The fury (and boredom) of war: Battlefield stories of courage, fear and frustration from Gaza

On a blistering afternoon in southern Israel on Aug. 4, about eight miles from Gaza at the intersection of Highway 25 and Highway 34, soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) took cover in the shade of a makeshift rest stop — one of dozens set up throughout the south during the recent war in Gaza.

In the cool shade of a tent, around 100 armed and uniformed soldiers browsed tables full of donated books, clothes and toiletries. They heaped buffet food onto disposable plates and listened to Hebrew dance music that a Chasidic group was blasting from a nearby van.

“Here I am — I’m the one who causes the trauma in Gaza,” said Avi, a 35-year-old combat soldier splayed on a bean-bag chair, waiting for his turn on a massage table.

“What can I do?” he asked, grazing a hand over his buzz cut. “I must protect my people.”

Most soldiers at the rest stop were hesitant to talk to a reporter, especially a foreigner, while in uniform — and all who did grant interviews insisted that their full names not be published. But they were also eager to contradict the perception around the world that they belong to an army of baby-killers.

“I don’t want to kill children,” insisted a stubbly reserve soldier in his 30s who lives in Bitha, a nearby border town. “I fight for my life and my own children; they’re afraid when Hamas shoots the rockets.”

Israeli combat soldiers wait for orders on the border between Gaza and Kibbutz Nahal Oz. Photos by Simone Wilson

The soldiers who spoke to the Journal said they were fighting a war that needed to be fought, but — as the fighting appeared to be winding down — they said they wished the IDF had taken a bolder approach.

“We need [Russian President Vladimir] Putin for four days, to take the war to the sea and finish,” Avi said, grinning.

As of press time on Aug. 5, as a 72-hour cease -fire appeared to hold and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to end the month-long war were being held in Egypt, both sides were claiming victory — even as Gaza health officials had counted 1,865 Palestinians among the victims of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge. According to the United Nations, around 75 percent of Gaza’s casualties are civilians, 30 percent of them children.

(Israelis assert those numbers have been tabulated by Hamas operatives on the ground and are, therefore, not trustworthy.)

Some soldiers have been stationed along the Gaza border for weeks, their cars gathering dust in the sun. 

In the same time period, three Israeli civilians died from rocket and mortar fire aimed into Israel from Gaza, and 64 Israeli soldiers were killed in battle — about half the IDF toll of the second Lebanon War.

“We know the field better than Lebanon, because we look at Gaza all the time,” said Avi, who has fought in Israel’s past three ground wars. “I’ve been training for this my whole life.”

Avi said that since the ground phase of the operation began on July 17, he has entered Gaza every few days on a mission to find and destroy underground tunnels snaking from Gaza into Israel, as well as other military infrastructure built by Hamas, the extremist organization that runs the Gaza Strip. 

After the IDF issues an evacuation notice for a certain neighborhood, Avi said he and other fighters from his unit, the elite Golani Brigade, enter Gaza inside one of the IDF’s new Merkava 4 tanks. (The tanks, fresh to this war, are equipped with a sort of mini Iron Dome that can deflect Hamas’ anti-tank missiles.)

Avi’s unit usually enters in the night, he said, and eliminates any perceived threat in their path with a barrage of artillery shells.

“If they have an obstacle, they completely destroy the obstacle with artillery,” said a 33-year-old reserve soldier who would identify himself only as “D.” Throughout the ground operation, D was stationed at his division’s command center in Ashkelon, a large Israeli city north of Gaza.

An IDF spokesperson told the Journal that Hamas “deploys in residential areas, creating rocket launch sites, command and control centers, and other positions deep in the heart of urban areas. By doing so, Hamas chooses the battleground where the IDF is forced to operate.”

The IDF also printed photos online of a manual it claimed to have found in Gaza, belonging to Hamas’ Shujaiya Brigade. It laid out the benefits of operating in a dense urban area. Destruction of civilian homes, it said, “increases the hatred of the citizens toward the attackers [the IDF] and increases their gathering around the city defenders [Hamas].”

