Saturday, July 4, 2015

Sean will not be forgotten

...When the couple is asked how they would like their son to be remembered, they come full circle and refer back to the funeral. "Sean was a unifying factor, he brought everyone together -- Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, religious and secular, Right and Left, that is the message that should come out of all this," says Alon...
"It is true that there are disagreements, but it doesn't affect day-to-day life. When someone needs help, everyone comes together. That is far more important than anything that happens during other times. People always tell me that Sean brought the people together. That is the message that I want to come out of all this."

Liav Nahmani..
Israel Hayom..
03 July '15..

"I remember the quiet. There were 40,000 people there -- Israelis -- in complete silence. No phones were ringing. It was simply unbelievable. These days you go to a movie or a show with a hundred people and inevitably someone's phone rings in the background. And here, with 40,000 people, possibly more, there was absolute silence in the air."

These feelings were recalled this week by Alon Carmeli, the father of Golani combat soldier Sean Carmeli who was killed in the Gaza neighborhood of Shujaiyya during Operation Protective Edge last summer. About a year after the funeral that brought an entire nation together, he and his wife Dalia are still having trouble processing the tragedy that befell them. But they now realize that an entire country rushed to their side in their moment of need, and has not yet released its embrace.

Sean Carmeli was a lone soldier, having left his family behind and come alone to Israel to serve in the IDF. "We landed in Israel several hours before the funeral," his father recalls. "We were told that the funeral would be held at night and that no one would come. After all, it was going to take place at 11:30 p.m. We thought that it would be a few family members, some friends and that's it. We didn't understand what was happening around us at all."

"I thought it was a mistake," his mother says with pain in her voice. She lowers her gaze and recounts: "I was sure that I would land in Israel, and they would tell me a mistake had been made. That it wasn't Sean. At the funeral itself I didn't even see the people. I couldn't see anything around me."

"During the shiva [mourning period] people came and told me what had taken place around us. Another person told me and then another person, and then it finally began to sink in. Later I saw it all on television and I understood," she says.

"Until Sean's friends from his company came to the house I still thought that I would wake up from this. I had it in my head that since there had already been mistakes made with names of soldiers who had been killed with all the Whatsapp messages during the operation, the same would happen with Sean."

Carmeli was survived by his parents and two sisters, Or and Gal. Because his parents emigrated from Israel 26 years prior and lived in Texas, the IDF classified Carmeli as a lone soldier, and that is where this unique and sad and oh-so-Israeli story began.

The roads in the city of Haifa were closed off that night. The Carmel tunnels were blocked off and the police informed the public that there were no open routes to the military cemetery in the city.

"It was only recently that I realized what happened there," says Alon, Sean's father, about the turn of events. "Or Yifrach, the local leader of the Maccabi Haifa [soccer team] fan club known as the Green Apes, is the brother of Sean's deputy company commander, who fought with him in Shujaiyya.

"If I am not mistaken, the deputy company commander was the one who took Sean out [of the battlefield] after 12 hours that they were under fire and he couldn't be evacuated. At that point he texted his brother, telling him that one of the fans had been killed, and that it was a lone soldier.

"From there, the message travelled to a wonderful guy named Refael Kabesa, the owner of the fan site, and it snowballed from there. But no one dreamed that the message would reach almost every single home.

"During the funeral we were in serious shock. We didn't know what was going on with us. I remember that I couldn't even get close to the coffin. There were so many people trying to make their way to the coffin, but couldn't. I remember the coffin getting farther and farther away from me until the burial. There were so many people. It was crowded and hard to walk."

Q: How do you deal with all that noise around you at such a difficult time?

Alon: "When we arrived at the airport, the media were waiting for us there but I told them to leave us alone. I told them that this was my private grief. But then at the funeral, and at the shiva, thousands of people came. The media people then came and said 'listen, this is no longer your private grief. People want to know, to hear.' That is when I understood that I had to open the door to everyone."

Dalia: "At the beginning they would say to me 'Sean was all of ours' and I would say to myself, 'What do you mean? He was my child.' But after a while I realized that Sean had become everyone's child.

"I say okay, he is everyone's child, but when I go home, he is only mine."

Q: Did you think that Sean's love of soccer could lead to such a thing?

Alon: "Before every Maccabi Haifa game, the fans come to his grave with shirts and scarves. Some of the shirts have Sean's name on them. Look at what his love for the team has done.

"There are fans who bought Maccabi Haifa team shirts with the number 13 on them, the number of Sean's Golani battalion, and his name above the number. During the shiva, the owner of Maccabi Haifa, Yaakov Shahar, sat with us for an hour and a half.

"He came here and sat with us. He took the time, and he is a very busy man. It felt good that he came. He was very moved and he told us that 'it is too bad that there aren't more people like you,' and I told him that most people were like us."

"The players came back from training in Austria, and they too came to visit. Yossi Benayoun once had his picture taken with Sean when Sean was little, and we showed him the photo when he came. It was very emotional.

"Since then we have kept in touch with [player] Dekel [Keinan]. He comes to memorial services and to events. We see him and we talk to him -- we have formed a special bond. To this day we have season tickets and we go to the games."

Dalia: "It is incredible. I see families with children visiting Sean's grave, not just fans. It is very moving, and today I realize how important these values are – to visit someone you don't even know."

"We paid the price"

Last week, the United Nations Human Rights Council issued a report accusing Israel, among others, of committing war crimes. For the Carmeli family, that is another sore point. As soon as the topic comes up, Alon takes out his phone and turns to the family Whatsapp group, where his last conversation with Sean is saved.

"We're going in," the son wrote, to which the family responded that they would be happier if he had remained out of Gaza and the Air Force were to bomb the targets without risking soldiers' lives.

