Read the prior installment of Yoni Heilman’s near-daily accounts from the front.

Sunday, December 17, 10:42 a.m.

I’m “okay.”

It’s been some time since my last update. Not because there’s nothing on my mind, but because sometimes it doesn’t stitch itself into a coherent narrative.

It’s been almost a week since the funeral, but the words of Itai Peri’s widow still ring in my ears. Actually, not so much the words she said as the way she said them. The way she sobbed and accused and pleaded to the partner who will never again come home.

Our unit has been operating in Gaza for some time now. We’ve been working in areas that have been the base for launching rockets into Israel, focusing our efforts on making the towns around Gaza safer for what we call “the day after.” It’s not easy: There is a tremendous amount of infrastructure, built over years and years, supporting Hamas’s effort to kill Israeli civilians. Also, it is clear they expected us to arrive and laid plans to exact a cost in the form of IDF casualties. Thankfully, our unit’s careful pace has kept us to one or two light injuries.

Much of what we have accomplished isn’t publishable, but I can mention one find: Alongside a pamphlet in Arabic demonstrating the weak points of Israeli tanks was another one that shared best practices for attacking civilian populations of small towns.

Our unit will soon be moving again. Transitioning to a new mission often creates pockets of downtime. This allowed one of our officers to visit the platoon he used to command, one that lost five soldiers last week, including their commander. When I asked how the unit was doing, he just shook his head. And the one thing they most want — time at home — can’t come until they regain their footing as a fighting unit.

Some soldiers on my team are students whose semester starts this week. They aren’t sure whether or how they can juggle their studies between shifts. Those with small businesses agonize over the choice between leave during the weekend, when they can spend time with their children, or during the week, when they can work to keep their heads above water financially.

In the days before October 7, Sarah signed a contract for her first job out of college, but she has barely connected with her office and has no idea what will await her after the war, whether she will have a job or be back at square one.

Yossi’s wife was just diagnosed with a high-risk pregnancy. He couldn’t arrange leave, so he drove an hour and a half each way in the 12 hours between his shifts so she wouldn’t have to sleep alone after hearing the news. He returned before his morning shift.

One of my good friends noted that from his small town in south-central Israel, seven soldiers have already been killed in this war. And it’s true, he said — it’s always the best of us who fall.

A handful of cakes arrived at our base for Shabbat. A small note on one of them read, “It’s been 70 days but you are not forgotten. Come home safely!” I miss the days when the walls were plastered with colorful pictures.

It turns out, we are human. We have made mistakes, and in our current circumstances those mistakes can directly cause injuries or death. Today we were lucky when a mistake led only to a mild injury for one of our soldiers.

The toughest blow over the weekend came from the news that three hostages escaped from Hamas and ran toward our forces, only to be misidentified as terrorists and killed by IDF forces. After 70 days in hell. It was hard enough to digest — how do you process something like that? As soldiers, familiar with the battlefield and the territory and the rules of engagement, we looked to reassure ourselves that we could not make the same mistake. Hindsight is 20/20, but after some minutes, one of the officers said, ‘“Look — if I were in that position, I would strip before running at our forces. Hamas has played enough games, and we’ve seen these tactics. It’s hard enough in a war zone to figure out what’s going on.” We sadly agreed.

Then a couple of hours later we learned that the three had taken off their shirts and were waving a white flag, calling out “help” in Hebrew. We were shaken back into silence.

Our next mission might bring us into contact with the enemy in an area that could have hostages. Given how complex this battlefield can be, it feels wise to use our brigade of reservists with more life experience than the younger troops, though they might be in better shape physically. A few days ago, our unit held fire at the last minute because the suspicious man carrying a bundle and hurrying toward our position seemed off. It turned out he wasn’t carrying a bomb — he was carrying a baby.

This jumble of notes comes after a 28-hour period during which I spent 20 hours on duty. Maybe it will arrange itself better in your minds than in mine.

It’s been more than 70 days, and I’ve been with my family only once to light Shabbat candles. A friend of mine is really frustrated about this. “Why?” he asks. “So many other soldiers have been home more and have been home weekends. Some have even been released!” I don’t know what to tell her. But I know that our work isn’t finished yet.

Saturday, December 23, 10:16 p.m.

