Tragic suicide leaves Israel at breaking point

Eliran Mizrahi, an IDF soldier, who took his own life after suffering serious PTSD
Eliran Mizrahi, an IDF soldier, who took his own life after suffering serious PTSD - DocumentIsrael

The first time Eliran Mizrahi was injured in Gaza, he refused to leave the battlefield. The reservist wanted to continue defending his country and the search for the missing hostages.

When he was wounded a second time during his seven-month stint in heavy urban warfare, he was told by a doctor that he could not return to the front line, partly on account of his PTSD.

Yet an emergency call-up came again last week for an engineer who had started the war with the task of clearing bodies from the site of the Nova music festival.

Before he could be deployed, the 40-year-old father of four children killed himself.

The tragic case has shocked a nation where many are now starting to question the direction of the government’s war strategy as the conflict in Gaza enters its ninth month with no end or “day after” plan in sight, and as casualties among the overstretched defence forces mount.

Anger has boiled over onto the streets, spearheaded by the mothers of serving soldiers, as the war plan is in tatters and the prime minister’s grip on power increasingly precarious.

Mothers of Israeli soldiers campaign for the end of the war outside the Israeli Ministry of Defence
Mothers of Israeli soldiers campaign for the end of the war outside the Israeli Ministry of Defence - Danor Aharon

Protesters are demanding an immediate deal to bring the remaining 120 Israeli hostages home from Gaza and fresh elections to replace a government they no longer trust.

Many have called for an end to a conflict they do not now see as having a clear purpose.

A “week of resistance”, which began on Saturday night in Tel Aviv with tens of thousands attending one of the largest antigovernmental protests since the war began, will continue over the next few days with demonstrations outside the Knesset and prime minister’s residence.

On the rally frontlines is a group of mothers of troops who have denounced the government for playing politics with their children’s lives.

They have accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of prolonging the war to appease hard-right and religious members of his fragile coalition to ensure its survival.

“We, the parents of active combat soldiers, blame you for sacrificing our children on the altar of politics,” they wrote in a recent letter to the prime minister and his now disbanded war cabinet.

“We blame you for the senseless deaths of soldiers. We blame you for the numerous injuries to our children, both physically and mentally,” they said.

Mothers covered themselves in red during the demonstration
Mothers covered themselves in red during the demonstration - Danor Aharon

Blood of dead troops

The mothers’ signature move is to dye their palms bright red to symbolise the blood of dead troops.

On Saturday night, they gathered on the Hahalacha motorway bridge in central Tel Aviv holding their red hands in the air alongside signs saying, “Parents of combat soldiers scream loudly – enough!” Cars on the busy thoroughfare below tooted their horns in support.

The country was reeling with the news that ten young soldiers – eight of them in one armoured vehicle – had died that morning, in one of the deadliest days for Israeli forces in the conflict.

“Shame! Shame! Shame!” shouted the mothers at the government.

Such open dissent is rare in a security-conscious country like Israel that prizes national defence as one of its most important civic duties.

Protesters have demanded a deal for the remaining hostages
Protesters have demanded a deal for the remaining hostages - Amir Levy/Getty Images Europe

‘Bring our sons home’

Hagar Moshe Kedem, whose son is deployed with a combat unit in Gaza, explained that while parents had supported the first six months of the war out of the dire need to protect the country after the Hamas terror attacks, many no longer understood the goal of the fighting.

“We want to put pressure on the government to make a settlement that will bring back the hostages and our sons home. We don’t want them to still be in Gaza,” she said.

“Our prime minister is talking about total victory but there is no such thing. Many people are suffering, also in Gaza, also in Israel. We don’t want the war to keep going. We need a deal now because people are dying there every day.”

Talks on a US-backed three-stage peace plan that would initially see a limited Israeli hostage for Palestinian prisoner exchange during a temporary truce have reportedly stalled over Hamas’s demands for concrete guarantees of a permanent ceasefire and Israeli troop withdrawal from Gaza.

Washington has blamed the terrorist group for the impasse and says that Israel has accepted the deal, even though Mr Netanyahu’s government has not publicly backed it.

Mr Netanyahu is under pressure to conclude the war
Mr Netanyahu is under pressure to conclude the war - Shutterstock

Doubt has gripped Israeli society that Mr Netanyahu, goaded by his hard right security and finance ministers, who want to continue the war, is fully committed to securing an agreement.

Janna, who asked for her surname not to be revealed as she has three sons in the military, said that the war began as a “fight for our existence” but that now soldiers were being “kept captive by politicians, by extremists,” whose judgement was in question.

“Now we feel like it is political. [The government] is being led by ceding to the right-wing parties, the religious ones, all those they don’t sacrifice their children. Their children are not running from house to house with rifles,” she said.

Janna said that today’s parents drew inspiration from the “Four Mothers” anti-war movement founded in the late 1990s, that spurred the public to successfully push for the recall of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon.

Israeli public opinion remains divided over the war but ongoing mass protests suggest the mothers’ views strike a chord within a significant section of the population.

