Protective Edge Part II: Diary of a reservist

For most of the guys, this would be their first time in war, the moment was pregnant with anticipation.; it was nothing like in the movies.

Soldiers from the Nahal Brigade rest near the Gaza border. (photo credit: IDF FLICKR)
Soldiers from the Nahal Brigade rest near the Gaza border.
(photo credit: IDF FLICKR)
I’ve seen the elephant, as they say: Been to battle and made it back alive.
And it was nothing like in the movies – where all the bombs miss the main characters and everyone is laughing and walking nonchalantly, as if there aren’t squads of terrorists with scopes pointed at them.
Operation Protective Edge was declared on July 8, and I had come into the reserves only a few days before.
While the air force was keeping busy, we were preparing for a ground incursion, and the constant “Will we or won’t we go in” was putting everyone on edge.
It was Thursday, July 17, when they approved the invasion. The next day, in the middle of a ready-to-eat meal, our company commander informed us that instead of observing Shabbat, we’d be entering the Gaza Strip.
We had all handed over our phones, our only connection to the outside world for security purposes; there would be no Facebook in Gaza. It was full combat mode now, this was what we had prepared for: three years of enlisted service, two weeks of training in reserves. All for this moment – the ground invasion had been ordered and we were going in.
For most of the guys, this would be their first time in war. The moment was pregnant with anticipation.
In the dead of night, we crossed in on foot. The sky was cloudless, a half moon dominated. While we waited for the path to be cleared, we were given our last opportunity to rest. I looked up. I had never seen stars like that before in my life. The sky was filled to the brim, intensely captivating – and just like that, flares engulfed the abyss. The troops already inside were lighting the way for us to come in.
Standard walking formation, professional. Everybody was still excited and optimistic, still feeling as if we were in some Hollywood action flick in which the good guys are insusceptible to injury.
One hundred meters past the security buffer zone, we were now in enemy territory. I was in my position in the walking formation, the last soldier in the line with my platoon sergeant behind me, to the right. Not even 10 minutes inside the Strip, and suddenly a trail of smoke was coming directly toward me.
It is impossible to record my thoughts at that moment, because all I remember is everything turning to gibberish. I have only half a second to come to terms with death before the rocket propelled grenade hits me. It wasn’t even enough time to become scared.
The rocket hit less than 10 meters to my left; I was within the kill radius. The concussion threw me several feet and I landed on my back. There was no ringing in my ears, only absolute silence.
I remember yelling my partner’s name over and over again, to no response. There was still that absolute silence.
For a moment I thought I was dead, my spirit rising, and this was why nobody was responding to my shouts.
Like exiting a vacuum, the air rushed into my ears with an explosion of sound. People started shouting my name. At this point, I realized I was still alive and did a quick check to make sure I still had all my limbs. Fully intact and satisfied, I attempted to stand up.
No easy feat. I immediately knew something was wrong in my back.
There was zero chance I would allow myself to be evacuated so early in the operation. I had to fight tooth and nail to get to my current position in the IDF. More importantly, there was even less of a chance I would abandon my fellow soldiers, bonds forged tighter than blood.
The adrenaline kicked in, my head becoming ultra-clear. My thoughts unmuddled by filler words, everything in bullet points: Stand up. Lift bag. Keep walking. Stay alive. Get job done... Survival instincts took over. “Mortars!” someone shouted. That inexplicable whoosh of a mortar overhead, and the explosion two seconds later. That whoosh – a sound I’ve only heard once before in my life – can only mean certain death.
It was mortar fire that killed four-year-old Daniel Tragerman on August 22 at Kibbutz Nahal Oz on the border. Mortars were also responsible for the death of five other Israeli civilians, and on July 28, four soldiers were killed in the Eshkol region when a mortar struck their staging area.
Not 30 minutes before the attack, I had been at that staging area, but when a friend heard I was released from the army, he drove down from Jerusalem to pick me up.
There are no words to describe the pure terror that runs through your heart after hearing that whoosh. A sound that says, “You might have two seconds left to live; you won’t know until the explosion. So hold your breath and pray to your God.”
Explosion after explosion. I held my breath for what felt like three minutes straight. Once they stopped, we again did a check to make sure the entire platoon was present, and continued on to our destination, an abandoned residential neighborhood. We arrived about an hour after sunrise.
Once inside the Strip, all feeling of time was lost. I can clearly recall everything that happened, but cannot remember on which day it happened.
It was a total of six days, but felt like one long one.
The sleepless nights contributed to this.
We cleared and secured the first house relatively quickly, with expert precision. Everyone set up their posts according to profession and strategic positioning. In under 20 minutes, we had a fully operational command post – a record time for any battalion.
The week inside Gaza did not lack action in the least bit. There was no set schedule; we would deal with each situation as it came up. Manning posts and patrols searching for tunnels by day; moving locations and patrols by night. Sleep was a luxury afforded to civilians.
THURSDAY: THIS would be our last day inside Gaza, though we didn’t know it.
The day started off pretty well. A regular day in Gaza: Cloudless sky, 40-plus degree heat. Our air conditioner was on the fritz – by fritz, I mean nonexistent.