I’ve written a lot about how hard it can be going back and forth between life on the front and life at home.

At the beginning of the war, the intensity of public mourning for October 7 made it hard to focus on the physical and emotional state of my unit as we collected bodies and waged battle. As we found our rhythm in the intensity of warfare, it became hard, when on leave, to adjust to the normalcy of life at home. When I returned to my own apartment, it felt too clean, too quiet.

That dissonance grew as I sensed that many people were finding their way back to routine. I lost some of the sense of being together in this war. I took pride in the fact that the army was making it possible for people to live their lives as normally as possible — but I also felt a bit left behind.

When I completed my initial army service, I returned nearly immediately to my second year of university. Having interrupted my college life to serve in the IDF, I was returning to familiar territory, to friends and an academic life with which I was familiar. Many of my fellow soldiers, especially those who had plans to return to the United States to begin four years of college, struggled with their decisions of where to go after the army. But since I had already been a student before the army, any further delay would mean losing my status at a top university. I didn’t really have a choice, and it made my life simpler.

I was not prepared.

I was not prepared to go from ducking around open windows exposed to gunfire to strolling across the campus green. I was not prepared to study for exams the way I had studied maps, suspicious windows, or crowds of rock-throwing protestors. And most of all, I was not prepared to be put back into the box of the same old Yoni that my friends wanted me in. It took me some time to reconcile that this was the real world, and that I had to make peace with living in it.

I have been thinking a lot about that time over the past two weeks as I’ve noticed the change in public discourse here in Israel. If the first few weeks were a period of mourning and unity, it seems that the conversation is now becoming political and polarizing. Just as we are coming to what may be the most complicated, dangerous aspects of this war — with long-term and far-reaching consequences — I am losing the sense of national unity that feels so critical at this time.

As for those of us called up to war? We may all wear green, but there are many aspects of army life that differentiate us. Different sectors, battles, bases, units. There are as many stories of this war as there are soldiers. Like the rest of the nation, we are not a monolith, but a spectrum of experiences, opinions, and backgrounds.

But, critically: We have not forgotten that we are on the same team. That we are fighting the same fight. That our unit or role or sector doesn’t matter because there is too much at stake. We talk about the war — but also about politics, religion, and life. We don’t always agree. But we are still on the same side.

I haven’t written a lot recently because my unit is gearing up for a major effort. Preparation for a mission depends on its level of intensity, and we have been working on this one for more than a week. That preparation involves exercises in the field and a lot of maps and strategy and planning. But mostly, it involves listening. And when we listen, we listen carefully. We listen to generals with years of perspective and wars under their belt, but also to young commanders with relevant experience from the past two months. The stakes are too high for us not to listen to everyone, to consider everything carefully — especially when it goes against what we believe to be true. As one officer put it to us: This will be the battle of your lives.

I remember the meeting when we received our orders. It was our top commanders, officers with years of experience, and they all had opinions on how to approach this mission. But the tenor of the conversation? Gentle. Quiet. Soft spoken questions, careful listening. Colonels asking sergeants whether they had anything to add or challenge.

I don’t know when my unit will be released. It may be in a week, or a month, or several months. When we do come home — and I pray that our entire brigade comes home safely — it will be hard enough to readjust to civilian life. So I want to call on all of you — especially those in Israel, but not only those here. This time, it’s your turn to adjust to our reality. Argue, debate, disagree all you want. But do not forget, even for one second, that we are fighting for the future of our country and our nation. The stakes are too high for us not to listen to one another carefully. To speak gently. To remember that, at the end of the day, we are all on the same side.

Sunday, December 24, 11:49 p.m.

Too much of what is on my mind today can’t be written — not yet. But enough has happened that can, so I will navigate around the rest and backfill later.

I woke up this morning to news of eight more soldiers killed. I checked twice, because right before going to sleep, I had read about five. Sadly realizing this was not three more, but eight new deaths, I checked names and faces. The names were unfamiliar, but two faces stood out. Soldiers I’m certain I crossed paths with over the last few weeks. Stories I don’t know have come to an end prematurely, while mine continues.

We continue our preparations for a major operation. Though our focus is ahead, it’s hard not to think back to October 7 and the events that led us here.

