Something has changed in Gaza since the last time St.-Sgt. "Yoav" was sent there to fight. Hamas gunmen, whom IDF combat soldiers once largely dismissed, have become a force to be reckoned with.
“They’ve improved a great deal – in their equipment, their soldiering, the way they use explosives. They made a big leap and are already halfway to being an army. They aren’t suckers,” "Yoav" said Wednesday, just a couple of hours after returning to Tel Aviv from 17 days in the Gaza Strip.
A fighter in a commando unit of the Paratroop Brigade, he spent a little over two weeks fighting in and around Khan Yunis during Operation Protective Edge, searching for infiltration tunnels and seeking out Hamas gunmen to engage. Then, just like that, on Wednesday he was back to being a 27-year-old guy in Tel Aviv getting ready to start law school, having emerged from the war in one piece.
"Yoav" was one of several reservists to whom The Jerusalem Post spoke after their return home this week. In addition to his newfound respect for the fighting capabilities of Hamas, he left with mixed feelings about the war.
“The question is, what was the mission we were sent to do? If it was to deal with the tunnels, then we finished the mission. If it was to do something more, then you need more soldiers and it’s not up to us – it’s up to the state to decide.”
Like others, he said he didn’t believe a permanent truce was in the works. He has no doubt he’ll be back in the Strip again in two or three years.
“It’s sad, but that’s the reality,” he said.
Fighting in the same theater in and around Khan Yunis was fellow paratrooper Lior Moore, 19, who only enlisted in the IDF back in November and was deployed to fight in Protective Edge with the 890 Paratroop Battalion. He had been away from home for 40 days, starting with Operation Brother’s Keeper in the West Bank, when he returned on Wednesday, said his father, Ido.
Ido said his son hadn’t even received his warrior’s pin – the pin that combat soldiers receive on completing basic training – and was already a war veteran. Lior, he said, had been cast into a trial by fire that he had found surprising and constantly nerve-wracking.
A veteran of the First Lebanon War, Ido described his own sleepless nights knowing very well the fear and stress his son was going through, all of it wrapped in a feeling of helplessness.
Though his son hadn’t yet opened up to him about the war, Ido said Lior had told him that “he’s very pleased with what they did, but he thinks they didn’t do enough – they should have hit them much harder.”
When asked how Lior was dealing with the experience, his father said it was still unclear to what extent he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, if at all, but that looking at him, “you can see how he went in one second from a boy to a man during the war. You can see it in his eyes – he lost his innocence.”
Shaiya Bernstein, 35, is less green than Lior, and on Wednesday he spoke about his feelings of having unfinished business after getting back into Israel. Bernstein spent two weeks along the Gaza border as part of a mortar-support company from the Armored Corps.
It was an intimidating and frightening experience, he said, even though he didn’t actually enter the Strip and he and his fellow troops weren’t bombarded heavily by mortars – which Hamas used against IDF troops elsewhere along the border to deadly effect.
Despite the fear, he said he was happy to stay if it meant “finishing the job” and ensuring that children in the South didn’t have to spend their summer living in bomb shelters anymore. He said he and other soldiers with whom he’d fought were convinced that Hamas must be dismantled completely if there is to be quiet.
Bernstein, who posted a video of himself on YouTube break-dancing on top of an armored personnel carrier during the war, said that yes, he did think he’d be back on the front lines in another couple of years and that at most, Israel had just bought a little bit of quiet.
“We dealt a serious blow to Hamas, but the goal was to shock them so that we wouldn’t have to deal with them in the coming years,” he said. “I feel like we did great work, but we could have done more.”
Like "Yoav," Hadar Shapira – a 25-year-old lieutenant from Holon – spoke of Hamas’s battlefield improvements, saying its operatives looked much more like fighters, with serious gear. He added that they were always learning from IDF methods “and finding out how to hurt us each time in a new way.”
He, too, believed the IDF would end up back in Gaza sometime soon.
Using profanity, Roy Iddan, a 36-year-old field intelligence captain from Tel Aviv, said the whole operation “was a tease” and left much to be desired.
“It was all very, very slow and indecisive,” he said. “We were held back and slowed up by people on the command level and always taking one step forward and two steps back.”
He described the classic “hurry up and wait” military way of doing things, which this time around saw thousands upon thousands of the 86,000 reservists sitting for days on end in staging areas along the Gaza border – sitting ducks well within the range of mortars.
“I felt personally like I was moved around as a pawn of sorts, in a game that in the end cost lives,” he said.
He cited the dismantlement of the attack tunnels as a success, but felt that deterrence against Hamas had been restored only tactically, not strategically.
Asked for the bottom line the day before the 72-hour ceasefire was set to end, he said simply, “I’m pretty sure we’ll be back there again in two years, maybe even tomorrow.”