When a suicide bomb ripped through a pizzeria in downtown Yerushalayim in 2001, killing 15 and wounding 130 more, 13-year-old Izzy Ezagui, who was visiting from America, found his calling.
Five years later, the New York-born Ezagui became a dual citizen and joined Israel’s Defense Forces – and not even the loss of his left arm in a mortar attack has kept him from the solemn commitment he made as a boy. In 2010, Ezagui became the first soldier in Israel’s history to rejoin the army in a military role after sustaining such an injury in combat.
Ezagui, who currently serves in Israel’s Special Forces Paratrooper Unit and who received an award for his service from Israeli President Shimon Peres, doesn’t consider himself special.
“I’m just an ordinary guy,” Ezagui said in an interview. “I had the will to do this one thing and I succeeded because I was passionate about it. I wanted to prove to myself that I was still worth something. If I can do it, so can anyone else.”
While the unassuming 24-year-old recounts his personal story of struggle and determination, it’s clear his tale is far from ordinary.
Ezagui, a religious Jew who was born in Brooklyn and raised in Miami, had traveled to Israel with family in the summer of 2001 to celebrate his bar mitzvah.
On Aug. 9, 2001, Ezagui and his parents dropped their clothes off at a Laundromat adjacent to a Sbarro pizzeria at the corner of King George Street and Jaffa Road in Jerusalem – one of Israel’s busiest intersections.
Twenty minutes after Ezagui left the area, Hamas member Izz al-Din Shuheil al-Masri detonated a belt laden with explosives, including nails, nuts and bolts, inside the Sbarro restaurant, killing 13 Israelis – seven of whom were children – a pregnant American and a Brazilian national. Hamas claimed the attack was in retaliation for Israel’s assassination days earlier of its two leading commanders, as well as six Palestinian civilians, including two children.
“It left a mark on me,” Ezagui said of the Jerusalem bombing. “I remember thinking, ‘This is awful. I want to be able to do something to stop things like this from happening.'”
It wasn’t until Ezagui turned 18 that his dream became a reality. He obtained dual citizenship in 2007 and first joined the IDF as a volunteer. When his family moved to Israel shortly after, he joined full-time, beginning his two-and-a-half year hitch in February 2008.
“I didn’t know a word of Hebrew,” Ezagui said. “It was really difficult. I would say I suffered in the beginning.”
After nine months of training, Ezagui and his brigade were sent to the Gaza border as part of what Israel called “Operation Cast Lead.” The Israeli Air Force had started bombing targets in Gaza, while Hamas rockets were hitting the country’s south.
When a captain in the same battalion as Ezagui’s died from a rocket-propelled grenade while fighting inside Gaza, the 19-year-old was told his platoon was being sent in to reinforce the captain’s unit. While contemplating whether to tell his mother – who believed her son was at the Lebanese border with other troops “washing dishes” – Ezagui was struck inside his tent by a mortar shell with a 30-meter kill radius.
The explosive shattered his left elbow, tearing off most of his arm and leaving him bleeding profusely. Others inside the tent were also gravely wounded, with some losing limbs that were later reattached.
“The mortars should have killed me and all my friends that were right there,” he said. “Yet when I woke up after surgery, I had this intense desire to go back.”
His request, however, was met with strong resistance from Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who nicely told the teen from his hospital bed that he could not rejoin the IDF in a military position, Ezagui recalled.
But Ezagui persisted, crediting in part the “chutzpah” he said he had learned from other Israelis.
“I thought, ‘What’s the most amazing thing I can do with my situation?’ And I realized right away it was going back. And that was something that was just unheard of.”
Ezagui was turned down at every request — with some officials encouraging him to pursue another career. Then came along Yoav Gallant, Israel’s General of Southern Command, who said “Okay” when Ezagui asked if he could return to the front lines.
“I kind of did a double-take,” said Ezagui, who eight months later telephoned the general to follow up on his promise.
“He was a man of his word,” Ezagui said of Gallant. A month or two later, the teenager met with the head medical officer of Southern Command, who told Ezagui he would be a danger to himself and other officers on the battlefield, and offered him a desk position as an intelligence officer.
But Ezagui and Gallant pressed on, with the general arranging another meeting with the head of an infantry unit who allowed Ezagui to retest to see if he were capable of fighting in combat.
“If I succeeded, they said they would find a role for me,” he said. “I had to figure out everything from scratch – un-jamming an assault rifle, climbing rope, jumping over 7-foot walls.”
On the day of the test, Ezagui was tasked with charging up a hill covered with targets, forcing him to roll, dive and shoot his way to the top. He passed the test – though was soon questioned by the same skeptical doctor about how he planned to use a grenade.
“We had completely forgotten about grenades, and I didn’t have a solution,” Ezagui said. After telling the doctor he’d “sleep on it,” Ezagui’s quandary was short-lived.
“I figured out that if I wrap enough scotch tape around the pin I could yank it out with my teeth,” he said. “And that’s how I throw grenades.”
Ezagui was sent out as an active-duty combat soldier and, five months later, passed a commander training test – the first soldier in Israel’s army to ace the exam with such a disability.
In the U.S., amputees, like Ezagui, are not permitted to return to their former combat roles. And the 24-year-old soldier said he understands why: “I don’t think what we need are 1,000 one-armed or one-legged warriors running around. There are others who can take up that burden.”
When asked whether other soldiers should be given the same consideration, he said, “That’s not for me to say. Who am I to tell others what to do?”
“I like to share my story and let them take from it whatever they would like,” said Ezagui, who is currently penning a memoir titled ‘Single Handed.'”
“If they really feel that that’s what they have to do to feel complete and whole, then I say don’t let anything or anybody get in your way,” he said.
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