The Woman in the Box

The Woman in the Box

AUTHOR”S NOTE: This is the latest installment of short fiction in a modern Israeli setting based on the Torah reading. This story is loosely based on the Biblical story of Dina being abducted by Shechem.

Kobi sat in the lobby waiting sipping espresso, hoping his brother would recognize him. He left Israel a grubby and lean backpacker, hungry to see the world after five years as an IDF soldier running desert missions. But ten years in Dubai had changed him, making him look urbane, a sleek and glossy businessman in a silk suit with the grooming to match. His twin brother was still in the IDF, an officer in the tanks, driving the latest version of the Merkava. 

As he finished his coffee, Kobi saw his brother from across the room speaking to the concierge. The Dan Resort was the finest hotel in Caesarea and his brother’s IDF uniform looked shabby, almost like an employee of the hotel. Kobi stood and went to greet him. The two men hesitated before hugging shyly, each comparing himself to the other, each feeling a bit inferior. A bystander would have seen two almost identical men dressed differently. But a closer look clearly revealed vastly different characters etched into their faces, as different as their clothes suggested.

 Kobi reached out, pretending to fix the collar but actually wanting to admire the pins and medals on his brother’s uniform. 

“You seem to be moving up,” Kobi said, noting the light blue shirt and navy colored pants signifying a higher rank. The black beret bearing the olive branches and tank was tucked under the epaulet with the shoulder tag bearing the diagonal blue and green stripes. The round leaf outlined in red identified his rank as rav seren, executive officer of a battalion. 

“I don’t know if that is a good thing,” Ozzie said, smiling at his accomplishment being acknowledged by his brother. “Trading in my bars for a ‘falafel’ meant more time behind a desk and less time in a tank.”

Kobi led his brother back to the sofa near the panoramic window overlooking the beach, seating his brother and ordering coffee before setting in to talk. 

“I’ve been home, though until Rashil and Yussuf are settled in, I am running around, trying to make them comfortable,” Kobi said. “Just between the two of us, Rashil is pregnant. We had an appointment with a fertility specialist but after the first examination, the doctor told us that treatments wouldn’t be necessary.”

“Very nice,” Ozzie said.

“Indeed,” Kobi said. “Mom and dad told me that your wife’s name is Ada. She’s from America?”

“She’s from South America,” Ozzie corrected him, “Argentina. We’re expecting. The doctors tell me it is going to be a boy but I never trusted doctors. And how is Yosef?” Ozzie asked. “Is he getting used to Israel?”

“His name is Yussuf,” Kobi said, correcting his brother. “He is spoiled beyond words but I wouldn’t have it any other way. He misses Dubai. I have a tutor teaching him Hebrew but Yussuf is having trouble. He is plenty smart, soaking in all his subjects. Except for Hebrew..”

“He is not Jewish, you know,” Ozzie said, tension in his voice.

Kobi sipped his coffee, taking a few moments to consider how to respond. He was waiting for the higher-ups at the Mossad to give him permission to tell his family that his ten-year absence had been spent in the United Arab Emirates, working undercover for his country. In the meantime, he would try to lie as little as possible. “We are working on that.”

“What does that mean?” Ozzie said, leaning forward.

“There is a rabbi who knows Rashil’s family,” Kobi said. “He is currently considering her status with a rabbi in Israel.”

“Aaah!” Ozzie said. “Why don’t you just tell the truth. You are spreading some money around to open doors. Your money will help your shiksa wife and goy son become citizens and even convince heaven that they stood at Sinai with the Jews.”’

“I didn’t know that the religion of our fathers was so important to you,” Kobi said. “It seems strange that you would forsake our Moroccan roots and resort to that detestable Yiddish word. I ask that you not refer to my wife again with that word.”

“Maybe not,” Ozzie said. “But while you were away, rubbing elbows with fat businessmen, I was here. I would never forsake Israel and I would never marry 

“You know, when I was in Maglan, if we had to raid a house, we didn’t always call in the artillery to open a door,” Kobi said. “Sometimes we just turned the handle and walked in.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” Ozzie said.

“It means that I am very glad to see you again, brother,” Kobi said. “I was hoping you could tell me how the family has been. Mother and father said they are doing well. Is that true or are they hiding something from me?”

Ozzie sipped his coffee, staring down into the cup before answering. “Everything is fine.”

Ozzie was rarely subtle but Kobi sensed that he was hiding something. Despite their differences, Ozzie was Kobi’s twin brother and subtle hints that would have been missed by a stranger, or even another member of their family, were like flares in the night, marking danger.

“Are they really?” Kobi said.

“Yes,” Ozzie said, hesitating before going on. “You needn’t worry about mom and dad. They are healthy, God bless them.”

