Losing a Friend at the Front
I don’t need Israeli Memorial Day to remember Alex Assaf, the kindest—and tallest—soldier I have ever known
It was a typically hot day in late August of 2006, but I was enjoying the breeze high atop Mt. Gerizim, almost 3,000 feet above sea level. I was taking part in a military course that was touring the West Bank. An officer was pointing out the Nablus casbah in the valley far below us where some of the fiercest battles of Operation Defensive Shield had taken place, but my mind was on other, more recent combat. While the Second Lebanon War was by that point officially over, my infantry unit, the Rotem battalion of the Givati brigade, was still in South Lebanon. I was two years into my mandatory service then, and those years had been mostly peaceful. But the summer of 2006 had been very different.
My unit had been called up north fairly late in the war, because it had been busy fighting the battles of Operation Summer Rains in the Gaza Strip. Those battles had started in late June, when the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured by Hamas on the border with Gaza. Barely two weeks later, Hezbollah attacked an IDF patrol on the Lebanese border, killing three soldiers and capturing two more; Israel declared war. I had spent much of that summer on the northern border but hadn’t seen much action, aside from the constant barrage of Hezbollah rockets that I quickly grew used to. In mid-August the United Nations had brokered a ceasefire, but Israel was taking its time withdrawing its forces, and many of my friends were still on the other side of the border.
It had been an odd, lengthy war. On the border, as my unit received conflicting orders for operations that seemed to change several times a day, I would read in the newspaper about how the battles were progressing. The war was fought mainly from the air, and the Israeli leadership was torn between those who wanted to keep it that way and those who thought that only a massive operation on the ground would win the war. By war’s end, over 100 of my fellow soldiers had been killed—nearly a third of them, tragically, on the very final days of the war, when the U.N.-brokered ceasefire was clearly in sight and a ground operation finally authorized. Over 40 Israeli civilians had been killed as well, in Hezbollah rocket attacks on towns and cities in Northern Israel. And yet this hadn’t felt much like war, certainly not like the stories I’d heard from my father about the Yom Kippur War of 1973. The battles were scattered and the enemy mostly in hiding. Barely two hours’ drive from the border, in Tel Aviv, the cafés and beaches were as packed as ever. I saw this for myself the day the war ended and I got to go home for the first time in what seemed like forever; I didn’t know what to think. Whether or not Israel had actually won remained an unanswered question.
So, on that late August morning overlooking Nablus, I felt a mixture of relief and guilt. I was relieved that the war was over and that I was far from Lebanon and Gaza. But I also felt guilty for that feeling of relief. Was it luck that had kept me out of harm’s way throughout the war, or lack of it? After all, I was a squad commander, and ground combat was what I had trained for. At the very least, so long as my friends were still in Lebanon, shouldn’t I be up there with them? My thoughts were in Lebanon, and every couple of minutes I would refresh the Ynet news site on my cell phone. That’s why I was quick to spot the latest headline: 1 SOLDIER KILLED, 2 SEVERELY WOUNDED IN LEBANON. I immediately texted Kobi, a good friend since my first day in basic training and whom I knew was on the border with our unit: Was everyone alright? Kobi was quick to respond: Alex Assaf had been killed.
There was nothing particularly remarkable about the fact that in July 2004, just weeks out of high school, I was joining the army. Military service here is mandatory, and while growing up, it was probably one of the most reliable facts of life. That I was to be kravi—that is, in a combat unit—wasn’t as obvious. Only about 15 percent of Israeli soldiers are fighters, but it was what I wanted. It wasn’t that I found combat so enticing a prospect; it was pure old-fashioned Zionism. Growing up during some pretty troubled years, scores of soldiers had defended Israel and allowed me to have a fairly normal youth. Now it was my turn.
I was to serve in Givati, the ground infantry brigade identifiable by its purple berets. The original 1948-era Givati was disbanded after fighting in Israel’s War of Independence. When it was reestablished in the ‘80s, Givati initially suffered from a bad rep, lacking the glamour of the legendary paratroopers who had freed the Western Wall in 1967, or the Golani brigade that had conquered Mt. Hermon in the Yom Kippur War. But by 2004, Givati had a heritage of its own: During the Second Intifada, the brigade was deployed in the Gaza Strip and saw some of those years’ most intense combat. By the time I enlisted, there was only one spot available for every two soldiers who wanted in.
After getting shots and learning how to tie our new boots in the IDF’s enlistment center near Tel Aviv, we were bused to Givati’s training base in Ktziot, by the Egyptian border, to begin basic training. It was there, on the first day of basic training, that I met Alex. We were in the same squad, which is to say that we spent about 17 hours a day together on our feet (we got six hours of sleep a night and another hour to shower, call home, and let off steam before lights out). At night, we shared a tent with the rest of our squad; a massive dusty green affair that also happened to afford a wonderful summer breeze. (I was nearly a year into my service before I got to sleep in a proper room, and that took some getting used to.)
Alex was the giant of our unit. To tower over me does not require particularly exceptional height, but at 6’6″, Alex towered over us all. After we had mastered our M-16s, we were each to specialize in one of several other weapons. Alex knew that his massive frame virtually guaranteed him the weapon soldiers dreaded the most: the FN MAG, a 26-pound Belgian machinegun equal parts unwieldy and deadly. His prediction was correct, of course, but he never let the MAG dampen his spirits. His plan did not allow for that. My first memory of Alex is of craning my neck up at him as he told me, totally off-handedly, that he planned on a military career. To say such a thing on the first day of basic training, when you are the lowest of the low, and when the furthest most can see is to the end of that day’s training, or the weekend at most, required some hubris or naiveté. But that wasn’t Alex. He had a special sort of calm about him, and it was only after he died that I realized how tough he must have been, and why basic training didn’t scare him.
Alex Assaf was born in Kiev in 1984, as Alex Yegushin. His mother Helena was hurt during the Chernobyl disaster and was unable to care for Alex properly. Chabad emissaries helped him make aliyah by himself, when he was only 6 and a half years old. His mother followed some years later, but after welfare authorities found them to be living in neglect, Alex was soon sent to a foster family in the northern town of Karmiel.
The State Department cables show that the Palestinian leader was a key asset to the U.S. during the Kissinger years