Read the prior installment of Yoni Heilman’s near-daily accounts from the front.
Monday, December 4, 6:31 P.M.
I keep losing track of time.
Time seems to pass differently in war. Days and weeks have little relevance when one doesn’t necessarily sleep nights and there’s no rest on the weekends. We dress the same way every day, we eat the same thing every day — we might be forgiven for mistaking a Friday for a Tuesday.
After a few days’ pause, the sounds of war continue as before. The periodic thunder of bombs in the distance; the persistent buzz of drones overhead. By this point I can usually identify the difference between the sound of attack helicopters and that of those flying in to evacuate casualties without lifting my head. But sometimes I still feel compelled to check.
I was recently tasked with compiling a report on what our brigade has accomplished since October 7, and what lessons can be drawn for our continuing operations. Reading through operational reports felt like watching an insane movie, almost unbelievable for its details. The time we found a terrorist hiding in an avocado grove. The time our forces took heavy casualties but had to hold return fire because women and children spilled out of a hidden tunnel in front of them. The sheer number of bodies we found, every time we went on patrol. And many, many more stories.
One thing about writing the report was that it gave me a sense of passing time. I could more or less discern different periods of activity, roughly corresponding to the changing nature of our mission. They almost seemed like chapters:
- Emergency call-up and preparation for war.
- Arriving on the Gaza border and making first contact with the enemy.
- Clearing Israeli territory of terrorists, and of the bodies of the fallen.
- Preparation for entering Gaza.
- Broadening our defense of the Gaza perimeter.
- The pause, and the return of some of our captives.
- The resumption of war and its next phase.
The next phase, for my unit, will be different. As it gets under way I am still learning the tempo of our work. But as we reach the end of two months at war, I am sensing the passage of time on a different level: in the people around me.
There’s no way around the fact that this war is stretching into a long-term effort. We still talk about the first few days, the trauma of the attack, the intensity of the early part of the war. But it’s impossible to maintain that kind of heightened sense of reality on a daily basis. So we find our rhythm, establish some sense of routine. It’s human nature.
It seems to me that that shift to routine differentiates people into two groups, whether in the army or outside of it.
The first is made up of those whose focus shifts inward. In an effort to restore some semblance of normalcy they focus on their family, their work, the things that occupy their day-to-day lives. It is no different in the army: soldiers who focus on their sleeping arrangements, who exist from leave to leave, who might do their shift with focus and pride but shut off the minute they are relieved. I think people who are in this group are more prone to feeling like they exist in a bubble. They know there’s a war, or even that they are playing a role in it, but it’s hard to keep that top of mind.
And there’s a second group that, two months in, is beginning to show its true colors.
As the war has gone on, soldiers in this second group have shifted their focus from the intensity of battle to other people. In Hebrew we call this ראש גדול — which literally translates to “big head,” but I think about it as broadening one’s perspective. The idea that my approach every day should be not about what I need, but what is needed. It is reminiscent, for me, of the famous adage of Hillel: And when I am only for myself, what am I?
These are the people who, even as the war continues and the cold seeps in and the donations ebb, seem to be finding new strength.
The soldier who cleaned the bathrooms for an hour in between his shifts.
The one who drove to get another soldier a prescription at 2 A.M., when she suddenly developed swelling and started to have a panic attack — and then checked in on her periodically until she started to feel better.
The soldier who went to get food and other items from a distribution center for donations, and started every interaction with “First of all: Thank you!”
The friends who remember to check in, even occasionally, on the single mom I have left at home to care for a household and three children alongside her work.
Those who do not forget, even as their lives go on, that for so many life will never be the same — and who find ways to show it.
The commanders who take great care when making operational plans, keeping foremost in their mind that their decisions may decide the fate of others’ lives. Who speak softly and listen carefully, who are quick to smile and slow to anger.
Those who love others first and themselves second. Who remember the depths to which Israeli society had sunk before the war and the tragic beauty of how we came together in the face of abject horror. Who refuse to let themselves forget the difference.
There is a T-shirt I have seen many people wearing. Black and white, the back simply reads שומר אחי—My brother’s keeper. It is a play on the famous words Cain spoke to God when asked about his brother Abel: Am I my brother’s keeper? The shirt defiantly declares that the wearer does, indeed, take responsibility for others.
