When Sgt. Menachem Samel received his orders to enter Gaza with his Golani unit as part of Operation Protective Edge, the former Highland Park resident said they were clear: His only mission was to destroy tunnels through which Hamas terrorists enter Israel.
“I know 100 percent what my orders were, and my orders never said to kill civilians,” Samel told NJJN in a phone interview Aug. 5 from Israel, where he was on standby during a 72-hour cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.
In its week in Gaza, his 51st battalion command squad, in fact, saw few civilians; they had been forewarned by Israel to leave their homes, said the 20-year-old Jerusalem resident, the son of Shmuel and Rikki Samel of Highland Park.
The IDF actually delayed the squad’s mission by two days because too many civilians were still in the area, noted Samel.
“All the civilians were gone when we got there,” he said. “The houses were empty save for the terrorists trying to kill us. Our mission was not to conquer Gaza or kill Arabs. Our mission was simply to find the tunnels used to kill us. If we found weapons that could be used to kill us, we were told to destroy them.”
Per instructions from commanders, soldiers engaged with Palestinians only if they attacked or if they were preventing troops from destroying the tunnels.
While Samel said the deaths of women and children received heavy coverage in worldwide media, a number of the victims described as “civilians” were males 18-28 who were “enemy combatants.”
“Any person dying is horrible, no matter who it is,” said Samel. “Everyone has friends and family who will suffer if he dies, but at the end of the day, many were young men of fighting age who were shooting at Israeli troops and were intended targets.”
Samel attended Yeshiva Shaarei Tzion in Piscataway and graduated from the Rav Teitz Mesivta Academy of the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth.
Samel said civilians who lost their lives may have done so because Hamas encourages people to become martyrs — they see it, he said, as a way for them to gain worldwide sympathy — or because there was a Hamas operative “standing there with a gun not letting them escape even though Israel gives them plenty of warning.”
“I saw with my own eyes all the warnings the IDF gives them,” said Samel. “I feel horrible for the Palestinians in Gaza, but the people responsible are not the Israelis, but Hamas.”
The young soldier also saw “landmines next to cribs” and explosives fired at him from mosques and schools. Next to a United Nations school there was a large poster proclaiming “Intifada” and showing a fighter holding a shoulder-fired, rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
Additionally, his unit found a tunnel running into a living room, part of the labyrinth of passageways built beneath Gaza. At one point, Hamas combatants firing at them disappeared only to reappear four houses down without ever going outside.
“There’s a whole other city underground,” said Samel. “Some tunnels are just holes in the ground; some have lighting and supplies.”
The IDF found and destroyed 32 tunnels just going into Israel, although, Samel said, there were “hundreds and hundreds” beneath Gaza. He noted that Israeli military intelligence estimated that about $100 million was spent on the maze of tunnels, money Hamas could have used, he said, to build hospitals or schools.
“When this is over I’m sure they’ll again be receiving millions of dollars to rebuild,” said Samel. “I hope they use that money to help their own children and rebuild a society that’s productive and successful instead of using it to find a way to kill Israelis.”