During a quick break for lunch, I sat with a few of the guys from a different team in our unit. As we ate, a busload of young women walked past — newly trained members of the tatzpitaniot  unit, the lookouts whose cameras give the IDF critical views of dangerous areas.

We work closely with their unit, and one of the guys I was sitting with watched them walk by and then spoke up. “After a few weeks on the base,” he said softly, “I noted that all of the members of the unit were miluimnikiot (reservists). I said something, because it seemed unusual. Their unit is typically made up entirely from sadir (the standing army).” He looked up at us. “When I asked, ‘Where are all the sadirnikiot?’ there was an awkward silence. Finally, one of the women gently pointed straight up.”

I hadn’t thought about it either. On October 7, terrorists infiltrated many of the positions around Gaza where the tatzpitaniot were based, slaughtering them all.

I spent a decent chunk of time today traveling around to confer with some of the units that make up our brigade. In some cases, to communicate orders. In others, to understand their function and their needs better, in order to help close gaps.

In one case, I finally met a fellow soldier with whom I have worked a great deal, but I had never met in person. I recognized him by his voice, thanks to his Colombian-accented Hebrew that comes through clearly over military radio channels.

Later I stopped by a position near one of the Israeli towns that was ravaged on October 7. Several units were at the spot where we stopped, and I spoke to the team of a tank parked nearby. A tired-looking soldier with a flowing red beard spoke reverently as he pointed down. “This road that we’re standing on? It was down this road the terrorists came when they entered the town on the 7th.” He paused. “And it was back down this road, this one right here, that they returned to Gaza with our hostages.”

As he finished speaking, his words trailing off into silence, a roaring noise came from the distance. A moment later, a tank appeared over a nearby ridge, drove right up to where we were standing, and reversed into a spot alongside the parked tank. Before the first tank’s engines were shut off, the second tank roared to life. The bearded soldier turned away from me and jogged over to it, joining the team that was already clambering aboard. They were soon on their way, back over the same ridge.

A little way down the road, I checked in with a small team of spotters. As we discussed how to work together more effectively, a helicopter hovered overhead, firing a missile toward its intended target. Not too far away we could hear artillery firing, the loud thump of the cannon, and its resulting boom just a few seconds apart.

I had one more stop to make before returning to base — the soldier driving around with me insisted we stop to see an ancient synagogue in the area. Its beautiful mosaic floor had first been laid 1,500 years earlier, with a beautiful menorah and a shofar inlaid alongside the synagogue’s mikveh.

We arrived just as the sun was setting, so I used the synagogue’s orientation toward Jerusalem to daven mincha (afternoon prayers) before the sun disappeared. Often, the very fact that afternoons can be frenetic makes it easier for me to disconnect from the world and focus on the short prayer.

This was not one of those times. Through the trees I could make out soldiers boarding hummers mounted with machine guns, heading toward the staging area for an operation. Off to one side there was a series of small ditches with sandbags around them, protection in the event of a mortar or rocket attack in this shelterless area. Behind me, a few random civilians walked to their car. Whether they were locals seeing the mosaic or families visiting their soldiers before a mission, I couldn’t tell. Possibly both. And behind me, the soldier with whom I’d come, a lawyer in his civilian life, spoke to the team at his firm about a client. This morning he was promoted from captain to major.

As I finished mincha, he finished his call and jumped in his car. “I’m giving these guys a ride to their staging area,” he said, pointing to three soldiers in full battle gear who were climbing into his car. “Be right back for you!”

While he was gone, I wandered through the trees and spoke to some of the soldiers nearby. We traded stories briefly, following the same line of conversation I have had so many times before. What unit are you in? Where have you been since the 7th? And where are you headed next?

Stories traded, we parted ways. “תשמרו על עצמיכם,” we said to each other: Take care of yourselves.

My friend was back, and I jumped in his car for the short ride back to our base. I said something about the amazing carpet-like greenery all around us, but his mind was still on the guys he’d given a ride to. “They have quite an operation ahead,” he said, more to himself than to me. “No way they will make it through without casualties. I just hope they return without bodies.”

Night fell, and we returned to base, where the tension in our own unit continues to build.  I hope the same for our own brigade — and harbor the same worry, as well.

Wednesday, December 27, 10:19 a.m.

The operation has begun.

