OpinionIsrael at War

Yellow is the color of war

At the IDF’s Tze’elim base, you can breathe in the soldiers’ solidarity and determination in the most difficult of wars.

Israeli soldiers from the Paratroopers Brigade take part in a training exercise in which they practice fighting door-to-door combat in inhabited areas, in Tze'elim, southern Israel, July 10, 2014. Photo: Flash90
Israeli soldiers from the Paratroopers Brigade take part in a training exercise in which they practice fighting door-to-door combat in inhabited areas, in Tze'elim, southern Israel, July 10, 2014. Photo: Flash90
Fiamma Nirenstein
Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies.

Yellow is the color of this war. The yellow dust billows up even on the first muddy days of winter. Black clouds over the northern Gaza Strip and the sound of booming explosions signal that the fighting continues. Missiles rise from the ruins and attack the border towns Hamas ravaged on Oct. 7.

At the IDF’s Tze’elim base, a huge number of armored vehicles are lined up for inspection. It is a city of tents and concrete huts, home to a constant flow of soldiers going into and coming from the fighting. In these days of courage and mourning, 18 soldiers have fallen in two days. But the fighters still head out for the field and, God willing, come back in peace.

Tze’elim’s battle is being fought in Gaza City and Jabalia. There the first fortresses of terror have been almost completely leveled and conquered. The Israeli flag flies over the decimated Hamas strongholds. Yet the soldiers continue to face sudden ambushes and booby traps. Altogether, 160 of them have fallen since the beginning of the war. Nonetheless, spirits have been high for some 70 days of fighting.

Gaza today is nothing but a labyrinth of terror and war. The infrastructure of terror has embedded itself in Gaza’s alleys, buildings, schools, hospitals, apartments and a massive network of tunnels. Everything is gunfire and explosions, and every inhabitant, out of fear or faith, is a terrorist or a human shield.

Asaf is a 51-year-old colonel. In “real” life, he runs an office dealing with robotics. He has a wife and three children back at home. Here, he is a commander of operations; one of many directors of the war. Everything in Tze’elim is in his hands: Under a tent filled with high-tech gear, he coordinates infantry and naval forces, combat engineers, intelligence information, and special forces units deployed into the heart of urban warfare.

He commands the combat in real-time, telling soldiers to advance, halt, attack, defend. “I lead the war from above,” he says with a smile. Among his brigades is the legendary 14th, which saved Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War by crossing the Suez Canal on the orders of Ariel Sharon. It was the first brigade to enter Gaza after the Oct. 7 atrocities.

“From here, I direct the fighting of the infantry and the artillery,” he says. “I tell them where to go, what to avoid, what to do. I send up the drones to get a good look at the targets, the weapons, the terrorists. If the strike is necessary and there are no innocent civilians, I send in the air force to prepare the ground, but I call it back if children suddenly appear on the street or in homes.”

Does this happen often?

“After three months, it happens less than before,” Asaf states. “But the choice remains: Not to violate international law or to safeguard the lives of my parents. I move away from a target, I tell them to wait, to consider whether they can shoot from that window. I order people to move forward at the right time.”

Asaf believes the criticism the army has faced since Oct. 7 is unjust.

“It’s not true that we arrived late on the seventh,” he asserts. “‘Late’ is a perception. Here an entire army moved in the face of unexpected chaos with tanks, planes… We arrived in the shortest time possible. We were on defense, and when we finally went on the attack, everything worked.”

But what about the many losses, the slow war, the failure to capture Hamas leaders like Yahya Sinwar?

“We are winning the most difficult war,” he replies. “The achievements are always getting more significant. Many tunnels have been discovered, the refuges of known terrorists; weapons caches have been revealed and destroyed. Every day we know more and we take important steps. Calm and time—that is what we need. We fight well. Let us do it. We will destroy the enemy.”

Having recently returned from an operation, Maj. Yehuda, a 43-year-old industrial engineer from the 14th, has been almost completely unable to see his wife and four children for 70 days. In the initial days of the war, he fought the terrorists from kibbutz to kibbutz.

Did he go weeks without taking off his shoes?

He smiles and says, “You get used to it.” He is satisfied with what he and his comrades have accomplished. His fellow soldiers mill around us, having just returned from the field and ready to go back.

“In the first days of the war, a number of volunteers rushed to us loaded with sweets and chocolate,” Yehuda says. “We did nothing but eat. At night we always rest, ready to go out again, 15 of us to a tent.”

Yehuda doesn’t want to talk about his lost comrades. It’s “too fresh.”

But, he says, “we are all still determined to fight until victory.” Four days before Oct. 7, he went biking with his wife and children at Kibbutz Be’eri, which became the site of some of the worst atrocities. “If we had come four days later, we would have been slaughtered.”

In battle, Yehuda walks alone among the ruins of gutted streets. He must indicate to a tank that follows where a target is hidden or must be attacked. “Some soldiers take the front line, opening the way,” he explains, “then immediately after, on foot, I arrive.”

Is he afraid?

“Only afterwards. Out there, you are completely concentrated on what you have to do.” He faces snipers hiding in buildings, tunnels from which you can expect anything to emerge, doors behind which unknown threats might lurk, blind alleys where anyone could conceal themselves.

“I have to find the terrorists, avoid the civilians, find the hideouts from which they can fire the anti-tank projectiles and decide what to hit,” Yehuda says. “I’m moving forward slowly. Of course, if we shot people, we would go quicker. But we try not to hit innocent people.”

But all over the world, armchair generals say that you do exactly that.

“Unfortunately, it can happen,” he states, “but it is inherent in the structure of this war. The battlefield has been diabolically prepared. My unit just found RPG missiles under two children’s beds. I could understand that they kept them in the house, but in the children’s room?”

Yehuda doesn’t encounter many Gazans. They were urged by leaflets to evacuate south and most of them did so. “If we see individuals on the move,” he says, “they are either terrorists or their collaborators.”

Yehuda has been coming to the reserves for 20 years with his friend Dror. Their relationship is the embodiment of the solidarity between the soldiers here.

“As I walk, we talk to each other through earphones,” Yehuda says of Dror. “He warns me of every risk. I ask him to protect me on my side, to tell me what’s here, what’s there. He’s always with me. My personal angel. I trust him with my eyes closed. If I suspect a trap, he acts immediately.”

This is friendship consolidated by the feeling that they are doing something essential. You breathe this spirit in from the soldiers. They are exactly where they want to be. They tell you that themselves over and over again. They get annoyed when you ask if they are emotional or afraid. Of course, they are. So what? They want to save the country. They know they are the defensive wall. They only want to be allowed to do their job.

“My dream?” says Yehuda. “Entering a building and being surprised to find a group of kidnapped people alive! To embrace them, defend them, bring them home.”

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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