My Gaza War

I rear-ended some settlers in a mini-van in the West Bank that afternoon, just before pulling into the settlement of Talmon for the funeral. There was no damage and we parted ways with a smile, joining the convoy snaking up to the ceremony.

Hundreds of people were waiting in Talmon to bury 16-year-old Gil-Ad Shaer, murdered 18 days earlier on June 12th along with teenagers Naftali Frenkel and Eyal Yifrah, after they were kidnapped at a hitchhiking post in the West Bank by two Palestinian men. Their bodies were finally found the night before, bringing the national agony to a new stage as the last glimmer of hope was snuffed out.

A prayer session held by classmates and friends of the three abducted teens on June 15th at Makor Hayim yeshiva in Gush Etzion. (Credit: Ben Harmtan)

A prayer session held by classmates and friends of the three abducted teens on June 15th at Makor Hayim yeshiva in Gush Etzion. (Credit: Ben Harmtan)

Shaer’s was the voice heard in the 100 dispatch call to police, the one whispering “they kidnapped me” from the back seat. At the funeral he was described as a kind-hearted kid who threw a birthday party for his pet goldfish and a young man who showed courage beyond his years.

Like countless mourners before him, Shaer’s father Ofir sought comfort in the heroism of the deceased.

“From the moment we heard your courageous whisper, I stood tall,” he said, describing the recording of the 100 call played for the family by police.

“How did you show such courage, someone who was not yet 17 years old?”

He said he never expected the quiet schoolboy to become a hero of the nation before he was old enough to drive, and minutes later his sister Shir-el prayed that maybe her brother’s death would bring the people of Israel closer to redemption.

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Ofir Shaer, after eulogizing his son Gil-ad at his funeral in Talmon on July 1st, 2014 (Ben Hartman)

A half hour or so after that I’d somehow found the car and gotten away from the funeral gridlock. I was on my way to my sister-in-law’s in central Israel when WhatsApp started exploding, amid news that the recording of the 100 call had been leaked.

I pulled over to the side of the highway, and finally heard what all the fuss was about.

You could hear it clearly – “They kidnapped me”, and then a voice saying “put your head down”. Then there were gunshots, Shelly Yechimovich giving a radio interview in the background, some chattering in Arabic, and the sound of singing, as the killers danced to celebrate the slaughter of three defenseless young men, including the one I just saw buried.

I must have played it back five or 6 times. We all knew about Shaer’s whispering and the gunshots, but “put your head down”? The singing? It was much worse than I’d imagined.

My sister in law was hosting a Pidyon HaBen for her son, born a month earlier. It was just the siblings, the husbands and my mother in law, and a heavyset Sephardi rabbi who kept imploring me to come back inside from the balcony where I was furiously – and rudely – trying to file a handful of stories before deadline.

That afternoon summed up much of the 2014 Gaza War for me – stories of heartache and young lives lost – often mixed with moments of real fear – all taking place during my wife and I’s first months as proud parents of a little baby girl.

I went to sleep that night still trying to make sense of it all, and in the morning woke up in our old apartment on Nordau Street in Tel Aviv to the news that a teenage Palestinian boy had been found lynched and burned in a forest outside Jerusalem.

That was the moment the summer that changed my life began.

THIS TIME IT ACTUALLY WILL BE DIFFERENT

The 50-day IDF operation that began on July 8th was similar to others that came before. There were rounds of Hamas rocket fire and IDF retaliation (and vice versa) escalating in force until the IDF announced that the operation has a name (“Protective Edge”), signifying that it’s now official.

Reservists walk towards a Hamas attack tunnel set for detonation on July 30th, 2014. (Photo: Ben Hartman)

Reservists walk towards a Hamas attack tunnel set for detonation on July 30th, 2014. (Ben Hartman)

In the end there were 72 fatalities on the Israeli side – 66 of them soldiers – and over 2,000 killed on the Palestinian side, an unknown number of them combatants. The war was proceeded a month earlier by the 18-day “Operation Brother’s Keeper”, which was launched to find the three kidnapped teens, and resulted in the arrests of hundreds of Hamas members in the largest crackdown in the West Bank in years. Immediately after that saga was over, the murder of Palestinian teenager Muhammed Abu-Khdeir by Jewish extremists launched a wave of rioting across the country, as things began – again – to tilt head-on into the abyss.

