newsIsrael at War

Celebrating Independence Day in Gaza

"What we didn't finish then, we'll do today. We're advancing deeper, maneuvering harder, we have more time and bigger missions."

Israeli forces in Jabalia, the northern Gaza Strip. Photo by Neta Bar.
Israeli forces in Jabalia, the northern Gaza Strip. Photo by Neta Bar.

The landscape in eastern Jabalia, near the Salah al-Din Road that cuts through the length of the Gaza Strip, looks typical of those parts of Gaza where the Israel Defense Forces have operated. The roads are nearly erased, with wide dirt paths crisscrossed by tanks, bulldozers and armored personnel carriers, amid a jumble of destruction, ruin and remnants of what was there before.

The door of the armored personnel carrier built in Israel from the captured Soviet-made tanks slowly descends to reveal an almost pastoral scene of a lime tree orchard, green fruit still on the branches. On the other side is the IDF unit’s fortification, containing soldiers from various units and rows of tanks, all positioned behind a large earthen rampart.

The IDF entered the eastern part of Jabalia three days ago, the second entry into this area since the war began, after the army identified renewed organization by Hamas in the area and an attempt to reactivate its terrorist network, above and below ground.

Michael, a fighter from an elite unit stationed in the fortification, says the troops operating in the area found extensive evidence of underground activity and even located rockets ready for launch. To underscore the gravity of the situation, less than half an hour before we arrived, a rocket was fired from the area towards Ashkelon.

The man greeting us is a decorated fighter and the deputy battalion commander of a reconnaissance battalion. He sums up the mission:

“What we didn’t finish then, we’ll do today. We’re advancing deeper, maneuvering harder, we have more time and bigger missions. We didn’t bring all the captives home, we haven’t yet destroyed Hamas, we missed big time and we’re here to fix that.”

A Tolkien book hero

We step outside the safety of the fortification towards a building where Qurans and printed prayer excerpts are found scattered about. We enter a nearby building, where we meet the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Itamar Eitam, son of former minister Effi Eitam.

It’s hard to ignore the commander’s presence, with a piercing gaze, thick beard, a helmet with a kaffiyeh on his head, and a small ax next to his tactical backpack, details that lend him the look of a Tolkien book hero.

Eitam describes the holiday passing for the battalion’s fighters as they are engaged in relentless attacks on the terrorists entrenched in the area.

“During Memorial Day, I passed along a recorded message to the troops, in the midst of combat, so that even as they fought, they would have a moment to consider the reason we are inside here,” says Eitam.

Clearly, due to the nonstop fighting, the little joys of the holiday that often reach soldiers even on bases passed over the reconnaissance battalion’s troops.

Nevertheless, Eitam is convinced there is no better way to celebrate Independence Day than fighting Hamas in the Strip.

“We’re here celebrating big. Tanks, air force, infantry, engineers. It’s a big celebration for Independence Day, including a few fireworks we put on here. Today is Independence Day and we’re continuing the march of renaissance, building floor upon floor, advancing undaunted, untired, unfazed, towards Israel’s liberty,” he says.

Despite the high fighting spirit among Eitam’s troops, many miss the holiday at home and the routine they left behind when the war began.

“I won’t tell you I don’t miss the [Independence Day] barbecue with family at home. It’s sorely missed. But I feel the weight of the mission and ultimately, I’m calmer here,” Yaniv, a battalion fighter who works at a duty-free shop in civilian life, tells me. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I even miss work, the smell of duty-free, the routine,” he says with a smile as we climb another earthen rampart.

The commander continues on with the rest of the forces, entering deeper into the combat zone. Bursts of light weapon fire ring out in the air around us when suddenly a bomb dropped from a plane strikes a nearby building with a terrifying blast. The troops glance over nonchalantly, as if it were an unexpected car horn on the street, and immediately return to their tasks.

We’re escorted back to the fortification area as another large explosion occurs nearby. Within two minutes, we witness from the front row the massive firepower with which the IDF is waging battle in Gaza. But Hamas’s ability to reorganize again in areas already subjected to the IDF’s full armored might raise the question of whether anything short of a tighter grip on the ground will ultimately prevail.

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

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