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Israeli President Isaac Herzog attends the opening of an exhibition of objects collected from the Nova Party Massacre in Tel Aviv, Dec. 7, 2023. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog attends the opening of an exhibition of objects collected from the Nova Party Massacre in Tel Aviv, Dec. 7, 2023. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90.
featureIsrael at War

Three men and a war

Heartfelt appeals address the formidable challenges facing a nation under attack on multiple fronts.

Last week, three men from different sectors of Israeli society issued heartfelt appeals that accentuated the formidable challenges facing a nation under attack on multiple fronts.

Capt. (res.) Shadi Halloul, 47, head of the Aramean-Christian Association in Israel, slammed Hezbollah for its indiscriminate targeting of civilians after an anti-tank missile hit St. Mary’s Church in the northern village of Iqrit, less than four miles from the Lebanese border. 

The initial attack injured an 80-year-old man and a second missile wounded nine Israel Defense Force soldiers who were trying to evacuate him. 

Israeli authorities protested that the attack was not only a clear violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which calls for the full cessation of hostilities between Lebanon and Israel, but also a violation of the freedom of worship.

St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church in Iqrit, northern Israel. Photo by Dr. Avishai Teicher/Wikimedia Commons.

In an interview, Halloul appealed to Israeli leaders to also urge the international community to focus on enforcement of U.N. Resolution 1559, which calls for the disarmament of all armed militias in Lebanon.

Halloul is a vocal leader of the Aramaic-Maronite community, one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. Today they number about 12,000 in Israel, the majority living close to the Lebanese border. In 2015, the state designated Aramean Christians as a recognized population group.

“Israel recognized our special status as Aramean Christians and thus recognized our ethnic identity,” said Halloul. “We are the descendants of the Jews who lived here 2,000 years ago, not of the Arabs. My ties to Israel and the Jewish people are much greater [than to the Arabs], I am proud to be a citizen of Israel and a member of the Aramean Christian community, like thousands of others,” he added.

“If we don’t tell the truth along with the Jews, we have no right to be here,” he said.

For Halloul, an IDF reservist, “here” is the village of Baram, just below the Lebanese border a few miles north of his home in Jish. Baram was settled by Maronite Christians in the 19th century. During the 1948 War of Independence, Baram was captured by the IDF, and the residents were relocated further away from the border in Jish.

The fledgling state was unsure of the loyalty of the Christian inhabitants so they were forbidden from returning to Baram after the war for fear it would become a point of terrorist infiltration.

Today Christians are a loyal and integral part of Israeli society—and high on the agenda of Halloul’s Israeli Christian Aramaic Association is a push to rebuild Kfar Baram. Halloul vowed that his community would not allow Hezbollah’s threats to deter them.

Christians receive complimentary Christmas trees at the Jerusalem municipality’s annual distribution. The city gave out 350 trees, Dec. 20, 2023. Photo by Yoav Dudkevitch/TPS.

At the other end of the country, professor Jonathan Dekel-Chen, 60, father of Hamas hostage Sagui Dekel-Chen, 35, made an urgent appeal to Israeli Cabinet members to “make courageous decisions.” 

Not just verbal commitments to do everything to return the hostages, but action, Dekel-Chen emphasized.

The Dekel-Chens, longtime residents of Kibbutz Nir Oz, are dual U.S. and Israeli citizens. Prof. Dekel-Chen is a native of Bloomfield, Conn., and holds the Rabbi Edward Sandrow Chair in Soviet & East European Jewry at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

A few weeks ago, Dekel-Chen met with U.S. President Joe Biden and left reassured that the U.S. administration is fully briefed and doing everything in its power to facilitate the return of all the hostages.

Like most of the relatives of the remaining Hamas captives, Dekel-Chen is emphatic about conveying the urgency of their situation. He relates how several of the hostages released several weeks ago reported that they had seen his son alive. “But we know that not a single hostage can be healthy after more than 80 days in captivity,” he added. “Every day is a danger.  Every hour in captivity endangers their lives.”

Israeli soldiers walking next to destruction caused by Hamas terrorists in Kibbutz Nir Oz, Nov. 21, 2023. Photo by Chaim Goldberg/Flash90.

According to Dekel-Chen, the IDF didn’t arrive at Nir Oz on Oct.7 until after the terrorists decided to leave. “Our trust was shaken that day,” he said.

Thirty-five members of Kibbutz Nir Oz were killed on Oct.7, and 80 were taken hostage. Thirty have since been released. Almost every home on the kibbutz was destroyed, and the survivors were initially evacuated to hotels in Eilat. This week they moved as a group to their next temporary housing stop in a new neighborhood of high-rise apartments in Kiryat Gat. 

When Sagui was taken captive, his wife Avital was eight months pregnant. She recently gave birth to the couple’s third daughter. 

Sagui’s mother, Neomit Dekel-Chen, 63, managed to flee from the terrorists who grabbed her and several other kibbutz women when an IDF helicopter struck the terrorists. She played dead while other terrorists were still in the area. Despite being injured, she was eventually able to crawl back to the kibbutz.  

Israeli President Isaac Herzog mentioned survivors like the Dekel-Chens in an impassioned address to the nation earlier last week. “Every wounded person who has persevered during a round of physical therapy or psychological treatment: Every family of hostages working all over the world: I send you a warm embrace. You are our strength on the way to victory. The situation faced by our sisters and brothers, the hostages held captive by Hamas murderers—is unprecedented, cruel, and inhumane.

The obligation to return them in any way possible is an indelible commandment burned deep in our consciousness. We will not rest until they come home.”

Israeli President Isaac Herzog lights Chanukah candles at “Hostage Square” in Tel Aviv, Dec. 14, 2023. Photo by Haim Zach/GPO.

But the main emphasis of Herzog’s speech was a warning and an appeal to continue to close ranks and not revert to the contentious political debates that marked the months before the war.

“We must not return to the discourse of Oct. 6. We must not return to the poison online. We must not return to the discourse of ‘us and them.’ I want to caution that anyone who seeks to bring us back to the discourse of Oct. 6 is harming the war effort and the security of the citizens of the country.

“This moment is a test: We will not break, nor blink, nor fall apart, and we certainly will not tear ourselves apart from the inside. We shed a tear—and we soldier on together.”

“The enemy is just waiting to see the cracks within us, for us to start fighting one another. They also see the conflicts, the arguments, the struggles between egos, the political conflicts—both in the days before, and in the days after. They celebrate when they see the cracks between us.” 

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