Aug. 17, 2001
Israeli soldiers in Vancouver
Israelis return to uncertainty
Soon-to-be soldiers are ready to defend their country, even in war.
KYLE BERGER REPORTER
Nineteen-year-old Gilad Halbani shows no fear as he confidently
directs the 150 horses that power his rented motor boat across the
sun-drenched waters of Burrard Inlet.
With both hands on the wheel and his eyes absorbing the peaceful
scenery that surrounds him, he enjoys having complete control of
his environment for the moment, with the calm, predictable water
The vistas help keep his mind off the future, when his reality
will take a 180-degree turn; when his lack of fear will be replaced
by the dread of not knowing what lies ahead; when he returns to
Israel. Just 50 kilometres away and across the Georgia Strait, on
beautiful Gabriola Island, Halbani's friend Avner Matan manoeuvres
his way deftly around a defender as he shows the campers of Habonim
Dror's Camp Miriam how Israelis play basketball.
As an imported summer counsellor, Matan is enjoying being a Jew
on this calm, peaceful island in British Columbia. But he too will
soon find himself in an environment where peace and tranquillity
will be a luxury.
Halbani and Matan are both young Israeli men who are spending parts
of their summer in British Columbia. However, shortly after they
return home, both men will begin their mandatory minimum three years
of training with the Israel Defence Force (IDF) - an army that many
believe is preparing for war in the Middle East.
And although they have enjoyed their time visiting friends and
working in the safe, laid-back West Coast Canadian atmosphere, they
both have become more certain about one thing: they wouldn't change
their lives for anything.
"Being here has shown me what my life could have been like
if I lived in Canada," said Matan, while sitting on the beach
next to the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal. "The guys that I
am a counsellor with graduated from high school and had to think
about which college they would go to and I had to think about which
army unit to go to."
But the 18-year-old, who will serve as a Golani infantry soldier
along the Golan Heights and the Lebanese border, said he looks at
serving in the IDF as a positive experience.
"You encounter certain circumstances that you wouldn't experience
in Canada or anywhere else that help you deal with real life afterwards
as well," he said.
Halbani, who was in Vancouver visiting friends, said he has enjoyed
his Canadian vacation but his commitment to Israel is unwavering.
"As much as I've loved being here because it is so beautiful
and everyone is nice and polite, I miss Israel everyday," he
said. "I know that when I land in Israel I'm going to forget
everything that I did in Vancouver.
"When I hear about shooting events in the West Bank and I
know that my friends are there and I'm here peacefully in Canada,
it kind of disturbs me that I'm not there doing my part."
It may not be a long wait for both young men to have a chance to
do their part, as they will soon face the real possibility of a
war in Israel.
"I don't think we should be afraid of war because once you
are afraid of someone, [they have] won 50 per cent of the battle
already," said Halbani, who is training for the IDF unit called
Shayetet 13, the Israeli equivalent of the U.S. Navy Seals. If there
is a war, Halbani said he won't waste his energy by harboring a
fear of death.
"That's not something I think about," he said. "I
know I'm going to take a risk but you don't think about dying, you
think about changing or doing.
"If we have nothing worth dying for then we have nothing worth
living for." However, Halbani's and Matan's willingness to
support and defend the Jewish state doesn't come with the same desire
for war that a growing number of Israelis foster.
"The possibility of a war is realistic right now but I hope
there isn't one," Matan said, when asked about a higher scale
battle. "For the first time, you actually think about the fact
that your friends might die or get injured."
In separate interviews with the Bulletin, both men agreed
that the results of a war might put an end to the current wave of
violence with the Palestinians, but the calm would only be a temporary
one. Halbani said a lasting peace in the Middle East could only
be possible if both the Palestinians and Israelis could actually
learn to respect rather than hate each other.
"First of all, the way I see it, Israel made a few mistakes
during the last few decades," he explained. "We didn't
do enough in order to build a friendship and to prepare ourselves
and [the Palestinians] for peace. And that's a problem that we're
dealing with now.
"Some peace movements want peace but they want it on a golden
plate and they don't want to put any effort into it," he said,
adding that giving away land and territories are not tools for real
peace. "It's like if you hate someone and then they offer to
buy you a watch. That's going to make you very happy for a few days
but pretty soon you're going to remember that you still hate that
The 19-year-old said he doesn't expect to see any major relationship
changes anytime soon.
"We have a lot of people around us that hate us and even if
we do get to an understanding with the Palestinian people, in my
lifetime I don't think we're going to come to an understanding with
the rest of the Middle East."
Both Matan and Halbani opted out of their first year of army training
to study and learn on a mechina in Northern Israel where
young adults are trained to be the future leaders of the Israeli
army and society.
They came to British Columbia through connections they made when
the mechina spent 10 days with a local Birthright group when they
were on their trip in Israel.
Halbani told the Bulletin that the ideals the mechina focused
on this year are ones that have been lost on many of the younger
Israeli citizens. He thinks a lot of people have lost their faith
and that's the real reason his homeland is under an existence threat.
"When Israel was born, it was full of people making aliyah
in order to build and grow our country from nothing," he said.
"But the new generation has seemed to have forgotten some of
these ideals. It seems that people maybe no longer believe in a
home for the Jewish nation."
Halbani said that every time an Israeli leaves Israel, it weakens
"The problem with the Palestinians or the rest of the Middle
East is nothing. We can handle that as long as we can handle ourselves,"
Matan said it upsets him to see more and more Jews and Israelis
walking away from Israel, rather than fighting for it.
"You can't demand someone to sacrifice their life for their
country if they don't believe in that," he said. "But
I would like to take a close look at why they wouldn't sacrifice
their life for their country."
Matan will return home in September and begin his military training
in the fall.
Halbani headed back to Israel at the end of July and began his
training Aug. 7, two days before a vicious suicide bombing at a
popular pizzeria in Jerusalem prompted the city's mayor to proclaim
"We are in a war."