This summer’s plans were supposed to be exciting, I was supposed to set sail with the US Navy as part of a report for Israel National News and then prepare for the upcoming birth of a new addition to the family.
As June was rolling around and reports that ISIS terror was raging across the Middle East, I received notification that my trip would be at the very least postponed, if not cancelled altogether. Along with that, on a Friday morning after doing some work for the Israeli Air Force, we started hearing rumors about 2 teenage Yeshiva Students (which later turned out to be 3) that were kidnapped around a 20m drive from our home.
Over the next 3 weeks most people (especially parents) were distraught with the thought of the possible cruelty that could reside so close to us. Those with “experience” could understand from almost 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 at any way possible.
The IDF started moving forces around Judea and Samaria and started 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 heavier population centers. It was becoming more apparent that a Military Operation was becoming 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, our job description entails that should we ever see combat, that means we have ultimately failed at our job, our job is primarily to observe and “open” a stretch of land for advancing tanks, essentially, we are the armored elements eyes. In an event that we are detected, chances are, due to the fact that we are an extremely small and forward unit, our chances of survival post detection are minimal. So our jobs even when within Israel proper, is to stay as concealed as possible so we aren’t spotted by enemy artillery fire.
On Tuesday July 8th my unit was called up, when contacting the Division HQ I was told that since my wife was 9 months pregnant (+ 4 kids on vacation) I received an exemption. The next day July 9th I was set to be taking pictures of the arrival of the IAF’s newest jet, the Italian M 346 Master (Lavi).
During a surreal arrival ceremony (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?” While she was checking into my exemption due to my current status, she said that all exemptions had been nullified by the Brigade and that I should come as soon as I can.
Thursday I said goodbye to my family (Very pregnant wife + 4) and set out for Tzeelim for enlistment. Upon arriving I was told to get my gun and not to sign out equipment yet, while there I found out that my unit had left the previous night with Tanks, APCs and Hummers for the Gaza Strip, my status was unclear since there were almost 20 soldiers “spare” who didn’t have equipment. On Friday morning I was woken up and told to “get ready”. I was kind of surprised since it was hard to “get ready” without equipment. At 10 am I was told that I would be replacing one of the soldiers who was 40 yo and was called up by accident, I was to receive his equipment in full.
I climbed the jeep for the hour long ride to the border, along with the Unit’s sergeant who was at the wheel. On the way we stopped at several Kibbutzim and picked up various supplies that the company was missing.
When arriving at Kibbutz Nir Am we were approached by several members of the Kibbutz asking if we needed anything. Before we knew what was happening, 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 almost an hourly basis in various locations.
We left Nir Am and approached the Gaza perimeter fence, as we were approaching we could see artillery falling and the explosions getting closer as we moved forward, my sergeant looks over and says to me “Welcome to the field Yissachar” I couldn’t help but feel like I was in a scene from “Apocalypse Now” as the shells were falling around me and I tried to shrink in my seat as if that would somehow help.
We were set up as a reinforcement to the Givati Brigade’s Sapper Unit. With 3 tanks and company sized armored Infantry, we were meant 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, this causes more alertness to anyone approaching and stricter guidelines when opening fire.
I joined my team, got my equipment and got filled in on various procedures. One of the procedures – keep your flak jacket on at all times, artillery rounds are fired at us with no possible warning, if it starts lie on the ground with your hands over your head – and pray.
2 hours later, as we were preparing for Shabbat in the middle of a forest, the officers start yelling “Hakpatza” (On Alert), we all get into our respective vehicles and start taking orders from Omri the Company commander, turned out there was someone suspicious making his way towards the fence, our Company commander decided not to take chances and spread the unit out in a manner just in case of it being a diversion, so if it were a case of tunnel terrorists it would be harder for them to hit us from the rear.
