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ISRAEL CELEBRATES 66th INDEPENDENCE DAY

 The past week started with Holocaust Memorial Day and yet again the profound horror and amazement over the Nazi massacre of six million Jewish babies, children, women and men. The vast majority were defenseless and with no one to defend them. The tales of terror told by the survivors who bore witness were paralyzing: crying infants being torn from the arms of their screaming mothers at Auschwitz, of children seeing their parents being beaten and shot before their very eyes. At the memorial service at the Western Wall, President Shimon Peres told of how his beloved grandfather and other relatives, along with the rest of the Jews in his town, were herded into the local synagogue where the doors were locked behind them and then the building was burnt to the ground. The sirens wailed for them and Israelis, with heads bowed, stood at attention. 

The Israeli Defense Forces is a people's army; everyone is called upon to serve. And every citizen knows that without the sacrifice of the fallen, Israel could not survive.

 They did so again a week later. This time it was for the 23,169 Jewish men and women, who had fallen in defense of the re-born Jewish state. Now they were armed and fighting for their ancient homeland. They were Holocaust survivors, Israeli born Sabras, Jewish volunteers from abroad, and new immigrants from Arab lands who astounded the world by being victorious in no less than seven wars. And even to this very day, they have repulsed a relentless campaign of terror. But Remembrance Day for Israelis is a very personal affair. Most Israelis have a family member, a friend, or a neighbor who has been killed in action. Some have lost more than one relative from different generations. One mother lost two sons in the Yom Kippur War, and later, while fighting back her tears, she lit an Independence Day beacon. The Israeli Defense Forces is a people's army; everyone is called upon to serve. And every citizen knows that without the sacrifice of the fallen, Israel could not survive. If anyone has any doubt about the stakes, the bloodbath being perpetrated in neighboring Syria and the Iranian nuclear threat are constant reminders that another Holocaust is not just the figment of what critics attribute to 'paranoid' Israelis.

 

 As every year, tens of thousands of Israelis paid their respects at military cemeteries across Israel. Then at sunset, as Remembrance Day drew to a close, the Star of David was raised from half mast on Mount Herzl with the spectacular pageant marking the beginning of Independence Day. It is an emotional transition from deep sorrow to a unique joy, and no matter how many times one watches this brilliant sound and light ceremony, it never disappoints. It is not only the marching soldiers and their banners, but also several hundred youngsters dancing on the huge plaza to the cheers of the crowd. This year the role of Israeli women and their contribution to the country was highlighted. Twelve outstanding women lit twelve beacons symbolizing the twelve tribes of the Biblical Israelites. Firework displays, outdoor performances and carnival atmosphere continued into the early hours of the morning.

 

The soldiers included a number of immigrants from Ethiopia, Canada, the US, Australia, and several European countries.

 If Remembrance Day pays tribute to the fallen, Independence Day pays it to the living as120 outstanding young soldiers are honored at the President's Residence the next day. The 19 and 20-year-olds were selected from all branches of what is a people's army in the true sense of the word. Few of them would have chosen military careers and like their peers in other countries, many of them would have been studying at college, preoccupied only about their next exam or next date. (One soldier, a paralyzed girl, came in a wheelchair - although she was naturally exempt from military service she had insisted on being drafted.) Their proud parents have been invited and in attendance were not only President Peres but also Prime Minister Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz were present. The audience and viewers at home were in for a big surprise when a pretty young Private from an IDF entertainment troupe marched up to Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, saluted and then the two of them proceeded to sing a popular Israeli song accompanied by the orchestra. All smiles, Gen. Gantz got a big kick out of it, as did the audience. It reflected the good cheer and informality, it was so Israeli and hard to imagine such an event in any other army in the world. The soldiers included a number of immigrants from Ethiopia, Canada, the US, Australia, and several European countries. A striking lieutenant from the Israel Air Force addressed the nation's top brass on behalf of her comrades. In a powerful address and with great poise, she expressed thanks for the honor, adding they were no more exceptional than most other soldiers in the IDF: "We always do our best, this is who we are - this is our way!"

 

Photo Credit: IAF
In a rare step, the Israel Air Force took the wraps off one of its many secrets; two women fighter pilots have been flying combat missions in F-16I jets, one of the most advanced fighters in the world.