As we reach two months of war and I see the best of us giving ever more attention to the needs of those around them, I realize that it’s the second word on that shirt that matters most. Not just that we insist on guarding others, but that we see one another as brothers.
The war will end, at some point. I won’t get into how we can win or what it will mean or what I think about all of it. I will just say that when the dust settles and the tanks roll home and we return to some kind of regular life — I hope that one thing we don’t forget is that, at the end of the day, we are brothers and sisters. We are one people. And that if we are not there for one another, what are we?
Tuesday, December 6, 3:55 P.M.
The war is escalating.
In the south, our troops in Gaza are continuing their advance toward strongholds of Hamas. In the north, Hezbollah continues a regular barrage of attacks on our forces and, when they have the opportunity, on our civilians. And in the west, the assault on our right to exist in our ancient homeland relentlessly persists.
Yesterday, two of my worlds collided when a small mission of philanthropic foundations visited the sector where my unit is based.
I had a few reasons for joining the group. The first was to bear witness to some of the horrors I had not yet seen firsthand, during a short tour through the devastating remnants of Kfar Aza. The second reason: to say thank you to a group of people who are investing incredible time, energy, and resources into Israel in our time of need. And finally: I could not pass up the opportunity to hug a few friends.
It was hard to ground myself during the tour. At times, I fell into the role of guide; when some of the mission participants startled at the sound of gunfire, I reassured them. “You’re hearing gunfire from one of our helicopters overhead.” A few minutes later I helped decipher the writing scrawled on the walls of one house. “The markings indicate this home was cleared of a booby-trapped body,” I explained, “and underneath it, it says ‘Human remains on the sofa.’”
Often I found myself walking along the perimeter of the group, subconsciously slipping into the role of armed security. (It was unnecessary — they had a guard.) There were also brief points when I was able to casually catch up with friends, checking in on each others’ families and lives. But all of these were punctuated by a regular return to my immediate surroundings, to the tragedy that unfolded here a few weeks ago.
Later, after grabbing some lunch, I attempted to speak for a few moments about my experience. But I broke down as I described the most painful part of the tour. It wasn’t just the fact that these atrocities took place, but that they took place in towns where rocket shelters were permanent fixtures, towns of people who relied on their leaders and whom we failed as a nation.
Which is why we cannot stop. We must continue. This war can not end until Israelis — Jews and non-Jews alike — in every city and town within our borders, feel safe to live without rocket shelters.
When I got back to base, the tempo had changed. After hours upon hours of discussions and decision-making, it was decided that our unit will be going deeper into Gaza. There is an extraordinary amount of work that goes into an effort of this size, and it was all-hands-on-deck until close to midnight, when some of us were sent to sleep in preparation for an eight-hour shift beginning before dawn.
During the course of my shift, some of our neighboring units took casualties; the first thing I saw when I finally came off duty was a medevac helicopter passing low overhead. The days and weeks ahead promise to challenge us in new ways.
And yet, for me, the scariest experience of the past 24 hours was a 90-second clip I watched on my phone.
Yesterday, a friend in England responded to my question “How are things there?” by describing a surge of hatred of immense proportions. Shortly afterward, I saw the president of my alma mater testify at a congressional hearing about antisemitism on campus. When asked several times point-blank, she could not clearly state that calls for genocide of the Jewish people violate the University of Pennsylvania’s code of conduct.
The world in which I grew up was not one in which I experienced very much antisemitism. As the grandson of Holocaust survivors, I hoped and believed that, if we were not past antisemitism, we were moving in the right direction. That liberal progressive politics on the left, and religious conservative views on the right, gave Israel and the Jewish people friends across the spectrum. That antisemitism in Europe was a vestige of cultural sentiments that have been there for generations, and anti-Israel feelings were political or regional.
I am having trouble holding on to those beliefs.
I have seen and heard from so many people around the world who are supporting Israel during this war. Who send donations, missions, emotional support. “We have your back,” is their mantra. And we feel it.
As I look at what’s happening in the West, and I see both fear and courage on the part of those who are speaking up against antisemitism, I believe a big part of why they feel able to speak up is because they know Israel exists. Israel — a nation and an army stronger than any might have believed possible — is a nation of all of its citizens, but also of the people of Israel around the world.
