My pain the day our boys went to war

Thirty years ago this month, Israeli troops marched into Lebanon. Emma Klein recalls the tears and traumas of the women left behind

By Emma Klein, June 7, 2012
Israeli soldiers on the outskirts of Beirut in the summer of 1982. Back home,  wives and mothers offered each other support as they waited

Israeli soldiers on the outskirts of Beirut in the summer of 1982. Back home, wives and mothers offered each other support as they waited

A lone with two small sons in Ramat Gan, after my husband was called up in the Lebanon war in 1982, I had never felt more isolated. The invasion, officially named Operation Peace for Galilee, had been triggered by the assassination attempt in London on the Israeli ambassador, Shlomo Argov.

I remember standing in a supermarket on Friday June 4 as my husband showed me the headline in Ma'ariv. "There's going to be a war," I said immediately. I had arrived in Israel a few months earlier to join my husband, an Israeli who had been working for a bank in London but had been transferred back to his home country. I had heard talk of the government's desire to start a conflict. Here was the perfect opportunity. Two days later the incursion began.

A medic in the reserves, my husband was called up shortly afterwards, promising that the war would be over "tomorrow" and he would soon be home. After all, was not the target of the operation to clear a 45 kilometre cordon sanitaire free from the range of PLO weaponry? Even so, we agreed that this "war of choice" was wrong and I was left feeling totally desolate. My husband's predictions were soon proved to be wildly over-optimistic.

Left at home, I found myself in a small minority. Bereft of the extended family and friends I had in London, there was barely anyone I could talk to. Women huddled together in supermarkets, more intent on their conversation than their purchases, were clearly not expressing the dissent I felt. Indeed, stirrings of patriotism, common to all Israel's wars, were fanned by melodies from the early days of statehood played constantly on the radio. Were I to strike up a conversation with some neighbour, expressing my opinion about the incursion, I would undoubtedly be labelled as "that English woman".

Ironically, the person closest to me in Israel, apart from my husband, was my sister, living only moments away. She was busy with four young children but this was not what prevented me from sharing my anguish with her. She held diametrically opposed political views, was in favour of the operation and would have expressed great impatience.

As days passed, however, I got calls from some of my husband's work colleagues, most of whom I had never met, and was grateful for the moral support they offered. And one neighbour, American-born Ilana, was someone I could approach. She was then married to a doctor in the regular army who had left for the Golan Heights a few days after the start of the invasion.

There were two other women with whom I linked my fate, finding a kind of solidarity as I realised that I was going to have to survive this ordeal. One was Seemah, a family friend, who lived nearby. With both her sons enlisted in the thick of the fighting, her anxiety was something I could empathise with, although I could not share her extreme right-wing outlook. The other was Henya, one of my best friends in Israel, whom I phoned in moments of desperation. Her husband, too, had been called up. Indeed on one occasion, paradoxically, it was I who was attempting to lift her spirits. Despite being Israeli-born and endowed with numerous relatives, she seemed even more cast down. As her young daughter wrote to her father, "not a day passes without tears welling up in mummy's eyes".

It is quite likely that Henya was more aware of the dangers to which her husband was exposed. For the first few days, at least, I remained ignorant of my husband's actual whereabouts, believing him to be with back-up forces on the Golan Heights.

By the morning of the first Friday, however, I came to realise that he was likely to be found in some hot spot, learning later that he was near Sidon and then in Beirut. The BBC World Service spoke of fierce battles raging in the Beirut area, the high estimates of civilian casualties and the barrage of criticism Israel was receiving throughout the world. Unable to hold back my tears I phoned Henya, to whom I had poured out my less than patriotic sentiments just the night before. Why had the operation outstepped its defined aims? How long would Israeli soldiers lose their lives for a cause that was not going to result in lasting peace? Henya's own disaffection led her to agree with some of my arguments. The morning ended, however, with news of an official unilateral ceasefire - this encouraged me to believe that my husband would soon be home.

That was another illusion. In the next few days, the toll of fatalities seeped out and funeral announcements on the news seemed endless. One evening I was with Ilana, who had gone to one of the burials, and her teenage daughter. All three of us were weeping.

Seemah had heard bad news. Her elder son's dearest friend, a tank commander like he was, had been killed. It turned out that his tank had been hit by a Syrian missile and it was some time before his body could be identified. Seemah's younger son, on leave a few days later, said it might have been better if the two friends, who had been so close, had died together.

A neighbour I barely knew had lost her son, in friendly fire. I was struck by her gentle dignity and lack of bitterness. As I learned later from my husband, there were several such instances.

Eventually I received some postcards from my husband, written in Hebrew and intentionally bland. Frustratingly, I missed a call which may have given me news of him and got a confused message from my elder son. Another call my son took was from my mother-in-law, who lived near Ashkelon. He had the presence of mind to tell her that his father was away "for work". Both boys were behaving well, asking only: "When is dad coming back?"

My husband did eventually come home. Miraculously, a grenade fired at the vehicle in which he was travelling back from Beirut had missed by a whisker. In a letter I only received later, he had written that Israel could not rely for ever "on God and the gun". I sensed he was mourning something about the country that the war had destroyed - it was this feeling of loss, I believe, that enabled me to persuade him to leave soon after and settle in London. In contrast, my sister and her family moved to the West Bank the following year.

When news of the massacres of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Chatila camps broke, I heard several of my Israeli friends maintain "it was not our fault". But for the majority there were agonised outbursts of soul-searching as to whether Israel's troops had been negligent in failing to prevent the killings. The huge demonstrations of protest that followed showed that at least one benefit had emerged from the conflict - the conscience of Israelis, if not their government, had been reawakened, and the nation's moral ethos restored.

Emma Klein is the author of a biography of Sir Sigmund Sternberg, 'The Knight with Many Hats'

Last updated: 12:17pm, June 13 2012