This is the eleventh 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. Pino 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/
Pino, 26, is a third year B.Sc. student in Industrial Engineering and Management at Tel-Aviv University. He also gives private lessons in math, physics and computer programming.
After high school, similar to this peers, Pino joined the IDF, first in the air force pilot training course and continuing as a FO (Forward Observer) officer in the Artillery corps. FO’s are responsible for directing artillery and mortar fire, close air support, naval gunfire support and special guided ammunition upon ground targets. It deals with numbers, angles, coordinates and fast calculations without computers. Pino and his fellows in training used to quip that, “eventually, the only good skill gleaned from this training is that now we can easily memorize girls’ phone numbers.” After training, he was posted in an Israeli ground forces commando unit which specializes in anti-guerrilla warfare, and more complicated ground activity.
Pino was deployed at all the Israeli borders and participated in two large operations against the terror group Hamas in Gaza: “Cast Lead” in December 2008 and then “Protective Edge” in July 2014 as a reservist.
In the IDF, soldiers who complete compulsory service are assigned to the reserve force as reinforcements during emergencies and can be called up anytime.
Pino was at the library during exams, unfortunately when missiles were raining down on Israeli cities during “Protective Edge.” People had only a few seconds to a minute to dash and find cover. If they couldn’t, they simply had to crouch down on the ground and wait for the explosion. Many times, he had to drop his books and run, with all the other students, to find the nearest shelter.
He recalls the most painful moment when his 17-year old sister experienced the first rocket attack alone. She was 20 meters from home, but froze in fear, unable to move. She began to cry and his parents had to rescue her and put her in the family’s “safe room.” Israeli homes are built with bomb shelters and safe rooms.
Pino’s brigade received the Sheja’iya district – the strongest Hamas area of operation, with dozens of terror tunnels and highly trained fighters – as his mission.
Have you experienced any particularly tense moments in the IDF?
On the border I had a feeling of “OH no, not again”, this isn’t my first time over here. When I was 21, during Operation Cast lead, we entered Gaza to eliminate rocket fire, and I thought it wouldn’t happen again. But this time the rockets were hitting a lot further – into Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem. Fortunately, we developed the Iron Dome anti-missile system just in time for Operation Protective Edge, so most, but not all of the rockets could be intercepted.
At the time, Israeli planes were flying missions to destroy Hamas rocket launching sites inside the Gaza Strip in the hope of avoiding a ground invasion.
We gathered so the Commander can brief us about the mission including an intelligence update, different courses of action, and fire missions policy. The “fire policy” order was direct and clear” “only smoke-shells and flare to light up the sky at night”. These orders were obviously designed to minimize civilian casualties in urban areas. Smoke and shells reinforce the messages and pamphlets dropped by our air force from the sky – to indicate to civilians they had to leave the area and retreat to a much safer part of Gaza to the west. The consequence is that it also gives our enemy advance notice of exactly where we were headed – and made our task much more dangerous.
H hour was 200 Friday night. We grouped on the border in positions ready to start movement. Body armor strapped on, I was inside an armored personnel carrier with the radio on, ready for the go-ahead. There were a lot of tension, even among the experienced officers.
Then we received a shocking command: “Abort Mission.” I had a mixed reaction – why aren’t we following the plan, yet, huge relief – maybe we found an agreement. Later, at headquarters, we learned that intelligence reported that there were still civilians who had not yet left the danger area.
That wasn’t the only moral dilemma we had to face; one of the more difficult ones was Al-Wafa hospital, the only rehabilitation one in Gaza. I learned everything – from its exact location to how many floors, etc. This is the IDF’s procedure – we receive an intelligence report which includes all the vulnerable locations we are not allowed to attack, such as hospitals, schools, mosques and other community services facilities. I had to ensure our fire did not hit within a considerable distance from such buildings – and this hospital was one.
Intelligence reported there were gunmen and rocket-fire on the upper floors, perfect for snipers and command center. Well, that did not surprise me and it wasn’t the first time I saw this common Hamas tactic of utilizing hospitals as launching sites and snipers nests.
We tried to avoid unnecessary contact with the hospital, but when our forces reached nearby, the gunmen in the hospital started shooting rocket-propelled grenades.Only then, when our forces were in danger, did we request permission to shoot back. But, because it was a hospital, the request from the upper echelons was denied – several times – until we were able to provide actual video of the Hamas terrorists firing at us.
At last we got them on video without any casualties, and only then we received the go-ahead.
What would you like people to know about serving in the IDF?
The real story of this hospital was: why was Hamas willing to put its own civilians in extreme danger – in effect to use them as human shields?
As I finally headed home I was filled with conflicting feelings. One the one hand, we reduced the threats to Israel’s population by preventing rocket fire on our cities by damaging Hamas capacity to fight, and getting rid of most of their attack tunnels in Gaza.
But on the other hand, I am deeply saddened about the number of deaths in this war, dozens of my own fellow-soldiers, but also far more Palestinians. I’m aware that the leadership in Gaza continues its plans to destroy our whole country.
I believe we must work on a long-tern agreement with our neighbors, the Palestinians. I feel my comrades and I have been strengthened by Operation Protective Edge, and at how the nation united. This means that, just as we fought our war with such determination and unity, our nation can face an even bigger challenge. Eventually Israelis and Palestinians must find a way to live together, side by side and in peace.
How does it feel to represent Israel in this way?
I knew the world media would criticize Israel’s attack on a hospital. But I was there and was shocked at the completely false way events were presented. What the viewers did not see is that five days before the attack, our Arabic-speaking population officer spoke to the health authorizes in Gaza. He offered to help transfer the patients to an Israeli field hospital near the border, or for them to go to the coastal area of Gaza, where there is a bigger hospital to safety. It is my honor to represent Israel this way and to clear these distortions and to present Israelis and the IDF as we experience them.