Memories of a war in Gaza

A siren goes off; In less than 20 seconds, I’m seated in the back of an armored jeep, strapping on my vest and all the other gear.

An Israeli soldier sits next to tanks at a staging area near the border with the Gaza Strip (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Israeli soldier sits next to tanks at a staging area near the border with the Gaza Strip
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A siren goes off and I wake up at once, my dreams cut abruptly. This siren can only mean one thing: someone has been sighted approaching the border. I’ve been sleeping with my uniform on, including my shoes, for cases exactly like this. In less than 20 seconds from the moment the siren went off I’m seated in the back of an armored jeep, strapping on my vest and all the other gear. At the same time, the other four members of my squad are doing the same.
Ten more seconds go by and our jeep is storming out of our post at 90 kph, its headlights cutting through the thick darkness of the desert night.
I am used to this. For the past few months my unit has been stationed on the Gaza border. This part of the world is well known to Israelis, being infamous as the source of a huge number of missiles launched toward Israeli cities. Suicide bombers are dispatched from Gaza, farmers growing crops near the border fence are shot at, soldiers are kidnapped via tunnels dug under the desert sand, and list goes on and on. This situation has been going on since 2005 – when Israel decided to retreat to the pre-Six Day War boundaries (the ‘67 lines). This meant uprooting Israeli citizens from their homes in the Gaza Strip and handing over the entire area to the Palestinian authorities. The idea was to stop meddling with Palestinian internal affairs and give them the opportunity to build infrastructure that would lead to a Palestinian state, alongside Israel.
What happened in reality was that the Islamic fundamentalist terrorist organization Hamas took full control of the Gaza Strip within months of Israel’s retreat.
During this hostile takeover, Hamas militants threw Palestinian government officials out the windows of the 14th floor of the central government building in Gaza city, sending a clear message to the Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip regarding how tolerant this new regime was going to be toward people who thought differently from them. Ever since, the Israeli border has known no quiet. At least a couple of times a day, the alarms in Israeli villages close to the border go off due to rockets and mortar shells being fired by Hamas.
Every now and then Hamas tries to send armed terrorists across the border to carry out a massacre in one of these villages. This is where the IDF enters the picture – it is our job to stand between Hamas and the citizens of Israel. It is our job to stop any Hamas terrorists from crossing the border into Israel and harming our people.
As our driver professionally maneuvers the armored vehicle through what seems like a maze of sand dunes and dirt roads, I receive information about the sighting that got us out of bed at 3 a.m. Over my radio comes the voice of our intelligence officer: “We’ve spotted a single man approaching the fence. He is 100 meters from the border, moving slowly and silently.” Exact location details follow. I then passed on the information to our driver, who took a left turn on to a dirt road heading west – toward the Gaza border. Within a few moments the fence that marks the border came into sight. This is a long fence that encircles the entire Gaza Strip; it is about three meters high and has some barbed wire at the top but other than that it is not very threatening. An ambitious man in good shape can climb over it in a matter of seconds, or simply cut through it. The fence’s objective is to clearly mark the border, not defend against Hamas assaults; that job is carried out by the IDF.
By the time we reach the fence, the suspicious character is only a few steps away. Our watchers could not spot any weapons carried by this man. This was of little significance, for Hamas is well aware of our firing procedures.
They know that a man who carries an exposed weapon is shot at from distance; they also know that if our forces do not see an exposed weapon they do not fire. Hamas uses this knowledge to its advantage, sending its people to the fence with pistols in their pockets, with grenades they pull out only once they’ve made it to the fence or with explosive vests tucked under long coats. In any case, the fact that the watchers didn’t see any weapon on this man did not make us drop our guard for one second.
We got out of the vehicle quickly, fanned out around the suspicious individual, who was still on the opposite side of the fence, flashed a light at him and shouted at him to stop. In the light I could see this man; he was about 25 years old, had dark hair, a short beard and was wearing long, heavy clothes. The citizens of Gaza know perfectly well that they cannot come near the fence, there is no chance this man is an ordinary citizen who just happened to sneak up to the border at 3 a.m. On the other hand, we can’t be sure this is a Hamas member either. It definitely could be – this man might pull a grenade out of his pocket at any second. He could also be gathering information for Hamas.
