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Israeli soldier describes his time in Gaza

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

On this program, we have shared stories of Palestinians in Gaza under Israeli bombardment. But what's it like to be an Israeli soldier on the ground there? These next few minutes, we will get one perspective from a young Israeli soldier who recently spent two weeks in Gaza in a support role for his commando unit. NPR's Daniel Estrin met him on a short weekend furlough before he headed back to Gaza.

ALON KEREN: My name is Alon - Alon Keren. I'm almost 22 years old. And I was, like, two weeks in Gaza.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Alon Keren sits in his backyard in a toney suburban neighborhood of Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv. We're surrounded by a manicured hedge and citrus trees heavy with fruit. He spent two weeks in Gaza and arrived home the morning before we met.

KEREN: First thing was the laundry, good showers, good food, good sleep, good friends.

ESTRIN: And he has to report back to his base the following morning. In Israel, army service in the IDF, the Israel Defense Forces, is mandatory for most 18-year-olds. He finished his service a few months ago but was called up as a reservist when the war began last month. He's serving in a support role, ferreting in supplies for the 20 combat soldiers in his commando unit.

KEREN: Someone had to do it. And it's a small job, but in the end, it helps.

ESTRIN: Every 48 hours, he drives back into Israel with equipment to repair - damaged weapons, drones that malfunctioned or that soldiers accidentally shot out of the sky.

KEREN: Even the IDF soldiers - the other IDF soldiers think this is drones of Hamas, and so they shoot it.

ESTRIN: When he's across the border in Israel...

KEREN: We can take a shower and connect to the phones so that we can communicate with our parents and friends, tell them that we are all right. And then we go back.

ESTRIN: They leave their phones behind and drive back into Gaza with supplies for the troops - food, water, hand sanitizer, wet wipes, beef jerky.

KEREN: Candies, chocolate they get sometimes, snacks.

ESTRIN: Sometimes he drives soldiers to their missions, which he described as raids. Sometimes he's evacuated lightly wounded soldiers from shrapnel. Scores of soldiers have been killed in Gaza. He is not in combat.

KEREN: The days for me are pretty simple. I don't - it's like a routine for me. We wake up. We drink the coffee. We can see the beach, and it's nice.

ESTRIN: Have you seen any of the Palestinians?

KEREN: No. No. Not one.

ESTRIN: Israel has ordered Palestinians to evacuate northern Gaza where the troops are, though some have stayed. His unit slept in an abandoned home in sleeping bags on the floor, with the sound of bombings and tanks outside.

KEREN: A little bit hard to sleep because of the noise. So you need, like, to be almost the whole time with earplugs.

ESTRIN: An Israeli stand-up comic and Instagram star was sent to entertain the troops and their friends watching back home.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED COMEDIAN: (Shouting) Ay ya ya (ph).

(CHEERING)

ESTRIN: Alon Keren appears in the background of this video, when he was on one of his breaks across the border in Israel. He shows me a picture of the soldiers in his unit hanging out in Gaza on the Mediterranean shore at sunset.

KEREN: Like, the water is here, and that area is very safe. So you don't feel the war. You feel that the IDF, this is his place. So it's not Gaza anymore.

ESTRIN: Gaza is no longer what it was before the war. The extent of the destruction is hard to fathom. The deaths have been catastrophic. The vast majority of the population has been displaced, scrounging for food, water, safe shelter - a completely different experience from that of this soldier who admits he doesn't have a real sense of the bigger picture of where the war is going.

KEREN: You can't understand the big picture. So for me, it feel 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.

ESTRIN: His girlfriend, Noam Segal, who's almost 21, is here listening to his stories along with me. I asked her about Palestinians enduring the war in Gaza who are not part of Hamas.

NOAM SEGAL: From what I heard, that there is some - also people that are not part of this organization, but support what this organization do, and it's to kill us. So I cannot be, like, sorry for them. But I - yeah, I'm sorry for people that's not part of it and just live there and need to suffer this. But I'm also - I need to think first of my people.

ESTRIN: It's personal for them. They know three kids around their age who were taken hostage in Gaza, including this soldier's neighbor a few houses away. Their moms are friends.

KEREN: It feel very weird that because of Gaza Strip is very small, when I'm in Gaza Strip, I said to myself, so, like, there is 200 and - like, 250 Israeli civilians probably very close to me.

ESTRIN: Since we met, two of their friends have been released from captivity and left Gaza. And this soldier is now back to Gaza in uniform.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Herzliya, Israel. 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.

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