“All the time I knew Itai was fighting and I could see exactly where he was on the monitor,” she recalled. “It was one of the scariest things I’ve been through.” Ilana, an Army Benefits Officer in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), was responsible for the welfare of 1,800 soldiers in an infantry combat regiment. As a first responder in an operation against Hamas, Ilana received all the information about the wounded or killed soldiers in the battlefield, including her boyfriend, Itai.
Itai, a former front-line commanding officer in an elite unit of Israel’s infantry division, and Ilana, whose last names are withheld for security purposes, spoke to a crowd of 80 people during a StandWithUs Israeli Soldiers Tour at Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly last week. Together, the couple explained that military service is mandatory in Israel, and everyone is drafted into the army at the age of 18, instead of beginning their university studies or travelling.
The couple, both born-and-bred Israelis, inform the audience that along with Palestinian terrorism within Israel, the country’s borders are threatened by ISIS from the north, Hamas in the south, Hezbollah, a terrorist group that attacks from Lebanon, and with Syria in a continuous state of civil war with hundreds dying every day, Israel is under attack. “Terrorists are terrorists. They glorify death,” explained Ilana.
Both emphasize their personal experiences in upholding the strict moral code of the IDF. The moral code is manifested into a small booklet called the Spirit of the IDF. “Before I ever got a gun into my hands, I received the little booklet.” Itai, like all other Israeli solders, carried the booklet in his uniform pocket every day of service. It is comprised of a list of the values, ideals, morals and most basic principles by which Israeli soldiers are expected to act.
It is common for the media to accuse Israeli soldiers of using disproportionate force. Ilana and Itai explain from beginning to end the different procedures that occur before a mission is carried out. The Israeli army takes precautions to ensure that there are no uninvolved people in the battlefield by announcing when and where the Israeli soldiers will be via leaflets, text messages, and phone calls. Despite the fact that by doing so they are putting their own lives in danger, it is done because they want to ensure that there is no harm inflicted upon innocent Palestinians.
“As an Israeli combat soldier, I understood my duty well: it’s not only about protecting my country and its borders as a whole – I am physically protecting my own family, my friends, everyday – all day,” Itai explained during his speech at TBA.
Unlike warfare that can occur hundreds of miles away from any American soldier’s home, as an Israeli soldier, your hometown can be the front line of war. “You could be serving in a base at a frontline of war, but its only two hours away from your house,” Ilana described. “You’re literally, physically able to feel it. It is so tangible how you are protecting people that you love every single day,” she said.
While Ilana and Itai felt that they were protecting their loved ones back home, they had no such confidence about each other. Ilana was helplessly watching a computer screen praying for her boyfriend, and Itai was in a constant state of fear for her life. Perhaps that is why during Operation Protective Edge, their reserve duty in Gaza, Itai proposed to Ilana on the beach. In the midst of a war zone, instead of considering the morbid but not unlikely possibility of a bomb ending his life at any given moment, “it made me think about what is important in life, and helped me see clearly that I want to build a future with Ilana. It felt right in that moment.”
Hamas assumed the Gaza Strip ever since Israel disengaged from it, and they began shooting rockets, targeting Israeli civilians indiscriminately. “The rockets can reach very far, affecting places like the center of Israel where my parents live,” Ilana illustrated. In the inlands of Israel, people have a minute-and-a-half to get to a bomb shelter when a rocket alert sounds over the Iron Dome protective system.
According to Ilana, a minute-and-a-half is a long time. “My mother has enough time to drag my younger brother, who is a teenager and refuses to get out of bed, up and into the bomb shelter in plenty of time.” However, she warned that near Gaza, you have only 15 seconds. “15 seconds, regardless of where you are – sleeping, eating, in the shower – to save your life. You hear the call over a loudspeaker, and you run. You run to a concrete circle and cram in there with all the other soldiers, waiting for it to be safe.”
At the end of the day, these soldiers are 18-year-olds. In America, an average 18-year-old is most likely in college, some studying, some drinking themselves into oblivion every weekend, but most are not thinking about their own mortality, or concern for the well-being of their country, or how to get to the closest bomb shelter in under a minute-and-a-half. 18-year-old Israelis do not have that luxury. Israeli soldiers simply want to live their lives in peace and security. They are required to enlist only because of the necessity of a state like Israel, which has been fighting for legitimacy and survival from the day of its declaration 68 years ago.