"It is the best way to prevent killing innocent civilians," Sean replied, bidding his family farewell.

"There was one thing that always bothered me," Alon says, the tone of his voice shifting for the first time during the conversation. "I checked and I found out that during the first day of fighting in Shujaiyya, 16 Golani fighters were killed. The fighting continued for another month afterward, but no one else from Golani was killed. It made me wonder.

"I asked soldiers that were there, and they told me that after everything that happened, it was decided to massively bomb the area. I approached high-ranking officers and asked, 'Why didn't you bomb beforehand? Maybe that way 16 fighters would not have been killed.' I am talking only about the facts, and the fact is that no soldiers were killed after the massive bombing, and before it they were.

"They explained to me that during that day they had been waiting for intelligence and confirmation that there were not many Palestinian civilians in the area so that innocent civilians would not be hurt. That was the reason the bombing was delayed. It was only after they received confirmation that there were no civilians in the area that they launched the bombing.

"For us it is difficult because Sean, and we, paid the price for Israel being considerate of civilians. Now, not only are there U.N. reports, there are also Israeli citizens who are telling lies. It boils our blood because it really isn't true.

"The things written in the report are lies, since we conducted our own investigation, including conversations with officers and combat soldiers, and we have constructed an entirely different picture than the one presented in the report. We have the most humanitarian army in the world. The delay in the bombing that I was talking about is a case in point."

Q: When you talk about Israeli citizens telling lies, do you mean the leftist organizations?

Alon: "Them too. Sean died defending them too during Operation Protective Edge. I truly hope that everyone who did this doesn't want them to wait two days before bombing so that 32 soldiers are killed rather than 16."

Dalia: "The problem is that there are soldiers on our side who talk about the wrong things. It is very difficult to hear things like that, how can anyone think like that? These are our people! It is very annoying. These soldiers were defending the State of Israel and those same people who go and talk."

Q: Are you worried that the fallen soldiers of Operation Protective Edge died in vain on the path to another war? Over the last few weeks, rocket fire has resumed in the south.

Alon: "I hope not. But that is actually how we feel. Sometimes at the cemetery we see the vacant spots and we think, with great pain, these spots are reserved for the next fighters who will be killed. It is a painful thought, but sadly that is the case."

Dalia: "This is the State of Israel, and it is only a matter of time. All we can hope for is that it will take a long time before the next war erupts. Ever since we were children there were wars here, and I say that with tremendous pain. I don't think that a solution is possible.

"There is a problem with the state because it is impossible to live together -- I wish it were possible. I would give a lot to be able to live in peace. I support the other side, and I am also not angry at all of them. Those who killed my son are terrorists, not Arabs. The terrorists need to be taken care of, and then everything will be a lot easier."

"Sean will not be forgotten"

After Sean's death, his parents decided to move back to Israel, to be closer to their daughters who moved eight years ago as part of their Israeli upbringing. They sold their surfing business in Texas and wouldn't hear of going back. Especially now.

Because the Carmeli family are also American citizens, they received a warm American embrace as well when Sean was killed. A special flag was waved in his honor outside the Senate building in Washington. A similar gesture was made at the Texas Legislature. Senators and other officials visited them when they briefly went back to Texas to sort out their affairs.

Alon unpacks a number of bags containing the flags that were given to the family as a souvenir and sign of respect. "This flag has a serial number and a certificate, it is not just some flag that was there," he says proudly. "They don't do this for American soldiers. Plenty of soldiers are killed in Afghanistan and Iraq but this never happens.

"We were surprised because he wasn't killed in the U.S. military. I had senators, congressmen, the governor of Texas come to my house. It seems illogical. Israelis who visited the U.S. told us that Sean was mentioned in this or that memorial service in all kinds of places around the U.S."

Dalia: "Our lives changed in an instant. It is hard to go back and go on with work as though nothing happened. I don't see the point in going out to work and thinking about my future like I did before. Now I think only about my children, about being close to Sean and my girls, about being in Israel to be next to them."

Alon: "It is a blow that flips your life around. We are here for good now."

Q: Now you are here, but do you worry that this envelope of caring people around you will eventually wane?

Dalia: "Of course it will dissipate. Slowly, it will die down, that is obvious. But I believe that Sean will never be forgotten. There is an Education Ministry directive to teach this legacy and about these battles in schools. Now Sean is part of the curriculum."

Now the Carmeli family is here. Their personal memories are no longer just emotional -- they are far more than that. They wear necklaces bearing the Golani symbol with the words Protective Edge engraved on it, given to them by Sean's friends after the war. They wear green bracelets on their wrists (because that is the color of Maccabi Haifa, they say) in their son's honor.

Their new home is a kind of memorial to their son. There is a lit candle next to a photo of Sean, but that will soon change. Sean's biggest hobby was drawing. His drawings, including one from age 6, will soon be hung around the house.

"We want that to be his memorial. We don't want a house full of photos that will remind everyone who walks in of the grief and loss," they explain.

Beyond that, the family rarely talks to the media. For them, this interview is a kind of memorialization. "It is important to us that Sean is remembered," Dalia explains.

When the couple is asked how they would like their son to be remembered, they come full circle and refer back to the funeral. "Sean was a unifying factor, he brought everyone together -- Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, religious and secular, Right and Left, that is the message that should come out of all this," says Alon.

"I am not sure that these supposed rifts among Israelis are actually the way they are presented. We, and you too, are constantly between the Left and the Right, Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, the religious and the secular. We all have friends from all these different groups.

"It is true that there are disagreements, but it doesn't affect day-to-day life. When someone needs help, everyone comes together. That is far more important than anything that happens during other times. People always tell me that Sean brought the people together. That is the message that I want to come out of all this."


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