A week before the ground operation was launched on July 17th, I was feeling clever. I penned a piece for Tablet Magazine – where I was doing regular freelance work at the time – about the “Déjà vu” feeling among journalists as yet another Gaza summer war was unfolding. In the lead I actually likened it to “Groundhog Day”, all but saying that we’ve seen this movie time and again, and the only thing that changes are the dates.

I didn’t know that a full-on ground operation would begin in a week, that less than 2 months later there would be dozens of Israelis and thousands of Gazans killed, and that 2 years later, two Israeli soldiers would yet to come home.

In hindsight, it’s strange that I wrote about Deja Vu. The kidnapping and murder of the three teens and that of Muhammed Abu-Khdeir were two events of remarkable cruelty and trauma for the two separate sides, two highly disturbing stories that had already played out well before the war began and don’t have counterparts in any previous round.

On the Thursday night that the operation was launched, I was at “The English Pub” on Allenby and Hayarkon, one of the few proper dive bars in Tel Aviv. I was drinking with a British journalist friend and watching the news on the TV above the bar when the announcement came in by WhatsApp and then on TV – the ground operation had begun. We stepped outside to smoke, and saw dozens of American college students on a Birthright Israel trip walk past the bar towards the beach, most of them in shorts and flip flops, some downing beers, all seeming to be blissfully unaware of what was going on around them. We laughed, and yes – may have shouted something along the lines of “there’s a war starting, run!” Not my proudest moment, but the whole night was odd, and for some reason unexpected.

There would be a series of developments that war which countered my “Groundhog Day” assessment early on. Mainly, there were the tunnel infiltrations by Hamas, a new, “sum of all fears” weapon that would be used with deadly effectiveness over the course of the war.

There was the way Tel Aviv was targeted by rockets seemingly every day. Sure, it had happened during the 2012 war (“Operation Pillar of Defense”), but then it was limited, only a few times, and other than the apartment building in Rishon there was little damage caused.

A female soldier walks next to the two Iron Dome batteries in Tel Aviv during a break between the rockets on July 12th. (Ben Hartman)

A female soldier walks next to the two Iron Dome batteries in Tel Aviv during a break between the rockets on July 12th. (Ben Hartman)

I remember the first time a rocket was launched at Tel Aviv in the November 2012 war. I was in the south chasing rocket strikes and heading back to Tel Aviv when the news came in. It seemed so mysterious, so hard to pin down. Some said it had landed in Hatikva in south Tel Aviv, others said they witnessed it from Jaffa landing in the water a couple hundred meters from the shore. We made repeated calls on the way back to Tel Aviv that evening trying to reach any journalists or cops who knew where it landed, to no avail. It was a bogeyman, a phantom, a rocket that everyone heard explode in the air or crash to the earth or sea, never to be found.

In 2014, it became clockwork. There was the anticipation for the salvos that would accompany the prime time 8pm news broadcast, so you’d wait in the stairwell or shelter until 8:05 or so after the siren and the explosion, and then go run your errands. There was also one night when Hamas threatened to bring a salvo to shake Tel Aviv to its knees, but the only thing I remember from that night was Neil Young cancelling his upcoming concert.

The rockets on Tel Aviv became normal, and not the “game changer” people thought they’d be (but weren’t) in 2012.

What was different for me was the timing. This time I was a parent, and repeatedly caught in rocket sirens with my daughter. For the most part this was ok, my daughter or both of us were either at my mother-in-law’s in a small town in the Sharon region or at my wife’s sister’s place, and at both there’s a shelter and at least a minute or so flight time from Gaza for the rocket. In Tel Aviv at our apartment there was less time, but still enough to get down to the shelter in our building. Only once were we caught outside during a siren, and I raced two blocks pushing the stroller until we got to our building and got her to the cellar, fumbling first with the shoulder straps on the stroller and then with the door code.

The author, touring a bomb/rocket disposal unit's headquarters in Ofakim in July 2014. (Ben Hartman)

The author, touring a bomb/rocket disposal unit’s headquarters in Ofakim in July 2014. (Ben Hartman)

Luckily, she was only 7 months old at the time and clueless about anything happening around her. Two years later, she’s very aware, clever, and hard to fool. The next time there’s sirens and rockets on Israeli cities – and it’s only a matter of time – she’ll be even more aware, and we’ll have two little girls to rush to safety. I know a lot of parents dealing with this come up with games to explain the sirens and explosions overhead, and joke about it with their kids, but I don’t want to have to do that.

