Beaufort – named “beautiful fortress" by 12th century French
Crusaders– was a symbol of Israeli defensive strength when it was captured from
the PLO in 1982. With a commanding view of the upper Galilee and South Lebanon
it was touted as the safe zone that protected Northern Israel.
By the late 1990s, it was a symbol of the failure of the Israeli campaign into
Lebanon. Rising death tolls made it the focus of escalating anti-war campaigns
and a national debate on troop withdrawal.
Ron Leshem’s novel follows a squad of 13 IDF soldiers led by Erez Liberti
through two tours of duty at Beaufort. Exuberant, cocky, lusty and
inexperienced, they ascend to the Beaufort, each ready to be Rambo. Erez himself
is short, testy, impulsive and aggressive. His squad describes him as a
Rottweiler. He’s been punished for leading an attack on enemy snipers against
orders. His commander at Beaufort is waiting for him to make another misstep.
The squad faces nearly hellish conditions at the Beaufort: the constant threat
of Hezbollah attacks; on-again, off-again supply runs from Israel; having to
live constantly within the protection of the fort; showers once every two to
three weeks; inadequate toilets and overcrowded, always lit dormitories.
Tedious rounds of guard duty, kitchen duty and clean up work lead one squad
member, Bayliss, to say, “This was supposed to be a war, they promised us war,
and suddenly it turns out there isn’t one . . . All we have is hard labour here.
Donkey work. Where’s the real thing?”
As individuals – River the medic, Zitlawi the charming small time punk, Oshri
the calm, sergeant, Spitzer the gentle musician, Emilio the runner – and as a
squad, they discover “the real thing.” They experience the death of Ziv Farran,
a charismatic bomb specialist who arrived at Beaufort five days before his
discharge to disarm a suspected mine on a road. He walks across a landmine and
dies. His grieving grandmother in Israel stops eating and drinking. She dies 10
Leshem’s disarming characters touch a reader’s heart easily. The fear, the grief
and, above all, the question, “Is it worth it?” intensify with every page.
Beaufort won the Sapir Prize, Israel’s top literary award in 2006. Leshem does
not draw a simplistic or one-sided picture. Beaufort isn’t an anti-war polemic.
Erez himself is never touched by bullets, missiles or mines, but he is among the
wounded none the less. His bonds to his men, his unexpressed grief and his
difficulties in coming to terms with the changing conditions leave him one of
the walking wounded. He sees the ghosts of lost friends at some of the happiest
moments of his life, but he’s under no illusions that the war that led to
Israel’s occupation and abandonment of Beaufort is over.
This is both the best of times and the worst of times to be reading Beaufort.
The Palestinians recently released a video of captured Israeli soldier Gilad
Shalit. Congress debates the role of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Perhaps with the approach of Veteran’s Day on Nov. 11, the best we can do is to
echo the words recited by River and Bayliss inside the Nakpadon tank as the IDF
left Beaufort, “May it be your will, our God and God of our forefathers that You
head us toward peace, guide our feet toward peace, lead us to peace . . . and
make us reach our desired destination for life, gladness, and peace. May You