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(photo credit: AP)
Some were in Gaza for just a week; others were there since January 3, the night the ground offensive began in the northern Gaza Strip. Most of them of them haven't been home in over a month.
On Sunday, some of the IDF units that had been fighting Hamas over the past two weeks withdrew from the Gaza Strip. Some drove out in armored personnel carriers, others walked across the border wearing dusty uniforms and waving Israeli flags. They were all exhausted but relieved.
One IDF officer in the reserves expressed skepticism that the cease-fire would hold.
"We pulled out of Gaza in the morning, but all day we hear shooting and see rockets being fired at troops and into Israel," the officer said. "My feeling is that we let Hamas off easy."
Back in Israel, soldiers from the Golani Brigade described fierce fighting against Hamas gunmen in the northern Gaza town of Saja'iya, but said that the biggest threat had been the mortar shells fired at the forces.
"Most of the time Hamas was too scared to come out and fight with us," one soldier explained. "Instead they stayed away from us and launched mortars from a distance."
Others felt the operation had ended too soon.
"There is still more that we can do here," a soldier said shortly after returning to Israel. "We have no problem going back inside Gaza, even into the urban centers. All the government has to do is give us the order."
Dozens of families converged on the Tze'elim training base in the Negev to visit their loved ones.
While no major looting was reported in Gaza, some soldiers said they knew of cases in which soldiers took souvenirs from homes in the Gaza Strip. One soldier said that his comrades had taken prayer beads and keffiyehs. In some cases, company commanders gathered their soldiers before pulling out of Gaza and ordered them to leave behind any souvenirs they may have picked up over the past two weeks.
While large parts of Gaza were devastated during Operation Cast Lead, one soldier said he had been genuinely surprised by the IDF's sensitivity to the civilian population in the Gaza Strip. He said that while aggressive force had been employed by the IDF in the fighting against Hamas, there were numerous cases when the soldiers were ordered to hold their fire to prevent collateral damage.
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