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Two weeks in Gaza, through one Israeli soldier's eyes

Alon Keren (left) and soldiers from his commando unit sleep on the floor of an evacuated Palestinian home in Gaza.
Courtesy of Alon Keren
Alon Keren (left) and soldiers from his commando unit sleep on the floor of an evacuated Palestinian home in Gaza.

HERZLIYA, Israel — Alon Keren, 21, spent two weeks in uniform inside Gaza, then got a two-day furlough last month when Israel and Hamas agreed to a brief cease-fire.

"First thing was the laundry," he says about his quick visit home, sitting in the backyard of his parents' house in Herzliya next to a heat lamp and citrus trees. "Good showers, good food, good sleep, good friends."

He had to report back to Gaza the following morning.

Keren is one of hundreds of thousands of reservists who have been called up to serve in the Israeli army following Hamas' Oct. 7 assault on southern Israel, which Israel says killed 1,200 people. His job is to bring supplies in and out of Gaza for the 20 combat soldiers in his commando unit.

"Someone had to do it," he says. "It's a small job, but in the end it helps."

Keren spoke with NPR on Nov. 25, nearly one month into Israel's ground invasion of Gaza. Today, the ground invasion has lasted two months, and Keren is still there.

Alon Keren, 21, at home in Herzliya, Israel, on a weekend furlough after two weeks serving in Gaza as a soldier.
Daniel Estrin / NPR
/
NPR
Alon Keren, 21, at home in Herzliya, Israel, on a weekend furlough after two weeks serving in Gaza as a soldier.

By now, the military says more than 160 Israeli soldiers have been killed in Gaza. Troops recently killed three Israeli hostages by accident. Gaza health officials say more than 20,000 Palestinians have been killed since the war began.

Keren's firsthand experiences of the war in Gaza are vastly different from those of the 2 million Palestinians struggling to survive under bombardment — and from the experiences of soldiers fighting on the front lines.

But his account will sound familiar for those who have served in uniform: the routine, the waiting around, the blunders and small annoyances, the camaraderie with his friends in the unit, and the sense of disconnect from a wider perspective of the war.

Below are his early impressions.

His routine involves quick trips back and forth across the Gaza border

Every few days, Keren and his team drive back into Israel for a couple of hours, to a small military position along the border, with equipment to repair: damaged weapons and drones that either malfunctioned or that soldiers accidentally shot out of the sky, mistaking them for Hamas drones.

"It's like a routine for me," Keren says. "Almost every day we have a mission, which takes something like three to seven hours, and we do that. It's like, to drive from from one place to another and take the soldiers ... to take equipment from Israel to Gaza, from Gaza to Israel."

While they're at the barracks in Israel, they have a chance to take a shower and access their cell phones, to tell their parents and friends they're all right.

On one of those quick trips back across the border, Israeli standup comic Guy Hochman paid a visit. He has been entertaining the troops inside Gaza and along the border, posting videos of his encounters to cheer up the soldiers' worried friends back home. "Taking a break from Gaza!" the comic says in one Instagram video, with Keren and his fellow soldiers seen cheering in the background.

When the soldiers are ready to return to Gaza, they re-deposit their phones at the barracks and drive back in Humvees with supplies for the other troops: food, water, hand sanitizer, wet wipes, beef jerky, snacks and chocolate.

Keren declines to describe his commando unit's specific missions, except to say the combat soldiers are dispatched throughout Gaza to carry out 24- to 48-hour raids. Sometimes he evacuates soldiers lightly wounded from shrapnel, rushing them to a helicopter pad in Gaza to be airlifted into Israel or driving them across the border to ambulances that take them to hospitals. More than 100 soldiers have been killed in Gaza, but he personally is not in combat.

In between missions, he hangs out with the other soldiers and reads books.

"There's a lot of waiting time in the war," he says.

His own experience in Gaza so far is insulated from some of the war's worst dangers

During his two-week stint in Gaza, Keren says he didn't see any Palestinians.

