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Israeli military veterans describe actions that pummeled Gaza ahead of 2014 invasion

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The U.N. says more than 5,000 people have been killed in the Gaza Strip during Israel's air campaign since October 7, when Hamas fighters attacked southern Israel. And now Israeli ground troops have been massing at the border in anticipation of a ground invasion. The last major boots on the ground Israeli military action in Gaza took place more than nine years ago. NPR's Ruth Sherlock spoke with Israeli veterans of that military action and heard their stories.

BENZI SANDERS: The whole night sky is just lighting up the whole night before you go in. And you know that everyone - those are all your guys, you know, like, that's your team.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Benzi Sanders is describing the Israeli airstrikes and artillery that pummeled Gaza to pave the way for the last ground invasion in 2014. He remembers clearly the night his unit was told to advance inside the Gaza Strip.

SANDERS: You're carrying more weight than you could have ever carried in your life. You're walking on very fine sand. And, you know, you're just trying to stay alert and just there's a lot of tension.

SAM GOSLING: I remember, like, when we were going in, there was, like, a whole lot of questions running through my head.

SHERLOCK: Sam Gosling was on the same mission.

GOSLING: Who's going to be OK? How are people going to react? Are there going to be guys that don't come out from the situation with us?

SHERLOCK: The objective then was to destroy tunnels built by Hamas close to the border with Israel. Aviv Haimson (ph), a soldier with the paratrooper corps, remembers searching house by house.

AVIV HAIMSON: We had to get in, barricade all the doors and windows, keep watch. It was mainly important not to make noise or lights because there were missile teams out there looking for us.

SHERLOCK: In the darkness at night, Haimson and his team would quietly listen on the radio to the eulogies read out at funerals of soldiers who died in the fighting around them. Gosling, who was with a counterterrorism unit, was keeping watch out from a home on the edge of the territory the soldiers controlled. He recalls the night his unit got a rare hot meal to mark the start of the Sabbath.

GOSLING: Someone downstairs said kiddush, like, the prayer on wine that you say on Friday night. And almost as he finished saying the kiddush, that was when that first rocket struck.

SHERLOCK: His commanding officer was killed instantly beside him. Two more rockets hit the floor below where there were other soldiers.

GOSLING: I ended up crawling to the door to, like, go down the stairs to check on the second attack. And I just, like, remember my arms being burnt from all the shrapnel on the ground that had exploded because obviously still quite hot.

SHERLOCK: He started giving first aid until he and the other wounded could be evacuated. Elsewhere in Gaza, Benzi Sanders was coming to terms with the realities of war. He took a few pieces of paper from the house he was occupying and scribbled some thoughts with a red marker intended for writing on maps.

SANDERS: I don't look at them like every day, but every now and then I look at them.

SHERLOCK: He reads aloud for us from one of the notes he wrote a week in.

SANDERS: People have started to do the math, decide whether this is all worth it or not, something around 35 soldiers to stop rockets and tunnels. And then I write the name of one of my friends who's - he lost a close friend from Golani. I think it could be worth it. It's not a question of matter to me as long as we decisively eliminate the threat. And, you know, I haven't read this in a long time, actually.

SHERLOCK: These days, Sanders thinks very differently about the threat.

SANDERS: This is, like, the lie that they told us, that we were decisively - every time, decisively. But in order to decisively do it, there is no military option to decisively defeat Hamas.

SHERLOCK: It feels like you're wrestling with your own thoughts there.

SANDERS: Yeah. I mean, most of the time I wasn't reflecting and wrestling. But, yeah, the beginning of it, maybe.

SHERLOCK: Now he's a member of Breaking the Silence, a group that opposes the Israeli occupation and takes the testimony of veterans. Sanders says, in those days in Gaza in 2014, men in his unit found a Palestinian family that hadn't fled.

SANDERS: They arrested all of the men and they sent them back to Israel for interrogation.

SHERLOCK: He says soldiers gave the women and children food and water. A few days later, though, Sanders' unit was ordered to pull back, and the Israeli air force bombed the neighborhood. Sanders noticed one soldier looked devastated.

SANDERS: I ask him, like, what's the matter? And he goes, they just killed that family that we met that was there, you know? And I go, no, there's no way. They knew exactly where they were. They knew that they were innocents.

SHERLOCK: They were among more than 2,200 Palestinians, mostly civilians, who died during that conflict. As troops are lined up on the border again today, the Palestinians say that more than twice that number have already died in Israeli airstrikes. And a ground invasion this time may be much more sweeping. Retired Brigadier General Amir Avivi is part of a hawkish group of former military commanders.

AMIR AVIVI: It's a huge mission. Militarily, it means only one thing, going in, taking over the whole Gaza Strip and spending months dismantling all their capabilities - their leadership, the terrorists, the tunnels, the rockets, their headquarters, you name it.

SHERLOCK: Back on the border with Gaza, Haimson, the paratrooper, is training to go back in.

HAIMSON: We're drilling the real thing, training right now.

SHERLOCK: He says he and others who served in 2014 are ready to fight again after seeing how Hamas killed civilians in southern Israel by the hundreds.

HAIMSON: Whoever had hard combat in this war was traumatized. And I have friends like this. And they'll be happy to return, too, because they know what it means to protect our home.

SHERLOCK: And what about Gazans who will lose their homes and their loved ones? I ask all of the soldiers we speak with this question, and they almost all say, of course, that part is hard. Gosling says he's been talking with his sister and other friends who've been called up to serve about how to compartmentalize.

GOSLING: The best advice that I could give them is remembering why they're doing it.

SHERLOCK: As a soldier, he says, the job is to follow orders and achieve your mission.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Tel Aviv.

(SOUNDBITE OF AK AND TIM SCHAUFERT'S "TIDES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.