Protesters call for the release of the hostages and new elections
Protesters have called for the release of the hostages and new elections - Ohad Zwigenberg/AP

Hostage-for-ceasefire deal

A new poll by the Jewish People Policy Institute released on Monday finds that some 60 per cent want the country to “accept” the hostage-for-ceasefire deal and almost three quarters expressed a “very low” or “fairly low” level of trust in the government.

Israel’s colourful and raucous demonstrations are generally peaceful affairs although there have been violent clashes with the police on the fringes.

While the large crowds may not directly trigger the downfall of the government, one of their causes – the fate of a draft bill to address exemptions from mandatory military service for ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, young men – has the potential to break Mr Netanyahu’s coalition apart.

The contentious policy dates back to the founding of Israel in 1948 when a few hundred students of the Torah were allowed to avoid conscription.

Since then, Haredi communities have boomed to about 13 per cent of the country’s 9½ million citizens, meaning that tens of thousands do not face the draft while receiving government subsidies for religious study. An all-time high of 66,000 were exempted over the last year.

Resolving the thorny issue has eluded governments for decades but now, as the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) strains under a lack of manpower during the longest war the country has faced since the country’s foundation, it has deepened the faultlines in Israeli society.

It has ignited accusations of “draft dodging” among those shouldering the unequal economic, social and emotional burden of the intensive conflict – who were further incensed by the government’s decision on Sunday to delay retirement for reservists to meet shortfalls.

Thousands holding banners gather during a demonstration to demand a hostage swap deal
Thousands holding banners gather during a demonstration to demand a hostage swap deal - Anadolu/Anadolu

Public outrage

Mr Netanyahu is now caught between public outrage and the Haredi factions of his government for whom draft exemptions are a red line.

He also faces an imminent ruling by the Supreme Court on whether the current policy violates the notion of equality, and which could order the immediate conscription of the ultra-Orthodox.

His efforts to revive a bill that is regarded as unsuitable by both sides of the debate has been seen as an attempt to keep the issue out of the hands of the judges and met with disdain.

After winning a vote last week to punt the legislation to the parliament’s foreign and defence committee, Mr Netanyahu was pictured standing in the chamber, a copy of Plutarch’s The Rise And Fall Of Athens in his left hand, with a beaming smile on his face.

Mr Netanyahu smiles as he clutches Plutarch's The Rise and Fall of Athens
Mr Netanyahu smiles as he clutches Plutarch's The Rise and Fall of Athens - ABIR SULTAN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock/Shutterstock

The viral “grin”, on the same day four young soldiers perished in a booby-trapped building in southern Gaza, stoked national anger.

“Bibi is smiling”, “Our kids are dying” read two banners at a demonstration outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on Monday night.

The draft law was “spit in the face” of serving soldiers, said Noorit Felsenthal Berger, whose two youngest sons are fighting in Gaza.

“Did you see the face of Bibi Net after the vote? At the same time that he was gloating, there were four soldiers killed. It’s unbelievable,” she said.

“They are letting a whole population of ultra-Orthodox keep studying, and our sons are having to go on shedding their blood to end this war.”

Political opponents have seized the moment. “That smile will bury his political career. This smile will remove him from our lives,” opposition leader Yair Lapid said at Saturday’s mass protest in Tel Aviv.

Thousands of Israelis protest in Tel Aviv on Saturday, June 15
Thousands of Israelis protest in Tel Aviv on Saturday, June 15 - David Silverman/Getty Images Europe

The controversy also puts the prime minister on a collision course with the military and his defence minister who voted against the bill last week.

“People understand why they’re here,” a serving commander told IDF chief Herzi Halevi in Gaza this weekend, reported Hayom. “They can’t understand why only they are here.”

Haredi conscription was a “clear need”, he responded.

As politicians prevaricate, the toll on the nation intensifies.

More than 300 soldiers have died during the Gaza ground operation and close to 4,000 injured. Veterans have complained of government neglect.

The defence ministry’s rehabilitation department told a Knesset committee on Monday it has treated 8,663 additional patients since October – 42 per cent for limb injuries, 21 per cent for PTSD or other mental health problems.

Aviram Atias, a friend of Eliran Mizrahi, told the hearing he no longer sleeps in the same bed with his wife because he wakes up screaming in the middle of the night.

The IDF initially denied Mizrahi the right to a military burial
The IDF initially denied Mizrahi the right to a military burial - DocumentIsrael/DocumentIsrael

‘Did everything for Israel’

Avichai Levy, an IDF soldier who also suffers from PTSD, said “How many Eliran Mizrahi’s do you need? Why lie to us? My friends are experiencing missiles and gunfire all day long. All the ministers are ignoring us. They have all turned their backs on us.”

The IDF initially denied Mizrahi the right to a military burial but relented under pressure from his grieving family who said a “joyful, funny” man had returned home “angry”, “broken” and plagued by nightmares.

“He had rockets fired at him, he saw his friends die, and he brought bodies back, and he still did everything for Israel,” Mr Mizrahi’s sister, Hila, told Channel 13. “I think that the respect he deserves is to be buried in a coffin with an Israeli flag on it and for soldiers to salute him.”

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