Once upon a time (after the late 1950s), Gaza was a tourist destination. People spent the day touring Khan Yunis, Deir al-Balah, Rafah, and Heletz. They would walk the streets of Gaza toward the beach, explore the boat factory, and dine in the Abuchatzera Restaurant. They would visit the ancient synagogue and see the mosaic of David HaMelech’s harp. Things have certainly changed since then.
Especially since the disengagement from Gush Katif in 2005, the Arabs have turned Gaza into a hotbed of terror. The tragic events of October 7 have caused yet another shift. Our brave chayalim are on the frontlines in the South (they are also in the North, but that is for another article), highly motivated to fight our enemies and restore security to the citizens of Israel. Gaza today looks radically different than it did on October 6. And the transition continues to evolve as I write.
One can watch videos of soldiers heroically destroying buildings from the air and on the ground in an attempt to cleanse the area of terrorists. Much can be read about the use of missiles, intelligence, close combat, fierce battles, and grenades in this war. All of these elements are well-known ingredients of war. But a lot goes on behind the scenes when fighting a war, much of which is detail-oriented and mundane. I’m going to share a small piece of backstory based on what I heard from my son, who is currently serving in Gaza. He described the logistical operations when we visited him at his home during his two days of respite. This is the experience of my son and his unit. Every unit has its own situation.
The role of my son’s battalion is to evacuate soldiers wounded in combat. They wait behind the soldiers in the first line of battle in case they are alerted to casualties. As they wait, many chayalim play cards and backgammon. Sometimes, animals come and wait with them.
When his unit first arrived in Gaza, they slept on the ground on thin mats. A tractor would flatten the ground and pile dirt into mounds around them to serve as a protective wall. Since then, they’ve raised their standard and sleep in the remains of a Gazan jail. They sleep on mattresses in jail cells that have bars on the windows. There is no running water or electricity. Flypaper hangs from the ceiling to help contain the swarm of flies. With little to do in the dark, as they are not permitted to bring their cell phones into Gaza, they usually turn in early and get a good night’s sleep.
Every 48 hours (every 24 hours in the earlier days of the war) a truck arrives with supplies for the chayalim: water, fruit, vegetables, meals for battle, soda, cigarettes, gas balloons, donated food, and occasionally even letters collected from loved ones at home. A water truck with pipes allows for the luxury of a shower. On one occasion early during the war, the chayalim were happy to be awakened at 3 a.m. to receive a donation of burgers that had arrived at that late hour due to the challenges of getting them into Gaza.
Shabbos is a special time in Gaza. Minyanim were set up in the jail and in a nearby university. The minyan in the jail was nicknamed V’shavu Banim. The minyan in the university was jokingly named Beit Knesset Ohel Elazar after El Azar, the Arab donor of the university. A sign on the wall indicates the z’manim of the day, the davening schedule, names of people in need of t’filos, etc. A cabinet holds the sefer Torah. The chayalim daven and hear k’rias haTorah. They are treated to trays of schnitzel, rice, and vegetables lichvod Shabbos. “Cholent” consists of tuna and peas. Chayalim are uplifted as they sing z’miros, including “Kah Ribon Olam,” written by Rav Yisrael Najara, who served as Gaza’s chief rabbi in the 17th century. Some chayalim who are not religious join in the z’miros at night as there is not much else for them to do in the dark. On one Friday night, the chayalim were sent back to their regular base for some time off. When they crossed the border into Israel, they broke out into spirited singing and dancing of L’cha Dodi.
Gaza looks and feels different since our ground incursion. A Jewish presence can be felt. Soldiers are davening in minyanim. Some are hanging mezuzos. My son’s commander attended his son’s bris milah by phone. A group of chayalim participated in a long-distance pidyon ha’ben. Israeli flags can be seen waving in the air nearby and far off in the distance.
We wish our soldiers much success in the battle for our nation. Please continue to daven for the wounded, the hostages, and for the success and safe return of all of our chayalim and security personnel.