"Not one," he says.

Israel has ordered Palestinians to evacuate northern Gaza, where Keren's unit has been based. Some Palestinians have stayed, but Keren and his fellow soldiers have been sleeping in Palestinian homes whose residents have fled.

For the first week, his unit stayed in an abandoned home, with the Palestinian owner's belongings grouped into one room and the soldiers in sleeping bags on the floor in another room. Keren slept with earplugs because of the persistence of the bombings and the growl of tank engines. The windows had been blown out and he slept covered in a net because of the flies that swarmed his feet in the mornings.

The second week, they took over a home near the Mediterranean Sea with a swimming pool; he's unsure if Palestinians had been living there because the home was new and empty of belongings when he arrived.

One of the soldiers in his unit brought a camera to Gaza, and took a photo of Keren and four soldiers on the floor of that structure, sitting on sleeping mats below some graffiti the soldiers scrawled on the wall: a random drawing of a panda, people's names in Hebrew.

"You make the place ... as comfortable as you can," he says about the doodles on the wall.

Keren says he doesn't feel afraid; having his friends from the unit with him in the house and developing a daily routine helps him forget the danger of being a soldier in Gaza.

"The days for me are pretty simple," he says. "It's like a routine for me. We wake up, we drink the coffee, you can see the beach, and it's nice."

Another photo shows a group of soldiers in Keren's unit hanging out on the Mediterranean shore at sunset, in a part of northern Gaza where the Israeli military has gained complete control.

"That area ... is very safe. So you don't feel, there, the war. You feel that the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] — this is [its] place. So it's not, it's not Gaza anymore," he says.

Other images photographed by soldiers in Gaza and the West Bank in recent weeks have caused controversies and sparked reprimands from Israeli officials, like images of scores of Palestinian suspects stripped to their underwear and blindfolded, and a video of a soldier singing a Hanukkah song into a mosque's microphone.

The war is personal for him

Gaza is no longer what it was before the war. The destruction is vast; the deaths are catastrophic. The vast majority of Palestinians have been displaced from their homes at Israel's urging to flee combat. They scrounge for flour to bake bread; they sleep in stores, schools, hospitals, tents and cars.

Keren's girlfriend, Noam Segal, 20, sitting with Keren in his backyard, says she is angered by social media posts she sees from people around the world who are outraged at Israel's destruction and killings.

"They're making us [into] something that we are not," says Segal, who has also served in the military reserves during the war, training soldiers. "Our war, it's not against the people who live there. We are fighting against the terror organization that tries to kill us."

Noam Segal, 20, with her boyfriend Alon Keren, 21, at Keren's home in Herzliya, Israel.
Daniel Estrin / NPR
/
NPR
Noam Segal, 20, with her boyfriend Alon Keren, 21, at Keren's home in Herzliya, Israel.

She reflects on Palestinian civilians enduring the war in Gaza.

"I'm sorry for people [who are] not part of [the fighting] and just live there and need to suffer this," she says. "But I'm also — I need to think first of my people."

She and Keren know three Israelis around their age who were taken captive by Hamas on Oct. 7. One of them is Keren's neighbor a few houses away; their moms are friends.

When Keren was in Gaza, he thought about the hundreds of Israelis being held captive, perhaps somewhere very close to where he was stationed.

"It feels very weird," Keren says.

Two of Keren's friends have since been released from captivity and freed from Gaza, in exchange for Israel releasing Palestinian prisoners and detainees. His neighbor down the street is still being held hostage.

And now, after his quick furlough, Keren is back in uniform in Gaza.

He's one young soldier, motivated by his military mission. He admits he doesn't have a real sense of the bigger picture of where the war is going.

"You can't understand the big picture," he says. "For me, it feels right to be, to take part. It's not fun for us. It's not fun for no one. But we have to do it ... to protect our civilians and to make sure they can live in their cities safe."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
Alon Avital