This is the thirteenth 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. Bentzi is one of 14 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/

Bentzi, 23 and newly discharged from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) wears his hair to his shoulders and quips, “after three years of buzz cuts, I’m not ready for a hair cut yet.” He is also on the “obligatory post-army trip around the world that most Israeli’s go on.” Bentzi grew up in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ra’anana. He entered the paratroopers, an elite unit of the IDF as a combat soldier and commander.

Israel disengaged from the Gaza strip in 2005 and instead of peace, got Tzeva Adom, the “soundtrack to an entire country’s post-trauma, the Red Alert sound of sirens that warn of incoming rockets,” he shivers. Hamas, the terrorist organization elected to rule Gaza, escalated its rocket fire and more than 10,000 were hurled at Israeli civilians. People have 30 seconds to a minute and a half to find shelter. “Try to imagine your younger siblings memorizing these numbers in kindergarten,” he shudders.

Nowhere near Gaza, Ra’anana residents were still constantly running to shelters because by the summer of 2014, practically the entire country was in the range of Hamas rockets. On July 17, thirteen armed Hamas terrorists emerged through an underground terror tunnel right next to an Israeli village. Bentzi’s good friend spotted them coming out of the tunnel on the lookout cameras, and she was single-handedly responsible for preventing a massacre of Israeli civilians.

This forced Israel’s hand. The next day a ground operation was launched. The objective was destroying Hamas’ approximately 40 terror tunnels and as many weapon caches as possible – to state simply, to destroy the terror group’s ability to harm Israeli citizens.

Have you experienced any particularly tense moments in the IDF?

I was serving as the commander of our Battalion Commander’s personal entourage. We located a terror tunnel that led under the border and into the middle of a village in Israel. We began the process of destroying the tunnel.

And then SHE showed up…and approached.

Prior to arriving at the destination, we made sure the Palestinian residents were aware that the operation would take place.

During warfare, there are entire units in the IDF dedicated to informing Palestinians residents of upcoming operations. People receive text messages, phone calls, and thousands of leaflets dropped from the air advising them to clear out of the line of fire.

We warn them and we pay a heavy price because the element of surprise is negated. The enemy prepared itself. Hamas sent forces to the areas we warned, and they booby-trapped those villages.

Therefore, every person who remained in the neighborhood when we arrived was there with a very clear agenda. And an AK-47.

This woman was covered by a burqa, exposing only her eyes. But, what was underneath it? It could potentially be loaded with explosives.

I employed “The Spirit of the IDF” that every soldier is required to carry at all times. These are the values and moral standards that we hold ourselves to. These Values include “Human Life” and “Purity of Arms.” Therefore, there are very strict guidelines for Rules of Engagement (ROE).

Stage A – Before the weapon is fired and, as much as circumstances allow, warnings should be called out in Arabic: “Wakef wala ana batukhak” (Halt or I’ll shoot). That sentence was the first thing I learned in basic training, and it will be ingrained in my brain until the day I die.

Stage B – Cock the M-16 in a way that makes your intentions clear.

Stage C – Warning shots fired upwards at a 60 degree angle, in single-fire mode, after ensuring that there is no danger of the shot hitting people or property.

Stage D – Shoot to the legs unless the suspect poses an immediate threat, in which case fire to center of mass.
We followed steps A, B and C, but unfortunately, she didn’t stop. What to do? If we shoot her legs, we may cause her unnecessary harm. If we don’t, she may be loaded with explosives and we risk getting blown to kingdom come.

We decided to risk it. She was unarmed. It turned out she had a cognitive disability and did not understand. We checked for injuries, fed her and called the Red Crescent.

Later, I heard that the guys in another unit faced the exact same situation. They decided to shoot and discovered massive amounts of explosives strapped to the body.

THIS is the whole issue in a nutshell: if we had chosen to act the way the other unit did IN AN IDENTICAL SITUATION, we would have killed an innocent woman. If they had made the same decision as us, they would all be dead. Those are both horrific results, and they are a direct result of Hamas’ strategy to systematically and intentionally breach universal rules of engagement.

What would you like people to know about serving in the IDF?

War is hell. I’m not the first person to say it and I won’t be the last. It’s FULL of difficult decisions, BUT NO ONE should have to face decisions like this one. And yet, the soldiers in the IDF, most of us between the ages of 18-22, must face situations like this one on an almost daily basis. Why? Let’s talk about Hamas’ military strategy:

– Their Combatants fight in civilian attire. Not once were we attacked by someone in a uniform
– They use civilians, including women and children, as Human shield
– We knew where Hamas’ top military brass were located and could have easily reached them. But we didn’t. Why? Because they were hiding in the basement of a HOSPITAL.

The tunnel we had located was hidden underneath a mosque. The weapon caches were also routinely hidden in schools.
And of course, they send women and children to blow up soldiers.

The list goes on, and these are all fair game in Hamas’ book, to hell with international law, the Hague and the Geneva Conventions.

We trained in just about every different type of combat so we’d be ready, but there’s no way to be ready for a decisions like this. And this is what we’re up against

Every time we ended up in a skirmish the enemy was either in civilian clothes, or in one occasion, in stolen IDF uniforms – in gross violation of international law.

What moment of service are you proud of?

In another known Hamas stronghold, intelligence suggested terror tunnels and weapon caches. Same deal: Leaflets, texts, phone calls. Same deal: they knew we were coming. Not surprisingly, we discovered two dozen grown men hiding in one of the buildings. In their underwear. Their state of undress had to do with the Hamas military uniforms we found in the next room and littered all over the neighborhood.

For all I know, one of the naked terrorists ended up being the one who emerged from a tunnel a few days later and killed my friend. But, nevertheless, we called the Red Crescent and sent them on their way. And you know what? I can live with that, because I can honestly say that we did absolutely everything in our power to protect the innocent, even if it means letting the guilty get away sometimes. War is already so terrible; it doesn’t need to get even worse. I can tell you one more thing too. If the roles were reversed, nobody would be calling Magen David Adom ambulances. Not in a million years.

How does it feel to represent Israel in this way?

I’m really uncomfortable with public speaking, so naturally I decided to cross the Atlantic and spend two weeks in a foreign country talking about the most terrifying experiences of my life.

Just from reading the headlines, i is understandable that people think Israelis are warmongering lunatics. I am here to prove that’s simply not the case. I dream of a day when we can live in peace with our Arab neighbors. It doesn’t have to be koombayah around the campfire, just an acceptance of our right to exist.

This is the exact view of the vast majority of Israelis. We’re sick of it. Sick of inevitable and inevitably meaningless wars every few years. Sick of company reunions around the graves of friends. Sick to my stomach knowing that one day my little brother’s company reunion will probably be a few graves down. We’re ready for it to end.

Unfortunately, Israel is viewed in the context of war and conflict, which is understandable. But, I feel it is my duty to also present Israel as so much more: Israel is 3000 years of history and spirituality in Jerusalem. Israel is the vibrant liberal city of Tel Aviv. Israel is a nation of problem-solvers with the most start-ups per capita in the world. Israel is incredible deserts, hiking trails full of amazing natural springs, and sun-drenched beaches on the coast.

Most importantly, Israel is coexistence. It’s not easy, there are bumps in the road, and there will always be extremists, but if you walk the streets of Haifa where 300,000 Jews and Arabs live side by side, or the halls of our Parliament where 16 Arab MK’s serve in the Knesset, or into our Supreme Court where Arabs and Jews sit on the bench together, you’ll see that it can be done, and that maybe there’s some hope after all. I would urge you all to come visit the Holy Land and see for yourselves.

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