But there is also a chance that he is a poor Palestinian that was threatened by Hamas and ordered to try crossing the fence. Hamas does this to learn about our procedures, so it can plan future attacks. In this case, there would be Hamas commanders lurking in the dark at safe distance, watching how this whole situation plays out.
It is also possible that this is a refugee seeking asylum in Israel.
We’ve had all kinds of people showing up at the fence at all times of day. It is almost impossible to know for certain who the man is before engaging with him. So we all held our fire. We were absolutely locked in, we were all in good positions, but we wouldn’t shoot this man if he was unarmed.
“Stop!” we shouted again, but the man kept on moving toward the fence, looking at the ground. Suddenly he jumped on the fence and started climbing it. He was completely exposed, it was a very easy shot, but we didn’t take it. That is not the way the IDF works.
If you stop and think about it, for someone to climb this border fence in the middle of the night after twice being ordered to halt by five heavily armed soldiers is in itself reasonable cause to shoot that person. But if this is indeed a Palestinian that was forced to cross the fence by Hamas (possibly after being threatened), he does not deserve to die. When the IDF wrote this particular rule of engagement, it was well aware that it would give Hamas an advantage when trying to carry out deadly attacks.
Once the man got to the Israeli side of the fence, a warning shot was fired a few meters away from him.
Finally, this made him stop. We ordered him to take his shirt and pants off so we could make sure he wasn’t carrying a bomb or any other weapon. He wasn’t. At this point we came up to him, cuffed his hands behind his back, blindfolded him and led him to our jeep. The cuffs and the blindfold are crucial measures that must be taken to ensure that while riding in our jeep he picks up no useful information. Although unarmed, he still might be a Hamas intelligence agent.
In the jeep we notice he is shaking a little (the desert nights get rather chilly), so we cover him with a blanket and he stops shaking. We try asking him what the hell he was doing but all we get are unintelligible murmurs. I use my radio to report back to base that we have caught the man and are on our way back.
Very soon we’re back at our post. One of my squad members and I stay with the man while the others go unload the jeep. An interrogator is on his way and we need to guard our prisoner while we wait for him. We bring the man to a small room containing only a few chairs and tell him to sit down. As my friend watches very closely, I bring a cup of water to the prisoner’s mouth; this is also part of the protocol. He drinks it very quickly and very silently. Ten minutes go by and the interrogator arrives. He asks us to leave the two of them alone. We do so, and sit outside. While we wait we hear the interrogator asking our prisoner questions in fluent Arabic, but we can barely hear the replies, for the man is mumbling.
Fifteen more minutes go by before the interrogator calls us back in. He says he’s finished and goes to talk with the base commander. After a short while our officer comes out of his office and tells us we’re bringing the man we just stopped an hour earlier back to Gaza.
So we all get back in the jeep and drive to a gate in the border fence. We open it, take our prisoner off the vehicle, remove his handcuffs and blindfold and tell him never to come near the fence again. He nods and starts walking west – toward the first line of buildings in Gaza. Once he disappears back into the densely built neighborhood, we turn around, drive back to our post and go back to sleep.
THIS SPECIFIC event took place about four years ago. At the time, I didn’t make much of it; I was just doing my job. But today, just after another “war” between Israel and Hamas, with Israel being accused of committing “crimes against humanity,” my thoughts go back to that night, and to many other nights like it.
The incident described above was no unusual thing; very similar cases take place on regular basis all across the border. I speak from my own experience when I say so. I’ve seen these same procedures at the borders with Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt, as well as in the West Bank. This is how the IDF works. There is no doubt in any of our minds that due to this procedure some terrorists are allowed to go free, and that we are allowing terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah to collect intelligence to be used in lethal attacks against us.
But we keep on doing it anyway. We’re fighting an impossible war – we hold ourselves to high moral standards, while battling an enemy that does not know the meaning of those words. Hamas (and Hezbollah too, to that matter) has learned over the years that we do not shoot unarmed people who climb our fences in the middle of the night, we do not drop bombs on terrorists shooting at us if they do so from within a densely populated civilian area, and that we warn residents of neighborhoods we are about to attack. Our enemies see this as a weakness of ours. They send unarmed spies to learn about our defenses, they launch rockets aimed at Israeli cities from within schools, hospitals and populated buildings, they dig their bunkers under mosques, they transport their fighters in ambulances and order their own citizens not to evacuate their homes after being warned to do so by the IDF.
