This is the seventh 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. Ilana 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.
Ilana was born in Israel to parents that made Aliyah (emigrated) from England. She is currently studying for a Masters degree in diplomacy and conflict resolution. Ilana grew up understanding the importance of having a Jewish state and the need to defend it: Her grandfather grew up in Baghdad and survived the Farhoud in Iraq. The Farhoud was a massacre against the Jewish population living in Baghdad during the Holocaust which was conducted by the Iraqi government in cahoots with the Nazis. The UN conducted the first-ever memorial day for this horrific piece of history only in 2015. The other side of her family originates from Poland, and came to England during the Holocaust. All of those who stayed behind were murdered for being Jewish in Nazi concentration camps.
Ilana served in the IDF for three and a half years as an Army Benefits officer, where she took care of the welfare of 1,800 soldiers in an infantry combat regiment. Through her position she looked after the financial, social and medical needs of soldiers and their families. She continues to serve in the IDF’s active reserve duty. Ilana also volunteers with lone soldiers whose families live abroad.
Have you experienced any particularly tense moments in the IDF?
During summer, 2014, I had already finished my service and was a student. I was called up for emergency reserve duty in Gaza for Operation Protective Edge against Hamas. In emergency battle, I serve as a first-responder. I am the one who receives the first-hand information about the soldiers in battle who are injured or killed – and it is my duty to get that information out to the necessary place as quickly and accurately as possible. I can’t afford to make any mistakes, because it could cost someone their life. I also dealt with the welfare of the soldiers in combat, including any issues that they may experience while in battle, as well as dealing with their worried families.
During that time, my then-boyfriend, Itai (who is now my husband and is doing this tour with me) was fighting in Gaza in the same unit. Try to imagine the situation: I could literally track exactly where he was on the Operations Room monitor. And all I’m hoping is that I don’t hear his name over the communications system. My sister knew another of the soldiers in my unit and contacted me to look out for him, giving me his name. That very same name came through the communications system the next day, to report that he was injured in battle. That is a very heavy burden to bear.
In Gaza, it was the first time that I experienced how the citizens of the South of Israel have been living for over a decade. Ever since Hamas took over the Gaza strip after Israel pulled out, they escalated shooting rockets, targeting Israeli civilians indiscriminately.
The rockets can reach very far across Israel, affecting places like the center of Israel where my parents live. There, people have about a minute and a half to get to a bomb shelter, when a rocket alert sounds over the Iron Dome protective system. 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.
Down near Gaza, you have 15 seconds. 15 seconds, regardless of where you are – sleeping, eating, in the shower – to save your life. And when you hear the alert you run. You run into a circular tube made of concrete and and cram in there with all the other soldiers, waiting for it to be safe. This is an absurd reality – and it has been the reality in the south for Israelis ever since Hamas took over.
What moment of your service are you most proud of?
I’m proud of all aspects of my service in the IDF as it taught me so much about caring for other people and giving back to my community. Through my position in active duty as an officer in charge of the welfare of combat soldiers. I got a firsthand look into the people behind the uniforms of the Israeli soldiers, into what goes on back home in their personal lives, This is something that most people never get to see. I am also proud of the fact that I was a female soldier, an officer who chose to give more time than necessary to serve and continue to serve in reserves.
What would you like people to know about serving in the IDF?
These soldiers are people, young people, with families, and worries and girlfriend and boyfriend trouble just like everyone else. The last thing they want to do is fight when they could be doing so many other things. But they serve in the IDF with honor and pride – because they understand the necessity of it.
But the fact that it is necessary, and all 18-year olds are in the same place at the same time, creates a unique framework. The Israeli army, instead of being just a military with the goal of fighting, uses the opportunity to instill morals and values in these young people who will later lead Israeli society. They are taught responsibility, leadership, and how to care for others. That is why Israeli army service is seen by Israelis as much more: a chance to give back, to help others in their community
How does it feel to represent Israel in this way?
This is not my first “Israeli Soldiers Tour.” I was on a different region of the United States. Each time I presented to different audiences and experienced different degrees of either support or push back. Yet I stood in both tours with confidence and pride in my service and the service of Israeli soldiers across the IDF.
I urge audiences that when they next hear anything in the media about the Israeli army- to dig deeper and to remember our stories. To remember that they are stories untold. To remember that Israeli soldiers enlist only because its necessary in a state like Israel – which has been fighting for legitimacy and survival from the day it was declared. To remember that they are normal, young people, just like you and me. And most of all, that all they ever hope for is peace, so that they can finally come home for good.