This is the second 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.com. Gal is one of 14 speakers traveling around the United States as a part of StandWithUs’ 6th annual “Israeli Soldiers Tour,” putting a human face to the IDF uniform. Last names are withheld for security purposes.
Residing in Tel Aviv, Gal, 25 studies law at Bar Ilan University. As a teen, Gal spent most of her time in the Israeli scouts, first as a camper and later as a counselor. She majored in Communication and Middle Eastern studies and Islam in high school. Gal postponed her army service to volunteer for the Jewish Agency and was sent to the Jewish community of Toronto, Canada for a year. At schools, synagogues, youth movements and campuses, she created a connection between Diaspora Jewry and Israel. “It definitely shaped who I am today,” she recalls.
What unit did you serve with in the IDF and why did you serve there?
I joined basic training commanders course. The majority of the commanders are 18 year old girls, who turn high school students into IDF soldiers…who lead squads of men and women….who teach how to use an M-16 rifle, throw a grenade and shoot a machine gun. The course is physically and emotionally difficult and requires one of the highest levels of basic training for girls which are not in a combat unit.
My army service empowered me as a person and especially as a woman. I was never told or felt I cannot do something because of my gender. I was never discriminated against and was always encouraged to complete the missions I was given, even in the worst physical and mental conditions. The army taught me that there is nothing I could not do; all I need is to believe in myself. It stretched my limits and made me the better person I am today and for that, I am grateful.
I was promoted to Instructor and excited to train the next generation of commanders. The first day, I marveled at the diversity of the soldiers standing in the courtyard. This is the exact diversity that I embody. Men and women from different origins, cultures and social-economic backgrounds all stood as equals, heading towards a similar army service.
I want to tell you about the “the spirit of the IDF”, which all IDF soldiers carry in their pockets. It includes the 10 core ethical values every soldier and non-combatant soldier needs to operate by, at any time. The code consists of values like “Leading by Personal Example,” “Respecting Human Life” and “Purity of Arms.”
For a commander, this code is not just a piece of paper you carry in your pocket because you have to, it becomes a part of your identity and leads your daily routine. The day this motto became my reality was not an ordinary one.
Can you share a story about active duty that illustrate what life was like?
I was deployed to the Israeli-Egyptian border to replace a combat force on leave. Stationed with 3 soldiers in a remote post across from the border, we were briefed that Molotov bottles were thrown at the post, hence the need for vigilance.
In the middle of the night, 3 men wearing black starting to cross the border. The Israeli-Egyptian border was often used by terrorist cells to invade Israel in order to commit terror attacks because it only consists of a barb wire fence, hence actions against Israel can happen quickly.
The value of leading by example suddenly came to life as I was the field commander in charge, analyzing the situation and giving the operation’s instructions.
I ordered the soldiers to hold their fire and secure the perimeter while I called for back-up. I was lying on the ground, aiming my M-16 at the invaders as I was giving my orders and my heart was pounding. I based my decision on the border’s characteristics, but more importantly on the meaning of the “purity of arms”: a soldier shall not use his weapon in a situation where less extreme means can be taken and shall keep his humanity during a situation of potential combat. The IDF is the only army in the world that the purity of arms appears in its ethical code and is being respected by soldiers in every mission and daily routine.
The assisting troops arrived speedily and we arrested the three. They turned out to be asylum seekers that walked all the way from Eritrea. They were taken to the nearest army base. We gave them all the food we had instead of throwing it away and made sure they had warm blankets for the night.
Two years later, I started working as a baker at a cupcake store. One of my co-workers and best friends is an Eritrean. On his first day, I noticed the cuts, bruises and cigarette burns on his arms. He admitted that Egyptians soldiers abused him and stole his money en route to Israel. Only then, I understood that I operated properly during that mission. I realized that these people could have been shot and killed by Egyptian soldiers. I understood that they came to the only country in the Middle East that follows the international law and gives them a chance of a better reality.
What motivated you to speak about your experiences on this tour?
The portrait people may see in the news of an IDF soldier who lost his values, personal integrity and humanity when he donned his uniform for the first time is not what you really see when you truly look into his eyes. You see a person, like you and me, with family, friends and hobbies. You see an 18-year old who dreams about travel, university and a future. I want people to see this for themselves.
I am not on this tour for me. I am here as the granddaughter, the daughter and the friend of many soldiers who are only looking to live…who only want to protect their family and their country…the only country in the world they have, that they can truly belong to. I am here so you can also hear their voice and not only the voices of demonization and hate.
What message do you want people to take away from your story?
I stand here as a proud soldier of the IDF, the most humanitarian army in the world and tell people to ask questions. My message is to not accept what you see and read as the ultimate truth. Visit Israel and decide for yourself. I promise you, you will see Israel in a completely different light. You will see Israelis truly want peace. Real peace.