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PM: The nation has the privilege of knowing an Israeli hero

After 3.5 years, IDF releases name of ‘hero’ officer killed in botched Gaza op

Lt. Col. Mahmoud Kheir el-Din, identified previously only as ‘Mem,’ was struck by comrade’s bullet during November 2018 intel-gathering action that went awry in Khan Younis

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Lt. Col. Mahmoud Kheir el-Din, in an undated photograph published by the military on May 15, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)
Lt. Col. Mahmoud Kheir el-Din, in an undated photograph published by the military on May 15, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israel Defense Forces on Sunday released the name of an Israeli special forces officer honored for his heroism after he was killed in a botched nighttime operation in the Gaza Strip in November 2018.

Lt. Col. Mahmoud Kheir el-Din, 41, was killed in the failed intelligence-gathering operation in the Gaza city of Khan Younis on the night of November 11, 2018. Another officer with him was moderately wounded.

Kheir el-Din was hailed by the army for his “levelheadedness and courage” during the operation, and as an “Israeli hero” by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, for successfully managing to delay a firefight with members of the Hamas terror group for several minutes.

Some details of the raid remain classified over three years later.

During the mission, the undercover soldiers were driving through Khan Younis in a car when they were stopped and questioned by Hamas operatives. As the Hamas men became more suspicious, the commanding Israeli officer opened fire, killing several Hamas members but also inadvertently hitting two of his comrades, killing Kheir el-Din. The team then escaped back to Israel.

Until Sunday, security considerations led Kheir el-Din to be identified only by his rank and the first Hebrew letter of his name, Lt. Col. “Mem.”

Palestinians stand next to the remains of a car allegedly used by Israeli special forces during an operation in Gaza, which was later destroyed in an Israeli airstrike, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on November 12, 2018. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

In response to the raid and the deaths of its men in the firefight, Hamas and other terror groups in the Strip launched a three-day offensive against Israel, firing some 500 rockets and mortar shells at Israeli cities and towns near the Gaza border and leading the sides to the brink of war.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi later awarded three commendations to members of the team. One was given posthumously to Kheir el-Din, one to another soldier in the special forces unit, and one to the officer who led the operation and whose stray shot killed Kheir el-Din. He is identified by rank and first initial: Lt. Col. Aleph.

Kheir el-Din earned the commendation for “operating with his team behind enemy lines, with determination, levelheadedness and courage in order to defend his comrades with initiative and fearlessness, for taking a lead role in dominating the enemy and for acting wisely in moving to dominate [the enemy],” the army said at the time.

Lt. Col. Mahmoud Kheir el-Din (left) and another officer, in an undated photograph published by the military on May 15, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

Kheir el-Din, from the northern Druze town of Hurfeish, is survived by his wife Nahed and his two sons, the military said. He was drafted into the army in October 1999, initially serving in the Paratroopers Brigade. In 2002, he joined Military Intelligence’s Special Operations Division, where he served until his death in 2018.

He held a BA in law from the College of Management Academic Studies in Rishon Lezion, and an MA in education and business management from the University of Haifa.

In 2009 he established a nonprofit aimed at helping advance the Druze community in Israel. In 2010 he joined up with Aharai!, a nonprofit that encourages youth leadership with an eye toward IDF enlistment, and helped it operate in his hometown.

Commenting on the released information, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called Kheir el-Din an “Israeli hero.”

“It has been three and a half years since Lt. Col. Mahmoud Kheir el-Din was killed in action during a covert operation in Khan Younis. Only now are we allowed to reveal his name and thank him for his contribution and dedication to Israel’s security,” Bennett said.

“I eulogized him at his funeral and now the nation has the privilege of knowing him, his name and the face of an Israeli hero,” the prime minister added.

Lt. Col. Mahmoud Kheir el-Din and his wife Nahed, in an undated photograph published by the military on May 15, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

The findings of an IDF probe into the operation and rescue mission were mixed, identifying a number of tactical errors and faulty planning that led to the firefight, alongside courageous actions by members of the special forces unit who took part in the raid that prevented a greater disaster, including by the officer who accidentally killed Kheir el-Din.

Still, the IDF investigation found that Kheir el-Din behaved calmly during the initial Hamas interrogation and succeeded in delaying the firefight for several minutes.

Overall, IDF chief Kohavi determined the operation to have failed in its stated mission. The highly public, embarrassing debacle led to a series of shakeups within Military Intelligence, notably an early resignation of the head of Military Intelligence’s Special Operations Division.

Several lower-ranking officers from within the Special Operations Division also stepped down from their positions in the wake of the failed mission.

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