The startlingly courageous and controversial Israeli war hero Meir Har-Zion, a man Moshe Dayan once called “the greatest Jewish warrior since Bar Kochba,” died on Friday morning. He was 80 years old.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said that he was “one of the greatest warriors in the history of the IDF — an audacious, distinctive commander whose influence in molding generations of fighters and units was pivotal.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called him “one of our greatest heroes,” a man who “was steeped in love for the nation and the land.”
Har-Zion, who rose to fame as a leader in Israel’s first commando force, Unit 101, was born in Herzliya. As a teenager living in Kibbutz Ein Harod, he set out for a hike into Syrian territory with his sister Shoshana and they were taken captive by the Bedouin in the area.
Although the two of them were jailed in Damascus for several weeks, neither lost their love for nature or intrepid excursions. In the early 50s, Har-Zion cut deep into Jordan to visit the ancient Nabataean city of Petra. Several hikers followed in his footsteps and were killed in the process.
It was around those years that he was drafted into the army and began his service in the Nahal Brigade. When he got word that a young major named Arik Scheinerman — who later came to be known as Ariel Sharon — had started a commando unit that engaged in combat on a near-daily basis, he rushed to join. He arrived in a pressed uniform and snapped his commander a salute. Sharon, eating and utterly uninterested in decorum, told him to “sit down and eat some canned beef.”
“That was my introduction to the unit and its commander,” he wrote in his autobiography, Memoir Chapters.
The unit, though, came both to define him and be defined by him. The lack of discipline and clear-cut rules — the soldiers wore kaffiyehs and civilian clothes and often hunted their own food — along with the emphasis on operational skill, generated an atmosphere in which he thrived.
In the mid-50s, after the unit merged with the Paratroopers Brigade, Dayan awarded him officer’s rank for his actions during the many cross-border raids he had led. “What would he do in Officer’s Training School,” Dayan asked, “except teach?”
On December 23, 1954, his beloved sister Shoshana — they were children of a divorce, at a time when that was quite rare — was murdered along with her friend Oded Weigmeister while hiking in enemy territory, in the Judean Desert.
Har-Zion retired from the army. His plan was clear: to avenge her death. Dayan tried to talk him out of it but also told his commander, Sharon, to make sure that, if he set out, he be well equipped enough to return, too.
He left Israel with weapons and six of his mates from the paratroopers. The squad crossed into Jordan, caught five men from the tribe that had killed Shoshana and Oded and killed four of them. They let the fifth go free and instructed him to tell the tale.
Har-Zion was arrested in Israel upon his return. He was jailed for 20 days and banished from the military for six months.
In 1956, Har-Zion was shot in the throat during a cross-border raid on the police station in Rahawa. Dr. Moshe Agmon performed a field tracheotomy on the young officer and saved his life.
Unit 101, before merging with the Paratroopers Brigade, existed for only three months. But Har-Zion, who later helped found Sayeret Matkal and fought in the Six-Day War, despite his disabilities, is still the benchmark by which all elite soldiers are judged.
“There was no one braver than he was,” said President Shimon Peres. “He was a legend already in his own time, and if not in his own eyes, then in the eyes of all those who knew his bravery.”