Celebrated soldier Meir Har-Zion was laid to rest Sunday afternoon at Kochav Hayarden park, near the Sea of Galilee. His funeral was attended by President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as other ministers and dignitaries.
“We are parting with one of the greatest warriors the State of Israel has seen,” Netanyahu said at the funeral. “Meir and his friends laid some of the critical foundations to the building of the nation. He didn’t have a drop of vanity or arrogance in him.
“He didn’t go searching for fame. On the contrary — it chased him,” Netanyahu added. “He was a rare man, the likes of which I have known only a select few in my life.”
In his eulogy Peres called Har-Zion “a fierce fighter who was willing to sacrifice his life for Israel time and again.”
“The people of Israel should fly their flags at half-mast today in remembrance of Meir Har-Zion,” Peres said. “He didn’t know compromise. He didn’t put off confrontation. He never stopped loving the land of Israel.”
Har-Zion rose to fame as a leader in Israel’s first commando force, Unit 101.
His funeral was also attended by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and former defense minister Shaul Mofaz. He was 80 years old when he died of natural causes on Friday.
The controversial Israeli war hero was a man Moshe Dayan once called “the greatest Jewish warrior since Bar Kochba.”
Ya’alon said Friday 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.”
Har-Zion 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.
Mitch Ginsburg and Elie Leshem contributed to this report.