They arrived from all parts of the country – north, south and center, in order to meet. Six men aged 33, most now married with children, met to tell the story of their lost brother-in-arms, Sgt. Major Eyal Banin, otherwise called just "Banin" and their unique group of friends. Eyal was killed while on reserve duty during the Second Lebanon War when Hezbollah fighters infiltrated Israel's northern border. It was the same incident in which Ehud Goldwasser z"l, and Eldad Regev z"l were kidnapped and that killed Major Shani Turgeman z"l and Staff Sergeant Wissam Nazal z"l, along with injuring 2 other fighters.
"Almost 10 years have passed since." The group is still alive and together albeit in the absence of Eyal.
Eyal grew up in Omer – a town near Beer Sheva, and refused to lose touch with his friends when in high school he and his family relocated to Tel Aviv. Yoav Arbel says, "We were always together. He would visit in Omer from Tel Aviv on Monday, and the next day, after our boy scouts meeting, he would go back to Tel Aviv. He was part of our family, very much like a brother."
On the approach of their military draft, it was clear they would serve in combat units. Dan Cohen, now a lawyer says, "We were drunk on the idea. Already we had signed up for pre-basic training combat fitness course. From our group, seven of us enlisted in the Nahal brigade - Eyal included. Two others went on to do a pilot's course and the rest as paratroopers, artillery, and the navy."
Upon being released from their mandatory service, they all travelled on post-army trips. Eyal planned more travelling with his girlfriend, and walked parts of the Israel National Trail shortly before being called for the reserve duty from which he would never return.
The day Eyal was killed is remembered in detail.
Miki heard the news from Yoav in a phone call he first thought was a sick joke. "I told him it wasn't funny." Upon realizing the reality, "I immediately went into a state of action and began calling everyone who didn't yet know. It took a long time for the enormous pain to hit me."
Yoav describes the moment he received the call from Eyal's mother:
Yoav Arbel: Eyal's mother called me. She said she heard that something had gone terribly wrong up north, and that Eyal wasn't answering his phone. I said I didn't think anything would have happened to him – Eyal was never very available. When I tried to call him myself, the call disconnected. I left a message "your mother is worried – let her know that you're ok." I continued to try and figure out what had happened when Eyal's mother called me again. She told me to sit. I sat down and she said "Eyal is dead." I was in complete shock -it wasn't real. She asked me if I would tell Alex, Eyal's girlfriend. I messaged my parents, and my mother who is a psychiatrist called me, and together we decided how to tell Alex the terrible news."
How present is Eyal in your life today?
Dolev: I think a lot about the things that Eyal would say and the things that he would do. If he had written a will, I believe he would have asked us to remain together. Time heals, and at the end of the day life has to continue.
The group honors the memory of Eyal 3 times every year: on the day of his death, on Israel's national Memorial Day for fallen soldiers, and in a bike marathon – a sport that Eyal particularly enjoyed.
Do you feel anger about what happened to Eyal and to you?
Dan: They say there was a "dead spot" (an unpatrolled area vulnerable to attack) near the border was observed in close proximity to where he was, that there had been a warning about it, and which was infiltrated by enemy forces the same day. Am I angry? It happened. How will it help me to be angry?
Miki: Today, as a father, I ask myself how it is possible that our public figures do not do everything in their power to prevent the next war. Yes, mistakes happen and we pay a very high price. But once you become familiar with the painful cost – where is the responsibility in trying to prevent the next war? Turn over every stone! That's the thing that makes me angry. 13 years ago, when we were in the army, we talked about the righteousness of what we were doing. Today this is not the case. We are in a place that is less humane, and if you don't agree with the majority, you become marginalized. Of course we're angry.
Yoav Arbel: I can understand that people are angry but that's not a feeling that speaks to me. I feel pain, but not anger.
Your group of 18 friends is different today in comparison to what it was, but Eyal was not the only reason why you still remain together…
Miki: I do not know how it would be different. At the Shiva we were together all the time. We slept in the same home, and it was a very intense week. Everyone completely disconnected from their normal lives – and there were jokes out of grief – dark humor. It's part of coping.
Dolev: One thing that I find particularly painful is when I see his parents, and I see a gesture, a type of smile, or the tone of voice of his father – things that remind me of him…and hurt.
Yair: It isn't something that outsiders to our group would understand.
After the meeting, I take my leave and the group continues to sit, talk, and laugh of the balcony of Dan's home. As I was picked up in a taxi, the driver looked to the group and said with a sly smile "what happened? The boys want to party and so they kick you out?" I explained that I was a journalist and what the purpose of the meeting was. "You know," I tell him, "their story is actually the story of us all." "I know," he replies, and tells me that he was also part of such a group of friend, who every year would go down to Sinai and "drink the first pint of beer to the memory of a fallen friend."
*As with every year on Yom Hazikaron, NATAL sends out its annual publication of "About Feelings." This is a translated excerpt of this year's publication – a moving story of a group of 18 friends that lost one of their members in the Second Lebanon War.