On the five-year anniversary of the war Israel launched to retaliate against rocket attacks from Hamas, Exponent staffer and Mount Airy native Amishai Gottlieb recalls his brief but harrowing experience on the front lines.
Shaved head? Check.
War paint? Check.
Army fatigues, combat vest and M-4 assault rifle? Check.
My family and friends would never have recognized me as I stood with my fellow soldiers listening to our company commander, Lior, who looked like a G.I. Joe figurine brought to life.
With explosions booming to the south, illuminating an otherwise dark midnight sky, Lior faced our Israeli Paratrooper Battalion 890 Reconnaissance unit, and gave us his last words of encouragement before we entered into combat, words that are eternally etched into my memory.
“Welcome to war,” he said with a sad smile.
Five years ago, on Jan. 3, 2009, those words were my introduction to the ground phase of Operation Cast Lead, the war Israel launched in the Gaza strip on Dec. 27 to retaliate against three years of rocket attacks from Hamas.
My unit was part of the operation for the next 15 days, until Israel declared a unilateral ceasefire. We were ready to charge head first into the action and chaos awaiting us in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
I joined the Israeli army in July 2007 at the tender age of 21, not particularly interested in fighting or combat, but sincerely invested in doing my small part to help defend and protect the spiritual homeland of the Jewish people.
Growing up in peaceful Mount Airy, I was in no way predisposed to violence beyond the good-natured roughhousing that would occur at home between my big brother, Elie, and me.
In fact, I was known among my friends for a natural inclination toward childlike, mischievous behavior in a vein similar to my boyhood hero, Calvin from Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes comics series.
But the Israeli army does not have room for sweet-hearted, impish boys, because, simply put, it cannot afford to.
To eradicate such counterproductive behavior in the paratroopers, the first thing our commanders taught us in basic training was to follow their orders without question and to develop a ‘combat switch’ of aggressiveness.
“See that patch of thorn brush?” our officers would ask us in the middle of the desert at 2 a.m. “Flatten it.”
Without thinking twice, the entire platoon would immediately drop down on all fours to crawl and roll our way through the prickly thorns, lest the staff officers decide to come up with a creative punishment, such as throwing tear gas grenades at us or making us take turns carrying one another up a steep cliff again and again until we could longer feel our legs and shoulders.
Both of those punishments would happen, and often, if we were too slow to obey an order or if the officers perceived the slightest hesitation in full compliance.
We were so well disciplined that when we entered the combat zone in the Gaza Strip a year and a half later, we did not flinch at mortars falling around us or sniper shots being fired over our heads, nor did we give in to our primal instincts telling us to turn and run the other direction.
In fact, the opposite was true. We yearned for a break from the dull monotony that had accompanied our previous assignment along the border. Each and every one of us wanted the opportunity to prove ourselves in the line of duty.
Our ability to make that strange switch into ‘war mode’ and follow orders so seamlessly allowed some of the events I experienced during the operation, events that now seem surreal, to feel perfectly normal at the time.
The first night ‘inside,’ we were mortared mercilessly. Sitting in a citrus orchard, mortars exploded around us with shrieking whistles that were followed by violent, gusting booms.
Laying flat on an inclined ditch for cover alongside my commander, we smiled and laughed after every blast.
Though at the time I felt this was an act of manliness and bravery, in retrospect I understood that those smiles and winks were merely coping devices we used to deal with the intuitive fear of waiting for one of those explosions to strike home.
Being bombed in real life is in no way similar to watching a war movie from the comfort of your sofa at home. The bare ground is freezing cold, the blasts shake the earth around you, there is no romantic soundtrack playing in the background to lull you through the scene and, at least from my limited experience, there certainly isn’t any popcorn.
Other strange moments from the operation waft through my mind from time to time: Walking softly through the shadows of endless rows of tall greenhouse plants that swayed in the light breeze during a night patrol. A hushed Kabbalat Shabbat whispered on a Friday evening by my anxious squad before heading off on another mission.
Listening to army radio in a Gazan house to try and learn what was happening with the wider operation. The shattering roar of an air strike jarring a period of calm. Marching countless miles on battle-weary legs along the beach on the way back to base at the end of the operation.
And then there were the times we encountered civilians. I have seen the people that were forced to flee from their homes in fear.
I will never forget the pained expression on my sergeant’s face when he was forced to fire warning shots in the air to disperse a small crowd of women and children who were approaching us because we had received countless messages from intelligence units that there were female and child suicide bombers in the area.
Sitting at my computer today, with my ‘combat switch’ now fully placed on the ‘off’ position, these moments come back to me as a distant mirage, a myriad of unreal images.
Ultimately we succeeded in inflicting extensive damage to Hamas and putting a stop to their steady, brazen, barrage of rockets into Israeli towns and cities.
Those attacks targeted innocent people and I have no regrets about the part I had to play in Operation Cast Lead.
But I have come a long way from that day five years ago when my commander’s speech had me primed and ready to fight.
Today, I am planted firmly on the side of those who call for diplomacy, not war, as a preferable option to work toward peace.
Though it seems naïve to think that such a peace is possible, my combat experience taught me that it is the responsibility of all who are concerned about Israel to do their part to ensure that peace becomes a real possibility.
Amishai Gottlieb, a graduate of Akiba/Barrack Hebrew Academy, lived in Israel for seven years. He is currently working for the Jewish Exponent.