On Monday afternoon, along a central Jerusalem street, the owner of an electrical supply store saw an ambulance slow to a halt. The paramedics remained inside.
The man continued arranging his cluttered storefront, watching from the sidewalk as he worked. “I thought something happened to one of the neighbors,” he said.
Then he saw two army officers walk by and turn up the stairs of a nearby apartment. Moments later, he heard terrible sounds. The screaming, he said, “went on for an hour.”
Knowing that several soldiers had been killed in Gaza the previous night, he kept tinkering at work but, he said, wasn’t “able to function for the rest of the day.” Finally a man emerged from the apartment with the officers. The store owner, whose name and location are not being used here in order to ensure the privacy of the bereaved family, recognized him as a customer and hugged him. “My brother,” the man explained, and continued on with the officers to help break the life-altering news to other members of the family.
As Israel fights in Gaza and buries its soldiers at home – 32 have been killed thus far – two officers detailed some of the intricately compassionate rules and regulations governing, first, the delivery of the terrible news, and then, the long-term relationship between the families and the military.
A captain who served in the army’s Casualty and Wounded Soldiers Department until she realized she simply did not have “the immense spiritual strength” necessary to deal daily with bereavement, detailed the first stage – from the moment a soldier is declared dead until he or she is brought to rest.
The first act, said the officer, who today serves in a different role, is to conclusively identify the soldier. If his face is recognizable, a pair of soldiers or officers are asked to identify him; if not, the army can almost always identify its soldiers through fingerprint records or dental forensics.
A call is then made to the city officer — the IDF’s local representative — where the soldier lives. The city officer summons two or three “informers.” They are all reservists and they are all volunteers. Many of them, the captain said, are from bereaved families themselves and therefore “know how important the first contact is.”
These officers can’t lighten the loss, she said, “but they can soften the experience.”
Before getting in a car, the informers must first make absolutely certain that they do not arrive at the wrong door. Keeping in mind the story of two young men named Yuval Harel from the same part of Jerusalem, both of whom were killed during the first week of the First Lebanon War, the captain said that the informers and the city officer go to “insane” lengths to make sure that they have the correct address.
The informers arrive in a taxi, not a military car. One of them, in civilian clothes, gets out first to make sure the name on the door or in the apartment matches the one they are looking for. If they are not certain, she said, they sometimes ask the city officer to call the home telephone to make sure they hear it ringing in the right apartment.
The reservist in civilian clothes then joins the others, one of whom is generally a medical professional, and they come to the door. “They know,” she said, “that in a few moments the lives of the people on the other side of the door are going to change entirely.”
An army informer writing anonymously in an online forum from 2011 said that “the moment – the moment before you knock – when you hear from the other side talk, laughter, television, the crying of children, the tumult of life; that moment is the scariest moment I’ve experienced in my life.”
With time and experience, he wrote, it only gets worse.
The informers stand still at the door. After a moment of silence, they ask whoever opened the door to please gather the whole family. They request, in a tone that is more like a soft demand, to be allowed to enter and to sit down. And then they read a statement from a piece of paper. It is prepared in advance and it is factual. They are not allowed to improvise. There are no explanations. “It’s laconic, succinct,” wrote the informer online.
The informers, who speak several languages and are familiar with various mourning customs, stay with the families, helping them with the initial task of contacting other family members. They coordinate the time and place of the funeral with the army. And then, shortly after the funeral, they hand the baton over to an army casualty officer.
(Informing families about loved ones who have been injured works differently. A conscious soldier is encouraged to call home and relay the news in his own voice; in the case of an unconscious soldier, not in life-threatening danger, the hospital will often call the family to inform them; and in the case of a gravely wounded soldier, the family is informed in person, according to the protocol described above.)
The casualty officer posts are filled, almost exclusively, by women. One of them, a major named Aviv Marom, a mother of two, allowed The Times of Israel to accompany her into the field several months ago. A kibbutznik married to a man who lost his brother in the army, she explained that the link between the casualty officer and the family is for the duration of the officer’s service.
This is why the army developed the unique system of informers, who perform the initial task of delivering the bad news and will forever be remembered negatively by the families, and the casualty officers, who remain the central link between the bereaved families and the army.
Marom, who is the army’s casualty officer for all of the IDF’s bereaved Arab families, said that the army developed in recent years a training course called the School of Bereavement, where casualty officers learn about the emotional travails that the families endure. They learn about rifts between parents, and between widows and parents, and about PTSD and other afflictions affiliated with bereavement. “But our role is to represent the army to the family and the family to the army,” Marom said. “We are not therapists.”
Still, a day spent in the field with her, checking in with Bedouin families who lost sons in the army – all living off the grid, some in homes slated for destruction by the state – brought home the complexity of the task.
Driving along a dirt road, deep in the Bedouin hinterland of unrecognized villages, she pointed to one home, one we would not be visiting, and said that the man who lived there had lost one of his first sons in the army. He later took a second wife, a woman of Ethiopian heritage, and then a third, a Palestinian woman. The wives, who do not talk to each other, and all of the children, she said, are part of her responsibility.
Later, under a tin roof, among the homes of the Abu Juda clan, she took a seat on the floor and sipped tea with the men. The bereaved father wore a dark jalabiya and fingered gray stone beads, his gaze fixed on them, saying nothing. The talk was of displacement, of being moved off their land to the other side of the road. But it was not accusatory. It was conversation, with both sides aware that Marom was not empowered to change reality.
As she got up to go, the mother came out of a side room and broke into tears at the sight of the officer. She hugged her, spoke to her briefly in private, and then said goodbye to the long row of men.
“In public, in this society, the men are not permitted to shed a tear,” she said of the father when we were back in the car. “But when we speak in private, he can unload his emotional load on me.”