A Returning Miluimnik

Like most of the IDF soldiers on the front lines, Eitan Phillips was called up to serve, leaving his wife, children and civilian job to fight for his country. After two months of fighting in Gaza, Eitan sat down with Rabbi Aron White to share his experience. Eitan, who studied in Mizrachi’s Musmachim program, and serves as Co-Director of the M.D Katz JLIC at Tel Aviv University, offered remarkable insights about the day-to-day experience of war, and the emotional and moral journey of serving on the front lines against Hamas. 

 

Thank you for talking to us, Eitan. Before we talk about your wartime experiences, can you tell us about your background?

I grew up in London, was active in Bnei Akiva, and came to Yeshivat Hakotel planning to join the Hesder program. I joined the army in 2015 and served for a year and a half in the tank corps. Since then, while studying for my undergraduate degree at Hebrew University, and my Masters at Haifa University, I have served each year for miluim. I was called up to my unit at 3:00 AM the night after October 7th, and was just released from fighting in Gaza a few days ago.

When did you go into Gaza?

When we were called up, we trained for a number of weeks, and it became clear we were training for going into Gaza, as opposed to training for operations on the Lebanese border. The main function of tanks in the army is for conquering territory, and there is a lot of training for how to operate in formation and how to work tactically together with infantry to conquer territory. Our tanks are the previous generation Merkava 3 tanks, complex machinery that requires lots of preparation, such as straightening the tracks, before being used in operations.

After weeks of training, we were told that our operation was not being called on, and that we should go home – and then within 24 hours of getting home, we were told the operation was on again! We headed down to some of the staging grounds in the south, and in the middle of the night our division of tanks headed into Khan Younis.

When the sun rose, we woke up to our first morning in Gaza. The buildings around us were completely deserted, but in the course of the day we saw and engaged groups of Hamas terrorists. For the first 3 days, I did not leave the tank for a second. Each tank has 4 soldiers – the commander, driver, shooter and loader, and my job is the loader. I actually got overwhelmed at certain points by the claustrophobia of literally not leaving an enclosed space for that long, and when we were able to get out I was quite overwhelmed. But we were on the move, working with other units of the IDF to take over Khan Younis, which we worked on for the next two months. 

As the days wore on, I also started to feel strong homesickness. Even when you know exactly why you are away, and are busy doing really important work, it’s still hard to be away from your wife and children.

During those weeks, our physical living was very basic – we ate mainly tuna and kabanos, and I didn’t have a shower for 3 weeks. After 5 weeks I was able to come home for a weekend, and it was amazing to see my wife and kids again. That morning I dropped off the kids in their gan, and I found myself sitting in the car just crying. It wasn’t happy or sad tears, it was just an intense emotional experience. It is hard to put into words, but it’s disorienting, even intensely confusing, to go from the destruction and darkness of war in Khan Younis to normal life and children playing in the streets, all within a few hours. There is a certain disconnect that many soldiers feel when they come home, feelings that are hard to properly relate to those that were not in Gaza. We have now had processing sessions helping us deal with this feeling of reacclimating to civilian life.

Eitan inside his tank.

This may be a silly question, but on a day-to-day basis, how frightened do you feel?

We did kill a number of Hamas terrorists who shot at us, and saw a mortar explode in front of me, but it is not constant fire for all two months. However, while you are in Gaza there is always the fear that at any moment you can be shot at by a sniper, an RPG, or a mortar. That fear is always in the background. A few weeks into our operation, we got a message over the radio that one of the tanks in the unit had been hit. “Elisha has been killed, Tom and Shachar are injured.” Elisha was a good friend of mine, Elisha Loewenstern, one of the nicest people I have ever met. He was a talmid chacham who was learning Rambam all the time while we were in Gaza, and who worked in hi-tech in his civilian life. We didn’t have time to mourn, none of us could attend Elisha’s funeral or shiva, as we had our mission that we needed to fulfill. We would later learn that Shachar lost his leg as well. 

We continued to move through Khan Younis, going from target to target. I am just one soldier and know what my unit was doing, but there was so much going on, with units above ground, below ground. So all I am sharing is just from the perspective of one soldier, not the overall picture.

Our last week in Khan Younis was the first time we had any interaction with Gazan civilians, and that added another whole layer of engaging with some of the moral questions of war.

What do you mean? What moral questions were raised for you?

This was my first time being in a war, and there are certain moments that are initially very difficult to wrap your head around. One night, we were told we had to reach a certain Hamas compound by a certain time, and when we got there, we saw they had turned it into a makeshift hospital, with hundreds of civilians around. Some of the infantry went in and started getting the Hamas guys out, but it was impossible to operate with all the civilians there, so they started to move the civilians out of the hospital. I sat there in a tank, seeing children and the elderly walking through the streets with their hands raised, which was very difficult for me.

I started to discuss it with my tank driver, himself a philosophy student at university. He said, “Eitan, think about what we are doing – we are trying to get civilians out of the line of fire, just like we are doing in Israel!” He was right – in Israel, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been moved from their homes out of the conflict zone. If Gaza had a normal government who cared for their people, they would have moved their civilians out of the line of fire, but they did just the opposite! So we had to deal with population movements, but all of it was to get civilians out of the line of fire, because we cared more for them than Hamas did. This was a very important framing for me.

