Israeli soldiers who have taken up positions near the Gaza border told AFP they felt proud to protect their country after Hamas's October 7 attacks -- but also nervous as war intensifies.
Now stationed in evacuated communities near the border with the bombarded Gaza Strip, a 20-year-old soldier said he was "a bit scared to go" into the Palestinian territory if given the order.
"You don't know if you can come back alive," said the soldier, whose name like those of other soldiers cannot be published because of military censorship.
Many of the soldiers stationed there, on the rear lines of the Israeli army around Gaza, are aged between 18 and 21, doing their compulsory military service.
The sounds of war can be heard loud and clear from their positions less than two kilometres (1.2 miles) from the Gaza border.
According to Israeli officials, Hamas's attacks killed more than 1,400 people, most of them civilians. The militants also took some 240 people hostage, authorities say.
Israel has responded with a relentless bombardment and has moved its forces into the Gaza Strip with the aim of destroying Hamas, the Palestinian militant group ruling the Gaza Strip.
More than 10,000 Palestinians in Gaza, also mainly civilians, have been killed during the campaign, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.
"We do what we have to do. But it's a terrible place to go into," said the 20-year-old soldier, anticipating a possible order to deploy into Gaza even.
He started his three-year service a mere six months ago.
Since the beginning of Israel's ground operation in Gaza on October 27, at least 30 soldiers have been killed in the Palestinian territory, the army says.
Hamas has warned Israel that its soldiers will leave Gaza "in black bags".
- 'Don't want her to worry' -
Near another empty kibbutz now serving as a military base, a 21-year-old female said she had lied to her mother about where she was going.
"I told her I was in the centre of the country, not near Gaza," she said. "I don't want her to worry."
"I'm proud to be a soldier," said a 19-year-old male colleague, who started in the army eight months ago.
His parents, grandparents, sisters, an uncle and even the dog came from Tel Aviv to embrace him, their arms laden with food.
As they visited, a rocket fired from Gaza was intercepted overhead with a bang.
"Last time we saw him was five weeks ago," the mother said. "We don't know when we'll see him again."
"I'm proud of him but I'm afraid... I would be less worried if he was not here. But every place is dangerous right now."
"I hope he won't go to Gaza, but... if he doesn't do it, who will?" the mother asked rhetorically.
"If we don't have the army, we don't have Israel."
After an hour, the family has had to leave.
The mother squeezed her son in her arms, before the soldier left. "I cry all the time," she said once he was out of earshot.
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