Hamas believes that this way it can protect itself against Israel’s attempts to defend itself (e.g. shooting back at missile launchers). In addition, another benefit that the terror organizations gain from executing their violence in such a way is that every now and then, inevitably, Israel’s return fire hits uninvolved Palestinians.
This is a clean success for terrorism, as least according to Hamas, for it provokes such tremendous anger, hatred and disgust toward Israel all over the world, mediated by the international press. Suddenly, and completely out of context, photos of poor residents of Gaza flood the newspapers, and a completely mistaken situation is presented to the naïve, layman reader.
This reader does not understand the complexity of the situation Israel is forced into and does not understand the viciousness of the terrorist organizations. Instead, all he sees is a fighter plane dropping a bomb on a school and killing innocent people – a terrible scene, no doubt.
But the context is extremely important.
We’ve been having trouble communicating this situation to the world. The main reason for this is that the ordinary person just doesn’t have the tendency to deeply explore every bit of information he is exposed to. A person hears of casualties and sees a picture of a burnt house and that is enough for him to make up his mind and say that Israel is committing “crimes against humanity.” In order to understand what is really happening in Israel, looking at the headlines alone just isn’t enough.
The bad publicity frustrates Israelis, to put it mildly.
On the one hand our soldiers – our sons, brothers and fathers – are ambushed because we declare to our enemies which areas we are about to enter (in order to provide uninvolved residents enough time to evacuate), and in the meanwhile the world calls us immoral. Our pilots have rocket launchers in their sights but hold their fire because due to the launcher’s proximity to hotels and hospitals, and the world calls our attempt to defend ourselves a slaughter.
Hamas throws its opposition off the top of a 14-story building, publicly executes demonstrators, indiscriminately fires missiles at Israeli civilians, kidnaps soldiers and civilians, orders its own civilians into war zones – and Israel is accused of crimes against humanity.
And all this time, among ourselves, we remind each other how important it is to keep our moral standards high. The easiest thing to do would be to plummet to Hamas’ level, throw morality away and fight them the same way they’re fighting us. But we don’t do that, and we never will. We take pride in our morality, even when the world is completely blind and indifferent to it.
Where Hamas sees weakness, we see strength. Our moral standards and ethics set us apart from the terror organizations we are battling; we are proud of our democracy, of our freedoms. We derive our sense of justness from these differences between us and our enemies.
The Gaza residents suffer badly from the whole situation, in addition to suffering directly from Hamas’ tyranny, there is no doubt about that. The Israelis are aware of this and feel for the uninvolved Palestinian residents.
We wish they were able to find a leadership that would take better care of them.
Gaza is under a siege, this is true. The reason for this is that when there was no siege, Hamas stocked up on ammunition and started using it against Israeli citizens.
Therefore today, we must inspect every item passed into the Gaza Strip. We pray for the day when a more moderate organization takes command of Gaza, stops all violence toward us and starts taking care of its people.
When that day comes, there will be no more siege. Israel is always ready to defend itself, but we do not strive to fight. We pray for peace, quiet and good relations in our area, but we must face reality – our neighbors at the moment (Hamas and Hezbollah, mainly) have declared openly in their manifests that they will do anything in their power to erase the State of Israel.
And finally, some food for thought: first, for the past 3.5 years, a terrible civil war has been going on in Syria.
During this period, the death toll has reached approximately 170,000, and 3 million Syrians have become refugees.
However, the UN has not accused either Syrian leader Bashar Assad or the rebels of committing crimes against humanity.
Second, consider the Gaza siege. Anyone willing to take a few seconds to look at a map will notice that Gaza has borders with Israel at its north and east ends, its west end lies the Mediterranean, but that Gaza’s southern border is with Egypt. This means that there would be no siege if the Egyptians weren’t interested in it as well – but they are. They too wish to prevent Hamas from arming itself. However, for some reason, Israel takes all the heat, whereas Egypt’s role is hardly ever mentioned.
If you follow the same Gaza border fence I was stationed at all the way to the south, you will reach a section defended by Egyptian soldiers. No Palestinian, armed or unarmed, ever attempts to climb that part of the fence, not during the day and not at night. The reason is simple: any Palestinian who so much as touches that section of the fence is shot dead by the Egyptians, no questions asked.
The author is a 24 year old and living in Tel Aviv with his wife and 6 month old son. He served in the IDF as a commander in the paratroopers brigade and is completing his master’s degree in Biotechnology at Tel Aviv University.