This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.
First Sergeant Mordechai, a 22-year-old combat engineer, was supposed to be released from the army this month. He had already started his last furlough as a soldier and was planning a long trip to South America to celebrate his freedom. Instead, today he recuperating from shrapnel wounds to his head, chin, and both hands at Sheba hospital near Tel Aviv, Israel’s main rehabilitation facility. His left arm is in a metal cage and his jaw is wired shut.
“A rocket fell where I was standing at the entrance to Gaza and I have shrapnel all over my body,” Mordechai, who can only be identified by his first name according to Israeli army regulations, told The Media Line. He also said that despite the heavy toll of at 53 Israeli soldiers killed so far, Israel must continue its operation in the Gaza Strip to destroy the rocket launchers and the network of underground tunnels that lead from into the Jewish state.
“We want to live in peace and quiet but it can’t go on like this,” he said. “They are trying to kill people and we have to stop it. Israeli citizens can’t continue to be wounded and killed.”
At the hospital, Mordechai is surrounded by his family and friends. One of 13 children, he is from Itamar, a Jewish community located on land that Israel acquired in 1967 near the Palestinian city of Nablus. Itamar is well-known as the place where Palestinian gunmen killed five members of the Fogel family, including three young children, in 2011. As a combat engineer, Mordechai’s job was to destroy the tunnels that have been discovered. Hamas gunmen have used those tunnels at least six times since the fighting began earlier this month to infiltrate into Israel. In all of those cases, they were met by Israeli soldiers who prevented them from reaching civilian communities.
Zev Rotstein, the hospital’s CEO, approaches Mordechai with a smile and ruffles his buzz cut.
“Squeeze my hand,” he tells Mordechai.
“Excellent,” he says exuberantly. “You’re going to be just fine.”
That, however, will require weeks or even months of rehabilitation and physical therapy.
“He’ll stay here until he gets tired of us, but it will probably be several weeks,” Rotstein said. “The target is to get him as close as possible to full functioning. He is a young man with his whole life in front of him.”
Part of the process is psychological counseling, he says. These combat soldiers go from being in excellent shape to being wounded, in some cases severely, within the span of a few seconds. That often leads to psychological as well as physical trauma.
This hospital has received more than 50 wounded soldiers since the conflict began and 29 are still hospitalized. Others continue to receive outpatient care. Rotstein says that getting the wounded soldiers to the hospital quickly is the key to saving their lives and achieving full recovery.
“We call it the golden hour,” Rotstein told The Media Line. “The best is to get the soldiers to a hospital within an hour of being injured. Gaza is only a ten minute helicopter flight from here so it’s not too difficult.”
He says the medics and doctors in the field are doing excellent work in stopping bleeding and giving preliminary care. He says because most of the soldiers wear helmets and flak jackets, most of the injuries are to the extremities.
“This war involves close fighting between the terrorists and our soldiers so there are a lot of bullet wounds and shrapnel,” he said. “We are seeing injuries to the vessels, nerves and bones.”
Because the soldiers are physically fit and highly motivated, they recover quickly. Some of the soldiers treated in the past few weeks here have already returned to their units.
The hospital also has Palestinian patients. Members of one Gaza family who were wounded in the fighting were brought to this hospital. They refused to speak to the press, saying it could be dangerous for their future return to Gaza.
The hospital also treats dozens of Palestinians with cancer or congenital defects. Rotstein says there are usually about 50 Palestinian patients at the hospital at any one time. Their care is paid for by the Palestinian Authority and Israel coordinates their entry and exit from Gaza.
In the children’s oncology ward, 18 of the 22 patients are from Gaza. Uday, 10, who suffers from leukemia, has been here for a year. His older brother was admitted to the hospital this week and is scheduled for a bone marrow transplant. Their mother, Juhan Raban, says she is grateful for the care her son is receiving in this Israeli hospital. But at the same time, she says, she is angry about what she says as Israel’s wanton destruction in Gaza.
She says her 23-year-old nephew, who was not affiliated with Hamas, was killed in the street last week. She said large parts of Gaza have been leveled, and it will take years to rebuild them.
"They destroyed my son Mohammed’s home,” she tells The Media Line. “The Israeli forces are killing children and babies. If you’re fighting against Hamas, why are you killing children?”
She also said that she supports Hamas and its resistance to Israeli attacks.
“Hamas is protecting the women and the children,” she said. “We are all Palestinians.”
Back in the rehabilitation clinic, the soldiers are being inundated with visits and gifts from well-intentioned Israelis. There are more cookies than even hungry soldiers can devour. Sima Voldovsky, who was born in Israel but lived in Deal, New Jersey, for many years, brought burekas and books for the soldiers. Her friend, visiting from the US, spent all night baking chocolate chip cookies for the soldiers.
“We love our soldiers and we came here to show support,” she told The Media Line. “Each soldier is like my own son.”