THE SONG OF THE WAR

Like every war (or at least the last two), during this one I had my own personal theme song. In 2012’s Operation Pillar of Defense, it was Tyga’s “Rack City”. It’s a terrible track, but a photographer friend and I thought it was hilarious and addictive and the hook is perfect to sing while racing around Ashkelon or Sderot or running for a bomb shelter during a rocket siren.

In the 2014 summer war though, my personal theme song was “Just Like Candy” by 8Ball and MJG. I can’t explain why or when that got to be the case, but it was during a slow moment early in the war, I think in Kiryat Gat, and I was watching videos on Youtube and it just stuck.

Almost every day of the rest of the war I’d play it at least once in the car, turned up loud on the phone, but not too loud that I couldn’t hear the monotone voice on Israel Radio break into the non-stop news broadcast to announce rocket siren locations.

“Rap Genius” may say otherwise, but I’m pretty sure the lyrics go something like:

“Leanin to the left, gold Daytons on that thang”

CODE RED HOF ASHKELON, NITZANIM

As the sun goes down, I’m gettin dirty”

CODE RED ZIKIM, KARMIYA, YAD MORDECHAI

It’s not the ideal way to listen to music, but it’s kinda nice to picture MJG sitting in the studio with the Code Red app going off every time he tries to record the track.

Why that song? It’s pretty dope, but also it’s a track that couldn’t be farther from the reality during those two months. The song and the video (which is filmed on a beach somewhere that for damn sure aint Memphis) are all candy paint and thick women, wood grain and southern things, and couldn’t be further from Gaza or sound any less like a chazan chanting at a military funeral.

That’s another mystery that I’ve never figured out – what’s the best way to drive? Is it better to have the radio off with the windows cracked to hear the siren, or to have the windows closed and the radio on to hear the voice cut in with the alert? They say if you’re on the freeway and the rocket’s coming your way it’s best to pull over to the shoulder, get clear of the car and hit the ground facedown with your hands on your head. That makes sense in Tel Aviv, where you’ve got a minute or so to find a spot, but in the south where it’s a matter of seconds, I always had my doubts. Slamming on the brakes and diving out onto the ground next to the shoulder may be more dangerous than the rocket. It might be safer just to floor it – that’s what 8ball and MJG would do, because they come out hard.

KFAR AZAR AND THE POMERANTZS

Some unexpected inspiration came on July 24th in a town I’d never heard of, that isn’t really a town at all.

Kfar Azar is a moshav that’s home to a few hundred people, squeezed between two highways and Tel HaShomer Hospital. It’s considered a neighborhood of Ramat Gan for all intents and purposes, but once you pass the little wooden welcome sign, it seems pretty detached from the urban sprawl surrounding it. A nowheresville speck on the map like dozens or hundreds of other villages in Israel, you probably need a good reason to find yourself there.

For me, it was a funeral.

Golani Brigade soldiers lower Daniel Pomerantz into his grave on July 24th, 2014 (Ben Hartman)

Golani Brigade soldiers lower Daniel Pomerantz into his grave on July 24th, 2014 (Ben Hartman)

Sergeant Daniel Pomerantz was a 20-year-old infantryman in the Golani Brigade when he was killed on the night of July 19th in Gaza City’s Shejaia neighborhood. Daniel and six other Golani soldiers were riding in an aging, Vietnam era M-113 APC that was hit by an RPG fired by a Hamas gunman, and probably died instantly. Killed along with Pomerantz was First Sergeant Oron Shaul, whose remains were seized by Hamas body-snatchers, and are still being held for ransom. (In April, Oron’s father Herzl announced that he had been diagnosed with Cancer, which he blames on the stress and anxiety of trying – and failing – over the past two years to get his son’s remains returned to Israel for burial.)

Also in the APC were two Americans serving in the IDF – Sgt. Max Steinberg, originally from Los Angeles, and Shawn Carmeli, from South Padre Island, Texas.

