Netanyahu: ‘The citizens of Israel owe an enormous debt to fallen soldier’

Defense minister says contributions by Lt. Col. Mem, who was killed in intelligence-gathering mission that went awry, may never be known publicly

A helicopter carrying a wounded Israeli soldier who was injured during an operation in the Gaza Strip lands outside Beersheba's Soroka Medical Center on November 11, 2018. (Twitter)
A helicopter carrying a wounded Israeli soldier who was injured during an operation in the Gaza Strip lands outside Beersheba's Soroka Medical Center on November 11, 2018. (Twitter)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday offered his condolences to the  family of the senior special forces officer who was killed overnight during an operation in the Gaza Strip that sparked hours of clashes.

“I bow my head in sadness at the loss of Lt. Col. Mem, a glorious fighter who fell during an IDF operation in the Gaza Strip,” the prime minister tweeted.

“The day will come when we can tell of all his valor. The citizens of Israel owe him an enormous debt.

“Our forces acted valiantly tonight. I salute Lt. Col. Mem, his family and his comrades in arms,” wrote Netanyahu.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at a press conference in Paris, France, on November 11, 2018. (screen capture: GPO)

President Reuven Rivlin said he was “shocked and saddened” to learn of the death of Lt. Col. M, and said he was joining the rest of Israel in praying for the recovery of the other soldier injured in what the army described as an intelligence-gathering mission that went awry.

The injured soldier regained consciousness Monday morning, and was not in life-threatening danger, the hospital said.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (C) leads discussions at military headquarters in Tel Aviv, November 12, 2018 (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman extended his condolences to the family of Lt. Col. M, and indicated that his contributions to the state may never be known publicly.

“Israel lost an experienced fighter, whose contributions to the country will remain a secret for years to come,” Liberman tweeted. “I send my heartfelt condolences to his family and wishes for a speedy recovery to the injured officer.”

Liberman on Monday morning continued his security consultations at the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, his office said.

President Reuven Rivlin speaking at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Tel Aviv, October 22, 2018. (Mark Neyman/GPO)

Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett, a member of the security cabinet, said Israel was united in mourning the death of the officer and praying for the speedy recovery of the other.

“Thanks to the heroes who work year-round in the shadows to ensure Israel’s security, we can all live here safely,” he said in a statement.

Chairman of the Yesh Atid party Yair Lapid also offered his condolences, and in a statement praised IDF soldiers “who with bravery and determination reminded Hamas and our other enemies that there is no place where we will not find them.”

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni said Monday that all of Israel was mourning the death of Lt. Col. M, and that Israel is “proud of our courageous soldiers who are ready for any mission at any hour.”

Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein extended condolences to the family of the “courageous fighter” on behalf of the Israeli parliament. He said the hearts of all Israelis were “with our forces working in Gaza, and we hope that they all return in peace.”

IDF Spokesperson Ronen Manelis said Monday that the overnight mission in Gaza was intended as an intelligence-gathering mission by IDF special forces operating deep inside Gaza, not an assassination or kidnapping attempt.

Most details of the raid, including the identity of the officer who was killed, remained subject to a military censor and could not be published.

Members of the Palestinian security forces gather at a hospital morgue where the bodies of five of the six men killed during an Israeli operation on Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip were transported on November 11, 2018. (Said KHATIB / AFP)

At some point during the overnight operation, the Israeli troops clashed with local Hamas fighters, killing a senior commander and several other members of the Gaza-ruling terrorist group.

The IDF unit called in aerial support — aircraft to bomb the surrounding area — and made its away out of the Gaza Strip.

Manelis said the soldiers operating in Gaza overnight “became trapped in a highly complex situation but they had responded “heroically, hit those who threatened them and extracted themselves to Israeli territory.”

In addition to the IDF lieutenant colonel who was killed — identified only by the Hebrew letter of his first name, “Mem” — a second IDF officer was wounded in the firefight and taken to Beersheba’s Soroka Medical Center in moderate, stable condition.

According to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, seven Palestinians in total were killed in the exchange and another seven were injured.

Following the raid, Palestinian terrorist groups launched at least 17 projectiles — rockets and mortar shells — at southern Israel. Three of them were intercepted by the Iron Dome air defense system. The rest fell in open fields outside populated communities, one of them causing light damage to a greenhouse in the Eshkol region.

Hamas accused Israel of sabotaging an emerging ceasefire agreement that was brokered by Egypt and supported by Qatar.

Residents of southern Israel were told to remain close to their bomb shelters in the event of reprisals Sunday night, with updated instructions early Monday allowing them to move away from protected spaces. Early Monday the IDF declared the area around Gaza a closed military zone and train lines south of Ashkelon were cancelled.

Netanyahu cut short an official state visit to Paris and is set to return to Israel later on Monday to try to salvage the ceasefire deal with Hamas.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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