This is the eighth 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. Yishai 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com for more information.
Yishai, 25 years old, admits he likes to take on the toughest challenges. A marathon runner, he completed the half in Jerusalem, considered one the world’s most difficult because of the many hills. He is finishing his first semester of law school at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and plans to travel the world upon graduation.
1. What unit did you serve with in the IDF and why did you serve there?
I served in 3 different units. First was “Duvdevan,” a special forces anti-terror elite ground unit for 3 years. I was trained as a sniper. Then I went to officers’ school and then to a small unit in charge of fast roping and high altitude combat unit for 8 months. I was decorated and chosen to be the first officer in a new special forces unit called “Rimon” for a year and then was discharged. What guided me through military service was to give 120% and accept the most rigorous tasks. Israelis are proud to serve in the military, they look forward to the opportunity of defending their country. My father and brother were officers, so it’s a family tradition.
2. Can you share some anecdotes or stories about active duty that illustrate what life was like?
Nablus is a very big Palestinian city with a big market and lots of people that lies between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. A very nice place. But under the surface, Nablus is rife with terrorist activities. One time, we had to enter the city to catch a well-known arms dealer. He distributes weapons to Hamas and Fatah and works with criminals all around Nablus. He’s been at it for a long time, and when we got the Intelligence of “where and when”, we went in to get him.
My partner and I were located in the main Nablus market. Our job was to make sure this area was clear from civilians and obviously, terrorists. To accomplish this, we had to enter a house to obtain a full view of the street. It turned out to be the very small house of a local family. We sat the family in the living room, two parents and five children, one just a baby.
While we were standing at the door protecting the street, Palestinian civilians began throwing stones and other objects from other homes and the streets through the windows. These people had no contact with us or anybody else in the operation, but purely because we were Israeli soldiers. Unfortunately, the mother suffered a blow to the head and a deep cut on her leg. The baby was also hit.
We reported the incident and waited for a medic. We were ordered to evacuate the house, but decided to stay and tend to the mother, at the risk of being hit, and getting into trouble with our commanding officer. The medic arrived, treated the mother and baby and dispatched them in the army jeep to an Israeli hospital. We didn’t have to do this, we wanted to.
The next day, after evaluating the case, our commanding officer told me that although he’s upset at us for not fulfilling his order, which of course should never happen, he was proud that even though we were soldiers in the battlefield under a lot of stress, we were able to differentiate between an army operation where nothing but the mission counts, and human nature, holding our ground and protecting the mother and her family.
The obvious question is why were you in the house in the first place? The answer lies in being able to distinguish between the local Palestinians and the terrorists. Not every Palestinian is a terrorist, and not every Palestinian is a radical outlaw. But some are…and they complicate the lives of both Israelis and Palestinians.
If you can get a local Palestinian to talk unafraid of these terrorists, he will admit that he wants nothing to do with terror. I know, I have spoken to such Palestinians. They admit they don’t “hate Israel.” They want a quiet neighborhood for their family, without guns, terrorists and education filled with hate in the schools and textbooks. They know that terror groups use them as human shields and don’t care about what happens to them. That’s the distinction you have to make when you are in the West Bank. The terror organizations have control there over many, many civilians that want nothing to do with them. That’s a hard reality to live in.
3. What motivated you to speak about your experiences on this tour?
When I was discharged after five years of giving so much to my country, I felt the need to continue to serve. It wasn’t enough – just yet – and StandWithUs “Israeli Soldiers Stories” provided the answer. I wanted people to experience the conflict and what life is like in Israel from someone who is actually there.
This is my second tour. During the first, I honestly thought that it was as meaningful an experience as serving in the army. We spoke to hundreds and hundreds from all denominations, some willing to listen and some not. We felt we made a difference. There are a lot of battles that need to be fought for Israel that are not just in the army. This is true especially these days when public opinion has so much influence and yet, can be be so easily manipulated.
4. Have you received any pushback? How do you deal with difficult situations like that?
Last year, we had a walk-out by anti-Israel students at a Philadelphia University. In the middle of our talk, students just got up and left. Unfortunately, this has become quite common. It is especially annoying that those students had no interest in dialogue. That is exactly the point of this tour – to open communication lines. We asked them to stay, but they did not want to listen, they wanted to make their point. But, it did not achieve their purpose; it was simply disruptive and proves exactly the reason it is so imperative that we are here.
5. What message do you want people to take away from your story?
Most people are aware of this, but my first message is to not believe everything you hear and read, especially in the biased media. Conduct your own research and reach your own conclusions. My second message is to the pro-Israel people: stay strong and keep doing what you are doing. You may not realize it, but Israelis appreciate the constant battle you deal with. I imagine how hard the struggle is and sometimes I think the activists in America that do not serve in the IDF are also soldiers. I do reserve duty a few times a year, but sometimes I feel like you are doing it every day.
I want to deliver a message that Israel seeks peace, is eager for peace, longs for peace and this is what we talk about and dream about. It is everyday conversation in and out of the army. We don’t like the reality of having to go to the army, but we have no other choice. We want a normal life. We would rather not interrupt our lives at age 18 to go to the army, but we have no choice. The world needs to understand this.
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