Tamar (Tami) Cohen

 

Child of the Carmel

I was born in Haifa, in a shack on the slope of the Carmel Mountain.  Father was a native of the land, and Mother had come here at the age of 16 from Siberia. 

When I was three, Daddy built a house on Geula St, right at the curve, where the buses would drop to low gear.  At the far end of the street there was a quarry where Arab laborers worked.  I was never afraid of them.

At the age of three, I took fright at a group of people who had come to collect money; they were wearing Purim costumes and masks, and I started stuttering.  The doctor recommended that I be in the open air as much as possible.  I guess there just wasn't enough air in Haifa, so I was taken to the mountains of Samaria.  But there the stammering only worsened because the women's burqas reminded me of the masks.  But one day I was determined to get over the stammering and decided that "Tami was no longer afraid of masks".

When I was six in 1936, "The Events of 1936-1939" broke out - that was the name we gave them.  The Arabs called them "The Great Arab Revolt in Palestine" - aimed against the British Mandate and the Jews.  Not far from our house was an Arab neighborhood, Wadi Rushmiya, in which "gangs" were active.  I was not afraid because I did not think that we were at war with them.  The only thing that bothered me was the fact that our school trips and The Scouts trips would keep getting cancelled for fear of attacks by Arab gangs. 

My parents were members of The Haganah ("The Defense", a Jewish paramilitary organization during the time of the British Mandate).  My mother was in charge of a group of girls who dealt in weapon maintenance and we had a slik (an underground weapon shelter) in our home.  I don't remember where precisely it was situated.  Me and my sister's joint bedroom was made available to The Haganah for the purpose of meetings and constant telephone shifts - since the only telephone in the neighborhood was in our house.  We, the girls, also took part in the "telephone shifts".  On the other hand, there were also Arabs, friends of my parents, who visited the house.  My father, who could read and write fluently in Arabic, had an Arab partner from Acre who would often come to our house, as we would go to his. 

Every time the British caught a ship bearing illegal immigrants, Holocaust survivors, on their way to Palestine, with the intention of evacuating them to Cyprus, we would hold a demonstration on the way to the harbor.  At some point the British would put an end to the demonstration and would threaten to shoot at us with machine guns.  On one of the occasions in which they were true to their threats, a friend of mine was wounded. 

At age 16 I started studying Education in the Kibbutzim College on Kibbutz Yagur.  The daily ride was not pleasant.  The bus would go through Wadi Rushmiya and from time to time barriers were set up and stones would be thrown at us.  I did not complete my studies in the college because in March of 1948 I joined the Palmach (the elite fighting force of the Haganah) along with my friends, in anticipation of the War of Independence. 

 

 

Signaler of the Seventh Battalion

After a month and a half of training and team consolidation (during which I met my future husband, Mickey), we were sent to the Negev where we joined the Seventh Battalion of the Negev Brigade.  During the first half year we lived in tents made of blankets - like in the days of the youth movement - in the wadi near Kibbutz Dorot.  Not far from us was the Arab village of Hoj, whose residents were evacuated to the Gaza Strip after they collaborated with the Egyptian army.  It was the women's job to operate the two-way-radio system, do secretarial work and kitchen duties. 

The boys would go out on missions almost every night.  There was confrontation on two fronts: we had to hold back the Egyptian troops, as well as defend the area against the Arabs of the Negev who would sabotage transportation and water pipes.  In one of the attacks by the Egyptian army near the Isdud village (today's Ashdod), many of our friends were hurt, including Mickey's good friend.  The morale was low.  The Egyptian Air Force would attack our camp every morning and we would take cover in the trenches we had dug in a field of Sorghum.  The aircraft would drop flyers in Hebrew reading: "Surrender or else we will kill you all."

In October 1948, the Negev Brigade conquered Be'er Sheva.  Mickey took part in this operation and I arrived from the city on the following day.  It was the first time I saw dead people; the bodies of Egyptian soldiers were strewn all over the city streets.  I wandered in and out of abandoned homes; in some there was still food laid out on the table.  

Be'er Sheva became one huge military base, and home to the Negev Brigade, and spirits soared again because of the victory.  I was an operator in the Brigade's headquarters.  One day I heard that a patrol force was leaving for Mamshit (the Nabataean city of Mampsis).  I joined the patrol without getting approval to do so.  When this was discovered I was penalized, and told I would not be joining the Brigade forces on Operation Horev - to conquer the eastern Negev.  I terminated my military service in the War of Independence with the rank of private.  My husband Mickey, and later on our two daughters, reached the rank of captain. 

 

 

 

 

The Border

During the War of Independence I felt that we were fighting for our very existence.  After the war ended, I believed that from that moment on and forevermore, we would have good neighborly ties with the Arabs.  When we were released from army duty, I and the members of the Nahal group to which I belonged founded Kibbutz Re'im in the western Negev.  I worked in the vegetable garden and Mickey worked in the agricultural branch, and also served as kibbutz secretary and the regional head of security.  We were the first couple to get married on the kibbutz. 

