Tamir and Matan at Church

This is the fourth in a series of stories told by former IDF soldiers about their time in service and life in Israel, brought to you by StandWithUs and Jspace.com. Tamir is one of the 13 soldiers on StandWithUs’ 6th annual “Israeli Soldiers Stories” tour, which has two legs in 2014: February 16-March 1 and March 30-April 14. Email  campus@standwithus.com or highschool@standwithus.com to find an engagement near you. Click for more information

Tamir, 26, remembers hearing the mosque announcing prayers on his way to school during his childhood in Matan, a small town near a Palestinian village close to the West Bank. Because of this proximity, he picked up a bit of Arabic.

His grandparents fled Poland in 1942 to escape the Holocaust, leaving friends and family behind to a terrible fate in the death camps. Now Tamir is married, and studies political science and communications at Tel Aviv University.

But his story begins in Gaza.

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Jspace: What unit did you serve with in the IDF and why did you serve there?

Tamir: In December 2008 I was a 23-year-old second lieutenant in the paratroopers division, an officer in charge of 20 soldiers defending the Gaza border. Our routine was to patrol the border with armored vehicles and watch for terrorists trying to attack Israeli villages or to locate hidden explosives planted by terrorists. I served there because I believe it is one of the most critical divisions in the army: units like the paratroopers face the conflict and help defend Israel on a daily basis.

Can you share some anecdotes or stories about active duty that illustrate what life was like?

My soldiers and I were one of the first to enter Gaza during Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in December 2008. I navigated my company to our first ground mission, which was to take over a building in El-Atatra, a neighborhood from which we identified missile launches. It was night, and I was leading 100 soldiers. After a whole night of gunfire and rockets flying above us, we entered our target building, which we suspected was a base for missile launches.

This building turned out to be an elementary school!

I entered a classroom that looked just like mine when I was seven years-old: chairs, desks and a green chalk board with erasers. On the left side of the board, I saw glamorous photographs of suicide bombers who killed civilians in Israel (“shahids,” or martyrs), praised as if they were Hollywood stars. Next to the board I found Israel’s official map hanging from the wall and, painted red as if Israel was literally bleeding! Right above the map I saw the word: “Jihad” and a sentence about destroying the Jewish land and throwing all Israelis to the sea. As we presumed, the school was filled with explosives, and traces of missile launchers.

That was the moment I understood: they were actually using the children as human shields.

Hamas knew the IDF wouldn’t bomb the school because we have strict rules regarding schools, hospitals, and mosques.

The school was surrounded by wires, there was a mine in the entrance to the principal’s office, and small hatches above the basketball court enabling them to shoot from. All of this is inside an elementary school! The thought of children growing up in that type of reality was difficult for me to grasp, even during combat. The extensive use of civilian structures as human shields and the way the young generation was educated, was a defining moment for me. While our enemy is firing deliberately towards helpless civilian, and uses them as human shields, the IDF is trying its best to keep the people of Gaza out of the fighting.

What motivated you to speak about your experiences on this tour?

Reading the newspapers and watching the news in countries abroad–often with misleading information about Israel–encouraged me to step up and volunteer for this tour.

The desire to show the real truth about Israel and the IDF through my personal connection is something that I believe will help improve Israel’s image.

Have you received any pushback? How do you deal with difficult situations like that?

I participated in a divestment resolution debate at the University of California in Los Angeles. Anti-Israeli student groups seek to isolate Israel by introducing resolutions to the student government to divest from companies that do business with Israel. Hundreds lined up during the Public Comment section. The debate lasted until the morning. Thankfully, the resolution was defeated.

As an Israeli I was shocked by the ridiculous accusations against my country. I felt like I am in the front line of the war to demonize Israel and it was one of the most meaningful and important experiences I’ve encountered. We decided to speak up for Israel and show the truth through our personal stories and personal experiences in the army. I expressed my feelings and thoughts in my speech, combined with showing real pictures from the Gaza strip. These pictures showed terrorists firing missiles and hiding explosives from dense civilian populations. I felt it made a difference and encouraged the pro-Israeli students to speak up and not to be afraid to tell the truth.

What message do you want people to take away from your story?

Israel is a small country in a difficult neighborhood, so in order to understand Israel we need to study and learn about the history and the geography of the area. Moreover, the IDF and the soldiers are doing their best to defend the citizens of Israel, because the conflict is in our back yard! We are defending our own citizens, family and friends from an enemy that uses his own citizens to fire at Israeli citizens.

Click to read more IDF Stories.

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