The three commanders

One year after Operation Pillar of Defense, the girls who ran a communications headquarters at the time talk about their experiences.

IDF female officers 521 (photo credit: Courtesy IDF)
IDF female officers 521
(photo credit: Courtesy IDF)
On the Saturday evening of November 10, 2012, Omer Pastel, a 20-year-old IDF Gaza Brigade officer was in her Tel Aviv home watching the evening news. During the broadcast, reports surfaced indicating that four soldiers had been wounded, two seriously, while patrolling in their jeep near the security fence of the Strip, after terrorists fired an anti-tank missile at their vehicle from across the border.
It was therefore no surprise to Pastel when, soon after, she was instructed by her superiors to return to her base at Re’im, just several kilometers outside of Gaza, to assume her position as the head of the base’s operational command center. This center was responsible for disseminating communications and logistical information and instructions between troops and their superiors, and vice versa, who operate throughout the entire Gaza area.
Pastel understood when she arrived on base that after days of incessant rocket fire targeting Israeli civilians in the South, the attack on the soldiers was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
In fact, the military brass and defense officials decided the IDF was to prepare to launch an operation against Hamas in Gaza, in order to damage the terror organization’s attack capabilities while at the same time defending the residents of the South.
Four days later, on November 14, the operation known as Pillar of Defense commenced, with the targeted killing of Ahmed Jabari, the head of the Hamas military wing in Gaza, who was directly responsible for initiating terror attacks against Israeli civilians and soldiers.
Over the next eight days the IDF carried out sorties targeting more than 1,500 terror sites inside Gaza, thereby weakening Hamas’s rocket-launching capabilities.
Recently, in a ceremony marking a year since the operation, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu noted an improvement in the security in the South, with a 98-percent decrease in rocket attacks – which he believes is a direct result of the operation.
Called in to serve alongside Pastel, within the confines of Re’im’s operation command headquarters, were two other young female officers: Aya Gishuri from Ramat Gan, in charge of communications for the troops operating in the northern Gaza regions, and Dana Nehab, commissioned to take responsibility for keeping the troops in the vicinity of southern Gaza, fully supplied and informed.
Sitting down with The Jerusalem Post at their base a year after Pillar of Defense’s launch, the three officers share some of their experiences leading up to and during the operation itself.
Gishuri starts by describing the scene following the attack on the soldiers in the jeep, which occurred in an area within her command center’s jurisdiction.
“At first, after the attack, there was a great deal of unrest,” she says. “Soldiers were distressed by the attack itself, and also concerned about their fellow troops who were wounded.”
Gishuri says the tension was evident in the days prior to that incident, with Hamas regularly planting explosive devices targeting troops guarding the border, as well as the discovery of dozens of tunnels used by Hamas both for smuggling weapons and for possibly launching attacks against Israeli communities.
“One of my biggest responsibilities in the command center,” Gishuri says, “was to keep the soldiers calm, and keep their spirits and morale up, despite the jeep attack and other incidents.”
As the operation neared, Gishuri was given instructions on how to prepare, despite not yet having a complete picture what the mission would entail. “We didn’t know what was going to happen, but there was a sense when the mission started that we were a part of something that we had only heard about as kids, like during the Second Lebanon War [in 2006].”
She adds that one of the critical aspects of efficiently managing her operations room was to “maintain unity by displaying maturity, even with all the craziness going on around us.”
Despite the commotion inside the command center itself, Gishuri’s main focus during her 12-hour shifts throughout the operation was to understand the overall picture of the situation in the field, and ensure the troops in her area of responsibility were properly equipped to successfully carry out their missions.
Nehab recalls that she felt an increase in tension leading up to the operation, three weeks in advance. She admits that one of the challenges faced by all three commanders was their relatively limited experience running the command center, as they had become officers and were given their assignments just three months prior to the operation.
Agreeing with Gishuri, Nehab says that it was a challenge to keep the troops in the command center itself calm under pressure. “You had girls who had just finished their matriculation exams, now being a part of running a war room.
We had to keep them relaxed.”
Another major challenge, explains Nehab, was in some cases having to keep soldiers focused and on task, while those very troops were getting wind of rockets fired by Hamas landing in their home communities – with their own families potentially in danger.
At the same time, Nehab says, “you had worried family members calling their loved ones [the soldiers] within the command center,” which while physically situated in a protected structure on base, was located just outside of Gaza, attracting a steady flow of incoming projectiles.
Pastel concurs that calming soldiers down was critical, “especially those who grew up in the ‘bubble of Tel Aviv.’” She explains that for most, “this was the first time they were experiencing Color Red alerts and rocket attacks like those who live full-time in the South, and at the same time, were fretting over family back home.”
Despite the challenges, the three officers feel they excelled in carrying out their responsibilities, from handling the necessary logistics and communications between all parties involved, to making sure soldiers had the proper equipment so that troops in the field were able to carry out their missions to the best of their abilities.
In terms of the overall operation itself, all three officers refrain from discussing politics, and refuse to address whether they believe the mission ended too soon, and without the launching of a ground operation in Gaza.
On one hand, all three are in agreement that the motivation for troops to follow any orders was extremely high, and on the other, they admit that a fear of losing friends in battle in a potential ground mission was also on their minds.
Nevertheless, they seem satisfied with the current situation as a result of the operation. “The reason we are in the army,” says Nehab, “is to ensure quiet for the residents of this country. And for the residents here [in the South], this is the quietest it’s been in years.”
While things are relatively quiet, Nehab admits that since Hamas is not a recognized nation and thus Israel and Hamas do not have a valid peace treaty, “we therefore must always be prepared for what the future might bring.”
Pastel agrees that as a result of the operation, “we understand that we always have to be ready.” But she does feel a sense of preparedness as a direct result of the experience she had last year.
Gishuri says that despite the fact that long-range rockets landed within communities in the Center of the country, she isn’t convinced that some of her friends in the Center truly understand the hardships of their brethren in the South.
Nevertheless, she feels that as a result of the operation, she was personally able to get out of that “Tel Aviv bubble” and develop a sense of unity with the South. “I now understand what they are feeling all of the time.”