Babylon & Beyond

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ISRAEL: Bad news on the doorstep -- delivering bereavement

April 17, 2008 |  5:31 am

Usually, the tone of the reporters' voice is enough. Radio phrases such as "fierce combat," "heavy exchange of fire" or "grave incident" are harbingers of trouble. Long-trained in reading between the lines of journalistic nuances, Israeli ears quickly note the omission of the "no casualties among our forces" and know this can only mean one thing: A soldier has died.

American soldiers in Iraq fight and die thousands of miles from home, but Israel's front lines are on its doorstep. And for all its fragmentation, Israel remains a small country with small-town-like family and social ties. Most get their daytime news from one of two radio stations, and bad news travels fast in a country where nearly everyone knows someone in the army.

So, military fatalities are not formally announced until the immediate family has been informed. Information is withheld temporarily, not for "Good Morning Vietnam" kind of reasons, but to spare families from learning this from the media. "The family has been notified" is the familiar media phrase that spells reassurance for many; but the final public relief, or grief, comes with the publication of the name.

Wednesday was one such day. The 7:00 radio reports raised suspicion, by 10:00 there was little room for doubt. At 11:51 it was cleared for publication that three soldiers had been killed in Gaza. Then came the news flashes with the first name at 13:31, the second at 16:34 and the third at 17:39. An Israeli-born demanding a combat assignment-or-bust, a Bedouin tracker and an ideological new immigrant; "the story of Israel at 60," said Minister Yitzhak Herzog. This morning, Hadassah Uvdati spoke on Army Radio of her son Matan, among yesterday's dead. 24 hours, full circle.

Prominent Israeli novelist David Grossman's new book, "Isha Borahat Mibesora," (Woman flees tidings), is the story of a mother who has a bad premonition about her soldier son and embarks on a journey throughout the country rather than being tormented by the anguish of awaiting the bad news at home. Grossman had a wish that the book he was writing would protect his sons during their army service. It didn't. His son Uri was killed in 2006 on the last day of the second Lebanon war.

—Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem