On that terrible night, just days after cancelling her vacation abroad and returning to Israel, Staff Sergeant Yonat Daskal lay on the sand of Gaza and looked skyward. The 10 wounded soldiers who she had treated over the last few hours had all finally been evacuated to different hospitals within Israel.
"I looked up at the stars and tried to understand what had happened to me," she said. "I told myself that today is Friday and I should have been with my family for Kiddush, or even in Mexico, but instead I'm in Gaza, in the reserves, and maybe that's what was supposed to happen. Maybe I needed to be there to give my abilities to the wounded, guys from my battalion, 18-year-old soldiers who shouldn't be in my care. What have they had time to do in their life?"
This was the first time since the fighting began that they met each other and shared experiences. The three women in regular service and another in the reserves were part of the group of paramedics who were among the only women to serve in Gaza for several days straight during Operation Protective Edge.
They are already back to being busy with normal operational activities, but the sights and memories of combat are still when them. Tal Shahar can still smell the burnt aroma that hung in the air of southern Gaza, Yonat Daskal can still feel the powder on her feet as she marched north with her fellow soldiers, Noam Dan can still hear an anti-tank missile being fired, and the repetitive warnings of a kidnapping still ring in the ears of Tamar Bar-Ilan.
The many wounded who the women cared for still occupy their memories along with thoughts of the pain, the operations, and the rehabilitation still waiting for their patients. More than anything, the four paramedics think about those who they couldn't save, those who didn't survive.
"On Sunday I was at the Kotel with the battalion and we said a prayer of thanks," said Dan. "In Gaza there were so many moments of death that I had to thank God that I'm alive. Only then did I realize how frightening it had been there."
The terrible silence before the screams
Staff Sgt. Yonat Daskal (23) from Petach Tikvah was released from her regular service after spending three-and-a-half years as a paramedic with the Nahal Brigade and set out for a four-month long trip to South America. In July, just after arriving in Mexico, she understood from the many messages left by friends and colleagues in the army that something big was happening.
"I called the brigade's medical officer and heard from him that they were starting to draft reservists. My trip was supposed to last for another month and I wasn't sure what to do. Once I understood from my friends that this was going to be serious, I said to myself that throughout my regular service I was trained in preparation for the real thing and there was no way that I would be abroad when it happened," said Daskal.
"I changed the date of my return flight and came back to Israel. Afterwards I found out that I had been called up but my mother hadn't told me. She admitted that it was the first time that she was happy that I wasn't in Israel. Her happiness didn't last very long."
Daskal landed at Ben Gurion International Airport one day after the IDF's ground forces had entered Gaza, and the day after that she had already joined Nahal troops in the south.
"Half of the people told me that I was crazy for coming back and the other half told me 'good job'. I was placed with a team of combat troops. We went in by foot and I marched with them and all my medical equipment on me - a helmet, a ceramic vest, and my rifle. The march wasn't easy. There were moments when I found myself desperately gasping for breath."
She continued, "We went from house to house with all my equipment on my back and I didn't let myself rest. I bit my lips and kept going. In some humorous moments the guys laughed at me and said that it was like I was walking from hostel to hostel in South America. I was in Gaza for a-week-and-a-half straight and then another 24 hours in and out, all without telephones or any contact with the world. Only on Fridays I thought about home. The rest of the time I was only focused on the work."
Daskal had plenty of work to keep her busy. "On one of the nights we heard startling booms. They said on the radio that three anti-tank missiles had been fired at our forces and that there was a soldier who'd been seriously wounded. After a few seconds they said that he was dead.
"Then came the news all in a row: There's another wounded, and another. There were eventually eight wounded and then a terrible silence emanated from the radio followed by a scream, 'I need a paramedic'. I understood that I was just meters from the wounded soldiers."
"There was a medic with me who didn't quite understand what was happening to him because the wounded were his friends who went out to fight and he was in shock. I grabbed him and told him that I understand that they were his friends and that because this was a multiple wounded incident, we may not be able to treat everyone, but together we'd try to do as much as possible. I heard him saying to himself, 'as much as possible, as much as possible,' and somehow he came out of shock.
"In the meantime the soldiers put the wounded on stretchers, ran with them several meters and brought them to us, to a place that was between two buildings while bullets flew over us. I found myself with my ceramic vest and medical equipment, running to one wounded soldier, leaning over him, checking, treating him, and then moving on to the next."
"The first sounded soldier who came to me was screaming from pain. One of his hands was almost completely detached and he was screaming 'my hand is gone'. I asked for his name to check that he was conscious and I said to him, 'My name is Yonat and I promise that everything will be ok.' He looked at me and said, 'I know that it will be ok and we'll win in the end.' At that moment I just wanted to embrace him."
“I placed a tourniquet on him, and then a second wounded soldier arrived with shrapnel in his chest, followed by a third who suffered a serious injury in his leg, and then a fourth came with shrapnel in his eye. I saw the tears falling down his cheeks and knew that he was in great pain, but he refused to let me treat him. “Take care of my soldiers first, you can take care of me later,” he said. I remember that I was very moved from what he said and thought that he was very noble.”
“Since we had many wounded, there weren’t enough soldiers there to evacuate all of them, and those who weren’t hurt ran to the house where the wounded were lying, loaded a stretcher and brought the wounded to us for treatment, and that’s how they ran, back and forth.
"During those moments I understood that I was on my own and I put everyone around me to work, no matter their medical training. There was great pressure, and a moment when I said, “damn, I’m alone. I need a paramedic, a doctor and a vehicle.”
“All of a sudden, the Assistant Battalion Commander miraculously arrived and said, “There are two vehicles here with a doctor and a paramedic who will help you. At that moment I felt like God was with me in Gaza,” Daskal told. “In total, I treated ten wounded soldiers that night.”
Five days inside a tank
Sgt. Tamar Bar-Ilan, a 21-year-old from Haifa, wears her parents’ wedding rings regularly. When she entered Gaza, she took the rings off her fingers and attached them to a gold chain she wore around her neck. “A thought crossed my mind that if a tank catches fire because of the shells and I’ll get burned, they wouldn’t be able to remove the rings because of the edema and the blisters. I’m a hypochondriac paramedic. “
Bar-Ilan, an armored corps paramedic, entered the Gaza Strip with members of her battalion and was with them inside a tank for 12 days. “I was the only women among the men, but it didn’t bother me. We’ve been serving together for two years and know each other well. As a paramedic, I’m used to be being the female minority, but this time it was different. I’d never been in a tank that had anti-tank missiles fired at it and on enemy’s territory.”
“At first I didn’t leave the tank for five consecutive days. My greatest fear was that something would happen to the battalion’s soldiers and that I would have to take care of them. The thought of not being able to save a soldier that I knew drove me crazy. When it got really hard, I reminded myself that I had to be strong for them.
“On my last night in Gaza, we heard a gunshot and someone shouted on the radio ‘paramedic’. We quickly entered the tank, drove for several seconds and saw a wounded soldier on a stretcher. He was hit by sniper fire and both his legs were wounded. I quickly placed tourniquets on him, dressed his wounds, gave him painkillers and within minutes he was evacuated to the hospital in a helicopter. I handled things very professionally, but I can’t get him out of my head.”
Staff Sgt. Noam Dan is 22-years-old, from Dimona. During the operation, she entered Gaza with soldiers in the armored corps, with whom she serves.
“On the fifth day of the ground operation, they said on the radio that someone was wounded by sniper fire. We drove towards him with the tank, and saw a wounded soldier whose face was grey, lying on the stretcher. The doctor who treated him said that the sniper hit him in the area of his heart and that he had lost his pulse.
“I checked his pulse and felt nothing. I told myself that he has got to be ok and that I’ll be visiting him in the hospital soon, and started giving him a cardiac massage. .
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. The tank was driving on and I was massaging his heart. I remember saying that no matter what, I won’t stop until I get a sign of life from him.
“At a certain point I realized that our CPR efforts weren’t working, and yet I still could stop. I asked the tank driver to go as fast as he can. I just wanted to reach the evacuation zone near the fence with Israel. When we arrived, the doctor pronounced his death.
“That’s when I broke down. I told myself that this man deserves to be cried over. He endangered his life for me, for us. I laid down next to him and cried.
“Now, when I talk about him, I can see his grey face in front of me, feel the cold from his body and remember that he was strong, and had the body of a fighter. He was a beautiful man.”
A dog tag and a photo
Staff Sgt. Tal Shahar, a 22-year-old from Tel Adashim, serves in the undercover operations unit of the Israeli Border Police. During Operation Protective Edge, she was ordered to join Maglan, an Israeli Special Forces unit, and entered the Gaza Strip with the unit’s soldiers. Unlike other soldiers, she refused to write a farewell letter beforehand, “so that it wouldn’t be a self-fulfilling prophecy. I hung a photograph of my boyfriend next to my dog tag and felt that it gave me strength.”
"I weigh 50 kilograms. The ceramic vest I was wearing and the equipment I was carrying weighed 40 kg together, and I didn’t ask for any help. That’s my job and there’s no reason for people to treat me differently.
"On one of the days, we heard a large explosion and calls for a paramedic. Within three minutes, I arrived with the paramedic to a hospital building that was booby-trapped. There was a seriously wounded soldier there whose hand was partially amputated, both his legs wounded and he was entirely covered in soot.
"He told us that he can’t feel his legs and I promised him that they would be fine. There were many there suffering from blast injuries and they were bleeding heavily. I didn’t think about myself, I did what I had to do – CPR, stabilization and evacuation to a relatively sheltered area.
“When I left Gaza I saw a Facebook post saying “’Israelis, wake up, look at what’s happening in Gaza.’ I was so angry that I couldn’t help myself from responding. I wrote that I had been inside a hospital in Gaza that was booby-trapped by Hamas, and that they had dug tunnels underneath. I also wrote that I had taken care of our wounded soldiers. Those statements made me very angry.