As Lt. Matan Benarush prepared for last December’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip, he called his mother in Ashdod, some 20 miles away.
“I heard [air raid] sirens going off there,” said the 22-year-old Israeli platoon commander.
The sirens had sounded to warn of another rocket attack from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
“It gave me such a sense of right,” Benarush said of the pending Israeli attack on Hamas. “So many Israelis live in the western Negev” who were within range of Hamas rockets.
“We were there 14 days and our objective was to show Hamas that we were not afraid to go in,” he added. “The presence of Israeli ground forces has had an effect; I think we accomplished a lot.”
Benarush told his story Monday at Temple Israel of Great Neck. He is one of eight Israel Defense Forces soldiers who were brought to the United States for 10 days last week by State of Israel Bonds to share their experiences to American Jewish audiences in 20 cities.
The soldiers, officers from elite combat units, played critical roles in the Gaza operation, which was designed to halt the steady stream of rocket fire into Israeli cities from the Gaza Strip.
At a luncheon here in the soldiers’ honor last week, Benarush said he was “shocked” when he heard of reports following the 22-day military operation that claimed Israeli soldiers had deliberately shot and killed Palestinian civilians.
“It came as a shock because I was there for two weeks and none of that happened,” he said. “We did everything we could to prevent civilians from getting hurt. Some of the people who [made those claims] later apologized and said they were just talking. I don’t know why they said it.”
Benarush recalled one instance in which he received a report that a Palestinian suicide bomber was walking near his position.
“But we held our fire because there were civilians walking around with white flags,” he said.
And when they did enter Palestinian homes, Benarush said, they took care to “keep the house intact.” The only destruction they caused, he said, was when they had to go through a wall to enter the home for fear the front door was booby trapped with explosives.
“Other than that, there was nothing else [damaged,” he insisted. “We even collected the trash when we left. We tried not to wreak havoc.”
Another soldier, Lt. Ofir Ziv, 21, a paratrooper platoon leader, said the instructions he gave to his men were to “minimize damage and not harm the uninvolved.”
If any soldiers misbehaved, he said, “they should be punished severely. The army is investigating everything.”
An Israeli military court last week ordered the arrest of a soldier for looting during the Gaza operation. The soldier is suspected of stealing a credit card from the home of a Palestinian and later charging $388 worth of merchandise with the card. The soldier reportedly admitted his guilt and is expected to be indicted. A second soldier has also been arrested in connection with the theft and authorities said the investigation is continuing.
Ziv said he had heard about a United Nations report that was critical of the Israeli military for firing on UN buildings. But he said such attacks were aimed at Hamas, not UN personnel or Palestinian civilians.
“Hamas used the UN buildings to launch missile strikes and for the storage of missiles,” he said.
Asked about discrepancies in the number of civilians killed in the operation — Hamas put the figure at more than 900 and Israel at more than 200 — Ziv said “70 percent to 80 percent of those killed were carrying weapons.”
Joel Gutterman, national campaign director of State of Israel Bonds, said this was the third time his organization had brought in soldiers to speak about just concluded military operations.
Jack Harounian of Great Neck said American Jews would like to hear the soldiers’ stories “and find out about the courage they had in Gaza as they fought for the State of Israel.”
“We heard they saved families in Gaza after Hamas put explosives on their homes,” he said.