So to all of those who are standing up against the vitriol of Jew-hatred, who are speaking out in places public and private, in the halls of Congress and on university greens:
Thank you for having our backs. We have yours, too.
Wednesday, December 7, 3:36 P.M.
Two months ago, today.
I’m telling myself, not you. Maybe it’s because I hope to dilute the association of the events that began this war with their Hebrew date, with the joyful holiday that was to take place on October 7.
And maybe there are moments when I might admit that it’s a goal for future generations.
Maybe I know that it’s a lost cause for ours.
A friend recently cautioned me that “there are probably those who support the Palestinian narrative that read my journal.” I laughed. Of course I know that once I hit “send,” I lose control of who reads what I post. But the perspective was amusing: I write with the assumption that among my readers are Hamas operatives looking for details that will help them kill me or my fellow soldiers.
The question reminded me, though, how important it is to resist the temptation to share others’ words, and to focus instead on presenting as much as I can of things I am witnessing. Readers should feel free to reject my words, but should know that in so doing they are rejecting me personally.
The words of Rabbi Bachya ben Asher (known as Rabbeinu Bachya) who lived nearly one thousand years ago: A small amount of truth can triumph over many lies, just as a drop of light chases away a great amount of darkness.
Those words may be more of a prayer than a statement. But I will use them as a preface for sharing what I have seen, and what I have not:
- I have not seen anything that lends credibility to statements, facts, or figures released from Hamas or its institutions regarding civilian casualties.
- I have seen Hamas use innocent men, women, children, the elderly, and the mentally ill — from our side, but mostly from their own people — as weapons in this war.
- I have not tracked every assault of the Israeli army, and would sound naïve if I tried to make blanket statements about the entire IDF operation in Gaza.
I can speak to every battle my unit has engaged in. In those, dozens of terrorists have been killed, and many were not, due to the circumstances at the time. I will not run a tally.
But I will count the number of civilian casualties caused by our unit, because that is a far more important number to share. War is messy and collateral damage is unavoidable. But if that leads us to dismiss such deaths without consideration then we have lost our moral compass.
Between those caught in the crossfire, cases of mistaken identity, or simply individuals whose intentions were unclear but who were killed because they entered a war zone: zero casualties. Not from our unit. Not in our sector. I hope that number will not change, but even if it does, I am proud of that number today, after two months of war. That is the small amount of truth I will offer to everyone reading this.
Supporters of Israel often say that Israel is held to a higher moral standard than are other countries. The world criticizes Israeli policies — the actions of its institutions as well as its individuals — to a degree that no other nation seems to face. The first time I came face to face with this reality was during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. I read an article about the U.S. Army tactic of setting up positions in the tallest buildings in urban areas after forcing the residents to leave their homes. I laughed at the irony: While reading the article, my team and I were living in the unfinished top floor of a building in a Palestinian town with a variety of local downstairs neighbors. We were not even allowed to use the running water or the electricity of the Palestinian municipality.
So do I believe Israel is unfairly held to a higher standard by the world of public opinion, in the media and the halls of government? Absolutely. And I join those rejecting it.
But here’s another small truth: I hold us to a higher standard.
It is assumed that war involves civilian casualties. It may be impossible to stay at zero, but I consider it a failure if even a single innocent life is lost.
Last week, two Hamas terrorists jumped out of a car at a bus stop in Jerusalem and fired point blank at the innocent commuters around them, killing three and injuring many more. Within seconds, a reservist in the car behind theirs jumped out and killed the terrorists. In the heat of battle, he also killed an Israeli in civilian clothes who had run from across the street and was firing upon the terrorists as well.
The story has raised heated debates about the actions of the reservist, who is currently under arrest. I will not voice my opinion here on the possibility that this reservist could go to prison for his actions that morning. But I am proud — immensely proud — that the legal question at the heart of the case surrounds the possibility that he might have broken the law by intentionally “verifying the kill” of someone he thought was a murdering terrorist who had put down his weapon three seconds earlier.
