Israeli mothers wait as their sons patrol firing line

Israelis are accustomed to opening their morning paper and seeing a row of young faces on the front page, faces of soldiers killed the day before in Lebanon or elsewhere. They are momentarily saddened, but soon turn the page — unless one of those faces is familiar, in which case there is a profound shock, which reaches a crescendo during the funeral and continues for a long period thereafter.

I myself am suffering from such a shock, having recently returned from a shivah (condolence) visit to the home of a former colleague whose son fell victim to a Hezbollah rocket in Lebanon in early March. It was easy to find the apartment house in which she and her family live, for the street leading up to it was filled with memorial notices, as was the entrance to the building itself.

When I reached their apartment, a fourth-floor walkup, I found that the bereaved woman was amazingly composed, even though she must have been churning inside. When she was not exchanging kisses or handshakes with the stream of friends and relatives who flowed through the living room, she chatted with those around her — about her son, the rest of her family and, of course, Lebanon.

For her, as for the many others who have recently lost loved ones in that country, their loss is especially hard to take in view of the fact that withdrawal from Lebanon is now widely advocated. And, they ask bitterly, if a pullback makes sense now, why wasn't it decided upon earlier?

While that discussion was going on around the mother, people farther away were chatting in subdued tones with one another and passing around an album with photographs of her son. There were the usual shots in any Israeli collection, of the youngster at school and in the Scouts, of his lounging on the beach in Eilat with a friend and of his picking irises on the Gilboa with a girlfriend. The fact that the photos were so commonplace was very unsettling for the woman sitting next to me, who said: "It could have been the album of my oldest son, the one who is being called up tomorrow and plans to volunteer for the same crack unit in which her boy served."

Earlier in the day, there was a condolence call by President Ezer Weizman, who makes it a practice to visit every family that has lost a son in battle. How he has had the strength to call upon 500 such families is beyond my understanding.

But one could equally well ask how ordinary Israelis, and particularly Israeli mothers, have the strength to go about their normal activities while their sons are on the firing line. If the women could look forward to the day when there would be no more memorial notices for the fallen on this country's notice boards and on the entrances to its apartment houses, things might be easier for them. That day, however, is nowhere in sight.