To their backs, the battleground is dotted with columns of smoke. Who knows if it was a cannon shot or one of the many traps prepared by Hamas, tons of explosives in homes and under the earth; deposits of missiles; tunnels blowing up, the same tunnels that Hamas had chosen to use to attack Israel with its terrorist units. This is the ground war. Young men of 19, 20 years of age advance into Gaza and face the battle, and death, so as to destroy Hamas’ weapons. Every now and then, they take a breather for a few hours, and that’s how we managed to talk to two very special soldiers, special because they are Italian, the sort of “lone soldiers” (hayal boded) who are here to serve and leave anxious parents back home.
Our two soldiers gave a hug to their mothers, one in Milan and the other in Rome, and came convinced that it was worth risking their lives, an almost inexplicable concept in Italy. I recall that during a Middle Eastern history lesson at the LUISS University of Rome, I asked the students who amongst them would risk their lives for their country: nobody nodded indeed.
Our two soldiers are called Leonardo, 25, and Daniel, 20. Daniel, enlisted in the Navy, comes from in Rome, but originates from Livorno, he has the passion of the sea in his blood: “From my ship we supervise and monitor the Gaza coast, controlling who goes in and out, we prevent terrorists from coming out to sea to attack the Israel coastline. It is an essential task, for the sea has no monitored borders, it has no end, and requires appropriate training and constant attention. Sometimes we are targeted by rockets from the shore and other boats, at these times we experience a moment of fear, but you bite your lip, and think about when we’ll be back in port, and with your fellows you will talk about the incident, you will eat, maybe you’ll finally sleep, you’ll be together with your friends, this incredible closeness between us will compensate for everything”.
Leonardo has a degree in philosophy from the San Raffaele university in Milan, and a MA from the The Joint Services Staff College (ISSMI) in Rome. When he just finished the course, he moved to Israel and enrolled in the army, in the Golani Brigade: “This is the army unit of my dreams, admission tests and very difficult courses. At first I was alway wondered by my fellows if I had come because I had lost my senses, but now we are all one”. Leonardo has just come out from Gaza: “I’m dirty, my clothes stink, my eyes are closed, my girlfriend would leave immediately if she saw me now”. He needs to prepare his equipment (rifle, backpack, clothes) to be ready for the next mission. He doesn’t not know when it will commence again, but it could happen at any minute.
Being a Golani is the admiration of every Israeli, the unit about which epic songs are sung, where it’s all for one and one for all, ignoring the shadow of death. Behind him three weeks of days and nights without interruption: “Since the beginning of the operation I have not slept in a bed, never more than three or four hours sleep at a stint”. But Leonardo did not want to talk about himself; he becomes extremely animated, talking about a ruthless enemy which uses its people: “I have the impression that the citizens of Gaza are true slaves. I’ve seen homes where the children’s rooms are adorned with terrorists’ photographs, maps from which Israel has been erased, stars of David transformed into swastikas, arms depots. Not a sign of humanity, peace – he says desolately – Hamas is vile. We held our fire many times because a terrorist protecting himself with a child, or because women and old people appeared. Behind them the terrorists arrive. Before we go into action, however, the last order that the commander gives us is not to point our gun at anyone who is not armed, to share your own food and your drink with those who have nothing to eat or drink, stop everything if a child appears”.
Two of Daniel’s best friends, Shon aged 19 from Los Angeles and Jordan 22 from Paris, were killed: “Jordan was engaged to the twin sister of my girlfriend. Yes, we know that death is a possibility, but you do not think about it”, Daniel says. “I’m fine with my mates. My family is worried, I phone them every time I return to harbour, about two times a week. Those who do not understand what we are doing should spend a couple of days in Ashkelon or in a kibbutz with explosions, sirens, destruction, where people cannot get out, children must remain underground, families no longer have work… This is a country that needs to be saved, I’m here for that”. At 20 years old? Leonardo has his own answer: “Who does not trust young people should take a look around here, life is in the hands of young men. My commander is 20 years of age, he lost his father in an attack, he is an absolutely balanced and responsible person. Yesterday, we were in Lebanon and now in Gaza, the task is always immense; you defend people who love you and respect you. Even my parents, who I miss, know that here the name hayal boded, “lone soldier” is wrong. I can now knock on the door of a kibbutz, ask to take a shower and get some sleep: they would rush into the kitchen and prepare the best things they have for me, and fill me with gifts.”