Operation Swords of Iron


In September 2023, Dana Ben Kaplan was contacted by the Emergency Volunteers Project (EVP) for a firefighter training deployment to Israel in October. He had participated in these events for several years after retiring from the Santee Fire Department.

This deployment in October 2023 would be different.

This is Dana’s story.

I arrived in Israel Friday night, October 6, giving me a day before the deployment’s start date (Sunday) to spend time in Tel Aviv. The next morning, around 6:30 a.m., I heard what I thought was a fire engine siren. Strange, though, it wasn’t getting any closer, or farther. Then I heard a “whoosh,” followed by the loudest explosion I’d ever heard, shaking my building. It was a Hamas terrorist rocket hitting a nearby structure.

I’ve been through military Krav Maga training overseas, with rifle fire (blanks) all over a “battlefield,” but this was a different kind of loud. I WhatsApped the customer service for my Airbnb and asked where the safe room was. They replied, “Oh, no! There’s no bomb shelter in the building.”

I was impatient, and ready to get to my fire station, any station. But everything was in chaos; only two other firefighters on this team made it to Israel before all the non-El Al flights were cancelled, and the three of us were told to stand by.

The terrorists knew it was the morning after the all-night Supernova music festival in the south. Fliers for the festival had been brought back to Gaza and were found with terrorists. Civilian Palestinian invaders who had permits to cross into Israel each day to work in the kibbutzim had drawn detailed maps of their Jewish “friends” homes. Sadly, trusted long-time Gazan workers had betrayed their peace-seeking, (mostly leftist) Jewish neighbors and friends. I later found out this was one of the many stories which U.S. and world media failed to tell. I guess it didn’t fit their narrative.

Week 1, Operation Swords of Iron, Northern Israel
Finally, I was instructed to make my own way to the fire station where I would meet with three other American firefighters for our ride to a yet-to-be-determined station. For security reasons, even on training deployments, we’re not told where we’ll be stationed until we get to the airport parking lot, nor are we allowed to tell people back home exactly where we are, or post pictures to social media while in Israel, until after the deployment ends. We were driven north to Nof HaGalil (formerly Nazerit Illit), a mostly Arabic area of Israel.

During the first day of that week-long deployment, Sunday, the day after the terrorist massacre in the south, I was in the parking lot when I heard gunfire, horns honking, fireworks, and yelling from cars driving by below the other side of the parking lot. I started walking over toward a few firefighters, asking them, “is it a wedding?” My mistake; they were local Arabs. “No. They’re celebrating.”

That night we were called to an outdoor fire, in a nearby mostly-Muslim village, Reina. Driving through the village on the way back, we passed a large outdoor party, with everyone dancing. It could have been a birthday celebration, but I didn’t think so. By the next day, as TV started to report on the extent of the massacre and some of the details of what the Palestinians of Gaza had done to their innocent victims, these celebrations seemed to end.

Within days, we were being routinely overflown by IAF F-35 stealth fighter jets as a show of force to Hezbollah in nearby Lebanon. Apparently, they didn’t get the message. Soon we were sent running to our mamad, sometimes many times per shift (actually a synagogue in this station, built as the safe room). At the start of that week, there were only a few firefighters per crew carrying handguns. By the end of that first week, almost all were carrying a weapon.

All the Israeli TV stations I saw while I was there had switched to 24/7, no-commercial coverage of heartbreaking interviews of families whose loved ones were kidnapped or murdered, and unbelievable videos which terrorists had posted to social media of themselves committing rape, murder, mutilation, arson, and kidnapping. Five firefighters were murdered in the south on October 7. In a country with approximately 2,500 firefighters, a national fire department, and one fire academy, many of them knew a fellow-firefighter victim. I tried to imagine how that would impact us back home in the East County district of San Diego where I had worked. We were told quietly that the firefighters were not smiling as much as usual; not working out in the gym as a team, or cooking together as much. I could see that.

My two fellow American firefighters were scheduled to return to the U.S. at the end of that week, and I told EVP that there was no way I was going to leave the country now, and that I wanted to volunteer for a second deployment.

Week 2, Operation Swords of Iron, Central Israel
On Sunday, October 15, we said our goodbyes, and as our driver skirted the Shomron (Samaria) border, peaceful-looking Arab and Jewish villages were off the left. On our right, we passed low bed trailers with Israel’s awesome Merkava tanks, and roadside civilians cheering soldiers driving past. Everything was headed south. We all knew what is coming. It was surreal.

Later that week, we were responding to a common call⎯kipat barzel interception⎯and so told to wear “flaks and Kevlars.” We were inspecting the hole made in the roof and ceiling from a terrorist rocket (they’re steel, constructed from water pipes which Hamas has dug up) when a siren alerted us to more incoming rockets. We made the descent into the stairwell under the house⎯there were too many of us to squeeze into their mamad.

Afterward, driving south on the highway, a local siren sounds, and all vehicles start pulling over. I saw the rockets in the air, and said, “that one looks like it’s heading right toward us.” We scrambled out of the engine, and jumped over one of the concrete barriers which were placed on the side of the highways. One rocket exploded right over us.

Later that month, with 21 U.S. firefighters staying at the National Fire Academy in Rishon LeZion, we toured some of the communities in the south. In Ashkelon, we viewed an apartment building which had been hit by a rocket. It didn’t seem real. The lead officer reminded us that if a red alert siren sounds, we should run away from buildings, fire engines, and cars, try to get behind a wall, and lay face down with our hands over the back of our necks. For practice, he issued the command, and we scattered, hopping over a low wall. A few minutes later, right on cue, a real siren went off.

A senior firefighter in Ashkelon sacrificed his life jumping on a grenade saving two of his sons in his home. That story was relayed to me by an American firefighter from St. Louis who went with the crew of his station to visit the surviving wife and sons in the hospital. We had only been there a few minutes, paying our respects to the on-duty crew, when a siren went off, and we had to run downstairs to an underground mamad (quickly, as the amount of time that you have, in seconds, is of course shorter the closer you are to Gaza, and we were very close).

Back in San Diego
It’s taken me a while to decompress. I kept hearing sirens, here in La Jolla; really just vehicle engines accelerating. I’d look around to see which direction people were running to the shelter; they weren’t. I’d jump at the sound of an Iron Dome interception; just a door slamming or car backfiring.

I can’t imagine what it’s like for real soldiers to exit a real combat zone. My cousin and some friends were sent in to Gaza early in the war. I spend time, maybe too much, reading articles, listening to online briefings, talking on the phone to Israel. Months later, I am still keeping up, every day, praying for the destruction of the enemy, and rescue of the hostages. Am Yisrael Chai.


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