IDF troops in Khan Yunis, February 2024. Photo by Yossi Zeliger.
IDF troops in Khan Yunis, February 2024. Photo by Yossi Zeliger.
featureIsrael at War

‘What is an existential war? It is an enemy alongside which you cannot exist’

A reporter joined Commando Brigade soldiers in the Khan Yunis refugee camp.

Last summer, Col. Omer Cohen was appointed head of the Commando Brigade, which incorporates three of the Israel Defense Forces elite units—Maglan, Egoz and Duvdevan. A month later, he embarked on “Operation Bayit Vagan” in the narrow alleys of Jenin in northern Samaria, and he did not have time to even take off his helmet when he entered full force into the current Gaza war.

Since the outbreak of fighting on Oct. 7, Col. Cohen has been home for only 12 hours, of which he slept for six, and then hurried back to his soldiers. He missed the birthdays of his wife and three children but promised to bring them victory as compensation.

“I released an armored unit that fought with us,” he says, “and in my closing speech, I asked the soldiers, ‘What will victory look like on the day after—will rockets be fired from Gaza? Maybe. Will there still be terrorists there? Maybe. Will another generation of murderers grow up there? Almost certainly.

“But will we have collapsed Hamas’s operational system? In the locations where we fought—without a doubt, yes! You break down their ability to work as a system. Something else I said to them was that the most important thing is the unity of the Jewish people. Look after this human mosaic when you leave Gaza.'”

We met in Khan Yunis last week, just before he left with his officers to visit Maglan Battalion soldiers who were holding down a zone in ​​the crowded refugee camp.

Col. Omer Cohen, head of the IDF Commando Brigade. Photo by Yosi Zeliger.

The method and the response

The officers were moving on foot into the deserted alleys of the gloomy camp. It is hard to describe the level of destruction. There is not a house that is not covered in holes from bullets and shells. Some houses were crushed and had turned into dust. Abandoned dogs and cats wander the street and a drone repeatedly broadcasts that anyone remaining should go west, towards the sea, to protect their lives.

We enter the main street, and one of the soldiers tosses a smoke grenade to shield us from Hamas snipers. We reach Maj. G., the commander of the Maglan company. Several hours earlier his soldiers had engaged and killed three terrorists, whose bodies were still lying there.

A video taken from the GoPro camera on the body of one of the terrorists shows them hiding in a small alley from where they sent a civilian to the main street to check if there were any soldiers around. When he signaled that the coast was clear, they came out with an RPG missile launcher, hidden inside a rolled-up carpet.

Cohen describes their tactics: “They pose as civilians, then when they spot soldiers, they enter a house, arm themselves, shoot, throw away the weapon, and continue as if nothing happened. If we obtain intelligence information about their staging points and manage to identify them ahead of time, we wait for them and strike.”

Maj. G. reports that his soldiers had killed about 10 terrorists since the morning. Cohen tells us that the young major had returned to his unit after being wounded by a grenade, some fragments of which are still in his body.

“I command over 70 soldiers. They get injured and come back,” explains Maj. G. “Our unit has lost comrades, and they and the bereaved families are pushing us. They want us to continue for them.”

Arms seized by the troops in Khan Yunis.

Good competition

A report is received of a unit dog being killed in an encounter with a terrorist in a house next to a mosque, which we had passed a few moments before. The brigade commander orders the officers to return to headquarters to coordinate an Israeli Air Force strike. “A somewhat complex affair,” he comments.

Next Cohen tells us that we are headed to a meeting with units of the Egoz Battalion. Their commander, Lt. Col. M., who was seriously wounded on Oct. 7, is returning to them this week.

“There is fruitful competition between the battalions of the brigade,” Cohen says, “and that is why the commanders preserve the unique nature of each.”

The difference between the units

“They are all excellent assault units that specialize in night fighting and fighting in built-up areas. They have top-class capability in utilizing all types of weapons, and each one has a specific purpose.

“Egoz is a guerilla unit that knows how to hit the enemy in places it doesn’t expect.

“Maglan is an attack unit that knows how to identify an enemy from afar and destroy it.

“Duvdevan specializes in combat in built-up areas, and because of its special mission, it has returned to overcome the challenges in Judea and Samaria.

We arrive at the Egoz encampment where we are shown a Russian-made Fagot (“Basson” in English) anti-tank guided missile, seized from Hamas recently. It is a brand-new weapon, still in its packaging, ready to operate.

“Almost every house here is loaded with arms,” explains Cohen. “After all, what was life like here beforehand? Terror and more terror, and hatred for the State of Israel. You ask what is an existential war? It is an enemy alongside which you cannot exist.”

We enter a neighboring house through an opening that was created in one of the walls, so that the soldiers would not have to walk down the main street or enter through a door that might be boobytrapped. It was the home of a Hamas operative, who, in addition to festive necklaces that hung in honor of the birthday of one of the family members, also had a map of the Israel communities facing Gaza hanging on the wall and a variety of weapons on the bed.

“We are in the vicinity of Nasser Hospital,” explains Maj. A., ​Egoz operations officer. “Here we found a 60 mm. mortar, an IED homemade bomb, improvised grenades, and Kalashnikov assault rifle ammunition. Over the last week, our unit killed over 80 armed terrorists.”

A well-oiled machine

Cohen says that during the past week, thousands of Gaza residents walked southward on the same road we were traversing. Hundreds of terrorists were found among them and arrested.

Is it possible that hostages were also smuggled out within this crowd?

Maj. D., a Maglan officer, replies: “Every morning we think about what happened here more than 100 days ago, and that gives us the strength to keep going, regardless of how long we will be here. All of us dream of bringing all the hostages home.”

Cohen remembers every second since Oct. 7, from the moment he was urgently summoned from his home until he reached a tunnel where hostages had been held—and the determination to free them is only growing. “The evil behind the planning is unfathomable,” he emphasizes. “The building of the cages, the logistical mechanism they created. You just can’t let it go.

“These are super-Nazis, and we continue to talk to the soldiers about values. We are not like them; we don’t need to align our actions with their evil. Our commando soldiers know how to do their job properly.”

We left Gaza late at night. We were there for one day, but Cohen and his units have lost 32 soldiers since the fighting began, and they continue to operate like a well-oiled machine.

“I am so proud of my soldiers,” concludes the 41-year-old brigade commander. “There are many heroes here, comrades who were killed and wounded, and their story has yet to be told.”

Originally published in Israel Hayom.

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