They were all from the 13th battalion of the Golani Brigade, and earlier that same day, in a staging area on the Gaza border, soldiers from the same battalion killed time in the shade as me and three journalist colleagues walked around taking pictures and making small talk with them (I remember speaking for a few minutes with one soldier from Maryland, who shouted at me from atop an APC when he saw my Longhorns hat) with the soldiers, most of whom looked like they’d barely just finished basic training. I scanned my photos in the days to come, but didn’t see any soldiers whose headshots were in the paper after the “APC disaster”, which only made me wish we’d stayed longer.

Soldiers from the 13th battalion of the Golani Brigade relax in a staging area near the Gaza border several hours before the APC disaster. (Ben Hartman)

Soldiers from the 13th battalion of the Golani Brigade relax in a staging area near the Gaza border several hours before the APC disaster. (Ben Hartman)

There were several funerals I covered in that war, as well as who knows how many in the years before at the Jerusalem Post. Most were for soldiers killed in skirmishes or wars in Gaza or on the Lebanon border, but there was also musicians Arik Einstein and Shlomo Krauss, and six members of the same family – including an infant – from Rishon Letzion who were stabbed to death in their home in one of the most brutal crimes in Israel’s history – the first article I covered for the paper.

These stories tend to play out like clockwork, but this one was different. For one thing, there was the voice on the public address system instructing that in the event of a rocket siren, everyone should remain calm and hit the dirt (a notice broadcast before every funeral during the war). By then though, I’d already been to a couple funerals in Operation Protective Edge, and the novelty of that had worn off.

What was unique here, and left me stunned, was the family.

Daniel’s mother, Varda Pomerantz, was the former head of the IDF’s casualties department, the branch responsible for – among other things – notifying families that their sons had died during their service. She paid countless house calls over the years, knocking on the door to tell parents their family would never be whole again. Standing over her son’s freshly dug grave, she said “after I hung up my uniform, after using up all my strength through the years of trying to comfort bereaved families, I have to stand here and tell everyone that I knew, I always knew that the day would come when those people in uniforms would come knock on our door. I never told you of this fear, but I always knew.”

She pushed through, and said how already on Friday night she had the premonition that her son’s days were numbered, and decided to record her last conversation with him. Then, in front of the stunned mourners and press, she played her last phone call with her son, and moments later, the letter he wrote his family before heading into Gaza, which he saved on his phone and decided not to send.

“If you’re reading this, it means my career [in Golani] has come to an end… All of you must be happy. Stay happy for me,” he wrote, before telling his family he loves them and to be proud.

At the very beginning of the funeral, Varda walked alongside her son’s coffin as the pallbearers carried it to the gravesite. When she got there, she saw his platoon commander, a lieutenant barely older than her son, sitting in a wheelchair after having demanded he be taken from the hospital to the funeral. The commander blamed himself for the deaths of his soldiers, and later said he was terrified to face Varda. His fear was misplaced – when Varda spotted him she rushed over, saluted, and hugged and kissed the commander.

The funeral was also remarkable because it was never supposed to happen – at least not there. Kfar Azar has no graveyard and residents – including soldiers – are buried in Ramat Gan cemeteries. Varda, for her own reasons, insisted that he be buried in her village, near her home, and when she was met by refusal, she moved up the IDF command chain using every connection she’d made over her decades of service. She refused to take no for an answer, and said later that she told the army and the municipality that they could continue to refuse, the family will just get a backhoe and dig the grave themselves.

This aspect of the story is perhaps troubling – a classic case of an Israeli using protekzia to get something that the rules don’t allow, and which less connected Israelis couldn’t achieve. Still, I was moved, struck by a mother moving heaven and earth just to keep whatever was left of her son as close to her as possible.

Other funerals of the war were remarkable as well, part of a new phenomenon that I had never seen before the 2014 Gaza War. Call it the “flashmob funerals” if you like, but it began with the funeral for Sean Carmeli in Haifa. He was a Maccabi Haifa fan, and when he died in the APC disaster the football club put out the word that he was a fan and a lone soldier in Israel without family (his sisters were living here at the time), and called on the public to come show their support. In the end, there were something like 20,000 people from across the country that came to pay their respect to Carmeli, a young man most of them had never met or even heard of. A similar scene unfolded for Max Steinberg at the LA native’s funeral in Jerusalem, and also, at the funeral for Hadar Goldin in Kfar Saba, which was remarkable not only for the thousands of strangers gathered at the cemetery, but also because it was a funeral without a body, the “burial” of a soldier MIA in Gaza.

