Over the past year, the Israel Defense Forces’ spotters situated on the Gaza border, all women, warned that something unusual was happening. Those who survived the October 7 massacre are convinced that if it had been men sounding the alarm, things would look different today
Yaniv Kubovich, HAARETZ Nov 20, 2023 7:47 pm IST
Three days after the October 7 massacre in southern Israel, Mai – a spotter who serves in the Israel Defense Forces’ Gaza Division and survived the murderous Hamas assault on her army base near the border – received a phone call at home.
On the line was someone from the army’s human resources division. “If you don’t return to your post,” she was cautioned, “that’s absenteeism during wartime and would mean up to 10 years in prison.” Identical messages were also delivered to colleagues from the army base who, like her on Black Saturday, had been locked in an operations room “armed” only with their cellphones as Hamas terrorists ran amok.
“We tried to explain that we can’t go back,” Mai recounts. “We lost our comrades. We spent hours hiding, among dead bodies, in that operations room.”
According to Mai (a pseudonym, like the names of everyone interviewed for this story), some of the young women who survived the attack are currently being treated in mental health institutions, while others are still too afraid to seek treatment.
“Up till now, the commanders haven’t visited us; nobody from the army has come to speak with us and ask how we’re feeling. They’re simply ignoring our existence.” Perhaps a clarification should be added to that last statement: They are seemingly ignoring their existence as human beings, not as part of the military.
(The spotters’ job, known as “tatzpitanit” in Hebrew, involves staring at a screen for hours on end, studying surveillance cameras for untoward activities. Nowadays, only women soldiers perform the task.)
The spotters decided to stay home and nothing else happened until last week – when they all received identical letters informing them that if they failed to return to their posts by this Wednesday, there would be severe repercussions.
“They told me: ‘You need to come back, your position is ready,’” says another spotter, Shir. “Nobody cares how I am or if I’m fit to do this – the main thing [for them] is for me to return to my nine-hour shift watching screens all day.”
Shir has decided that she will report back to the base – but not because of the threats and intimidation.
“It’s important to make clear that we’re returning only for the sake of our friends who were murdered or kidnapped,” she says, “and not for everyone who abandoned us there.”
Somehow, Shir and her colleagues are not surprised by the attitude they have encountered; just perhaps a little unnerved by its intensity. During their years of military service, they say they’ve grown accustomed to the fact that they “don’t count.” Nor was any notice given to the repeated warnings they raised before Hamas’ infiltration on Black Saturday. Warnings that, it seems to them, were going in one IDF earpiece and out the other.
These included reports about Hamas’ preparations near the border fence, its drone activity in recent months, its efforts to knock out cameras, the extensive use of vans and motorcycles, and even rehearsals for the shelling of tanks.
The spotters believe Hamas was actually being rather negligent: it didn’t try to hide anything and its actions were out in the open. But throughout this period, they say senior officers in the IDF’s Gaza Division and Southern Command refused to listen to their warnings. They believe this stemmed partly from arrogance but also from male chauvinism.
The spotters are exclusively “young women and young women commanders,” explains one of them. “There’s no doubt that if men had been sitting at those screens, things would look different.”
In some ways, the hours leading up to the morning of October 7 were quite ordinary. Noga, a spotter stationed at the IDF’s intelligence unit at Kissufim, close to the Gaza border, spotted an unfamiliar, suspicious-looking man standing in front of one of the barrier gates erected along the Gaza Strip border.
Her report reached Lt. Col. Meir Ohayon, commander of the 51st Battalion in the Golani Brigade, who at 3 A.M. made his way to the location and, after sighting the man, fired tear gas at him. The suspect turned back and went to a Hamas observation post about 300 meters (nearly 1,000 feet) from the fence, which is the distance at which Palestinians are allowed to stay. The spotter observed several other people at the same position, and it seemed to her that a briefing was being held there.
All of the above seemed unusual and disturbing to her, so she shared her feelings with the other spotters as well as the on-duty commander. However, at the end of a discussion that lasted about a minute in the operations room and in consultation with the division, it was decided to return to normal.
“I’m sorry I had to wake you at this hour,” the spotter apologized to Ohayon, “but I still think there’s something strange here.”
Ohayon was unperturbed and replied that it’s always best to be vigilant in order to avoid surprises. A few hours later, it became clear that this “vigilance” did not prevent the surprise.
This was merely the final piece in the puzzle, though. In retrospect, after she fully understood the scope of the disaster, and after she had lost dozens of friends who were either killed or kidnapped by Hamas, the sheer scale of the disconnect became clear to the spotter.