IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi will award top military honors to soldiers who were involved in a covert operation last year deep in the Gaza Strip that went awry when the force was discovered, leading to a firefight in which an IDF officer was killed as the soldiers escaped back into Israeli territory.
A Chief of Staff Citation will be posthumously awarded to the officer, who for security reasons can only be referred to by his rank and the first Hebrew letter of his name, Lt. Col. “Mem,” the Israel Defense Forces said in a statement Tuesday.
The soldier’s family were told of the decision Monday night.
“Mem” will get the citation for “his actions during the operation, in which he worked with his team, in enemy territory, with determination, composure and courage, to protect his comrades,” the statement said. “Later he acted with initiative and strove to engage [the enemy], took a leading role in overcoming the enemy and acted resourcefully to advance overcoming [of the enemy].”
An IDF investigation into the incident concluded earlier this year that the officer was hit by a stray round of friendly fire. Many of the details of the operation remain classified.
Additional citations will go to other soldiers who were part of the special operations force as well as members of other units, including in the air force, that launched a rescue operation to pull them out.
Kohavi said an assessment of the mission and the rescue “draws a clear picture of a brave and determined group of courageous soldiers, intent on the mission, who embarked on an important operation for Israeli security, which in a moment was transformed into a complex and challenging incident.
“Alongside the citations, the IDF has been investigating the operation in depth and has learned lessons from it on a number of levels, which are in effect implemented by the IDF,” Kohavi said, in a nod to conclusions from the investigation into the incident that found faults in the planning and execution of the still secret mission.
Chief of staff citations will be given to the commander of the commando force and one of the soldiers for acting “with determination, resourcefulness and courage” during the mission and the return to Israeli territory.
An Air Force Commander Citation will be awarded to the pilot of the rescue helicopter and his copilot, a reservist serviceman, as well as the aircraft’s mechanic. Further military citations will go to another member of the crew as well as members of the army’s elite 669 search and rescue unit, medics, and a doctor for their part in the operation.
On the night of November 11, Israeli special forces soldiers entered the Gazan city of Khan Younis on an intelligence-gathering raid, the details of which remain classified.
According to the Hamas terror group, the troops were attempting to install a listening device in Khan Younis in order to intercept the organization’s communications. The Israeli military refuses to comment on Hamas’s claim.
During the mission, the soldiers were stopped and questioned by Hamas operatives, reportedly because they had acted suspiciously. According to Arab media, the troops were equipped with false documentation identifying them as Palestinians. As the Hamas members became more suspicious one of the Israeli officers opened fire, killing several Hamas members but also inadvertently hitting “Mem” and another soldier who was moderately injured.
A gunfight erupted and the special forces unit beat a rapid retreat from the coastal enclave, with a complicated helicopter evacuation from within an urban area by the elite search-and-rescue Unit 669. During the extraction the Israeli Air Force struck 70 targets inside Gaza in order to give the rescue helicopter the necessary cover to safely land and extract the troops.
In response to the raid and the deaths of its men, Hamas and other terror groups launched a massive three-day attack on 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.
Overall, 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.