Avi, the Golani combat soldier, said he often has trouble distinguishing civilians from Hamas fighters while inside Gaza, as some fighters are dressed in plainclothes. “You see everything in green … little green people,” he said of his view through night-vision goggles.

“The IDF must take care of their soldiers before they take care of Palestinian civilians,” Avi said. “If this means to kill civilians, then OK.”

Many soldiers and IDF analysts have confirmed this policy, including Yaron Ezrahi, a professor of political science at Hebrew University. “Israel is more sensitive than any other country in the West to the death of its soldiers,” Ezrahi told the Daily Beast. “The death of [Palestinian] civilians is a moral crisis but is without political impact.”

The IDF claims it does everything within its power to avoid civilian casualties: It drops paper evacuation notices by airplane and sends text messages notifying residents to leave areas it plans to raid for terrorist infrastructure.

Hamas has been known to discourage residents from heeding evacuation orders. But even those Gaza residents willing to leave their homes say that because Israel’s assault is so widespread — by air, land and sea — it’s not always clear which areas are safest. United Nations schools serving as shelters for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are overcrowded, and have recently been caught in fatal crossfire. “No place is safe in Gaza,” Mamoun Sulaiman, a Gaza resident and press fixer, said over the phone. 

The army also chopped the inhabitable area within Gaza’s tiny land mass almost in half when the ground operation began, creating a buffer zone for Israeli soldiers that consumes 40 percent of the whole strip.

“It is unrealistic for such a huge number of people to evacuate,” Mohammed Suliman, a Gaza City resident who writes and tweets extensively about the terror inside Gaza, told the Journal. “They don’t have another place to go.”

Because many of Gaza’s 1.8 million residents are stuck in the battle zone, the world has witnessed horrific mass killings — entire families wiped out — in densely populated Gaza neighborhoods like Shujaiya, Khuza’a and Rafah. And as a result, Israeli soldiers have come under intense scrutiny as individuals.

Anti-Israel outrage went viral when an IDF soldier named David Ovadia posted, “I killed 13 childrens today and ur next f—ing musilims [sic]…” in response to a Palestinian woman’s Instagram photo. According to Israel’s Mako news site, Ovadia eventually broke down under interrogation from his commanders and admitted to fabricating the story.

“The actions of the soldier are serious,” an IDF official told Mako, “and he has caused the dishonoring of the IDF soldiers fighting in the Gaza Strip during Operation Protective Edge, who work all day to protect the citizens of Israel.” Ovadia was sentenced to 30 days in jail.

“Believe me, there are soldiers here who completely hate Arabs — they don’t care, they’ll kill them,” said “M,” a 22-year-old Lone Soldier from South Carolina hanging out at the rest stop. “They’re in that mentality because [Arabs] have so much hate for us. But the army takes special measures to make sure civilians don’t get hurt … and if [Israeli soldiers] were to do anything, they would get in trouble. Major, major trouble.”

Another amateur video from Gaza appeared to show Shujaiya resident Salem Shamaly shot dead by a sniper while searching through rubble and calling out for his family members. (An IDF spokesperson told the Journal that “given the current scope of the operation, there is no way at this time to confirm the circumstances depicted” in the video.)

Soldiers who served in Shujaiya said they weren’t sure what exactly happened in Shamaly’s case, but that anyone who wandered near their outpost could have been deemed a threat.

M, a member of the Golani Brigade, said he was sent into Shujaiya for three full days last week. “The last day we were there, civilians started coming back to their homes, not knowing that [we were still there],” he said. “A few hours later, Israel actually allowed them to come back. But they came a little bit early, and they’re not allowed to get close to us.”

Although M wouldn’t say whether his unit fired at anyone, he said their commander had told them to first fire warning shots in the air, then shoot directly at a person if he or she didn’t retreat.

