Sense of duty mixes with fear for Israeli soldiers preparing to enter Gaza

Families that get only an occasional chance to see their loved ones as they serve in the war against Hamas put on a brave face

Israeli soldiers seen near the border with the Gaza Strip, in southern Israel, on November 3, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israeli soldiers seen near the border with the Gaza Strip, in southern Israel, on November 3, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israeli soldiers who have taken up positions near the Gaza border told AFP they felt proud to protect their country after Hamas’s October 7 massacre while admitting to being nervous as the war intensified.

Now stationed in evacuated communities near the border with the bombarded Gaza Strip, a 20-year-old soldier said he was “a bit scared to go” into the Hamas-run territory if given the order.

“You don’t know if you can come back alive,” said the soldier, whose name like those of other soldiers cannot be published because of military censorship.

Many of the soldiers stationed there, on the rear lines of the Israeli army around Gaza, are aged between 18 and 21, doing their compulsory military service.

The sounds of war can be heard loud and clear from their positions less than two kilometers (1.2 miles) from the Gaza border.

Last month, some 3,000 Hamas-led terrorists burst through the border with Gaza and rampaged murderously through southern Israel, overrunning communities and killing those they found, the vast majority of them civilians. The gunmen massacred men, women, and children; in some cases entire families were gunned down together or burned alive in their homes. Babies and children were beheaded, women raped, and some victims tortured. At an outdoor music festival, 260 people were killed. The terrorists also abducted at least 240 people, including babies and the elderly, and took them captive to Gaza. The attack came under the cover of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli population centers.

Israel has responded by vowing to destroy Hamas and remove it from power in Gaza. It has carried out intensive strikes, saying it is hitting terror infrastructure while striving to avoid civilian casualties. Israel accuses Hamas of using the Gaza population as human shields by operating, firing rockets, and keeping its weapons and equipment in residential areas or under them in a vast network of tunnels.

An Israeli army soldier covers his ears as a self-propelled artillery howitzer fires rounds from a position near the border with the Gaza Strip in southern Israel on November 6, 2023. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

The Hamas-run health ministry says more than 10,000 Palestinians in Gaza, mainly civilians, have been killed during the campaign. Hamas figures cannot be independently confirmed, and the terror group has been accused of artificially inflating the death toll. The figures do not differentiate between terrorists and civilians nor between those killed in Israeli strikes and those killed by the hundreds of terror group rockets that have fallen short inside the Strip.

“We do what we have to do. But it’s a terrible place to go into,” said the 20-year-old soldier, anticipating a possible order to deploy into Gaza.

He started his three-year service a mere six months ago.

Since the beginning of Israel’s ground operation in Gaza on October 27, the IDF says hundreds of Gaza terrorists have been killed. Thirty soldiers have been killed in the Palestinian territory, the army says.

Hamas has warned Israel that its soldiers will leave Gaza “in black bags.” Along with other terror groups, it has continued to rain rockets on Israel, causing more deaths and displacing over 200,000 people.

‘Don’t want her to worry’

Near another empty kibbutz now serving as a military base, a 21-year-old female said she had lied to her mother about where she was going.

“I told her I was in the center of the country, not near Gaza,” she said. “I don’t want her to worry.”

Israeli army soldiers walk near a stationed self-propelled artillery howitzer firing rounds from a position near the border with the Gaza Strip in southern Israel on November 6, 2023. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

“I’m proud to be a soldier,” said a 19-year-old male colleague, who started in the army eight months ago.

His parents, grandparents, sisters, an uncle and even the dog came from Tel Aviv to embrace him, their arms laden with food.

As they visited, a rocket fired from Gaza was intercepted overhead with a bang.

“Last time we saw him was five weeks ago,” the mother said. “We don’t know when we’ll see him again.”

“I’m proud of him, but I’m afraid… I would be less worried if he was not here. But every place is dangerous right now.”

“I hope he won’t go to Gaza, but… if he doesn’t do it, who will?” the mother asked rhetorically.

“If we don’t have the army, we don’t have Israel.”

After an hour, the family had to leave.

The mother squeezed her son in her arms before the soldier left. “I cry all the time,” she said once he was out of earshot.

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