How are Israel's soldiers protecting the country under fire? - interviews

Iron Dome troops and a combat soldier speak to The Jerusalem Post during a lull in the violence on Israel's southern border.

  IDF soldiers on the border with Gaza.  (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
IDF soldiers on the border with Gaza.
(photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)

IDF soldiers staffing Iron Dome batteries or deployed along the border with Gaza are protecting their homes, families and friends as rockets continue to rain down on the home front.

Capt. Asaf commands an Iron Dome Battery that has intercepted dozens of rockets since the outbreak of Operation Breaking Dawn.

“This Shabbat wasn’t normal. We had a lot of work,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “We were very alert, slept less, and had to be ready at all times because they fire rockets day and night.”

This is not his first war.

Asaf has been in Air Defense Array since 2015, serving as an officer since 2016.

 Asaf has been in Air Defense Array since 2015 (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON UNIT) Asaf has been in Air Defense Array since 2015 (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON UNIT)

“Every war is different in its own way,” he said. “It’s less intense and challenging [now] than in the past” because Hamas has not joined the fighting and therefore there are fewer rockets. “But we are ready for it to change at any moment.”

What has happened in Operation Breaking Dawn so far? 

As of Sunday morning, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) had launched some 580 rockets toward Israel.

Approximately 450-470 rockets crossed into Israel. Some 200 of them headed toward populated areas were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile-defense system for an interception rate of 97%.

During the Second Lebanon War in 2006, large Israeli cities were relentlessly targeted by Hezbollah missiles.

In response, former defense minister Amir Peretz decided to develop the Iron Dome, despite opposition from army brass. After a lengthy development process, and with financial help from the United States, Iron Dome went into service in April 2011 with its first battery placed near the southern city of Beersheba. It made its first interception of a Grad rocket fired from the Gaza Strip just days later.

The military has stressed that despite the Iron Dome being able to intercept a significant number of rockets heading toward urban areas, Israelis must enter bomb shelters when incoming rocket sirens are activated.

“There is never 100% protection,” Asaf said. “So the most important thing is to enter a safe space if there is a siren. There is always that small chance of the rocket not being intercepted. It feels awful when we don’t get the rocket, but we work as fast as possible to learn from our mistakes and get better.”

"The most important thing is to enter a safe space if there is a siren. There is always that small chance of the rocket not being intercepted. It feels awful when we don’t get the rocket, but we work as fast as possible to learn from our mistakes and get better."

Captain Asaf

He explained that his troops make real-time decisions to intercept projectiles that could be headed toward residential areas the battery is protecting. Those heading toward open areas are not intercepted “so we can save our ammunition,” he said.

With close friends in central Israel who ran for shelter in this latest escalation, Asaf said his loved ones are “always in my thoughts” when he’s working.

“But it feels good to know that I am protecting them,” he said. “I trust my soldiers and I know how ready we are, so I’m less worried because of that.”

In a message to the international community, Asaf stressed that the soldiers of the Iron Dome, Israel Air Force and the IDF, in general, will protect Israeli citizens.

“We are strong in order to protect our country. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, the IDF is strong and will do everything it can to protect its citizens.”

“We are strong in order to protect our country. It doesn't matter how long it takes, the IDF is strong and will do everything it can to protect its citizens.”

Captain Asaf

SGT. “R” serves as an Iron Dome interceptor in Capt. Asaf’s battery. While she served as a fighter in the battery in last year’s Operation Guardian of the Wall, this year is different as she is for the first time acting as an interceptor taking out rockets launched by PIJ.

“It’s very different for me this year because now I actually intercept rockets and last year I wasn’t. As a fighter, it’s different because you are in the field more. Now I understand how things work behind the scenes,” she told the Post during a few moments of quiet on Saturday evening.

“There was a lot of uncertainty in the days before the operation. But slowly we understood that we had to prepare for what was coming. I just spoke with my brothers and they said, ‘Wow! You are protecting us!’ They really feel that I am protecting them. My parents, though, are worried. But they are also proud.”

When asked what the soldiers do if an incoming rocket siren is activated while they are working, she said, “We will put on our helmets and vests but we will continue to work to protect the country. Sometimes we can’t stop working.”

While the troops train “all the time” in order to prepare for the coming round – including learning from past rounds – “You can’t be calm when there are rockets in the air, but we are here together and I know that my fellow soldiers are doing their best.”

Sgt. “M” serves as an Iron Dome technician and is responsible for the system to function both routinely and during emergencies.

Last week, before the operation was launched, M said it was too quiet and he didn’t expect another escalation with PIJ.

“It was three days of quiet and I thought there wouldn’t be anything, but at the end of the day, it exploded and we have to protect the country and that’s that. We will do it as best as possible,” he said.

M has been a technician for the past two-and-a-half years and is set to be released from the IDF in a month.

“Last year, rockets were fired toward Jerusalem, and that’s where I’m from and it meant a lot to protect my home,” he told the Post. “This will, hopefully, be my last operation.”

Although he wanted to serve as a combat soldier and not in the Air Defense Array when he was drafted, serving in an Iron Dome Battery “is something that I can’t explain,” he said. “These days, wars are fought more in the air than on the ground. You are protecting civilians in this role and I am proud of myself.”

Wherever you serve

Though no ground troops have crossed into Gaza, those who are serving on the front line near the Gaza Strip have been just as busy as those in the Iron Dome batteries.

Capt. Roi Tzapal, platoon leader in the Nahal Brigade’s Shaham Battalion, has been deployed to the Gaza area for the past month in order to protect the communities there.

In the army for the past six years, Tzapal has taken part in several operations. He explained that the atmosphere in the area was tense before the outbreak of the latest operation

Though Hamas has yet to join in the fighting, Tzapal is not sure the terrorist group ruling over the blockaded enclave will remain out of it.

“Hamas is in a very fragile situation,” he said. “It’s hard to believe that they aren’t playing a part behind closed doors.”

“Hamas is in a very fragile situation. It’s hard to believe that they aren’t playing a part behind closed doors.”

Captain Roi Tzapal

Tzapal’s forces have been reinforced with tanks equipped with both offensive and defensive capabilities. While they have yet to strike any targets, he explained that forces in the neighboring sections have carried out strikes.

He said when they aren’t on the offensive, they are gathering marks for their target bank “for when the order is given.”

“The army began this operation with specific targets, and when they will get what they planned, only then will we stop,” he said. “The army started this operation with precision intelligence and the majority of targets are Islamic Jihad. We are doing this with a minimum of civilian casualties.”