Around noon, we heard gunshots... not from our side. Two squads of terrorists appeared, one on each side of the compound we were occupying.
It was complete coincidence that two squads appeared, as they weren’t coordinated.
After shooting at one of the squads and receiving return fire, our battalion commander came on the radio and shouted for us to stop shooting.
The two squads were firing at each other; we just needed to sit back and watch the show.
It took the terrorists longer than it should have to realize they were on the same team. Once they did, they formed an alliance against us in the compound. We had the tactical advantage of being higher up than them; they had the tactical advantage of being in a forest with thick tree cover, voiding our advantage.
The firefight went on for six hours. I’m not at liberty to discuss in detail the operational procedure involved. There is special equipment we use, and special techniques with which we use it; the main thing is that none of our own were injured.
It was then that a couple of terrorists escaped through a tunnel, presumably to call for reinforcements.
The eye of the storm had arrived. A short window of time to regroup and plan for the next wave.
We didn’t know what to expect, only to be ready for whatever was in store. Our company commander told us we had 20 minutes to have everything packed up and ready to go, as we were going back to Israel.
We were relieved. We would finally be able to sleep in a proper bed, eat a proper meal and take a proper shower. In record time, we packed all of our gear for the walk home. We had no connection to the outside world – no cellphones, no Internet. We had no idea what kind of progress was being made with a ceasefire, and assumed one had been reached.
The walk back was stop and go. We’d start walking, rockets would start falling. We’d stop and hold our breath, waiting for the rockets to end. We’d start walking, rockets would start falling. Repeat. Repeat.
Finally, we approached the 300-meter security buffer zone. Once we crossed into that area, we knew for sure we were going home.
But the feeling of doubt remained, as something always goes wrong. Another top-priority mission; an extension of a different one; the need to assist another battalion in combat. Anything to prevent us from getting home. All we knew was that going home was too good to be true.
I am not married; I don’t have children. I hear that there is no feeling like holding your wife’s hand at your wedding, or holding your baby for the first time. That love, pride, joy. That “greatest feeling in the world.”
I haven’t yet experienced “the greatest feeling in the world.” But crossing back into Israel, after six days in Gaza, is a close second.
WE ARRIVED at the buses waiting to take us away. Sweaty and exhausted, we tossed our gear underneath the bus, climbed aboard and immediately fell asleep. We woke up about an hour later at a kibbutz. We weren’t going home.
There was no cease-fire. The war was not yet over.
Our job was not yet finished. We were only back temporarily for some rest and recuperation. In 24 hours we’d be reentering the Strip for a second helping.
Now was not the time to worry about that, though.
Now was the time to shower, sleep and fill our bellies.
The first thing everyone did after getting on the bus was search for their cellphone. Calling mothers, fathers, wives, girlfriends; this was top priority. The emotion in everyone’s voices, speaking to their loved ones after six days of uncertainty, was overwhelming. After all of the phone calls were made, showers taken and bellies filled, we slept.
The commanders woke us up in the afternoon.
Preparations needed to be made for the return to Gaza – weapons cleaned, gear packed and boots polished.
We loaded all the gear on the bus, about to leave, when the company commander called us all in for an emergency meeting. Our mission for that night had been canceled. We would be getting another 24 hours of rest, and would be able to enjoy Shabbat comfortably.
The next day, we were transferred from the kibbutz to the central meeting point in the field, where the different units prepared to enter Gaza. All of our gear was ready to go. In the evening, right before we were about to board the buses, the company commander called another meeting. Again, we were pushed off for another 24 hours. Typical of the army.
As I was bringing my gear back from the bus, while setting it down, my weight shifted on to my left shoulder.
This brought me to my knees; it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The pain searing through my body brought me to the brink of fainting. The doctor was brought over to examine me. He told me to rest easy that night, and he would check back again in the morning.
When the doctor examined me again, it appeared I had nerve damage in my lower back, running down my leg to my knee. The rocket from the first day had “sealed the bottle,” and the following five days had shaken it to point of exploding. And like a bottle of cola falling down 30 flights of stairs, it had exploded. Walking felt impossible; lifting even the lightest bag was a faraway dream.
I was being released from reserves; I was no longer of service to my unit. I was being forced to go home, told to see an orthopedist that my insurance would cover.
Unable to even carry my pack, I didn’t know how I would survive the three-hour bus ride to Jerusalem.
Getting home would be tricky. But somehow, my good friend Jared White, of the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin, heard I had been injured and was already on his way to pick me up from Jerusalem. He even brought food for my apartment because he knew that after 27 days in reserves, my kitchen would be empty.
It wasn’t until later that my appreciation for Jared coming to get me was fully realized, as 30 minutes after we left, a mortar was fired from Gaza and landed nearly 50 meters from where I had previously been lying.
A week later, on August 6, the ground troops pulled out. I was already in Jerusalem beginning my recovery.
I have a long road ahead of me, and it won’t be easy. I am optimistic about my situation, as was the orthopedist.
I thank God every day that it wasn’t worse, which itself was an absolute miracle.
I thank God for giving me such great friends and family who have been here for me, helping in any way possible.
The writer served in the Givati Brigade. He currently resides in Jerusalem.