The other thing I learned, and clarified both through what I saw and through discussions with my comrades, is what the battlefield really is. War is an arena where you face constant moral decisions, in real time, all the time. A lot of people sitting in TV and radio studios around the world fundamentally miss this – they philosophize about all sorts of things, but they’re detached from reality. I have heard some people say: “Yes, Israel has the right to destroy Hamas, but there has to be another way to wage the war.” This is actually privilege-based ignorance, of people who don’t know what war, and especially war in urban areas against terrorists, actually is. With my own eyes, I saw the IDF capture 70 Hamas operatives, some of whom personally took part in the October 7th massacre. I know that there was absolutely no way to do this without first moving the civilians out of the Hamas compound. It may be uncomfortable, but you cannot pretend that there is another way to do this when there isn’t.

These decisions also are made in real-time by commanders who are responsible for the lives of many soldiers. When we were in civilian areas, we communicated to the people that they could not enter within a 50 meter perimeter of the tanks. During Operation Tzuk Eitan (Protective Edge, 2014), a number of times “civilians” came close to tanks, before detonating explosive devices. One day, a woman crossed the perimeter and started approaching the tanks. Our unit fired warning shots in the air, called out to her to stop, but she kept approaching. In the end she was actually killed by accident as a bullet rebounded and hit her. The commander making that decision cannot sit and philosophize – he has seconds to make a decision, based on the perceived risk to the lives of the soldiers under his command. Pundits and journalists with zero experience of the battlefield really don’t know what that is like.

One thing that also grounded me is that we in our unit were constantly discussing these issues. In the tanks, at night, we would have animated discussions about getting the balance right, and what the right thing to do was. For me, the very fact that we have a goal to maintain our morality, in the face of Hamas who have no morality, and the fact that we are constantly discussing these issues, is already a strong sign that we are on the right path.

I also had a powerful realization in the midst of these discussions – that for me, Zionism means dealing head on with moral challenges, rather than backing away from them. It would be more convenient to be able to back away, to just quit the war and not have to face moral questions. But we don’t have that luxury. Zionism means we have to deal with all the realities, all the difficult questions, and I am proud of all of us for doing that.

Eitan’s unit meeting with Hadas Loewenstern, wife of Elisha hy”d.

Tell us about some of the soldiers you are fighting with.

Our division of tanks was all reservists of whom about 60% were secular and 40% were religious. Just my tank was such a fascinating cross-section – the commander of the tank is younger than me, and a secular kibbutznik. The shooter is a Yemenite Jew from Rechovot who doesn’t keep Shabbat and is a big fan of British rap, but was passionate about ensuring we davened Kabbalat Shabbat together every week. And the driver was a Hesder Yeshiva graduate like myself. Each week, the four of us davened Kabbalat Shabbat together – first the Yemenite nusach and then Ashkenazi!

People sometimes misunderstand and think that people have to serve in reserve duty. Technically that is true, but there are many ways for people to get out of it. The people fighting are choosing to be there, choosing to continue even when it takes a long time and takes an emotional toll. War is not easy, but the overwhelming feeling is that we as a group are going to stay and do whatever is needed to get the job done. 

Between the religious guys in the unit, and with many of the secular guys too, I found myself learning and talking about Torah a lot while we were there. Somehow the Torah gave me a lot of comfort in those challenging times.

Eitan with his friend and fellow tank soldier Asaf Feldman, whose aunt and uncle were kidnapped by Hamas on October 7th.

What do you mean – in what way was Torah comforting to you?

This was my first time in a war, experiencing things that are much bigger than me, and it’s hard to find a way to process them. The Torah is so eternal and multi-generational, you can always find something in the Torah that can help you understand more. I mentioned that I cried in the car in Tel Aviv. I didn’t have the language to really understand why I was crying – but then I look at Sefer Bereishit and see how our forefathers and foremothers cried, what they cried for, and I start to understand my own emotions more. I even started a form of WhatsApp blog from Khan Younis, discussing different Torah ideas I had whilst in the tank – writing, and especially writing Torah concepts or at least engaging in ideas, really helped me. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulating Eitan and his tank unit for their work in Khan Younis. (Photo: Screenshot from Youtube video)

What were your feelings like when you came out of Gaza and returned home?

I am still processing it, as there are so many emotions. We know we have done something very important, but the job isn’t finished yet and we know our unit may be called back to carry on fighting. But it is always the right emotion to feel thankful. Thankful to G-d for protecting me and our unit. Thankful to Elisha who made the ultimate sacrifice, and to Shachar who lost his leg, to protect Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael. Thankful to Elana, who despite being pregnant and watching our two kids continued to give me strength and support throughout. And thankful to Am Yisrael, whose messages of support from Israel and the Diaspora gave us so much strength. I am thankful that I have had the huge zechut to play a very small part in the incredible story that is Am Yisrael’s struggle to defend its people, land and sovereignty.

We are still in the middle of this war, but we have to continue to believe. One thing that I feel so strongly is that as well as believing in Hashem, we have to really believe in Am Yisrael. We have seen such strength, our spirit is strong, and we cannot lose hope. We have been able to fight militarily, spiritually, emotionally, and even if it may take more time we need to keep our spirits up. With faith in Hashem, and with faith in Am Yisrael, B’Ezrat Hashem we will win this war, return all the hostages, and be able to continue building Medinat Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael

Eitan with his tank unit.

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