“Israelity” – One American’s Experience in the World’s Hotspot

by Kenneth Hanson (September 2012)

I first journeyed to the Middle East as a young undergraduate student, a senior in college trying to finish my studies as a history major in the “cradle of civilization.” It must have had something to do with that Robert Frost poem: “I took the road less traveled by…” I had never been out of the continental United States in my life (save for a single afternoon in Tijuana), and now found myself in a foreign country for the first time. I knew nothing of the language, Hebrew, and my stomach was certainly unaccustomed the cuisine. It told me so repeatedly. Naturally, we’re talking serious culture shock here. But I had come halfway around the world to study, and that was what I decided to do. I enrolled in a little nondescript school for Americans, nestled among the trees on Mount Zion, and threw myself into the study of the ancient Near East. That was how I conquered my culture shock.

All trepidations aside, I barreled through my first semester of study abroad, and behold, I found that I could not get enough of this ancient, yet modern land. I decided to stay on and study the Hebrew language, the tongue of the Israelite prophets of long ago, Isaiah, Jeremiah, et al, now revived as the modern mode of speech of a brave little nation, struggling to survive against almost insurmountable odds, including some twenty-two hostile Arab-Islamic dictatorships. 

I came back to the States in due course and graduated, but my experience in Israel had fundamentally changed me. I decided to pursue graduate studies in international-intercultural communication and television, and within a few years I was on my way back to the state of Israel. This time I was in the employ of a ragtag little television station, situated just north of the Israeli border, in southern Lebanon. It was owned and operated by an American outfit that was trying to shine a little light into a region racked by internal conflict. I was sent to live in a border town in northern Galilee, called Kiryat Shmona. I was to commute over a hostile border every day to the Lebanese village of Marjayoun, where the television station was situated. That was to be my job…

Lebanon in those days was in the grip of civil war, between the Arab Muslim majority and a solid Christian minority, intent on preserving their religious and civil rights in the face of overwhelming oppression. They had allied with the Israelis, who had helped them carve out a small Christian enclave in the southern part of the country. It was known as Christian Free Lebanon, though the Israelis referred to it as their “security zone,” which served the pragmatic purpose of keeping militant terrorists far enough away from the border to prevent the firing of Katyusha rockets into Israel’s northern communities, including Kiryat Shmona. 

Naturally, the Israelis had a vested interest in keeping Christian Free Lebanon “free.” Consequently, convoys of Israeli troops regularly crossed the border, and I was often among them, driving a company-provided Jeep Cherokee, en route to what amounted to a concrete bunker, known as Middle East Television. My job was to broadcast family-oriented television across the region, as far as our signal would carry, which included the northern suburbs of Tel Aviv. I like to brag that I am the man who brought Bonanza to the Middle East! There was Hoss Cartwright, who would come lumbering onto the set, speaking perfect Arabic of course. When I wasn’t broadcasting, I was putting my Hebrew to work, getting monthly permits from the Israeli Defense Force, allowing our crew to commute back and forth from northern Israel into Lebanon’s war zone. As the situation deteriorated, geopolitically, we were kindly instructed to wear flak jackets at all times when driving in our vehicles. Not that such precautions would do much good against roadside bombs and the like. 

Then, one afternoon, while in the middle of another Bonanza broadcast, the walkie-talkie came to life. Something had happened out on the road leading from the Egel Gate on Israel’s border, across the valley to Marjayoun. With no one else at the controls in our television station, I had to leave Hoss Cartwright behind, grab the video camera, hop in the Jeep, and head off to “Ground Zero.” A small cadre of U.N. Observers in their blue berets (a lot of good they were…) had arrived already, perched on a hill overlooking the carnage below. 

It seems that a young teenage Lebanese Shiite girl, her head full of murderous propaganda, had boarded a pickup truck full of high explosives and headed off for Israel, just a few kilometers to the south. For years prior to this, Israel had a policy of allowing southern Lebanese to cross their border and take day jobs in Israel, on humanitarian grounds. The crossing point came to be known as the Good Fence. But in this case the girl in the truck was a homicide bomber, and her target was the innocents – non-combatants, especially women and children. 

If this girl had managed to get through the border, she would have driven straight into Kiryat Shmona or Metulla (a little village nestled exactly on Israel’s border) and blown herself up in the middle of as many civilians as she could find. Her radical Islamic indoctrinators had no compunctions about sending one of their own “innocents” to her suicidal death. But as a girl she was less likely to be suspected as a terrorist, so the plan was good in their warped minds. The plan, however, went slightly awry. When the girl saw the Israeli convoy passing through the valley, having just crossed the border checkpoint under intense security, she panicked. Rather than driving ahead and trying to get through, she barreled straight into the convoy, detonating her truck, herself, and several troop transports in one horrific explosion. 

Thirteen young Israeli soldiers, in the prime of life, died that day, and scores of others sustained serious injuries that would leave them forever scarred and disfigured. These were the details I was able to gather from the do-nothing “Observers” of the U.N. standing nearby. For me it was a moment of shivers and goosebumps, realizing that I had been on that road myself, passing through the valley just an hour before. I used to drive along with the convoys, since it always made me feel safer. But “safe” would not be the case today.

As agonizing minutes passed, I had to set up the camera as quickly as possible, balancing it on its tripod. Inserting the tape, I pressed “record,” as helicopters began to descend into the valley. Touching down amidst the mayhem, numbers of uniformed I.D.F. troops leaped to the ground and fanned out across the terrain, holding in their hands – of all things – plastic bags. There was no doubt what they would be putting into those bags … body parts, human remains, from their comrades-in-arms. Unlike radical Islamists, who obviously care not at all for human life, Israelis, obliged to follow the precepts of Jewish law, are tasked to take great care to inter every part of the body for a proper and respectful burial. Even spilled blood must be soaked up in sponges and buried with the deceased.

For me, however, it was the most gruesome thing I had ever witnessed. I had served in the American Army myself; but that was during peacetime. This was – and is – a common occurrence for the entire population of the Jewish state. I had the luxury of being just an “observer.” Today, I was just doing my job, which was soon interrupted by an Israeli military officer, who demanded that I surrender my videotape. I spent the rest of that afternoon tracking it down and trying to get it back. The Israelis, understandably skittish about the remains of their troops being videotaped, were nonetheless cooperative, and released the item.

My videotape was hustled back to our bureau in Jerusalem, then picked up by the major U.S. television networks, to be viewed by millions of Americans on the evening news. What a way for a young news-gatherer on a foreign field to get an “international scoop.” “Good job,” they told me in the office. But I learned a lesson that day. Those young men who died in that convoy weren’t just statistics. They were the sons of thirteen Israeli mothers and fathers, and they were right in front of my eyes. This is the price the state of Israel must pay for having the audacity to want to be a free people in their own land. For them this is an everyday reality – Isreality.

Kenneth L. Hanson is an Associate professor in the University of Central Florida Judaic Studies Program. His latest book, The Eagle and The Bible: Lessons in Liberty from Holy Writ is published by New English Review Press.


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