Three meters and a Eucalyptus tree made the difference between life and death for IDF officer Yussuf, 43.
Nicknamed “Abba” (father) by his men, Yussuf safely fought in Gaza until early this week when he was sent to the Israeli side of the border in the Eshkol region for a short break.
On Monday, four soldiers called out to him from where they stood next to the food supplies.
“Come Abba, drink something cold.”
Yussuf sat with them, chatted, drank, and then “he got up, moved away just 3 meters, and that saved him. The mortar shell fell exactly where he sat,” his father Najib said on Thursday.
He speculated that a Eucalyptus tree adjacent to where Yussuf stood protected him from the brunt of the blast.
Those four soldiers who he knew, which were killed haunts Yussuf at night, said Najib.
He feels as if he has lost his children, the father added.
“When he speaks he says he wants to send condolences to their families and so do we,” Najib said.
On Thursday, the silvered haired man sat in the lobby of Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon, grateful for the miracle that saved his son, who he had worried about for weeks as he went about his daily life in the Druse village of Beit Jann – close to Israel’s northern border.
His family heard from Yussuf only periodically and had no concrete details as to what he was doing.
“We knew he was in Gaza, but we didn’t know where or what he was doing,” he said.
On Monday, just after he heard on the news about the mortar attack, which left four dead and one seriously wounded, Najib received a call from an unknown number.
Najib had a sudden feeling of dread. However, the caller was Yussuf, who said: “Do not worry Abba, if you hear from someone, know that I am wounded but alive.”
Najib described their conversation: “I asked are there dead? He said, ‘four.’ I asked, ‘The mortar in Eshkol?’ He said, ‘yes.’” Yussuf’s words were only briefly comforting, as Najib and his wife Yammi fixated on the news of a seriously wounded soldier, fearful that this was their son.
The entire 2.25-hour drive to the hospital, they worried he would no longer be alive once they got there.
When they walked through the hospital doors at 11 p.m. Yussuf was already in surgery – to remove fragments and fix his leg that had been mangled.
The hospital staff reassured them he was fine. The staff kept them updated during the surgery, and the doctor reassured them afterwards.
Only then did they start to relax, though their feelings were mixed, Najib said.
“We were glad he was alive, but we were upset by the soldiers’ deaths, because we knew some of them,” Najib said.
A proud IDF veteran, whose eldest son was wounded in 1994 while serving in the Jordan Valley, Najib said he believes that those like his son Yussuf who are fighting in Gaza are battling for the country’s future.
“People can’t spend their lives running to bomb shelters,” he said. “If we do not fight for our home and our state, we are lost.”
“We are proud to be part of the state and we are proud to fight for it,” Najib said.
Yussuf’s wife and older brother have been glued to his side since his arrival, Najib said.
He and his wife had been offered a hotel room close to the hospital, but they preferred to return home at night, because it’s important at this time to be comforted by their home community, Najib said.
In the same hospital, one floor above Yussuf, Dorit also counted her blessings as she sat and ate lunch next to her younger brother Hagai, 29, a reservist who was lightly wounded in Gaza Wednesday.
“It was an obvious miracle,” Dorit said as she explained that he had survived a tank attack.
“He was saved,” Dorit’s husband Yossi said. “We knew that he was in the forefront of the fighting and that he was in a high risk situation.”
Hagai was the officer in a tank that got stuck in Gaza, Yossi explained. Hagai immediately pushed his soldiers out and then returned to the tank to call for a rescue team.
“The moment he put his head in the tank, a missile hit it. He was blown back by the force of the blast,” Dorit said.
Her brother was saved by combination of centimeters and seconds.
A slight change in either of these facts, and his story could have been very different, she said.
“The difference between death and lightly injured, is a matter of a couple of millimeters in the missile’s angle,” Yossi said.
He added that Hagai was a hero because his quick actions had saved the lives of his soldiers.
Dorit said that her father had called Wednesday night before to tell them Hagai was in the hospital.
“It was very frightening,” she said, adding that it took her a while to calm down.
Seeing her brother made it easier, Dorit said, adding that the first thing she did was to give him a big hug.
As they sat with Hagai who, like all soldiers, is not allowed to speak to the media, children came up to them and offered them chocolate.
The children were among hundreds of volunteers who have streamed into the hospitals with balloons, pizzas and pastries.
One woman brought home-made cookies and cupcakes with small paper Israeli flags on toothpicks.
One musician walked into the hospital strumming a guitar and singing, “Am Yisrael Hai.”
During the afternoon and into the evening, warning sirens wailed in Ashkelon, sending soldiers, visitors and journalists outside the hospital to run for safety.
Throughout the day and into the night, the wounded continued to arrive.
In the evening, a helicopter landed on a lawn by the sea, just outside the building, with three wounded soldiers from Gaza.
Medical teams rushed the soldiers into waiting ambulances, out of the ambulances and through the hospital doors and into the emergency room.