While this was all going on we suddenly heard a thundering noise, at first we thought it was another air strike we had been growing accustomed to, within seconds, to our dismay we realized that it was a massive launch of almost 30 rockets simultaneously, all towards population centers all over Israel in an effort to overcome Israel’s defensive star The “Iron Dome” Anti-Missile missile .
Over the next week and a half we operated from that specific area on the fence, taking artillery fire occasionally (several times were a bit close for comfort – 10m radius). After 8 days we were given new orders – due to the plans forming to attack Sajaiya, we were told that it was anticipated that many more tunnels may 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 those terror 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 KM radius. This meant our Recon squad had to plan a route for the Tanks, APCs and Hummers that would not be exposed to Anti Tank Fire, while meeting our objectives and having the whole battalion once again combat ready in our new area of responsibility by 4:30 am the following morning.
After a long day and night at 4:05 am I led the last Tank to our position, my Company Commander Omri looks at me and says – “Ruas – wake up for the Company is 4:30, u worked all night – wake up for you is 8 am, you did an excellent job, keep it up.”
The reconnaissance part of our unit was repositioned, something that allowed us a unique perspective on Friday the 18th of July. On this day we were stationed at Battalion HQ which was right 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 at night, drowning out Lecha Dodi was the rumble of tank engines, when we made it to Kiddush before our nightly mission the last of the APC’s was passing by, all of a sudden it seems to make a shrieking sound and the engine died right there next to a makeshift Friday night Kiddush. The driver gets out and bangs on the metal with his helmet. The Rabbi of the Battalion walks over to him and offered him to have some Kiddush and a bite to eat before having to continue towards and into Gaza.
We davened that night with I think much more intense Kavana, knowing that those soldiers passing before our eyes were going into battle, and many may not come back. Throughout the movement, I was looking for my brother in-law among the APCS knowing which unit in Golani he was in, but to no avail I couldn’t find him.
On Shabbat, as opposed to regular days, my sole source of news was the Battalion radio and HQ. Shabbat morning we arrived back after a mission to discover that the whole Division force that had passed through us, never entered Gaza since Israel was looking for a diplomatic solution.
Since there was much enemy fire towards our position, we figured the talks must not have been going to well.
As Shabbat came to a close, it was very clear we would be in a unique position for the upcoming invasion – an ambush position protecting the area around the invasion corridor.
What we witnessed Saturday night throughout our duty was once again that never-ending amounts 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. Earth shuddering is a term used, to actually feel the earth shudder under your feet and into your body is hard to explain, when an IAF aircraft drops a 1 ton bomb almost a kilometer away and its force has the power to make you shake, you become glad you aren’t at its receiving end and you are worried about the soldiers that are inside that are situated even closer to the targets.
During the night already 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, thick smoke, that at night was hard to see, was billowing in the sky above us. 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 that were very clear did not spell a positive outcome from our perspectives as soldiers, it was very clear that everyone observing, that you would need a miracle to survive a hit such as that.
During our third week and our repositioning further North, our unit was involved with an infiltration in which 4 soldiers were killed from a unit within our sector but not under our command. Our unit provided the necessary force and assistance, due to circumstances beyond our Battalion’s control this incident ended badly. Our Company Commander, Omri, when speaking to us following the incident said this event did not affect him, but I got the feeling that it did solidify his position that he needed to run a tight ship and reiterate how to keep discipline sharp and how important it was not to run into battle without pausing to think the attack through when given the time and opportunity to do so (I did not elaborate on the event since it is still under review by the IDF).
