Huddled on the ground with his machine gun as Hamas drones buzzed overhead, Daniel Manticof said a prayer.
Days earlier, the 22-year-old IDF soldier got his first real taste of war in a shootout with Hamas terrorists who sped by his unit in two vehicles seeking to enter nearby tunnels and then ambush the Israeli fighters.
But now he was out in the open. He couldn’t run for cover because of the weight of his machine gun. He waited breathlessly, his adrenaline skyrocketing.
Chooses Israel over suburbia
It was the culmination of a journey that began in New Jersey more than two years earlier.
Manticof, whose family moved to the U.S. from Buenos Aires when he was 8 months old, was visiting the Argentine capital after high school when he decided that he wanted to come to Israel. While in Argentina, he spent eight months helping to care for his grandmother who was hospitalized with a brain tumor, and then turned down his father’s offer to take her park-side apartment for himself as a reward.
“I chose the hard path,” he says.
Manticof first came to Israel two years ago on a 10-day Birthright program; he fell in love with the country and heard about the army from a security guard on the tour.
Determined to come back to Israel as soon as possible, he signed up to be a volunteer for the IDF in the Machal program for overseas residents, as well as the Masa Israel Journey, an educational program aimed at immersing Diaspora Jews into Israeli society.
He told himself he would join whichever program responded first. Sure enough, the army came calling.
Ditching plans of enrolling in a New Jersey community college, on his 21st birthday he booked the cheapest one-way flight to Israel he could find, on Ethiopian Airlines. He broke the news to his parents three days before the flight. “You will learn a lot through hard times,” his father told him.
An elite unit
Manticof immediately enlisted for an 18-month hitch, and after a three-month intensive Hebrew program, he got into the elite Nahal Reconnaissance Battalion. But towards the end of his six-month basic training, his mother called him crying to tell him of personal problems at home.
He asked his company commander for permission to visit his family back in the U.S. but was told that elite units do not allow trips abroad.
“You are one of the fastest and the strongest in the unit,” the commander said, urging him to stay. But Manticof decided that family came first. He quit the unit and visited his family to make sure things were OK. Then he headed back to Israel.
A week before the Hamas invasion of the northwestern Negev, Manticof reenlisted in the IDF, this time in the general Nahal Brigade; he was stationed in Hebron when war broke out on Oct. 7.
The next day his commander came in and placed a machine gun on his bed, telling him that in half an hour he will be on the bus to the Gaza border. Manticof had just learned that a British friend who was in the army ulpan with him, Netanel Young, had been killed in the Hamas attack.
“I understood that I didn’t have any other choice,” he said in an interview with JNS. “You either fight for your friend or you don’t and you are a coward.”
He got on the bus and learned how to use the 33-pound gun in one day.
At 3:30 on the morning of Oct. 30, his infantry unit, flanked by four tanks, entered Gaza. Manticof was the machine gunner in the back. Within half a mile, their unit, among the first to enter Gaza, came under fire. They slept outside for the first week.
“Almost 2 days in Gaza,” he wrote on Nov. 1, using his notepad, which bore the name of his friend Netanel and two comrades from the reconnaissance unit killed on Oct. 7 on the first page. “When will this end? When will we complete our mission? The only thing I can think of is reuniting with my family.”
“This will be a long one,” he wrote on Nov. 4. “I was just speaking with one of my friends during our guard duty. I started thinking of the definition of appreciation.”
Face-to-face with Hamas
Soon enough, Manticof would have his first “moment of war,” when two cars carrying Hamas terrorists speeded towards a tunnel near the soldiers’ location seeking to ambush them, and he was ordered to open fire amid clouds of dust created by the vehicles’ tires. With no time to put on his air buds, Manticof loaded his machine gun, crushing his finger in the rush, and opened fire. The danger passed.
Days went by. Once the unit entered a building where a bomb was left on the second floor. They got out in time.
“Since the start of the war I couldn’t stop thinking about the popular question why do bad things happen to good people,” he wrote on Nov. 12. “Why did 3 of my good friends get killed? Was it their destiny?”
Still, he remained optimistic.
“I have a feeling that I will leave Gaza and everything will be ok,” he wrote in his diary on Nov. 12.
There was tuna three times a day, which for dinner the soldiers smoked with a match. Once a delivery arrived from the Aroma café chain with sandwiches. The soldiers were elated. Then they opened them. They were tuna sandwiches. “I couldn’t even look at tuna afterwards,” he said.
As they progressed deeper into Gaza, they came under a drone attack. Ducking to the ground, Manticof recited the Shema Yisrael prayer. One of the snipers soon shot it down.
During the month he was in Gaza, the unit had only one opportunity to shower, on the beach after three weeks.
Back in Israel
On Nov. 30, the unit left Gaza.
After a month of no contact with his family and the outside world, Manticof called his father to say he was out of Gaza. His father could not stop crying.
“Dads are not supposed to cry,” he said. “They are supposed to be strong.” His parents had seen a therapist for his father’s drinking problem, and because of his service in Gaza when they were unsure if he would make it out alive, everything had changed in the family, Manticof said.
Looking back at his journey, he is happy with his life choices.
“I have faith in every decision I made,” Manticof said.” I knew the army would be hard but I wanted to know Israel.
“It all ended the way it should,” he said.