To my readers from the ranks of Hamas: you already know this about us. You know that we hold the value of life above all else. That we will risk our bodies in defense of our homeland, but never our souls. You use this against us every day. But that will not change us. The pain of a lost parent, or friend, or spouse, or child is nothing compared to losing our humanity, our moral compass.
By chance my former teacher, Rabbi Chaim Sabato, was again published today in the Israeli media, this time in Yediot Ahronoth. He writes of the Jewish people’s imperative to serve as a beacon of justice in the world. Like me, he asserts that we hold ourselves to a higher standard. And he explains why:
“It is not in front of the cabinets of other nations, sitting in judgment over the fate of Israel and our homeland — but in front of You, the Creator of the World, that we will be judged.”
My truth. Yours to consider.
Tonight we light the first candle of Hanukkah. Gabrielle and our children will light our hanukkiah without me; I will light it in a clearing, under a camouflage net, with helicopters crossing overhead.
Last night one of our officers spoke to us about the upcoming holiday. “Hanukkah is a holiday that is very much celebrated in our homes, with our families,” he said. “How appropriate, then, that we will be celebrating it here, while defending our homes and our families.”
“A drop of light chases away a great amount of darkness.”
Let us hope that our small light in this world, and the light of the candles that all of us light around the world tonight, and the light of all the good people around the world who maintain their humanity and their truth as vital to their own well-being — let us hope that, together, our light will chase away all darkness from this world.
Monday, December 11, 4:59 P.M.
Fifteen million roads diverged in a wood on October 7.
We have been traveling since then, each on our own individual journey, facing our own battles, grappling with our own realities.
I’ve noticed that, more and more, my fellow soldiers and I tell and retell our stories of where we were when we first heard what was happening, when we were called up, when the war began. Part of it, I know, is psychological: It’s important to fashion one’s own narrative after traumatic events.
But another part of it stems from the memory of that moment, from the overwhelming feeling that we were together in our trauma. Together plunged into the nightmare that we have been navigating alone ever since.
Why alone? Because no two journeys are the same. No two paths aligned.
My unit, a brigade of reservists, was called up together on the 7th. Within 36 hours, we headed south to the Gaza border. That was the last time we were all together.
Each of our battalions took control of adjoining sectors, taking on similar missions but with subtle differences. As the war dragged on, some of our battalions were reassigned, taking over different sectors farther away.
Over the past couple of weeks our paths have diverged even more. Some of the battalions remained in position along the border fence, while others have become part of the forces entering Gaza.
And then suddenly, last night, our paths crossed once again. While I was on duty, working with two battalions that are in northern Gaza, word came of casualties from one of our organic battalions that had been reassigned to southern Gaza.
Our sector was quiet, so we were able to adjust our radios to find out what was going on. The first voice I heard was that of a commander who was an officer in my unit when I was first drafted. “How many injured, including myself?” he asked.
The details came out, little by little. Hamas terrorists, anticipating the unit’s path of approach, had triggered an ambush of explosives against our forces. Many dead. Many injured. Familiar names and faces.
The commander heading our shift spoke about the situation at our next briefing. He, too, used the metaphor of journeys. “There are times,” he explained, “when we must separate the head and the heart. When it’s not possible to journey along a precipice while looking down into the valley below. For those on duty: Keep your eyes forward and your head in the game. If you cannot, pull over; ask someone else to cover for you until you are ready to resume.”
I have written about how hard Gabrielle and I work to stay in sync. Most days it’s not easy. She has to find the emotional wherewithal to tap into what I can share over the phone about what I am going through, and I have to do the same to understand everything going on at home. We are doing our best, but it’s hard to keep on the same page as we each, in different places, endure this war.
I haven’t been home for some time and don’t yet know when my next leave will be. But this afternoon our paths came together, briefly, at the funeral of one of the soldiers who was killed yesterday, from my unit and also from our hometown.
We stood together under the bright sun, arm in arm.
We watched an injured officer on crutches speak of the heroism of a comrade who fell beside him. We listened as parents spoke of their brilliant son and as siblings broke down in memory of their brother. And we cried together as a new widow sobbed her thanks for their three children, the gifts her husband left behind in this world for her.
After the funeral, we walked, together, slowly up the road. Then our paths diverged once more. Gabrielle headed home to our children; I headed back to the war.