EXPERIENCE: I’ve just returned from Operation Protective Edge

EXPERIENCE: I’ve just returned from Operation Protective Edge

Eli Neville-Leon
Eli Neville-Leon

My name is Eli Neville-Leon, I’m 21, the grandson of Norma and Michael Neville of Hendon, and I am proud to be a soldier in the IDF’s 401st tank brigade.

I have served in the IDF for just over two years, and two weeks ago I returned from Operation Protective Edge in Gaza.

The last month and a half was my first real experience of war.

Though I have undergone basic and advanced combat training, and have learned to live without a proper bed, air-conditioning and enough sleep, conditions were even more basic and washing facilities were scarce.

Food and drinking water were adequate but in war, my overwhelming feeling was one of uncertainty. We had no idea when we could next call home, and tell our families that we were fine though not necessarily safe. 

We worried about their worry. We learned of casualties and battles while the news was unfolding but never knew the full picture. Uncertainty included not knowing our next move, with whom, why and where, until the last minute.

We had to sit in the boiling heat and wait for orders from above. 

During the war, I was stationed on the northern border of Gaza, and somehow became used to living with constant rocket noise. While this is not normal, it was my reality.

An Iron Dome air defence system fires to intercept a rocket from Gaza Strip in Ashkelon.
An Iron Dome air defence system fires to intercept a rocket from Gaza Strip in Ashkelon.

The problem was that it was not always possible to tell the difference between the IDF shooting and the Hamas rockets. As a result, we always needed to run for cover whenever we heard a loud bang and the ground shook. 

We just hoped to have escaped it, jumping out of a makeshift bed or our logistics war-room to find some place that seemed slightly safer.

I also lived with the constant threat of tunnels, and all we could do was pray that no tunnel had been dug in our direction so we were always on the alert for roaming terrorists.

I experienced a whole range of emotions during the war. It is impossible to describe how it feels to continually be in a dangerous place for four weeks on end, pretty much a firing zone where I was on the run. 

The first Israeli army casualty really made us realise that we were taking part in a war. As a soldier, and as a human being, it was terrible to know that not far from where I was stationed, that soldier was killed, carrying out his duty in the same war as me. It could easily have been me or anyone in my unit.

The Funeral of Sgt. Max Steinberg
The Funeral of Sgt. Max Steinberg

I was deeply saddened and shocked when a friend of mine from school got killed. His military funeral, attended by thousands of people, was packed with emotion and togetherness, with love and sadness.

But we continued our jobs, devoted to defending our country, knowing we had an important, though tough, mission to complete. 

I was also upset by the large numbers of Palestinian casualties in Gaza. I know that the IDF made a great effort to minimise civilian casualties, but this loss of life was a distressing by-product of a war we did not seek.

Good emotions carried on too. We soldiers received donations of all sorts throughout the war. UK Jewish organisations sent us packages containing all the bare necessities, allowing us to maintain a very basic level of hygiene.

I have never used so many wet wipes in my entire life! Underwear, soaps, deodorants, toothbrushes, wipes, insect repellent and sun protection cream were just what we needed, not to mention the vast amount of snacks that you bombarded us with. 

Israel’s incredible citizens were generous and caring at a level that more than once left me speechless. People took time out of their schedules to drive all the way to the troops in the field and supplied us with soft drinks, refreshing watermelons, t-shirts and vests.

I want to single out one specific act of random kindness. Two men in their forties drove five hours to where we were based, opened a table and for three (!) hours, made fresh falafel and burgers for all the soldiers, serving us with a wide smile and a warm heart. 

Despite living in fear, uncertainty and sadness, the fact that Jews from near and far prayed, donated and cared, supplied and worried for and about the soldiers gave us strength.

Your care for us soldiers made us feel that we were fighting ‘the good fight’, on behalf of Jews all round the world. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

I would like to conclude by quoting a four-year-old girl who saw me in uniform on the train and shyly walked up to me, saying: “We prayed for you, prayed for all of Israel, thank you for protecting us”.

That is my mere duty and I am proud to be a member of the IDF. 

And I am sorry that 64 of our finest soldiers will never be able to write a thank-you to someone who helped and prayed for them, as I am sure they would have wanted to do.

All I can do is thank them for their courage, their devotion and their ultimate sacrifice.

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