Givati Brigade soldiers at the funeral for Hadar Goldin. (Ben Hartman)

Givati Brigade soldiers at the funeral for Hadar Goldin. (Ben Hartman)

How to explain this phenomenon? I’m sure there’s a cynical take that attributes it to rising nationalism or the unchallenged dominance of the right-wing in Israel, but I’m not sure. It seemed to come from the heart, a desire to show solidarity with the families of these young men, an outpouring that was probably much less likely before the era of social networks. It also, I think, reflected a certain helplessness felt during the war, the first since the 2006 Second Lebanon War in which dozens of young men were killed. It probably matters little to their families, but the strangers who came to salute the dead probably felt through their gesture some sort of control, that they’d had some impact on the tragedy that had befallen them.

WHAT DOESN'T KILL YOU MIGHT MAKE YOU WEAKER

The tunnel warfare continued into August. After a series of ceasefires fell through almost before they’d even begun, I decided to take a chance on August 1st and go to the beach, leaving my phone in the car. I went into the water a little before the ceasefire was to go into effect, and came out to see that three soldiers were killed in an ambush near Rafah and that at least one (Hadar Goldin), maybe more were kidnapped through a tunnel deep into the Strip. Within minutes I started seeing chatter that one of them was a close relative of the defense minister, and things seemed to yet again take a turn for the worse.

By the next morning the term “Hannibal Doctrine” (a controversial procedure in which the Israeli military, in event there is a chance a soldier has been kidnapped, can use overwhelming force to stop the kidnapping, even at risk of killing the soldier) had blanketed the foreign press. In the days to come, the IDF would eliminate dozens of attack tunnels, the destruction of which had by then become the main – stated – objective of the war.

Some little Haredi kid selling rocket shrapnel in Ashdod outside a synagogue hit by a rocket on one of the last days of the war. (Ben Hartman)

Some little Haredi kid selling rocket shrapnel in Ashdod outside a synagogue hit by a rocket on one of the last days of the war. (Ben Hartman)

Fast forward about a week later, and driving north from the Gaza border one evening, I got a call from my dad in Austin. He’d been driving to the Randall’s supermarket on Balcones Drive earlier in the day when he heard me on NPR being interviewed about Hamas tunnel warfare and the new infiltration threat on Israeli communities. It’s a short drive across the MoPac highway from our house to the supermarket so he stayed in the car out in the parking lot so he could finish hearing the segment on the ongoing war and the young man on the line from Tel Aviv. It was only after I signed off and the anchor said “that was Ben Hartman of the Jerusalem Post”, that he realized it was his son. Knowing him I’m sure he related this to a few people in the checkout line. This was a highlight of that summer for both of us.

Later that month, on August 22nd, my wife and I went with our daughter to see a daycare inside an apartment in our neighborhood. It was an absolute shitshow – kids all over the place, cribs stacked up like a little toddler prison, no apparent framework, a strange smell, and all of it run by a frantic Israeli middle-aged woman and her teenage daughter.

A few hours after we saw the day care, a mortar shell fired from the Gaza Strip struck outside a house in Kibbutz Nahal Oz on the Gaza border, killing four-year-old Daniel Tragerman.

His family had just pulled into the parking area outside their house, and when the siren sounded, they only had three seconds to make it out of the car and into their safe house. Daniel never had a chance, and was killed on the spot.

Border towns like Nahal Oz were the scariest places to be during the war, and not only because of the attack tunnels that Hamas used to such deadly effect. Because these areas are so close in, Hamas often just fires mortar shells – patzmarim – which typically fly too low and too short to set off the rocket alarm. They just land, without a warning, often leaving ruin and death on the ground. They were one of the most devastating weapons of the war – especially when used to target staging areas where reservists and active duty soldiers waited en masse like sitting ducks days and days on end to receive orders.

Places like Nahal Oz were all but abandoned during the war, when life became absolutely unlivable, just like during every other flare-up between Israel and Gaza.

