Nearly twice as many Israeli military personnel as civilians have died in the conflict, and some commentators have questioned whether the rising toll would begin to erode public support for the war. A grass-roots effort organized by the mothers of slain soldiers helped bring about a withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon six years ago.

"Bereavement is our soft underbelly, and Hezbollah and other terror groups know this," analyst Udi Lebel of Ben-Gurion University wrote in a commentary on the Yediot Aharonot newspaper's website, YNET. "In Israel, we don't know how to deal with [military] bereavement, and the public cracks and protests."

But Stuart Cohen, a military historian at Bar-Ilan University, said he believed Israel could continue to absorb the losses, not least because Israeli cities and towns are under attack by Hezbollah rockets. Nineteen civilians also have died.

"I think we're still far from the level at which there would be a public outcry to bring the boys home and so forth," Cohen said. "This combination of civilian and military casualties at the same time seems to encourage some kind of linkage, a burden-sharing."

Police in Rehovot, a city of about 85,000 people on Israel's southern coastal plain, halted traffic on the main streets as Smilag's funeral procession passed. Some onlookers covered their faces as the long line of cars, together with a military truck carrying the flag-draped casket, passed slowly by.

At the town's small military cemetery, dotted with blooms of pink and purple flowers, young soldiers wrapped their arms around one another, tears leaking from beneath their sunglasses. A red-bereted paratrooper comforted a blond young woman in olive drab as she leaned on his shoulder and cried.

"We have other friends who are either injured or still in combat, continuing the battle," said a soldier who gave only his first name, Gal. "We won't be broken down, and we won't give up. I was proud to fight alongside Koby."

But mourner Ahuva Levy, in her 40s, turned away. "I don't see why our children have to die there," she said.

Smilag's father, Eliezer, read the Kaddish, or prayer for the dead, in a strong, unwavering voice. The presiding rabbi, though, broke down in tears.

Mourner Gila Simcha, a family friend, said she feared the country's losses in Lebanon were only beginning. There would be more funerals like this one to attend, she said.

Then she paused, shaking her head.

"Only 20," she said. "Gone already."

*

King is a Times staff writer and Zer a special correspondent.

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