We spent ALL of the nights from the beginning of the second week of activity and until we were discharged using advanced systems to monitor our area of responsibility designated to us, which mainly meant watching various tanks and installations, all along making sure no one popped out of the ground looking to create havoc. This job was less “sexy” than entering Gaza, but results show that almost the same amount of soldiers were killed outside Gaza as those that were killed inside. This was a result of 2 main threats: (Of which the IDF’s solutions were not operational)
1- “Terror Tunnels” – infiltration into Israel from Gaza from any route above ground is destined almost always to fail due to Israel’s High Tech capability of protecting the border around Gaza with advanced systems. It was very apparent that Hamas understood this, following 2 failed attempts to penetrate Israel from the sea, the result of these 2 attempts – 10 dead terrorists, plus nothing to show for their extreme effort. Tunnels were a strategic weapon which were being saved for a later date (some reports indicate they were meant for a surprise Rosh Hashana attack against Kibbutzim that border with Gaza). As a result of Hamas’s failures and ineffectiveness in all other areas – they were forced to use this tactic now to try and garner some margin of victory.
2- Artillery – Hamas inventory contained standard infantry class artillery (60mm, 81mm, 120mm) these can be fired precisely using just a map and proper coordinates. In this day and age this is a relatively easy task. Iron Dome only has had limited success against this threat and it was never intended to have been a solution to this threat at all anyways.
Our commanders in the 360 Battalion were very strict with regards to being operational, which meant we always had flak jackets on and always had our gear close to us. For mechanized units this standard operating procedure is relatively easier than regular infantry since our gear is usually set in a place in whatever vehicle you are assigned to. Keeping soldiers in flak jackets in 100 degree heat is no easy task for any officer. But discipline saved lives on more than one occasion, including soldiers from other units.
During one such incident at night, our ambush that was set up observed 6 armed men pop out of an area that we had concrete intelligence on a tunnel being there. All units in the area were required to inform every operating unit of any “special “activity, we had not been given any information on the matter and after a quick check with our HQ it turned out that neither they, nor the Brigade HQ been given any relevant information. We had observed over the weeks that there were some gung ho soldiers that were running into action without proper assessment or regard to the fact that there were a lot of different units operating around them, as I noted previously, our commanders put much emphasis on making sure that with us that would not be the case. One of our SSgts woke up our officer and they started calling every single unit operating in the area meticulously, while our crews on the border were woken up and told to be ready for incoming terrorists from behind, but not to open fire until we could try and verify that no friendly forces were potentially involved.
After 10 long minutes of following their movements and calling on every potential unit in the sector, we determined that it was a friendly force. Had we not been the ones to identify this “event” it could have ended with 6 dead soldiers. The soldiers from the other unit had a lot to thank the discipline instilled in us by our officers that was ongoing.
Throughout the Operation “Cutting Edge”, we (the soldiers) received much support, whether it was food or equipment, the outpouring of love and affection was very clear, our HQ was full every day of packages, letters and sometimes specialized equipment such as Swiss army knives and other practical commodities which eased us into military life of which we had been thrown into very suddenly and without warning. It’s hard to describe what it is like going from being a normal civilian with a job and kids to within literally hours being flung into a scenario where you are dodging enemy fire and feel like you aren’t sure you are going to make it home in one piece.
Along the way I ran into various people that helped us with a cold drink or a towel, my neighbor David Kovler organized 8 trips south with vehicles full of cold drinks, food and equipment. One of those people doing Hessed who I encountered the very first Shabbat driving my Hummer to the shooting range, was Dror Hanin, he waved us down and pulled out stocks of cold drinks from the back of his truck, Dror didn’t make it back home to his family, he was killed the following week giving out food and drinks to soldiers near the Erez crossing, He was killed from artillery fire, he was the hero in my thoughts throughout the Operation.
On the flip side to 40,000 reserve soldiers being called up – there were 40,000 mothers and a similar amount of wives who did not get a normal night’s rest during that period of time and needed to fight their own fight of coping while being under rocket attack, running for cover with kids and doing all of this without the person they usually count on for support, those family members left behind, were no smaller heroes.
There is no “thank you” in the Army – but Momi, Omri, Nicolas and Dudi did an excellent job keeping us focused throughout the month.
Yissachar Ruas grew up on the Lower East Side and writes for Israel National News and Israel Hayom daily newspaper, more of his work including pictures from Operation “Cutting Edge” can be viewed on his Facebook