Of the many seder nights I attended in Israel over the years, I will never forget the one of ’00’, when a suicide terrorist blew himself up in the lobby of the Park Hotel in Netanya minutes before the seder was about to take place.
This devastating explosion took the lives of 30 Israelis who had gone to the hotel so that they could celebrate Pesach as a community, discuss the haggadah, enjoy the food, and sing the lovely Pesach songs around the festive table together.
On this same evening I was at my in-laws home in Haifa, enjoying a lovely seder with my family, when suddenly my cell phone rang. My commander from my reserve army unit was on the line. He briefed me with the details he knew, and announced what I already had guessed — my unit was recruited. The Israel Defense Forces would respond.
The decision to recruit reservists was made by the Israeli government in order to regain control of the major towns and villages of the west bank, which ultimately would put a stop to the numerous terror attacks in the center of Israel. In the month of March ’00’ alone, 100 Israeli lives had been lost in terrorist attacks. Prime Minister Sharon and the Israeli government decided to react, and so Operation Defense Shield began.
This was not the first time my reserve unit was recruited in what we call Tzav Shmone, which means Order No. 8, the IDF’s term for emergency recruitment of reserve units. I was recruited in 1991 when Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime fired Scud missiles into the heart of Israel, and we were trained and prepared to confront Iraq’s aggression. However, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was persuaded to stay out of that confrontation and allow President George H.W. Bush’s coalition to respond and act efficiently.
This time it was different; we were recruited and we knew we were going into combat. On March ‘8, ’00’, the first day of Pesach, thousands of Israeli reservists were called to serve their country. I arrived at my unit’s army base and joined my fellow officers in planning our first offensive attack — the Palestinian town Anabta.
We were given 48 hours to prepare our regiment and plan our attack. The town of Anabta had been under Palestinian rule since the Oslo accords of 1994 and the IDF had kept out of the large Palestinian towns since. We did not know what awaited us, and we were expecting the Palestinians to fight back.
My role in my Paratroopers Reserve Regiment was officer of operations. Having served as a company commander for over five years, it was now my responsibility to coordinate all the different units in our regiment into one efficient fighting machine.
Anabta fell in three hours and the terrorists fled into the villages and the hills surrounding the town. Our orders were to seize all the small villages and search them for ammunition and laboratories engaged in making explosives, and to find and arrest terrorists.
For 18 straight days, our regiment fought from village to village, town to town, arresting over ‘5 terrorists and confiscating rifles and ammunition used to murder Israelis.
We left our families on the night of the seder and returned home after Independence Day. My regiment had no casualties, but unfortunately our comrades who fought in the Palestinian town of Jenin lost 13 brave reservists, all leaving bereaved families — wives, parents, brothers, and sisters.
One very touching moment was on Yom HaZikaron, the memorial day for the IDF soldiers. We usually attend a ceremony in our town or go to a military graveyard for this important day. But in ’00’ the day arrived while we were still in combat in the west bank. We decided to improvise our own ceremony. In only two hours, all the units that were available were gathered in a deserted sports field in an old Jordanian army base. Someone found an Israeli flag and a post, and an old cooking pot was used for lighting the memorial fire. Some of the guys called home and their friends and wives dictated some readings and poems. When the evening came, all was ready. The ceremony was short but powerful. There was not one dry eye.
That same evening, after the ceremony was over, our regiment seized the Palestinian town of Kafar Raei. The next day, Independence Day, we fought in the town of Balah.
It was not until April 18, ‘0 days after we were recruited, that the operation was over and we were sent back to our families.
Pesach of ’00’ was the first seder I really felt and understood the meaning of Zman Heruteinu — our time of being a free people. Being a free Jewish nation in the land of our forefathers is something worth fighting for. Thousands of Israeli men were taken from the seder table, away from their families, and only returned home after the celebration of Independence Day. The symbolism was very clear to me: There is a line connecting the Exodus from Egypt to the independent State of Israel. Those who make this happen are the ones who are willing to fight, to confront, to sacrifice.
This year, at the seder table, please say a few words in favor of Israel. The struggle for freedom and liberation is not over yet. There are still many threats to our delicate young state. Pesach is the time to remember and learn about the children of Israel, and it is also time to support the contemporary brave citizens of the State of Israel.
Chag Pesach sameach.