“So what do I need to worry about?” Kobi said.

“Dahlia,” Ozzie said, naming their younger sister. In true Moroccan fashion, his parents had married young and were subsequently blessed with a large family, growing at regular intervals. Kobi was supposed to be the last child, allowing his still-relatively young parents to spend their later years helping with grandchildren. But just before Kobi’s bar mitzvah, his father was surprised when his wife informed him that he needed a refresher course in diapers. Mutual embarrassment ensued when well-meaning people inquired half-jokingly if Rivkah was pregnant. The older children were already out of the house and the adolescent twin boys wanted nothing to do with the baby girl. Dahlia grew up alone, without siblings, and with parents who no longer had the enthusiasm to watch another child go through the stages. They were dutiful and loving but in the Kohen family album, she was always featured by herself, contrasting sharply with family shots of kids vying to be the center of attention.

“It’s about time for her to be in the army,” Kobi said. “She wasn’t home when I went to visit mom and dad. I assumed she was on a base somewhere.”

“Yes, she is in the army,” Ozzie said. “That’s the problem.”

“Is she in a combat unit?” Kobi asked.

“Not hardly,” Ozzie said. “She works for COGAT in Gush Etzion. Just like you, the IDF taught her Arabic and she spends all day helping Arabs fill out paperwork.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“She works out of the police station,” Ozzie said. “The station is part of the combat engineer base. One of my soldiers finished officer training and got sent to that base. He called me to tell me that there might be a problem.” Ozzie hesitated. “On second thought, maybe I shouldn’t tell you. You have a vested interest in this and probably won’t agree with me.” 

“What vested interest?” Kobi insisted.

“Well,” Ozzie hesitated but suddenly made up his mind. “Next to the base is Kibbutz Kfar Etzion. Every Friday, the religious girl soldiers go to the kibbutz kitchen to bake challot for Shabbat. Dahlia used to go with them. The kibbutz has a commercial kitchen but Jews only work there as mashgichim [kashrut supervisors]. All of the cooks, all the dishwashers, all the actual workers are Arabs from the villages in the area.”

“That has to be a security nightmare,” Kobi said. “Those villages can be pretty nasty. Not all, but some.”

“I asked her about that since those are the Arabs she talks to every day,” Ozzie said. “She said that they lie like crazy but if she stands her ground and doesn’t let them walk all over her, they respect her and treat her right. She’s been there two years now and call her sheikha.”

“So what is the problem?” Kobi said.

“Last month, she was baking challot and there was a problem,” Ozzie said. “She needed the head cook to help her. He did. And they got to be friends. They actually got to be more than friends. His name is Shaghf and he lives in Bet Ummar.”

“How much more than friends?”

“Mom called me last night,” Ozzie said. “She said that Shaghf kidnapped Dahlia.”

“Kidnapped?” Kobi said, instinctively tense and ready for action.

“That’s what she said,” Ozzie replied. “But the police looked into it. They can’t go into the village because it is under the PA. So one of the cops met with the Palestinian police chief. Dahlia and Shaghf were at the meeting. Shaghf said it wasn’t kidnapping. He said that he loves her and they are getting married next week.”

“He’s lying,” Kobi said.

“Dahlia confirmed his story,” Ozzie said. 

“She’s lying,” Kobi said. “They threatened her and she is afraid.”

“The Israeli cops didn’t think so,” Ozzie said. “They closed the case.”

Kobi felt his blood run cold. “I’ll look into it.”

“What are you going to do?” Ozzie said. “Leave it along. I have friends who can help me, like my soldier who is at the base in Gush Etzion. You’re busy with your family.”

Ozzie changed the subject, describing his new home and how Ada was decorating it, getting ready for their baby. Kobi listened, taking in all the details but thinking hard about plans to help Dahlia. After half an hour, Ozzie stood up, saying he had to run a surprise inspection of the troops. 

Kobi watched him go, stopping off at the concierge to pick up his suitcase. He stepped into the bathroom, getting out of his silk suit and storing it in a hanging bag. He dressed in casual clothes and left the hotel, putting his suitcase into his trunk. He drove to Yaffo, winding through the narrow streets, parking one block away from his destination. Yitzik was waiting for him at a back table in the Arab-owned coffee shop. 

“How did the meeting with your brother go?” Yitzik said. There were a few aspects of Kobi’s life that his officer didn’t know about. Yitzik knew about Ozzie. He had even updated Kobi about his family when he was undercover in Dubai and inaccessible to anyone else. Kobi had not told him his plans to meet with his brother but it was not surprising that his boss at the Mossad had him followed. It didn’t bother him and actually made him feel safe and protected. 

“Better than expected,” Kobi said. “But I have a problem I think you can help me with.”

