On The Ground With The IDF
By Yissachar Ruas
This summer, I was supposed to set sail with the U.S. Navy as part of a report for Israel National News and then prepare for the upcoming birth of a new addition to the family.
In June, with reports that ISIS terror was raging across the Middle East, I received notification that my trip would be postponed, if not canceled altogether. Along with that, we started hearing rumors about yeshiva students who were kidnapped.
Over the ensuing three weeks, people were distraught at the thought of such cruelty. Those with “experience” understood from the beginning that the outcome was not expected to be a positive one. Hamas was under intense scrutiny for kidnapping minors, and it was perceived that if they initially had something to do with the kidnapping, they would look to distance themselves from it any way possible.
The IDF started moving forces around Judea and Samaria and cracking down on any Hamas-related infrastructure. Hamas, under pressure, ramped up their rocket attacks that were ongoing in the South for the last 7 years, and started firing rockets towards more heavily populated centers. It was becoming apparent that a military operation was inevitable.
I was drafted in 2001 to the 500 Brigade’s Reconnaissance Unit (Sayeret Shiryon); my reserve unit is a reconnaissance team for the 360th Armored Battalion. We are a highly skilled combat unit, although our job description entails that if we ever see combat we have ultimately failed at our job, as our job is primarily to observe and “open” a stretch of land for advancing tanks; essentially, we are the eyes of the armored elements. Since we are an extremely small, forward unit, our chances of survival in the event of detection are minimal. So our job, even when within Israel proper, is to stay concealed.
On July 8, my unit was called up, but I was told that since my wife was 9 months pregnant (+4 kids on vacation) I was exempt. The next day I was set to take pictures of the arrival of the IAF’s newest jet, the Italian M346 Master (Lavi).
During a surreal arrival—no ceremony, and fully armed jets taking off for Gaza—I received a phone call: “Yissachar, this is Adi from your reserve unit; where are you?” She explained that all exemptions had been nullified by the Brigade and that I should come as soon as possible.
I said goodbye to my family and set out for Tzeelim for enlistment. Upon arriving, I was told my status was unclear since there were almost 20 soldiers “spare” who didn’t have equipment. By the next morning, I was told to get ready. I was surprised, since it is difficult to “get ready” without equipment. At 10 a.m. I was told that I would be replacing one of the soldiers who was 40 years old and had been called up by accident.
On the way to the border, we stopped at several kibbutzim to pick up various supplies that the company was missing. At Kibbutz Nir Am we were asked by several members of the kibbutz if we needed anything, and before long, the remaining space in the back of the jeep was full to the brim with food and nosh for our unit; over the coming weeks we would witness this type of support on an almost hourly basis.
• • •
As we approached the Gaza perimeter fence, we could see artillery falling and the explosions getting closer as we moved forward. I felt like I was in a scene from Apocalypse Now as shells fell all around me and I tried to shrink in my seat—as if that would somehow help.
We were set up as reinforcements to the Givati Brigade’s Sapper Unit. With three tanks and company-sized armored infantry, we were to provide a heavier punch should someone pop out from a hole and try to attack their base. As a result of the tunnel threat, protection needed to be 360 degrees.
I joined my team, and just two hours later, as we were preparing for Shabbat in the middle of a forest, the officers start yelling “Hakpatza!” (On alert!). It turned out there was someone suspicious making his way towards the fence, and our commander decided not to take chances—he spread out the unit in case it was a diversion.
While this was all going on, we suddenly heard a thundering noise, which at first we thought it was another air strike, but within seconds we realized was a massive launch of almost 30 rockets simultaneously towards population centers all over Israel in an effort to overcome Israel’s defensive Iron Dome.
• • •
Over the next week and a half, we operated from that specific area on the fence, occasionally taking artillery fire. Then we were given new orders: due to the plans forming to attack Sajaiya, it was anticipated that many more tunnels might be used to outflank troops penetrating the Hamas-controlled neighborhood. Our orders were to make sure that we had eyes on our sector to prevent terrorists in those tunnels from reaching their objective. We were to place our unit’s firepower strategically in a way that covered the sector to the satisfaction of the battalion commander.
I was tasked with a “special” mission—leading the whole unit from one area of responsibility to our new position almost 10 kilometers north of our original stations and in different positions within that 10-kilometer radius. This meant our recon squad had to plan a route for the tanks, APCs, and Humvees that would not be exposed to anti-tank fire, while meeting our objectives and having the whole battalion combat-ready in our new area of responsibility by 4:30 a.m. the following morning.
After a long day and night, at 4:05 a.m., I led the last tank to our position.
• • •
The reconnaissance part of our unit was repositioned, which allowed us a unique perspective on Friday, July 18. We were stationed at battalion HQ, next to hundreds of armored vehicles making their way towards Sajaiya. This column started moving in Friday morning, leaving a giant cloud of dust that could be seen for miles; the transition happened all through the day and into Shabbat evening, drowning out Lecha Dodi. We made it to Kiddush as the last APC was passing by, when it suddenly emitted a shrieking sound and died right there. The rabbi of the battalion walked over to the driver and offered him some Kiddush and a bite to eat before he continued towards Gaza.
We davened that night with intense kavanah, knowing that those soldiers passing before our eyes were going into battle, and many might not return.
On Shabbat, as opposed to regular days, my sole source of news was the battalion radio and HQ. Shabbat morning we returned after a mission to discover that the whole division force that had just passed through the night before never entered Gaza since Israel was looking for a diplomatic solution.
As Shabbat came to a close, it was very clear we would be in unique position for the upcoming invasion—an ambush position protecting the area around the invasion corridor.
Saturday night throughout our duty we once again witnessed the endless procession of man and machinery entering Sajaiya. The IAF was over our heads the whole night, taking down any position that fired upon our soldiers going in. When an IAF aircraft drops a 1-ton bomb almost a kilometer away and its force has the power to make you shake, you’re glad you aren’t at its receiving end and you are worried about the soldiers inside who are situated even closer to the targets.
During the night we were aware that an APC had been hit by enemy fire and could hear efforts over the radio to rescue those who were in it.
When dawn finally came, Sajaiya, as we had observed it throughout the previous week, ceased to exist; almost the whole first line of houses of the neighborhood had been destroyed. We could also observe the final phase of the rescue of the APC that was hit as it was being towed back towards Israel. The gaping hole and burn marks did not signify a positive outcome from our perspectives as soldiers. It was very clear that you would need a miracle to survive a hit like that . . . ϖ
For more of Yissachar Ruas’s story and additional photos, please visit www.5tjt.com.
Yissachar Ruas writes for Israel National News (Arutz Sheva) and the Israel Hayom daily newspaper. More of his work, including pictures from Operation Protective Edge, can be viewed on his Facebook page.