M described the intense adrenaline he felt while roving around the Shujaiya neighborhood as his unit located and destroyed a dense cluster of Hamas tunnels — of some 32 that Israel has discovered so far — while watching for Hamas gunmen popping out of windows or from underground bunkers.

By night, M said, he would sleep either inside his armored vehicle or in the home of a Palestinian family that had fled to a safer area.

Asked if that was an odd experience for him, M said he was in a completely different mode on the battlefield: “You’re so worn out that you don’t really think about what’s going on. You just think about what’s going to happen if somebody fires. It’s just crazy.”

On the third night of the IDF’s ground operation, and the first night in Shujaiya, a tank carrying Los Angeles Lone Soldier Max Steinberg and six other Golani soldiers ran over an explosive that Hamas had planted in the road, killing all inside. After that, M, a tank driver himself, said he’d been avoiding all main roadways and watching for any abnormal bumps in the tank’s path.

Many IDF soldiers fighting in Gaza, as well as residents of the agricultural villages along its border, say their nightmare scenario would be for Hamas militants to take them hostage — a repeat of the Gilad Shalit kidnapping in 2006.

“It’s scary to think about it, because they pop out of nowhere — they have a lot of tunnels,” M said of the possibility of a Hamas abduction. “We had a lot of instances where they popped out and shot RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] at my tank.”

Evie Steinberg, mother of Max Steinberg, said her son once told her that if he were to be snatched by Hamas — Evie’s “worst fear” — he would kill himself before Hamas had the chance to use him as a bargaining chip.

For a brief period on Aug. 1, the IDF believed that an Israeli soldier, Hadar Goldin, had been captured by Hamas. However, Goldin was declared dead after intense bombardment of the Rafah neighborhood where he disappeared, which also killed dozens of Palestinians caught in the surprise attack.

Thousands of Israelis attend a funeral at the Kfar Saba military cemetery for Hadar Goldin, 23, who was briefly believed to be a captive of Hamas.

At Goldin’s funeral, Yoav, 17, a friend of the fallen soldier, said it was painful to read online what the world was saying about Goldin and other IDF soldiers fighting against Hamas. “It’s difficult because you know these people — your friends, your big brother — and you know they’re very good people and they don’t want to hurt kids,” he said.

Although each soldier’s individual experience varied from the others’, many mentioned that fighting in an age of heightened social-
media use posed new challenges in the field. They described being in the middle of a heated battle when news of war casualties shot across the Internet, prompting immediate responses from world leaders — which would then translate into orders of “hold fire” or “pull back.”

“If I go, I want to go — not go, go back, go, go back,” Avi said. 

D, based at an Ashkelon command center, said: “Because of the diplomatic world, [Hamas] has an advantage. Immediately after a school shooting, the army makes a call and tells you to stop shooting in the middle of battle.”

Artillery shelling has killed dozens and injured hundreds at three U.N. school shelters since the ground operation began. In one incident on July 30, thin mats on the ground were soaked in blood where refugees had been sleeping when the shells hit. (The IDF said Hamas militants had fired a mortar from near the school and that Israeli soldiers had been forced to return fire.)

“Some came after leaflets were dropped on their areas, others came after their homes were destroyed by Israel, and they thought that they would be safe in a United Nations-run school,” said Sharif Kouddous, a correspondent for Democracy Now! “They were wrong.”

The third school shelling, on Aug. 3, which the U.N. said hit refugees in a bread line outside the shelter, elicited the strongest response from U.S. officials since the war began. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. was “appalled” by the “disgraceful shelling.”

The IDF has countered the criticism by saying that Hamas often stores rockets in U.N. facilities and fires on Israeli troops from nearby.

“You can sit back in the neon lights and judge easily,” D said. “When you’re actually inside, you’re in contact with the enemy. It’s not clean.”

