This is the eighth in a series of stories told by former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) reserve duty soldier-students about their time in service and life in Israel, brought to you by StandWithUs and Jspace. Itai is one of 12 speakers traveling around the United States as part of StandWithUs’ 7th “Israeli Soldiers Tour,” putting a human face to the IDF uniform. Last names are withheld for security purposes. These stories have never been told before. For more information, visit: https://www.facebook.com/israelisoldierstour/
Itai, 27, lives in Jerusalem with his wife Ilana, who joined him on the tour. Itai proposed to Ilana when both were called to reserve duty in Gaza and in uniform, on the beach. The photo went viral. (See here.)
Itai’s ancestors from his mother’s side made “Aliya” from Iran, on a donkey! His father’s side are survivors of the Holocaust from Czechoslovakia. A mixture of Jews from different corners of the world, his family mirrors Israeli society – a wonderful mixture of cultures and traditions from all around the world. Itai studies Political Science, Philosophy and Economics at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and works in the Bank of Israel as a junior data analyst.
At age 18, Itai entered the IDF, trained hard and entered the Reconnaissance Force, which is an Elite Infantry Combat Unit. He trained as a shooter and sniper, and then volunteered to become an officer, leading young combat soldiers in routine and battle for 5 years. Israel has mandatory military service for very clear reasons: it has been and still is under attack for all 67 years of its existence.
Serving in the IDF is something Itai saw as “a privilege, an opportunity to serve and protect, to give back to the community. Growing up in this small country, many times, your hometown can be on the front-line of war. You understand that you are physically protecting your own family, your friends, every day.
“Primarily, I served in the West Bank and in the Gaza strip; both are less than two-hour drive from my parents’ home. I remember finishing a mission and I was dressed full-gear, weapons, tactical vest, night vision binoculars and full combat equipment – and then just one hour later, after I scrubbed the camouflage colors off my face, I was sitting with my parents in our living room.”
Have you experienced any particularly tense moments in the IDF?
On the night of March, 2011, two Palestinian terrorists from the West Bank sneaked into the Jewish community of Itamar, through a hole in the surrounding security fence. They burst into the Fogel family’s home and in a brutal, heartless and chilling attack, they stabbed an 11-year-old child, strangled a 4-year-old and murdered the parents after a struggle. Searching for weapons, they heard the 3-month-old baby (!) crying and went back upstairs to stab that baby in the head.
Brutal acts of terrorism occur in Israel often, but this stood out for me because I was part of the combat force deployed to search for the murderers. They were hiding in the nearby Palestinian village of Awarta, where they came from.
The terrorists’ footprints that were found leading back to the village were discovered by a Bedouin soldier, a Muslim Israeli Arab. Many Bedouins volunteer for the IDF and many also specialize in this field. Since he was the first soldier on the scene, he told us, partly in Hebrew and partly in Arabic, about what he’d found. We then spent the whole night learning and preparing for the mission.
We entered the village with one intention: to find the terrorists who murdered a whole family in cold-blood. We had clothing and other items found at the Fogel house and we thus had to search painstakingly, door-to-door, house-to-house.
Try to imagine the situation: it’s 3 in the morning and we get Intel about a specific house that may be hiding the terrorists. We knocked on the door firmly and two young Palestinian parents open it. The mother is holding a crying baby. I just stood there and thought that with all the anger we felt about the horrific act of terror, with all the frustration with the sleepless night searching for terrorists, with trying to carry out a mission in a no-mans-land, terrorists around you, every corner a potential trap.
Despite this, hearing that baby cry made me stop and think how this whole situation is forced upon all of us. None of us wanted to be there. Not me, who is 23 and would rather be earning a degree; not my soldiers, who are 20, and would rather be anywhere else, and not that Palestinian baby, who has no idea what’s happening around her. In fact, the only ones thriving on these situations are the Palestinian terrorists and those who support them or legitimize them.
What part of your service are you proud of?
Three years later, by the summer of 2014, I had finished my service but was called up for emergency reserve duty. So was my then-girlfriend Ilana. The IDF was facing a new challenge – terror tunnels that Hamas was building in Gaza.
These tunnels are used for transporting weapons, for infiltrating into Israeli territory to carry out terror attacks and even for attempts to kidnap Israeli soldiers. The reality where hundreds of Israeli civilians are living under terror of rockets every day and sudden attacks from underground tunnels is unbearable.
Our mission was to scope out the area, looking for positions in Gaza from where they were shooting at Israel so that we could eliminate it. The parts where we were active were complete ghost towns. The reason is simple: the IDF announces exactly when and where it is approaching. The amount of precautions that are taken after identifying the terror points and before we even take actions are massive: flyers, telephone calls, text messages, warning bombs.
Every time we saw a launch we could see how Hamas was using civillians on both sides to achieve its terror goals: targeting Israeli civillians and hiding behind their own.
I want to emphasize: terror hurts everyone. Terror hurts Israelis – but terror also hurts the uninvolved Palestinians who are also just looking to live secure and peaceful lives. It introduces suspicion and fear, instead of encouraging cooperation and understanding. How can two sides talk peace when the language used is terror?
What would you like people to know about serving in the IDF?
The IDF is not perfect. It is comprised of people – and people make mistakes. But what I can tell you about is the way we are educated, taught and trained to act. Before I ever got a gun into my hands, I received a little booklet. I carried it in my uniform pocket, just like all other soldiers, every day of my service. This booklet is called the “spirit of the IDF”, which is the Israeli Defense Force’s moral code. It’s a list of the values, ideals, morals and most basic principles by which we as Israeli soldiers are expected to act.
One of these principles, which guided me very much in my days in Awarta, is something called “purity of arms.” It states that we are to use the minimum force possible in order to achieve our mission. This simply written rule, is a deeply complex challenge to uphold in real-life situations. When you are trying to protect the lives of your fellow soldiers, your people, your family – you want to do everything in your power to protect them. Therein lies the dilemma: how can you do everything to ensure you don’t miss one knife, one bomb, one terrorist, because it could mean your life – and still do whatever you can to minimize harm to the uninvolved Palestinians’ fabric of life?
How does it feel to represent Israel in this way?
Israelis live in a tough neighborhood. Terrorism abounds from within Israel primarily from Palestinian terrorists; ISIS threatens from the northern border, Hezbollah, the terrorist group threatens from Lebanon, and Hamas targets civilians from the south. It is important for people to understand the situation Israelis live under and why it’s necessary for us to defend ourselves.
Ilana and I hope to have children someday. My only wish is for my children and my wife to live in security, to lead a normal life without worrying about their safety – but peace will never be achieved while terrorism is a legitimate reality.
I hope you all join me in speaking out against terrorism and instead – encouraging dialogue, so we can all finally see peace in the future.