'We are very much a part of this'

Diverse backgrounds give way to shared fate as Gaza friendly-fire victims eulogized

Five soldiers killed by mistaken tank fire in Gaza came from Tel Aviv, Tiberias; two West Bank settlements and Buenos Aires, to serve in special religious unit

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Family and friends of Captain Roy Beit Yaakov attend his funeral at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem on May 16, 2024. (Photo by Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Family and friends of Captain Roy Beit Yaakov attend his funeral at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem on May 16, 2024. (Photo by Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The deaths of five soldiers in a Gaza friendly fire incident affected diverse communities from Tel Aviv to a Haredi community in Tiberias to two West Bank settlements and the Jewish community of Argentina.

Four of the five fatalities – all men in their twenties who were killed in the northern Gaza Strip on Wednesday when an Israel Defense Forces tank mistook them for terrorists – were buried Thursday afternoon.

The funeral of the fifth fatality, Sgt. Ilan Cohen, is scheduled to take place in the coming days, once his parents arrive in Israel from his native Argentina, the Ynet site said. Seven additional soldiers were hurt in the friendly fire incident in Jabaliya Wednesday, three of them seriously.

One of the deadliest incidents in weeks for Israeli troops, the tragedy brought home to many Israelis the human cost of the war. The diversity of the bereaved families and communities, meanwhile, underlined the shared fate uniting different segments of society with tense relationships and diverging worldviews.

Cohen, 20, immigrated to Israel from Buenos Aires after graduating high school in order to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces, according to Arutz Sheva. He attended the Har Bracha hesder yeshiva, an institution that combines Talmudic studies with military service.

He enlisted in the 202nd Battalion of the Paratrooper’s Brigade. Like the other fatalities from Wednesday’s tragedy, Cohen served in its Hetz Company, which was set up in 2016 as a framework for Haredi and other strictly observant recruits to integrate into the fabled special forces brigade.

Ilan Cohen, right, studies with a friend at the Yeshivat Har Bracha in 2024. (Har Bracha)

Cohen was defined as a lone soldier, meaning he did not have a family to return to on furloughs. The ability and desire to integrate were among Cohen’s strong points, according to Barel Shevach, a rabbi from the yeshiva.

“Ilan was a pleasant person. I was surprised by how quickly he integrated in all aspects: Socially and scholastically. He didn’t let anything stop him, even when he had difficulties with the language [Hebrew].” Cohen was “fearless,” Shevach said, “and Zionistic in every fiber of his being.”

Sgt. Daniel Chemu, also 20, was likewise considered a lone soldier. He grew up in a Haredi community in Tiberias but pursued a less stringently observant lifestyle in his teens, a member of the Haredi community of Tiberias told The Times of Israel.

Daniel Chemu after donating his bone marrow on October 26, 2024. (Ezer Mizion)

Chemu, who was buried in Netanya, continued to observe the philanthropic customs that characterize Haredi society. He was supposed to initiate a bone marrow donation procedure in the beginning of October following a match with a 60-year-old woman in the national donor database, to which he had volunteered as soon as he turned 18, Ynet reported.

The procedure was postponed because of the outbreak of war with Hamas on October 7, when about 3,000 of the group’s terrorists invaded Israel, murdering some 1,200 people and abducting another 252. But on October 26, Chemu got permission to donate his marrow, saving the recipient’s life before returning to combat duty at the earliest date possible.

Although he no longer belonged to the sizable Haredi community of Tiberias, his death affected them more than other fatalities, one of that community’s leaders, Avinoam Gotliv, 36, told The Times of Israel.

“We grieve with the rest of Israel for every person who gives their life to protect us, all of us, including the five who fell yesterday,” Gotliv said. “But the fact that he came from our community, from our circles, made it even more poignant.”

Whereas Hetz and similar units, such as the Netzah Yehuda infantry battalion, were set up to encourage and facilitate military service by Haredim, many if not most of the men who serve in such units are not from that sort of background, Gotliv noted.

Haredi men who decided to join the IDF following the October 7 onslaught by Hamas arrive at recruiting offices in Tel Hashomer, near Tel Aviv, October 23, 2023 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Definitions of Haredi vary, he noted, “but most of what the Israeli secular media calls ‘Haredi soldiers’ are not what we would call Haredi. They may be ex-Haredi, or Haredi-Zionist, or just religious.”

Tens of thousands of Haredi men are exempted each year from mandatory military service if they study in yeshivas, as part of a controversial arrangement that the High Court of Justice has declared illegal and discriminatory. Amid the legal and societal dispute over this, some Haredim have adopted hardline views against military service. Haredim who enlist are often subjected to harassment, intimidation and even violence in their society, leading many recruits to leave it and many others to not enlist.

In Haredi society, “we believe that studying Torah is no less important to our survival than taking up arms,” Gotliv said. But countless Haredim, and especially in his neighborhood of Nof Poriah, “value the sacrifice of those who fight.”

As reports of the tragedy reached Nof Poriah and other Haredi communities, “WhatsApp groups opened, urging readers to pray for the fallen. People talk about it. They pray harder. They study harder. Festivities are toned down or canceled. We are very much a part of this, and the loss of someone who used to be one our own is a painful reminder of the shared fate here,” said Gotliv, who is the liaison for the municipality in his overwhelmingly Haredi neighborhood of some 3,000 people.

Family and friends of Israeli soldier Captain Roy Beit Yaakov attend his funeral at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem on May 16, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

In Eli, almost all the 4,000-odd residents of the West Bank settlement knew Capt. Roy Beit Yaakov, the commander of the force hit in Jabaliya. The deceased officer was the son of the mayor of the West Bank Settlement, Avidan Beit Yaakov. The bereaved mayor called his late son “a quiet and gentle combatant, humble and goal-oriented” in a eulogy he published shortly ahead of the slain officer’s funeral at the military cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.

Soldiers killed in northern Gaza on May 15, 2024. Top row, left to right: Sgt. Ilan Cohen, Sgt. Daniel Chemu, Staff Sgt. Betzalel David Shashuah; bottom row, left to right: Staff Sgt. Gilad Arye Boim, Cpt. Roy Beit Yaakov. (Israel Defense Forces)

At around the same time as Beit Yaakov was being buried, thousands gathered to lay to rest Staff Sgt. Betzalel David Shashuah of Tel Aviv at that city’s Kiryat Shaul cemetery.

“The most important thing to him was unity among the People of Israel,” wrote Shashuah’s family in a statement to the media about him. Shashuah, who led a religiously observant lifestyle, had looked forward to serving in the Israel Defense Forces before his enlistment, they said.

After October 7, he gave up his furlough ahead of his discharge from the army in order to join his comrades on the frontline. “He was a hero of the People of Israel,” his family wrote.

Gilad Arye Boim. (Israel Defense Forces)

In the West Bank settlement of Karnei Shomron, Staff Sgt. Gilad Arye Boim, 22, was buried at around the same time, joining seven others killed in the current conflict and laid to rest there.

Boim’s sister, Chen Lapid, had a message for the troops who fired the two rounds into the building where her late brother and his unit were garrisoned. “We embrace you. We feel no anger toward you,” he said at the funeral. “We know that everything you did was for the People of Israel. Carry on with your important mission and when you’re able, come visit us.”

Kalman Libeskind, Boim’s uncle and a prominent journalist with the Kan public broadcaster, described in a post on X his nephew as “a boy of light and kindness, a loyal soldier of this good land, who was killed defending the homeland.” He ended the post with the words: “The People of Israel live.”

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