All of the guys I saw on Sunday, all of those soldiers I spoke with about their roles, about how we could improve the way we work together, all of the soldiers headed for staging grounds — they weren’t random soldiers, they were our guys. And now they are in Gaza, every single one of them, in the thick of battle.

While the majority of my team remains outside the fence, we directly coordinate and assist those on the other side. Our shifts have become intense. Even small efforts, like bringing in supplies, carry huge risk and must be carefully planned. As part of last week’s preparations we watched a Hamas-produced video of a supply convoy being hit by an RPG from a week or two ago. Our purpose was to learn lessons from their mistakes, which we did. But it was hard to watch our own forces under attack, to see dead and injured soldiers dragged from the wreckage of a burning hummer, over the gleeful shouts from the cameraman. “Allahu akbar!” he shouted, almost going hoarse: God is great!

It’s worth repeating what I have written in the past: Never once have I seen anything remotely resembling joy when we have killed terrorists. I don’t even mention them in these updates any longer. It’s not an accomplishment, just a necessity.

We are making our way into an area that hasn’t yet been attacked, but whose residents are highly motivated Hamas members and supporters. They took part in the massacres of October 7 in a big way. I’m relieved that our mission wasn’t interrupted by a pause — this operation feels critical for the safety of those who live on the other side of the fence. Not just those near the border, but my family as well. We live just a rocket launch away.

So far, our unit has taken only light injuries. But everyone is waiting for the other shoe to drop. In prior missions, common practice was to say “good morning” or “good night” to those going on or coming off duty, regardless of the actual time of day. Since this operation started, it’s been strictly “How was your shift?” — a question that very clearly is meant to determine whether our soldiers are safe.

I was on duty until about 1 in the morning. My friend Amir arrived exhausted. Until our shift, he had been working all day, trying to keep the engine running at his four-person hedge fund.

Midway through our shift, one of the officers stepped out for a moment and came back with a funny look on her face. “My friend’s house up north had two rockets fall on it. Two rockets! Two!”

She kept repeating herself, loudly, almost in hysterics. Amir called over to her. “Focusing on tasks can keep people from going into shock,” he said. “Can you give me a status check on the locations of our D9 armored bulldozers? Have we moved the two that were meant to join our easternmost unit?” Just like that, she snapped back into focus and started reading off her list. We had the D9s under perfect control for the next several hours.

Near the end of our shift, we had a short briefing with the “No. 1s” — heads of each team and of our battalions. The head of logistics, as usual, cited the number of soldiers across the fence and how many had been injured. She listed our equipment and its status. Then she added a footnote: In a blast a few weeks ago, one soldier’s machine gun was blown away from him and couldn’t be found. We now know that it has been found and restored to perfect working condition. It is in the hands of Hamas. “A reminder,” she said, “of the importance of safeguarding your weapons. That machine gun will be used against our troops. Or our civilians. Or…or against our children.”

On Sunday, Gabrielle took our son to the hospital for an appointment. It was the next follow-up appointment in the wake of three hospitalizations this summer that have left him with a chronic condition whose severity is still not fully known. This was also the first time Gabrielle went solo, as our unit is on “no leave” for the time being because of our current mission. Unfortunately, Gabrielle and our son would yet again see a different cardiologist because our doctor is still called up with his army unit.

During a short break, I was able to call and check in. Gabrielle started to tear up as she described unanticipated hope: The tests showed the tiniest bit of improvement, an unanticipated step in the right direction. And she described how in that moment, hearing that news, she found herself without the two men who had accompanied her throughout this journey and who would understand what it meant more than anyone else — our son’s cardiologist and me.

Yesterday, she told me that our neighbors, who have a son in the same grade as ours, found themselves at the same hospital dealing with a different crisis. Gabrielle and our son would be back at the hospital for another test today and planned to visit them. We agreed that it would be meaningful and important for both boys to see in each other someone who understood what it meant to be in the hospital, dealing with something scary, at age nine.

This morning we learned that one of the soldiers killed overnight was the boy’s uncle. They are regrouping; there will be a funeral and a shiva before further tests. Gabrielle has to explain to our son why the visit won’t be happening today.

As I climbed into my sleeping bag after last night’s shift, I startled awake the officer who sleeps next to me. He looked at me. “How was your shift?” he asked. “All quiet,” I replied.

For now, I knew we were both thinking.