‘This was the job we had to do’

Ophir Azoulay profile

Ophir Azoulay with his IDF reserve unit at the Philadelphia Corridor

Beth Jacob Synagogue ritual director returns to IDF for Gaza op

By Marshall Weiss, The Dayton Jewish Observer

From the moment he landed at Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport in the early morning hours of Jan. 6, Ophir Azoulay says he could feel the support behind Operation Cast Lead.

“We did everything we could, and even with people on the left, it was all solidarity behind the army,” says Beth Jacob Synagogue’s ritual director, whose IDF reserve unit received Tzav 8, an emergency call for military service in Israel, on Jan. 4. Azoulay returned to active duty with his unit for two weeks in January.

His parents met him at the airport with his IDF shoes. From there, the 43-year-old captain hitchhiked his way to the Tze’elim training base in the Negev.

“They have a model of Gaza city on the base,” he says. “So a lot of people get trained there, two or three days before they get inside.”

His platoon, however, did not enter Gaza. Their role was to prevent Hamas terrorists from crossing into Israel along the Philadelphia Corridor, Israel’s border with Egypt, which runs from the south of Gaza to the Red Sea.

“The air force had bombed all of Philadelphia,” he says. “When the war started, most of Hamas would run away under the tunnels out to Egypt. And also, they had the ‘other Hamas’ that worked with Hamas on the other side of Egypt, Islamic Jihad.”

The Sinai border is vast, desert terrain.

An Egyptian border patrol

“Since we have peace with Egypt, there is no army 40 kilometers on either side, so the border is open,” Azoulay says. He adds that the Egyptians barely patrol their side, with police on camels.

“We did a lot of ambush work: 12, 42, 72 hours,” he says. “We would cover ourselves with equipment that nobody could see in the desert, just waiting.”

The Philadelphia Corridor, Azoulay says, is controlled by Bedouins on both sides of the border. “They know where to go, how to go, when to go, they know the place. There are two families of Bedouins who control all the smuggling going over the border. They smuggle hashish, drugs, cigarettes. Everyone who tries to cross the border has to go through them.”

Azoulay says that each IDF platoon working on the Philadelphia Corridor had at least one Bedouin working with it.

“In case somebody wants to transfer or smuggle weapons to bomb anything, right away, they tell the Israeli intelligence. The Bedouins are going into the (Israeli) army, to serve in the army, and they’re called trackers. It’s amazing. They can look at the road and know how many, and if it’s a soldier and if he had a weapon. And they can track him miles.”

For example, Azoulay says, “We had exact intelligence tell us somebody was going through, how many there would be, and the younger reservists were waiting for them 3 kilometers from the border. The information was absolutely correct and they caught them. From there, they are transferred to intelligence.”

A key part of the job of the reservists along the Philadelphia Corridor, Azoulay says, was to show a military presence, to deter anyone from crossing the border.

“On the border, there are many mountains, there are many valleys,” he says. “It’s very, very easy to go through. So at those places, we put 10 people on the mountain, visible so they can see them, and they (IDF) can fire, so they cannot get through — especially places where they have wells, because they walk a lot of days with no water. Sometimes we got information and we did undercover work. That was a hard job.”

The platoon, he says, is based on three teams. “The first is the youngest, just finishing serving in the army – we’re talking about soldiers around 20. Then the other team is around 30-35. And then you have the old guys.”

Azoulay, who only has two years left as a reservist, describes his fellow reservists as a second family. “We started together when I was 22 years old,” says the Jerusalem native. “We travel a lot together. Most of my holidays traveling, we do it as a group.”

Usually when the IDF calls up reservists, he says, about 60 percent from the oldest group come. “A lot of people outside of Israel don’t have to serve, and there are a lot of students. We don’t bring them because they are in the university.”

This time, for the Gaza operation, he said, almost 100 percent of the “old guys” in his platoon came.

Azoulay began his army service in the paratroopers. For most of his four years in the IDF, he served in Lebanon. During the last eight months of his term of service, he was with a commando unit in the West Bank when the first Intifada started.

“We usually worked undercover there,” he says. “And that’s where I was familiar with terror.”

After he left the army in ’88, Azoulay attended Hebrew University in Jerusalem and then worked in the newspaper business. He’s also lived in Honduras, where he opened a branch of a security company.

Letters and gifts from Israeli children to Azoulay’s unit

“Everyone agreed that this was the job we had to do,” Azoulay says of Israeli support for Operation Cast Lead. “Everybody was behind this. But usually the (Israeli) media, they are not. What happened in Lebanon two years ago, the media was so ‘anti.’”

Azoulay brightens when he says his platoon received 20 boxes of food and candy from school children. “And the letters the kids sent. Very sweet letters.”

“I think one reason (for Israeli solidarity) was that we did everything already with the Palestinians. There was Oslo. We pulled out from Gaza, we took all the people that were on the right, we took them from homes. We didn’t destroy anything in Gaza — we gave them. We gave them weapons, instructing them that they will control the people and everything. Well, we got attacked. They connected to Iran and clearly they don’t want us in Israel. And they bombed, beginning in Sderot. Now we’re talking about Beersheva, Ashdod, Ashkelon.”

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