Various reserve soldiers who fought in Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s 2009 war in Gaza, said Hamas fighters are now more skilled than before — some almost to the level of Hezbollah fighters — and have fully utilized their extensive underground network in battle.

“They expected us,” Avi said.

On top of the great human loss inside Gaza, there has also been unprecedented destruction of homes and public buildings: Entire neighborhoods now look like the charred remains of a campfire. Detached mosque minarets stick out of the rubble like broken bones. 

Asmaa al-Ghoul, a columnist for Al Monitor and a fierce Hamas critic, wrote that her relatives were crushed to death when two F-16s hit their house in the Rafah refugee camp. “Now, the house and its future memories have been laid to waste, its children taken to early graves,” she wrote. “Homes and recollections bombed into oblivion, their inhabitants homeless and lost, just as their camp always had been. Never ask me about peace again.”

Some analysts have accused the IDF of using a destruction-as-deterrence policy, known as the “Dahiya doctrine,” similar to that which was implemented in the 2006 second Lebanon War.

But Gabi Siboni, a former Golani commander and current IDF analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies, told the Journal he sees Gaza’s fresh ruins not as a symbol of deterrence but as the remains of a war that aimed to protect the lives of Israeli soldiers at all costs. 

If anyone fires on the IDF, Siboni said, the IDF will retaliate with full force. And once an area is believed to be cleared of civilians, he said, the IDF has no obligation to go easy on buildings: “If there is no humanitarian constraint, there is no problem in holding your shelling as a commander, and you can continue to fire on the city and drop it down.”

At an army camp adjacent to Kibbutz Nahal Oz on a recent Tuesday, the whine of Israeli drones overhead was almost as strong as in the skies of Gaza. A pair of giant Caterpillar D9 armored bulldozers drove past the entrance to the kibbutz, leaving a billowing dust cloud on their path to Gaza. 

The bulldozers “go first, move the houses and the trees, and then we can come in after them,” said “S,” a young soldier charged with guarding Nahal Oz from infiltrators.

Just the day before, not far from Nahal Oz, at an army outpost surrounded by dried sunflowers, five soldiers had been killed in a successful Hamas infiltration that the militants caught on tape. Five more soldiers were then killed by mortar fire from over the fence.

S, who as he spoke was carrying nothing but his assault rifle for protection, said he wasn’t really sure what he’d do if the same happened near his post.

He said daily life at the IDF border camps was a strange combination of boring and nerve-racking. “Yesterday, there was action,” he said. “But we prefer to be bored here than have our people die.”

IDF soldiers lined up for the hot lunch buffet at a makeshift rest stop eight miles from Gaza.

Although thousands of ground troops had been sent home by Aug. 4, thousands more were still hanging out in their camps, carved out between dusty crops in Israel’s south.

One Golani camp in the middle of a cabbage patch could have been a scene from “M*A*S*H.” A small group of reservists in their 20s and 30s, their bare chests hung with silver dog tags, were kicked back beneath camouflage netting hung between two Vietnam-era U.S. Army trucks. In the truck beds were stacks of boxes labeled “DANGER” and “EXPLOSIVES.” A Ukrainian-Israeli soldier hanging out in one truck’s cab was being teased by his army buddies for missing his girlfriend, a Christian Palestinian woman who lives in the north. A burly guy they called “Rambo” was losing a game of Backgammon.

Soldiers at the camp said they had the feeling the war was almost over. And in both Israel and Gaza, relief ran high by the next afternoon, Aug. 5, as the first hours of a proposed 72-hour cease fire remained quiet.

“Israel has agreed to an unconditional cease fire,” an IDF spokesman told the Journal, adding that “any aggression, whether directed at our troops or at Israeli civilians, will be forcefully answered.”

The soldiers were told they’d be heading home soon. But some expressed mixed feelings about leaving without a guarantee that Hamas fighters would put down their rockets or stop digging tunnels in the long run. 

“It’s artificial, this diplomacy,” D said. “Let us do the job.”