featureIsrael at War

‘We are going to win’: Reporter joins troops in Gaza

If the IDF is given the time it needs, it will deliver the goods.

There is a mobility scooter in the yard of one of the houses in Gaza. It arrived here on Oct. 7, looted by Gaza residents during the Hamas onslaught on Israeli border communities. “Load it on the armored personnel carrier,” said one of the Israel Defense Forces commanders. “We’ll take it home.”

The scooter probably belongs to one of the residents of Kibbutz Nahal Oz. The terrorists who raided the kibbutz and the adjacent military position came from this part of the Strip, and after them came the masses who gleefully joined the orgy of destruction and looting.

None of the looters are here anymore: The neighborhood is empty except for IDF forces, who are here as part of the operation being led by the 36th Armored Division, which is responsible for bisecting the Strip between Gaza City and the southern part of the enclave.

On Nov. 3, I joined IDF soldiers operating in the area. Close to the border fence (or what’s left of it), we met Col. Yisrael Friedler, a brigade commander.

Israeli forces conducting ground operations in the Gaza Strip, Nov. 7, 2023. Credit: IDF.

After a short briefing, we entered the APC, and at precisely 11:45 we began traveling west. Friedler asked us to put our seatbelts on so we wouldn’t be hurled out of our seats if an explosive was set off.

When we crossed the border, the APC’s Trophy active protection system (APS) system was activated. The main threats faced by troops here are anti-tank missiles, rocket-propelled grenades, booby-traps, drones and of course snipers.

We encountered four bodies en route. Next to two of them were RPG launchers; these were certainly terrorists. But there was doubt regarding the other two, and it was decided to bring them into Israel to check if they were Israelis.

“We hope to bring some closure to some more families,” said Lt.-Col. Gilad Pasternak, the deputy brigade commander.

Israeli soldiers operating in the Gaza Strip, Nov. 4, 2023. Credit: IDF.

IDF Rabbinate personnel accompany the troops to coordinate the transfer of bodies. During the first few days of the war, the IDF identified dozens of bodies on the Gaza side and brought them to Israel.

Most of them were terrorists, but among them were also bodies of kidnapped Israelis. This is also one of the military’s tasks here—to try to identify hostages or find clues that will allow troops to reach them.

The main mission of the operation is to destroy Hamas. This sounds far simpler when one is outside Gaza.

“All of the ‘heroes’ of Oct. 7 are now big cowards,” noted Friedler. “They’re hiding in their tunnels. They’re afraid to come out and fight.”

Israeli forces conducting ground operations in the Gaza Strip, Nov. 7, 2023. Credit: IDF.

This forced Friedler’s troops to take control of a chunk of territory a few kilometers into Hamas-controlled space. They have to work from there to batter the terrorists and find tunnel shafts. Their role is to expose the openings and then call the Combat Engineering Corps special forces to take care of the tunnels.

In parallel, they’re responsible for maintaining the logistics routes that allow the entry and exit of Israeli forces, evacuation of the wounded and the maintenance of communication to all the division’s forces.

During the last few days, the division took several casualties.

A few minutes after we entered Gaza, Friedler received a report on the radio that two “dirties” had been seen close to one of the houses belonging to the neighborhood’s wealthier residents. A tank fired a shell in their direction.

An IDF Merkava tank in the Gaza Strip, Nov. 5, 2023. Credit: IDF.

“You probably think that we’re directing this for you,” the armored brigade commander laughed. “It worked out well for you. It was right on our route.” Afterwards, when we reached the heart of the neighborhood, we saw the house, and next to it a shed billowing with thick smoke.

The APC stopped next to one of the houses, and we got out quickly, sticking close to the wall. “The main threat here is sniping from the west, so pay attention,” the brigade commander ordered. At the entrance to the house are two soldiers who ask not to be filmed. “My mum doesn’t know that I’m here,” one of them explained.

Israeli soldiers operating against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Nov. 1, 2023. Credit: IDF.

Their morale is high. When we enter the house, they begin to sing: “We won’t return home until the mission is complete.”

“This is how soldiers are,” Friedler explained. I queried how long he would manage to maintain this level of motivation and he replied, as expected, that it would be for as long as necessary.

Israeli troops taking a break in the Gaza Strip, Nov. 3, 2023. Photo: Yoav Limor.

For all the soldiers here, this is their first war. For a large portion, this is their first experience of conflict. “During the first encounters there’s a bit of shock, but afterward they got it together,” said the commander.

Before entering Gaza, they were able to train intensively. Now was the time for results, results Friedler is convinced will come, big time.