 One truly outstanding woman soldier, who will never be seen on TV, is fighter pilot Captain Stav (Stav means autumn in English). In a rare step, the Israel Air Force took the wraps off one of its many secrets; two women fighter pilots have been flying combat missions in F-16I jets, one of the most advanced fighters in the world. 26-year-old Stav has been flying the highly touted jet for two years, and carried out air strikes against terrorist targets in Gaza during the Pillar of Defense Operation two years ago. Interviewed by the Israel Hayom daily, Capt. Stav was described as 'attractive with green eyes, a blonde with a long braid down her back who doesn't smile much.’ Generally speaking, a day spent with the pilots leaves the impression that they work mainly with their heads. They leave their feelings aside when they enter the air base. As for Stav, it runs in the family - her father was an Air Force pilot and so was her grandfather on her mother's side. She sums it up this way:

Stav: "At home, there was no pushing me into taking the pilot's course, but clearly flying in the Air Force was always in the air. The main thing was that I wanted to contribute as much as I could to the IDF. I think that's what got me to the pilot's course."

Question: Were there ever moments during her training when she needed help from the male cadets?

Stav: "There were not a few, mainly in the physical aspect of the course in long treks. It's a tremendous effort to carry a heavy weight on your back. But I never thought about giving up at any stage. I suppose the male cadets with me also found it very tough. I didn't feel our commanders treated me any differently or any easier. I knew I had to prove myself."

Question: How did you feel at the end of the course when they read out your name and designation for fighter pilot?

F-16I, nicknamed "Sufa", which means storm in Hebrew

Stav: "Great joy.  During the course I felt I was doing well and succeeding, but I wasn't sure I'd make it to the top. I always aspired to go as far as I could. After I flew Skyhawks for a year, I was promoted to the F-16I, and that was really a dream come true." Then she added bashfully: "That's what I wanted from the start. I called my parents immediately."

Question: When you fired your first live missile in combat were you tense or excited?

Stav: "This was really very professional. You execute your mission exactly and the best you can."

Question: Do you know if you hit anyone?

Stav: "I prefer not to answer that. In the end you know what you are about to do. I depend completely on the Air Force echelons for every mission. A great deal of resources are invested in the mission so that it will be as precise and sterile as possible, without harming anyone who is not the intended target."

Question: When you fly a combat mission do you fear falling into captivity?

Stav: "When I go on a combat mission that doesn't bother me. I expect that my fear is no greater than that of the male pilots. I know that no commander will bar me from flying combat missions of one kind or another because I might fall into captivity. The decision-making is strictly professional."

Guess who Stav's boyfriend is: another F-16I pilot who flies in a different squadron.

Question: If there will be an operation against Iran, will you be there?

Stav: "I really hope so. Every pilot aspires to fly in as many operations as possible and to give all he or she can, that's what we're here for. I have already been flying for a long time, have trained in this aircraft, and feel I am in complete control of it and am prepared for every mission. After you train so much, it gives you a good and secure feeling when you are inside the cockpit." 

" ...It would be great if she [Capt. Stav] had more female pilots here as friends, not because I want more hair-braids in the room, but because if half of the population does not find expression that means we're losing a lot of talent."

 Israel Hayom also asked Stav's squadron commander if he would assign her to 'any future operation over a long distance and on a dangerous target'. The Lt. Col. replied that the decision to allow her to become a fighter pilot had already been taken: "At that time it was possible to discuss the issue, but not now. There is no room for second thoughts. If I think she's suitable for mission, she'll get the mission, without any connection to her being a woman, although I know the danger of her being taken prisoner is more fateful than for a man. She'd kill me if I sent her to a safer place. That would be the most inappropriate decision after the long, hard way she came to get here, and then make her sit aside and watch us doing the job. Stav is taken into account just like any other pilot. There is absolutely no difference between her and the other pilots when it comes to capabilities and mastery of the aircraft. She is a fighter without peer and she would never have got here without superior abilities. She has to make a greater effort than the male pilots, mainly physical, and this is not a natural surrounding for women. It would be great if she had more female pilots here as friends, not because I want more hair-braids in the room, but because if half of the population does not find expression that means we're losing a lot of talent." On this score, one of her ground crew technicians testified: "Each time Stav enters the cockpit her control of the jet and her cool nerves always amazes me anew."

 

Bible Quiz winner, Eitan Amost of Toronto with PM Netanyahu

 Then it was on the International Bible Quiz - teenagers from fourteen countries astounded the packed auditorium with their encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible. First prize was taken by Eitan Amos of Toronto, making it the first time a Canadian has taken first place. Prime Minister Netanyahu quipped that he had worked out the deal with his good friend Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Next on the itinerary were the prestigious Israel Prize Awards for lifetime achievements in science and the humanities. Again TV carried the ceremony from a packed auditorium across the country and Israelis could again take pride in their state's achievements.

  

 

 David Essing

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