'We don't feel the end yet, but we feel the people's support'

Flags and music in South boost troops' and civilians' morale.

sderot happy flags 248 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
sderot happy flags 248 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
While Thursday morning's newspapers hinted that the Gaza war was almost over, soldiers in the area said there was still a lot of work to do before they could go back to their children, spouses and private lives. "We don't mind staying longer and making sure we're not needed here again in two years," one soldier said. Thursday started as a more promising day for residents of Sderot and the Gaza-belt communities. Maybe it was the sunny, warm weather. Maybe it was the sight of so many soldiers relaxing in the area's meeting spots, smiling and enjoying a few hours of normalcy. Or maybe it was the newspaper headlines hinting at an approaching end to Operation Cast Lead after nearly three weeks of fighting. Yet this assessment had not reached the soldiers. "We know nothing; no one tells us what's about to happen or when we'll go home," a reservist from Givat Shmuel said early Thursday as he drank coffee in the Kfar Aza Café. "Clearly the job is not completed. The rocket-firing hasn't stopped and there's still a soldier we left in Gaza," he said, referring to St.-Sgt. Gilad Schalit, who has been in Hamas captivity for over 900 days. "We didn't abandon our wives and children for nothing," the reservist added. His friend, who complained about the cold night they'd had, said he was ready to go home. "We were supposed to go in [to Gaza] last night, but were cancelled at the last minute," he said. "I would be lying if I said that I want to go in; no one does." An Armored Corps soldier who has been in and out of Gaza several times over the past few weeks stood next to a sign reading "We won" at the entrance to one of the soldiers' favorite sandwich bars. However, he was wary when asked if Israel had indeed emerged victorious. "I don't know, but I know we will have to go in again," he said. Meanwhile, Sderot wore a festive façade on Thursday as hundreds of volunteers from the Lev Ehad (One Heart) organization covered downtown with Israeli flags. "It looks like they're preparing for Independence Day," said Etzion Adiri, a Beersheba resident who drives Home Front Command buses. "It's pretty and it makes the people feel better, so why not?" In Yad Mordechai, popular singer Zehava Ben entertained troops with a new song she had written especially for them. "I feel good," said reservist Amir Ovdat, 39, from Moshav Yagel, near Lod. "Just like she sang, everywhere I go people come to me and ask to hug me. The people of Israel are warm and they are very strong and supportive." Two weeks ago, Ovdat was called up for duty and left a two-year-old, a worried wife and a business. "No one tells us anything," he said. "We go one day at a time and we certainly don't feel this is the end. But we do feel that all the people of Israel are behind us. We have a beautiful country and beautiful people - it's just a shame we notice it only during extreme situations." David Azulai, 23, from Ashdod, spent the past 10 days in Gaza. On Wednesday, he got out and called his mother for the first time. "For me, it's more personal," he said. "I really need to protect my home now that Ashdod is also in rocket range." According to Azulai, the soldiers' motivation was still high. "This is not just another military reserve service," he said. "It's Tzav Shmona [the Hebrew term for emergency call-up orders]. We've already caused a lot of damage to Hamas, but the job isn't done yet." Meanwhile, the sound of IDF artillery grew louder Wednesday night and all day Thursday. "No one feels here like it's going to be over soon," said Shiran Ohana, a waitress at the Yad Mordechai Café and a resident of nearby Kibbutz Erez. "On the contrary, the booms were especially loud last night. We felt it was about to be over earlier this week, but then the artillery became stronger."