The death of Daniel Tragerman was a shock, but one that was – outside of Israel – eclipsed by the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian kids in Gaza during the war. In a wider sense, by any objective consideration the suffering in Gaza was much greater than that in Israel, but I don’t live in Gaza, and neither do my wife or kids. As an Israeli I cannot visit Gaza and therefore can’t really report on it. It’s the Israeli side I can see, understand, and unpack. It’s the only one I experience and the only one I know.

My 2014 Gaza War didn’t take me to Gaza, just like the ones before didn’t and just like the ones to come won’t either. Gaza was and is a violent dark shadow on the other side of the fence. It’s close enough to hear the muezzin in the mosques when you stand in the stillness of abandoned Nahal Oz, but for all intents and purposes, it might as well be on the moon.

Compared to journalist colleagues and friends who’ve reported in Gaza – or Syria, Libya, Iraq and beyond – I haven’t been touched by death too much. At all the murder scenes, terror attacks, and car bombs I’ve covered, the bodies were already bagged up or at least behind the police tape with the ZAKA guys. I’ve been in very close proximity to death many times in the job, but rarely face to face, and certainly not in an overflowing Gaza morgue, where the blown apart bodies of children are being stored in refrigerators because of the lack of space.

It’s not a competition though, and any helping of something terrible is too much.

Since the 2014 Gaza war, I no longer think whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Many things that don’t kill you can still make you weaker and the repeated bouts of trauma and fear can wear you down and poison you. Israelis like to say someone has “the skin of an elephant” to signify their toughness. True, it may take a high-caliber round to kill an elephant, but even a .22 slug can break its skin and make it bleed.

IDF combat reservists taking a break near the Gaza border. (Ben Hartman)

IDF combat reservists taking a break near the Gaza border. (Ben Hartman)

With a series of wars since independence, countless terror attacks and now 3 (or at least 2.5) Intifadas, Israel would seem to embody a country strengthened through warfare, a nation tempered like steel through so many passes through the furnace. Maybe, but I don’t think it’s that simple. I think we long ago passed the point where we needed to stop counting shock victims among casualty stats – everyone here is a shock victim, everybody in this country carries the burden of trauma.

–AFTER THE CEASEFIRE, A FINAL, FATAL MORTAR STRIKE

On the evening of August 26th, the final ceasefire came and just like that the war was over. I filed statistics given by police and the home front command on rocket strikes and casualties during the war, and then went to get a pizza.

The next day at work was for Monday morning football takes on the war and an occasion to decompress.

Mohammed Deif may have survived, but we did too.

I remember nothing else from that day, except the phone call the following morning.

It was my mom, calling at 6am from Austin, the phone call which for years had been my greatest fear. She spoke in a strange, deliberate monotone, saying the words “I’m so sorry to tell you this, your pop has had a stroke, he’s not going to make it, you need to come home.”

We got a ticket in the next hour or two and that night I was on my way to Austin, the whole time thinking “this is just like a patzmar – there was no warning, no siren”, over and over.

My father, Lee Edward Hartman Jr, with my older daughter at a wedding outside Austin a few months before his death. (Ben Hartman)

My father, Lee Edward Hartman Jr, with my older daughter at a wedding outside Austin a few months before his death. (Ben Hartman)

The next day, after the funeral in Austin, I remember standing on the street outside the house my mom was renting in northwest Austin, talking to a friend from Israel (who flew in from Seattle because he knew my father well) and one from college at UT. I kept telling them “this is just like a patzmar” and for some reason, relating to them the story of Varda Pomerantz (when you’ve just buried your father, people don’t interrupt you).

More than anything else though, during and after the funeral, and that night drinking at my pop’s house with friends of my brother and I the same words kept coming out of my mouth – “I’m not supposed to be here right now, I’m not even supposed to be here”.

My father’s death had nothing to do with the Gaza War, and absolutely everything to do with it. It was a stressful, frightening, and exhausting two months, and when it finally ended, I was hit by the worst tragedy to befall my brother and I in our lives.

It will always be like a patzmar, and we’ll always be shock victims.

My Gaza war didn’t take me to Gaza, nor did any of the ones that preceded it. That summer changed my life though, and I think in some way it changed all of us.

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One Response to My Gaza War

  1. David Goldblatt says:

    Great piece!

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