An IDF soldier in Gaza speaks of enemy attempts to kidnap soldiers into tunnels, the special boost that letters from back home give him and his friends, the incredible motivation displayed by his comrades-in-arms, and more.
Aryeh, a former hesder yeshiva student and a soldier in reserves who spent a week fighting terrorists deep inside northern Gaza, spoke with IsraelNationalRadio’s Yishai and Malkah Fleisher on Thursday about his personal experiences during the war.
Email readers: click here to listen to the IDF soldier from Gaza
I’ve been in Gaza for a week; medics and others in my unit went in a week earlier to get the lay of the land. We’re in an armored reconnaissance unit, which means we are infantry that goes in front of the tanks, first of all to clear a path, either in open area or clearing houses in built-up areas, making sure there are no anti-tank forces against us, and secondly, we scout ahead and point out targets for the tanks…
The army was very tight with us about security – they took away our cell phones, made sure we don’t have cameras, etc.
No Atheists in Foxholes
[Asked what it is like when they actually enter Gaza:] Right before we went in, there were a lot of jokes, black humor, like, ‘I’ll leave you my boots,’ etc. And you know how they say there’s no atheist in a foxhole - it’s really true. Rabbis were giving out Tehillim [little books of Psalms], and every soldier took one, or two, or three, or four - even the guys who just two days ago were arguing with me against religion. They act as if the Tehillim are bullet-proof, and they put them all over their body, saying I don’t want to get hit here, and here, and here… Anyway, before we went in, there were jokes - but then, when we actually start going on, it gets very, very quiet, people thinking their own thoughts, like who might not be coming back, or about their families, or whatever.
When we actually went in, it was very surreal. On the Israeli side, even with all the rockets and shells falling around us, you sort of feel safe - but when you cross over, you feel like you have left the safe cover of Israel. … You hear a lot of booms, mostly from our jets and copters and tanks and things. The first kilometer or two was open area, and then, when we got to the built-up areas, it really was pretty scary. There are snipers and stuff – but there were two things that were particularly hard for me. One is that almost every single house is booby-trapped – even with families inside! Because it looks good on the news [against Israel] to have a whole family killed… the people are forced to stay there, or sometimes they stay on their own – this is insane, we can’t comprehend this... It’s scary kicking in a door and thinking that the entire house might collapse on you.
Fear of Being Snatched
But even more scary is the fact that there are tunnels everywhere in Gaza – not just the ones that people know about in southern Gaza. I don’t know how many there are, but there are tunnels between houses and headquarters and the like, not only for reinforcements but also because one of their main goals is to kidnap soldiers. That is really terrifying. You see a bush and suddenly the bush moves and a hand sticks out, trying to grab a soldier’s leg and pull him inside. It happened a lot… Or we’re in a house trying to get some sleep, and you don’t know if a floor tile will suddenly move and someone will try to grab you. So on the one hand, you try to sleep very little, but we also work very closely together, looking after each other, helping each other, and certainly not doing anything by oneself…
The Old-Man-and-the-Cane Trick
The top Hamas guys are dug-in and hiding pretty well under hospitals and schools, and they don’t even know what’s going on outside. We’ve cut their phone lines, including cell phones, and they communicate by sending children with notes to each other; we’ve caught kids carrying notes. We once saw an old man hobbling down the street with a cane, looking very bent over and wretched, and when he saw Israeli soldiers, he suddenly threw away the cane, ran over to them and tried to blow himself up on them; the soldiers were able to shoot him first.
No Concern for Life
The mindset of the enemy is so alien to us; by us, the death of any one soldier is terrible, a national tragedy – but by them, it seems that they want as many deaths as possible. In Israel, schools even dozens of kilometers from Gaza are closed in order to minimize the risk, which is pretty small – but in Gaza, where there are bombs all over the place all the time, we’ve seen kindergartens filled with 150 or 200 children, and the kindergartens are boobytrapped! They even shoot rockets from inside mosques and these places…
We Want to Finish the Job
The soldiers’ morale is very high, and all of them definitely believe that the war is just and important. No one likes fighting; people want to be with their families. I’ve seen some 35-year-old guys almost crying about how much they miss their families – but at the same time, no one wants to leave now. Of all sectors, it’s the soldiers who do not want a ceasefire, not because we want to fight but because we know the job is not finished yet. We don’t want to have to go back again in a year or two or three. The soldiers want to stay and finish the job, they really do… I think there has to be a hard push against Hamas, even harder than we have done until now; this will take a real sacrifice, we know - but to think that we might leave and the rockets will still fall, what did we do??! Killing 900 terrorists out of 20,000 is just not enough, we have to really decimate their ranks in order that they should know that they should leave us alone…
True, Gaza is now largely in ruins, but they’ll get lots of money to rebuild, and they’ll use a lot of the money to get more weapons as well. We have to go in deeper and stronger, and make them understand that it’s just not worth it. In addition, I think we can’t leave without Gilad Shalit; it would be terrible if not.
We Feel the Hand of G-d
Well, I would say that everyday religion is one thing; we take things for granted, we pray every day, some people concentrate more and some concentrate less… But here – you live it, you absolutely live it. Secular soldiers are whispering prayers, everyone wants G-d to be there, and we do feel it - we have seen the hand of G-d; we have been very fortunate, you can see it and feel it... Even though we’re often hungry, the first thing a lot of soldiers go for in the packages that is not the food, but rather the letters and words of support. You can’t imagine what it does for us to read them… I have about nine of the really special ones, and when I had a little time, I would go over to some corner and pull them out and read them… They give so much strength…
I just want to tell this really special story that happened to me: Some of the letters have phone numbers on them, so I called one of them to thank her for her letter - an 8-year-old girl named Eden. Eden told me that she was so happy I called and that she had just been in the hospital for an ear operation… But then her mother got on and she was all emotional and told me, “It’s so amazing that you called because Eden’s two older sisters received calls of thanks from soldiers, and she was feeling sad that no one called her - and now you called!”
Click here to listen to Aryeh’s entire talk.