'I made my modest contribution'

Ex-deputy IDF head Yair Golan wins plaudits for saving partygoers

From ‘leftist traitor’ to national hero, man who was passed over for IDF chief after criticizing trends in Israeli society rescues youngsters hiding from Hamas terrorists

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Yair Golan, October 14, 2023. (Kan TV screenshot, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law).
Yair Golan, October 14, 2023. (Kan TV screenshot, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law).

Former IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan has long been a bogeyman of the right.

A former left-wing Meretz Party lawmaker and outspoken critic of the government’s controversial judicial reform (currently on hold), he has been called a left-wing traitor.

But over the past few days, as news of his exploits on the first and subsequent days of the war emerges, he has become something of a national hero.

On the morning of October 7, after Hamas terrorists had invaded Israel, he jumped into his small Toyota Yaris and headed for the area where — it would later emerge — more than 260 young people were being mown down in hails of gunfire.

With his intimate knowledge of the territory, he managed to find and rescue many of those who had fled on foot from the party and were hiding in fields and bushes — mainly on the basis of WhatsApp location messages sent to him by the youths or their parents.

“All those who tried to escape in vehicles on the road were shot to death,” he later told the Ynet website. “Those who survived were the ones who fled on foot into the fields, and I found them.”

A former Northern Front and Home Front commander, Golan, 61, now a general in the reserves, was overlooked for the position of IDF chief of staff in 2018 after delivering a speech in which he likened processes being seen in Israel to what he said were similar “disturbing processes” that took place in Europe in the run-up to the Holocaust.

On the morning of Saturday, October 7, he was woken by his son to the news of the attacks. He listened to the radio and grabbed his general’s uniform and a pair of his son’s army boots, which he found in a storeroom at home.

He drove to the Home Front Command, where he was given a weapon, a cartridge, a helmet, and a protective vest, then headed for the Gaza border community of Kibbutz Urim.

There, soldiers had already managed to kill all the terrorists who had attacked. Some had fallen in the battle, and the district commander was wounded in the shoulder.

A WhatsApp message from his sister with the location of three young people hiding in the fields close to the party massacre sent Golan off on a string of survivor rescues.

He witnessed the aftermath of the massacre.

“One terrorist force attacked the party directly, while others arrived by the road from the north and the south,” he said.

There was a certain, but not hysterical risk involved

Lauded as a hero, especially by the parents whose children he saved, Golan said, “It’s an area I know intimately. I don’t need to navigate there with a map, and where I saw that it was okay to enter — where there was a certain, but not hysterical, risk involved, I went in and made my modest contribution.”

Ultra-Orthodox Meir Spanier, who voted for right-wing firebrand Itamar Ben Gvir in the last election, hugs Yair Golan, October 14, 2023. (Kan TV screenshot, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

The Kan TV network followed Golan for a day, during which they filmed an ultra-Orthodox volunteer from the Zaka emergency response organization hugging the former general, and saying, “I want you to film this. I’m Meir Spanier.  I voted for [National Security Minister Itamar] Ben Gvir [of the right-wing Otzma Yehudit party] in the last election. I was incited by the poison that the right-wing public poured on the left-wing public. I hated him [Golan]. Now I love and admire him. And I’m really sorry. ”

Shaking Spanier’s hand, Golan said, “A meeting like this is a meeting of hope… It shows that things here can change for the better, and quickly.”

He is currently visiting communities in Israel. Last week, Kan TV accompanied him to a Bedouin community, where he gave advice on protection. Most Bedouins lack protective rooms.

Asked by the reporter whether people would call him out for visiting Negev Arabs, who some feared could turn into an additional hostile front against Jews, he replied, “We’re making a terrible basic mistake. The challenge for us all is to give the moderate majority the loudest voice, and not give the voice to people who sometimes build a whole political career on fanning hate and deepening divisions.”

Yair Golan visits a Bedouin community and advises on protection measures for the many families who have no protected rooms, October 14, 2023. (Kan TV screenshot, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law).

On Monday, Golan and his wife Ruti took to Facebook with a video clip from their home to express empathy with all the parents whose sons have been mobilized.

Two of their sons have been called up, one to the elite Maglan unit and one to a tank battalion, one in the north, the other in the south.

Golan said he had never been frightened for himself. However, he experienced anxiety for the first time in his life for 51 days of the 2014 Gaza war while his sons were serving. “It sits in your stomach, and you don’t know what to do with it,” he said.

Asked whether the 2005 disengagement from Gaza was a mistake, Golan told Ynet that it was not.

“We need to understand where we are headed: annexation or separation. I think the original idea of ​​dividing the land is essential. The disengagement from Gaza was a welcome thing. The mistake was that we left security responsibility in the hands of Hamas.”

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