Kobi told Yitzik about Dahlia, passing on all the details. Yitzik took it all in without asking any questions. The two men had worked together on field missions behind enemy lines and on Kobi’s spy mission. They understood each other perfectly and when Kobi finished speaking, there was nothing left to be said.

“What do you want to do?” Yitzik asked.

Kobi considered the options. He had pulled off an amazing mission for the Mossad and he knew that if he asked them to go in with guns blazing in order to snatch his sister out of there, Yitzik would probably consider it.

“I want to talk to her,” Kobi finally said. “After that, we’ll see.”

Yitzik nodded and stood up, stepping outside, returning after a few minutes.

“Let’s go,” he said.

“Just like that?” Kobi asked.

Yitzik grinned. “I have a guy in Bet Ummar. One of the police. He owes me a favor.”

“And now I owe you a favor?” Kobi said.

“You and I, we don’t keep track anymore,” Yitzik said. He threw some money down to pay for the coffee and they left, walking to Kobi’s car. Kobi drove Yitzik to his car and they agreed to meet at the army checkpoint at the entrance to Gush Etzion. A car was waiting for them in the parking lot at the security checkpoint. Kobi smirked. It was an orange cab, the kind that only Arabs drove. 

They were almost at the front entrance of the Arab village when a Palestinian police car came up behind them and flashed its lights. Yitzik pulled over and turned off the engine. A fat Arab man with a thick mustache walked up to Yitzik’s window and nodded without saying a word. Yitzik and Kobi got in the back of the police car, leaving the cab at the side of the road. The cop drove without saying a word, parking in front of a house. The three men got out of the police car and walked up to the house, the door opening before they knocked, a man standing in the doorway, looking nervous. He led them into the house, seating them in the modest living room.

“They want to talk to Dahlia,” the cop said in a gravelly voice, giving the name a subtle Arab pronunciation.

“I wanted to talk to them first,” Shaghf said.

The cop looked at Kobi who nodded.

“I love your sister,” Shaghf said. “I am going to marry her.”

“That’s all you have to say for yourself?” Yitzik interjected. Shaghf nodded, looking forlorn.

“I want to talk with my Dahlia,” Kobi said. “Now.”

Shaghf looked up, over Kobi’s shoulder. Kobi turned and saw his sister, barely recognizing her after ten years. 

“Go away,” she said in Arabic. “I don’t want to talk to you.”

“I will go away,” Kobi said. “In two minutes. I want to know that you are here of your own free will.”

“You are an idiot,” she said. “Of course I am.”

“Fair enough,” Kobi said. “I am leaving my phone number on the table before I leave. I want you to call me once a month to let me know that you are okay. If I don’t get a call, I am coming in but with all the muscle I need to take you out of here.”

“No,” she said. “This is my life, my house, my husband. You are not welcome here.”

“I don’t care if I am welcome,” Kobi said. “Those are my rules.” Kobi turned to Shaghf. “If you don’t want me busting down your door, you will make sure Dahlia makes that phone call.”

The cop stood up and walked over so that he could intimidate Shaghf up close.

“If she doesn’t make the phone call, I’ll come to bust down your door,” the cop said in his rough voice. “This is my town and I don’t want the ‘occupiers’ meddling in my affairs. Do you understand, Shaghf?”

Shaghf nodded and the cop stood staring a few more moments for effect before turning around to leave. Kobi and Yitzik followed, with Kobi putting a slip of paper on the coffee table with his phone number.  They got up to leave, the Arab policeman leading the way. He drove them back to the borrowed Arab cab but before they arrived, the cop’s phone rang. He answered, wrestling with the heavy car’s steering wheel with one hand. After listening for a few seconds, he hit the brakes hard, sending his passengers flying forward. 

“We’re going back,” he growled, refusing to answer any questions. They flew through the gate at Bet Ummar, the cop flicking on his blinking lights but leaving the siren silent. Kobi’s heart fell as they approached the house they just left. A flickering glow hinted at what would be waiting for them. The women were kneeling next to the bodies, wailing and screaming. 

“Stay inside the car,” the police chief growled. He mingled among the women, asking a few questions but mostly staying aloof. His job did not require him to get his hands dirty. A small firetruck showed up, identical to its Israeli counterpart except for the Arabic writing. The house, made of stone, was a total loss but the firemen liberally sprayed the yard and neighboring houses, containing the blaze. The ambulance showed up but they had been forewarned that there was no pressing need for their medical expertise. 

The cop disappeared into a neighbor’s house for about ten minutes. When he came out, the blaze had almost burnt itself out and the bodies were loaded into the ambulance. He got into the car and began to drive without offering any explanation. When they got back to the borrowed cab parked by the side of the road, the Arab cop ordered them out, staying in his car but rolling down the window.

