They are 19- and 20-year-olds who no longer have Facebook or Instagram pages. Instead, they have memorial pages on a military website, and if their families are lucky, they have a last letter to remember them by. “I miss childhood with you so much,’’ reads one such letter written by a 20-year-old staff sergeant in the Israeli Defense Forces to his younger sister before dying in Gaza. His note recalls the silly videos they used to make pretending they were famous and laughing till it hurt.
Since the sister would only receive the letter if her brother failed to make it home, he reminded her that “you are now the eldest sibling. It’s a difficult task but I’m sure you can handle it.” He added: “Unfortunately, I can’t tell you that face-to-face,’’ punctuating that last thought with a heart.
Much of the world has a cartoonish view of the people who serve in the Israeli Defense Forces, not that different from the gun-toting characters in video games that glorify mayhem. One needs only examine the stream of obituaries coming out of Israel between Hamas’s deadly rampage on October 7 and the pause in fighting on November 24 to see how far from the mark that narrative is.
Consider that nearly 30 percent of the 82 Israeli troops who have lost their lives in combat from October 8 on were no older than 20. Five were teenagers. Nineteen were only 20 years of age, the largest single cohort among the fatalities. Trailing only slightly were the 13 deaths recorded among 21-year-olds and 10 deaths among 22-year-olds.
In other words, the Israeli troops who have been risking life and limb to protect their parents, grandparents, younger siblings, and countrymen from extermination include far too many young people who have not yet had the chance to attend college as their peers do in other countries. They have not had the chance to marry, start careers, or see the world. Surely, they deserve a future, too.
They are people like Capt. Kfir Yitzhak Franco, a 22-year-old from Jerusalem who was planning to marry upon returning from Gaza. A platoon commander in the 52d battalion, Capt. Franco died in Gaza on November 15. His grieving parents, recent immigrants to Israel from France, did not have many callers when they first started sitting shiva. But after word went out over social media on their behalf, perfect strangers including Paul E. Singer, an American investor who was in Israel for a short hop, lined up to pay their respects.
People in their twenties are also heavily represented among the 350,000 or so reservists Israel activated after October 7. These reinforcements are being sent in droves to Gaza and the second front opening up near Lebanon, and the reservists now account for more than a third of Israel’s recent fatalities, judging from public records.
The oldest of the 21 reservists who have fallen since Israel launched its Operation Swords of Iron was Yosef Haim Hershkovitz of Gva’ot. He died on Novmber 10 at age 44. Exempt from combat service, he volunteered anyway, according to the Jerusalem Post, and served as a Major General in an elite paratroopers’ brigade.
He and four other reservists were slain in a booby-trapped tunnel Hamas had dug next to a mosque in the Beit Hanoun section of Gaza. Before the war with Hamas changed his plans, Hershkowitz was the violin-playing headmaster of a boy’s high school in Jerusalem, and before that, a beloved teacher in the Bronx. He left his students this parting advice: “Today, in Israel,’’ he told them via video, “there is no right wing, no left wing, no Haredim. Just Jews.”
Even with the presence of so many reservists fighting by their side, younger soldiers have nonetheless shouldered the brunt of the fighting in Gaza. Its dense urban terrain has made hand-to-hand combat a necessity.
October 31 was the deadliest day: Eleven soldiers, ranging in age from 19 to 24, and all from the Givati Infantry Brigade’s Tzabar Battalion, perished when an anti-tank guided missile hit their armored carrier. Two more soldiers in their early 20’s died that day when their tank drove over an explosive, and two 20-year-olds from Givati’s reconnaissance unit also fell when a rocket-propelled grenade struck the building they were in.
The memorials emanating from Israel shatter another widely-held myth: that there are only Jews fighting to save the country, the region’s only real experiment in democracy. Two weekends ago, the IDF lost two soldiers from elite units, Major Jamal Anan Abbas, a 23-year-old paratrooper commander, and Sgt. Adi Malik Harb, a 19-year-old fighter in the Nahal Brigade. Both men were Druze, part of an Arabic-speaking, non-Jewish minority in Israel that has sacrificed as much as any Jews have to defend Israel and her borders.
In addition to the note to his sister before dying in Gaza, the 20-year-old staff sergeant left a farewell letter for his friends, in which he reassured them: “I am going into this war knowing I might not be coming back. But I believe wholeheartedly in what I am doing. We have no other country, and now it is my turn to defend it and fight the battle of all the civilians, soldiers, babies, elderly and women who were helpless in the face of Hamas’ brutality.”
His one request: “I hope you will remember me.”