Dispatch From Israel: A Soldier Dies, Strangers Gather To Mourn
Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” plays as you drive south out of Tel Aviv in a heavy rain. It’s incongruous with what you are driving toward, a visit with the family of Ahmad Abu Latif, the Bedouin soldier killed, along with 20 other members of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), when the buildings on the Gaza border his company was preparing for controlled demolition were hit by RPG missiles.
Some Israelis have criticized the IDF for putting so many soldiers in one small location, essentially making them sitting ducks. You do not think any possible strategic failure behind Ahmad’s death, at age 26, will matter to his mother. You also have no idea what gift to bring her.
“How should I know?” asks the young salesman at the counter of the roadside shop in Rahav. Then: “Maybe dates.”
You carry the 5-kilo pack of dates, as big as an overnight case, past a dozen men smoking in an outdoor tent by an open brazier. That way, one indicates, pointing toward an open door. Inside, a woman is looking at you. She is wedged into the far edge of a couch, in order, you will realize during your visit, that the people who file in and out might sit beside her, as they take her hand, as they tell her, in Hebrew, Arabic, and English, that they are so sorry.
Nearly all of them are strangers to her. They have learned of Ahmad’s death and feel compelled to be of what comfort they can. It is unclear if any are succeeding. Ahmad’s mother is today’s terrible avatar; a place to which people carry their collective grief. It’s been nearly four months since the October 7 massacre and nothing is close to being settled. By the end of the day, three more IDF soldiers and an uncounted number of Gazans will have been killed, deaths you hear about on the car radio, news delivered between the DJ playing the favorite songs of individual hostages at the top of every hour, including one called “Sunbeam” that is gaily sweet and under the circumstances makes you cry.
But first you eat the dates, you drink the Turkish coffee, you listen to a sister-in-law tell you, through a translator, that Ahmad was “a golden guy, a hero, he brought the sunshine.” You learn he worked very hard; that in high school he cleaned an oncology unit at the hospital and, more recently, was a security guard at Ben Gurion University, where he would tell the students, “One day I am going to be teaching you.” His dream was to teach social sciences or maybe math, like his wife Zahara, who sits in a plastic chair beside you looking as though all the viscera has been sucked out of her. She watches over her 11-month-old daughter, named Mansoora (“Winner”) after Ahmad’s mother, and offers short nods to those who press to
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