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Israelis mourn fallen soldiers

At Staff Sgt. Amit Robinson's funeral at a northern kibbutz, family and friends, who support the Gaza offensive, wonder what direction it will take, and whether leaders can actually 'finish the job.'

January 10, 2009|Richard Boudreaux

KIBBUTZ MAGAL, ISRAEL — Soldiers in black berets carried their young comrade home in a wooden coffin and laid him to rest in the shade of an elm tree. They mingled with his parents and sisters and the friends he grew up with on the kibbutz, many of them also in army uniform.

"Together let us be strong, and this will give strength to Amit's comrades . . . to finish the job on the battlefield," Maj. Nir Rosenberg, deputy commander of the soldier's armored battalion, said in a eulogy.

Long after the ritual three-gun salute, soldiers and civilians lingered around the grave, embracing one another and weeping. Some had just come from fighting in the Gaza Strip.

Israelis tend to grieve as one big family when the country suffers casualties in combat. Military service is compulsory for men and women in Israel, soldiers have a special place in society, and it is widely accepted that foes of the Jewish state should be confronted with force. The funeral for Staff Sgt. Amit Robinson on Friday reflected a consensus in Israel that the offensive against Gaza's Hamas rulers is necessary and just.

But Israelis are less certain about what it would mean to "finish the job" against Hamas.

Though they agree that years of rocket fire by the militant Palestinian group must be stopped, Israelis differ over whether that aim could be achieved by sending the army deeper into Gaza.

And they acknowledge that support for the offensive could quickly diminish if Israel's casualty toll rises sharply and Hamas' battered forces continue to launch rockets into southern Israel.

Friday's newspapers in Israel displayed front-page photographs of Robinson and two other soldiers killed the day before. Israel's death toll in the 2-week-old offensive stands at 13, including three civilians and a soldier killed by rocket fire into Israel. Four of the soldiers were killed by "friendly fire."

In Gaza, the death toll in the Israeli offensive has reached nearly 800, with United Nations estimates that more than one-third of the dead are civilians. But that does not appear to have caused much hand-wringing in Israel.

"I cannot be indifferent to the deaths of so many children in Gaza," said Julio Kleiger, 55, a resident of this kibbutz in northern Israel. "At the same time, I cannot tolerate the suffering of my compatriots in the south who have lived under rocket fire for the past seven years.

"We have not achieved our goal in Gaza," he added as he left the funeral. "But I think we have to keep fighting."

Not all Israelis relish what lies ahead if the country's leaders decide to expand the offensive. The army would move deeper into Gaza's densely populated cities and refugee camps and probably meet far more resistance from Hamas than it has thus far. About 1.5 million Palestinians live in the 140-square-mile territory.

It was not clear Friday, after both sides rejected a U.N. Security Council call for a cease-fire, whether Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his senior ministers had ordered such an escalation.

"We know that the basic military force of Hamas is still intact," said Ami Mazar, 66, a Hebrew University archaeology professor who attended the funeral. "Getting rid of the Hamas regime would be the ideal solution, but that's probably impossible. So when do we decide that Hamas has had enough?"

Relatives of slain Staff Sgt. Robinson said the army was in a vulnerable position as leaders debated what to do. Having fought to the edge of Hamas' urban strongholds with no orders yet to continue, Israeli soldiers have become relatively stationary targets.

"They aren't going forward and they aren't going back, and that's the worst situation for a soldier to be in," said Miguel Cirulnik, 46, a retired army lieutenant colonel who is Robinson's uncle. "This is what leads to the kind of tragedy we're mourning today."

Relatives said they were informed that Robinson, 20, a radio operator in the armored battalion, was killed by long-range sniper fire when he poked his head out of a tank that had been deployed just outside the city of Jabaliya in northern Gaza for nearly a week.

Friends described him as a fun-loving guy with an infectious sense of humor and a quiet determination to succeed. He had grown up with a tight circle of friends on this farming kibbutz, which also manufactures drip irrigation pipes, and joined the army after finishing high school last year.

"Only three weeks ago I saw you at a party and you told me you were 'going down' [to Gaza] and I said, 'Don't worry, it'll be all right,' and we kept on laughing and enjoying the party," Yardena Koren recalled in her eulogy.

Robinson had briefly left Gaza on Tuesday for repairs on his tank and spoken by phone to one of his two sisters.

Eliyahu Robinson, an Argentina-born clinical psychologist with a white ponytail, stood over his son's grave in a green T-shirt and jeans, rocking back and forth with his hands in his front pockets.

His eulogy reflected Israel's uncertainty over how the fight will turn out.

"You made the ultimate effort; you gave your life," Robinson said. "Whether this effort was worth it or not, only time will tell."

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boudreaux@latimes.com

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