IDF tanks stationed near the Gaza border on May 6, 2019. Photo by Aharon Krohn/Flash90.

If the IDF is given the time it needs, it will deliver the goods, he said, adding, “This is the most justified war in the world, and we mustn’t stop until we win.”

Friedler, a father of six, was a platoon leader during “Operation Defensive Shield” in 2002, a company leader during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, a battalion commander during “Operation Protective Edge” in 2014, and now a division commander. His mother, Ruti, has 12 children, seven of whom are now on reserve duty–all of them in combat roles. “She is the true fighter at home,” he said.

I asked the soldiers if they missed home. They all answered that they were focused on the mission. For some of them, the disconnect wasn’t easy.

Pasternak has his wife, Hila, who is a doctor, at home with their two-year-old son and five-week-old baby. “For most of the baby’s life I haven’t seen her,” he admitted.

The last time he visited Gaza, during “Protective Edge,” he was a company commander in the Nahal Brigade. “I was shot in the leg, and my eyes were injured,” he said.

He’s not the only one to leave toddlers at home. Battalion commander Lt.-Col. Ran Canaan’s son was born just before the invasion of Gaza. He managed to attend the birth, but only witnessed his son’s brit via telephone from Gaza.

They named the son Dor [generation], or as he put it: “A new generation, because the light needs to overcome the darkness. This cruel enemy needs to be removed from the world. We’re here to free the captives, to defeat Hamas, and return the security to the residents of the State of Israel.”

Canaan dashed to Gaza on that terrible Shabbat. “We reached Kissufim at around eight in the morning,” he recalled. “We freed a hostage, a French woman, who was in a car, and we killed quite a few terrorists.”

Some of his soldiers were wounded, and he himself was shot in the back. After a few days in hospital, he recovered and returned to the fight. “There was no doubt at all that I would return to the unit,” he said.

Peak motivation

Soldiers’ motivation is sky high, he said—everyone wants to fight. Not only because of their age and job, he said, but also because of what happened: The shock of the Oct. 7 attack clarified for everyone that they must fight and win.

Therefore, the IDF has also taken off its gloves.

“We’re going in hard,” affirmed the commander.

Israeli troops on the ground in Gaza, Oct. 30, 2023. Credit: IDF.

Before the ground invasion, there was an intensive bombardment by the Israeli Air Force, the remains of which could be seen everywhere— destroyed houses, craters and nothing left of the roads. There was sand everywhere, including in the air and our lungs.

And still, it was preferable to the mud that will be here in winter. The IDF is trying to speed up the operation, both because of the fear that international pressure will bring it to a close and to take advantage of the relatively mild weather, even if on Friday afternoon it was hot and damp, and at night it was already chilly.

The forces are staying in houses and protected spaces, leaving them for missions and searches. They eat canned food, tuna, corn and beans. Somewhat different from the fine food donated to them from around the country while they were preparing for the invasion. Keeping them company is a kitten, who is fed leftovers. “He’s been here since we arrived. He’s probably never eaten this well,” said one of the soldiers, laughing.

We pass next to a machine gunner holding a position overlooking what was once a road and today is a dirt track full of potholes. Alongside was a “bear,” a D-9 bulldozer, searching for the shaft of a tunnel presumed to be in the vicinity.

A quick run up the stairs to the second floor of the next building provided an excellent view. In the middle of the room was a spacious armchair. I received permission to sit, and then I asked to photograph a simulation of a widely distributed photo of Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar at the end of “Operation Guardian of the Walls” in 2021.

Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar in the ruins of his Gaza office, May 27, 2021. Credit: Courtesy.

Sinwar was photographed on an armchair among the ruins, to defiantly show that he had won. Now it’s Israel that is determined to win. Friedler planted an Israeli flag on the top of the building and told the commanders to stay alert. “We’re only at the beginning,” he clarified.

From the inside, it seems that the IDF knows what it’s doing, or what it wants to do. There is understandable concern for the soldiers: They are facing a real enemy, real threats. But neither they nor we have a choice: Whoever doesn’t defeat Hamas today will get Hamas on steroids tomorrow.

Revenge of the scooter

And there’s of course also the ethical issue, and the issue of revenge. The scooter that was thrown in the yard symbolizes it well. The IDF is working now to defeat Hamas and to free the Gaza Strip from its rule, but it’s also working to close accounts and to ensure that something like Oct. 7 never happens again—not in this sector or anywhere else.

We finished our journey at the fence, and after we removed our protective gear, I told Friedler, “Take care of yourselves, and us.” He replied: “That’s exactly what we’re doing. Back home, tell them that we’re winning.”

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

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