“What happened?” Yitzik asked. 

“Two four by four pickup trucks with cabs in the back and blacked-out windows came in over the fields,” the cop said. “Maybe we should consider building gates and fences like the Jewish towns. They came right to Shaghfs house, bust in the door, and took Dahlia. They worked fast and had handguns. They shot the men in the head. In ten minutes, they were out, using a different route but still traveling through the fields.”

“Who were they?” Kobi asked, already knowing the answer.

“A bunch of men, all between the age of twenty and thirty, all in good shape, aggressive, all armed with the same handguns,” the cop said. “And they all had the same haircut. They weren’t quiet.,They did a lot of yelling, all of it in Hebrew.”

“They weren’t my people,” Yitzik said. 

The Arab looked at him for several moments before responding. “I know that. We’ve gotten hit by your people before. They are a lot quieter and they speak in Arabic. They don’t burn any houses and if they are going to kill someone, they do it somewhere else where no one can see.”

“As long as we are clear on that,” Yitzik said. 

“We are,” the Arab responded, “But don’t come here again, anyway. We are even and I don’t want to keep playing this game. If you have a problem, you come in with your own people. But if you do, I will be waiting with my people and we will have guns.”

He rolled up the car window and drive away, gravel spewing out from his tires. Kobi watched the red taillights disappear around a bend.

“I wonder who did it,” Yitzik said finally.

“I know who did it,” Kobi said. “My brother, Ozzie.”

“No way,” Yitzik said. “He is a tank commander. He doesn’t deal with Arabs at anything closer than a tank can shoot.”

“This time he did,” Kobi said. “But with the same results.” He paused. “We used to do stuff like this sometimes when we had to. But those were different times. I remember one time, we went in and snatched that Arab whose brother was on his way to blow himself up in Afula. It was the five of us: you, me, him, the truck battery, and the bucket of water. We caught the bomber in time so I don’t have too many nightmares about what we did. But now, fifty different European organizations will jump all over this. And maybe I am getting too old for this stuff but I don’t like this.”

“Me neither,” Yitzik said. “I don’t think we are too old. I think the situation has changed. There was no reason to kill him. And we made an arrangement. We should have honored it.”

We would have,” Kobi said.

“Things have changed,” Yitzik said. “So let me tell you how this is going to be. This will go public. There is no question about it. The IDF will engage in damage control. Someone will have to get blamed.”

“Ozzie?” Kobi suggested. “He can’t just drive into an Arab village and murder some guy he doesn’t like. We didn’t even do that back in the day.”

“We didn’t,” Yitzik agreed. “But there may have been some other units that did. I need to ask around a bit and see if anyone knows anything.”

They drove back to the IDF checkpoint, each getting into their car and driving away. Kobi spent the next day with his family but in the evening, a phone call from Yitzik pulled him away. They met in a coffee house not far from Kobi’s apartment.

“I have some bad news,” Yitzik said after their coffee was served. “You were right. It was Ozzie.”

“Of course, it was Ozzie,” Kobi said.

“I have worse news,” Yitzik added. “Ozzie didn’t have orders to do it but he didn’t exactly have orders to stay away. The guns and the trucks were ours.”

“What do you mean ‘ours’,” Kobi asked. “This was a Mossad action? We don’t work inside Israel.”

“Not Mossad,” Yitzik said. “But not not Mossad. Shin Bet,” Yitzik said, naming the internal security service. “There is some overlap and from what I understand, someone owed someone a favor and they needed to put the message out.”

“What message?” Kobi said.

“They needed to put out the message that the right-wing Kahanists are getting crazy again and needed Arab blood for their matzot,” Yitzik said, looking uncomfortable.

“But it was Ozzie,” Kobi said. “It had nothing to do with right-wing fanatics.”

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, the situation crystallized in his mind. Political elements in the government that wanted to get Israel out of the ‘territories’ needed to delegitimize the right-wing. It wasn’t always convenient to find a right-wing political fanatic who was willing to go rogue precisely when the need arose to make a political move so sometimes, matters needed to be helped along. 

“They can’t mention Ozzie,” Kobi said.

“Of course, they can’t,” Yitzik said. “He is regular army, an officer in the IDF.”

A disturbing thought entered Kobi’s mind but their longstanding friendship made it impossible to believe it was true. So Kobi asked. “So who is the fall guy? Who is the right-wing fanatic?”

Yitzik sat looking at him and gradually, Kobi was left no choice but to believe what he already knew.

“I’m sorry, buddy,” Yitzik said. “I’ll try to help you get out of Israel. This time, you are really on your own. And you can’t come back.”

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