The kibbutz suffered thefts and other hostilities perpetrated by Arab infiltrators who traveled between the Gaza Strip and Hebron.  We stood guard by night, men and women together, as was the custom in all kibbutzim.  On one of the nights a unit of the IDF prepared an ambush along the infiltration route, and at dawn the soldiers returned to the kibbutz with a flock of sheep that was confiscated during the ambush.  Mickey, who was head of security, refused to accept the flock.  I objected as well, because I considered looting and plundering unworthy deeds.  However, the majority of the kibbutz members ruled otherwise, and the flock remained.  After some time, one of the members took the flock to graze in the pastures, and did not come back although night had fallen.  He was found shot dead in the field, and the flock had gone over the border into the Gaza Strip.  At the end of 1950 we left the kibbutz and moved to Tel Aviv. 

We built our home in the Tzahala neighborhood where we raised our three children.  I worked as an English teacher in elementary school for a few years and later was responsible for PR at a company that organized conferences ("Kenes").  During those first years Mickey worked as an instructor of agricultural mechanization, and later worked in different industrial plants.  Before retiring, he was the CEO of Israel Shipyards. 

During the Six Day War Mickey fought in Sinai.  Our own neighborhood of Tzahala got its fair share of shelling from the Qalqilya region.  I thought this war was unnecessary.  On one of the days, while taking my son to the kindergarten, I met my friend - wife of the Air Force Commander.  She told me with great excitement that the Israeli Air Force "wiped out their air force".  When it was announced on the radio that the IDF reached the Western Wall, I shed a tear and thought that it was an historical moment.  My sister in law, who was studying in Hebrew University in Jerusalem at the time, offered to take me on a tour to eastern Jerusalem, but I did not want to cross the border -  although there was no longer any border.  I cannot explain it but I had some sort of internal objection to it.  Since that time and until I joined Machsom Watch (Women against Occupation and for Human Rights), I have not crossed "the border".  I am told:  "There is no border."  But in my eyes there is. 

 

 

An Eighty-year-old at the checkpoints

One of the problems with Israeli men, as far as I am concerned, is that deep inside they believe that national security is the be all and end all.  They grow up with the belief that every Arab is a terrorist.  My husband, too, was that bitchonist type (evaluating everything from the perspective of national security).  But today he works as a volunteer in the NGO Breaking the Silence.  It took him time to internalize what I had understood from the very first moment.  Many of the IDF spokespersons were friends of mine in the past.  Since 1967 I have stopped believing statements made by the IDF spokesperson. 

Over the years I hardly met Arabs, except for those times when we would go hiking up north and stop along the road to eat in an Arab restaurant. I was aware of the injustices and inequalities. I used to read both Amira Has's and Gideon Levy's columns in the Haaretz newspaper, and I looked for ways of my own to express my objection to the occupation.  More than ten years ago, after the Second Intifada broke out, I joined the organization Machsom Watch.  My husband "wasn't happy" about my running around in the Occupied Territories, and I, on my part, told him that "I would not be able to sleep at night" if I don't try and help bring about the end of the occupation.  The main activity of the Machsom Watch women is resisting the occupation and reporting - for the benefit of history and all those interested - about what happens at the checkpoints. 

I once turned to one of the soldiers at the checkpoint and asked him why he shouts at the Palestinians who wait in line.  He answered: "So that they learn how to wait in line."  I asked the soldier: "Have you ever seen how Israelis wait in line?"  Sometimes I hear a soldier say to my friends and I:  "What are you doing here?  Go and demonstrate near the Knesset."  There were soldiers who swore at us and called us "Arafat's whores", while some women belonging to the organization Women & Men in Blue & White, cursed us, poured water on us and hit us.

Quite a few Palestinians have my telephone number.  They call to complain or report about events relating to the behavior of the army in the field: demolition of homes, detention of children etc.  I was raised with awareness for the importance of security.  In my eyes, the IDF's conduct in the Occupied Territories has turned the concept of "security" into something resembling "prostitution", and deeds that are inhuman are performed in the name of security.  Most of my friends from Tzahala think as I do but are not willing to be active in the field.  Their only concern is that terror attacks be prevented and that people no longer blow up themselves among us. 

I am often asked whether I do not find it problematic to assist Palestinians who hurt civilians intentionally.  My daughter was injured in a terror attack in London when working for El Al.  A friend of hers was killed and another friend sustained severe injuries.  I have no desire to avenge.  I am looking for the way which will lead to reconciliation between the two nations.  The Palestinian people want to have tranquility and to lead a human life.  When I go back home after activity at the checkpoints - I go back to a nice house, a comfortable life.  The Palestinians have lived under occupation for over forty years.  Their life is a difficult one, made bitter by "my" government.

 

The hopes of a grandmother

Despite the fact that in recent years I come across Palestinians on a daily basis, the encounter at the "Grandmothers Workshop" was no simple matter. When sixteen elderly women, all of whom are grandmothers, sit down together and tell their personal story, one gets a very high concentration of pain, suffering and anger. 

Most of the Israeli women were secular women, some with an academic background.  We sat down in a circle.  Most of the Palestinian women were rural, religious and all wore veils.  Despite the differences, warm ties and empathy developed between the two groups.  Fatma (Um-Ahmed) was one of the first to speak.  I was shocked when hearing what she had to say.  After listening to half the speakers, I broke down.  I went out and cried. 

I have my hopes and dreams.  I wish for my children and grandchildren to live in a peaceful country, one at peace with its neighbors.  And I believe it depends mainly on us, the Israelis, but I am not sure I will merit it in my lifetime. 

 

 * Tamar (Tami) Cohen participated in the grandmothers group.

* Upper photo by Eddie Gerald


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