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Minister’s revelation shines new light on 1984 death of commando behind enemy lines

For years, the military would only say Barak Sharabi died in an unspecified operational incident; now new details have been revealed on the top-secret action in Syrian territory

Staff Sergeant Barak Sharabi, a soldier in Sayeret Matkal who was killed in Syria in 1984, during his service (Courtesy Barak Sharabi memorial website)
Staff Sergeant Barak Sharabi, a soldier in Sayeret Matkal who was killed in Syria in 1984, during his service (Courtesy Barak Sharabi memorial website)

Public Security Minister Omer Barlev’s revelation of previously classified details of an elite soldier’s 1984 death during a television interview Tuesday has sparked renewed interest in the circumstances of the mysterious incident.

For 37 years, the military censor had barred all details of Staff Sergeant Barak Sharabi’s death while he served in the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, known in Hebrew as Sayeret Matkal. The army confirmed only that he had been killed in an operational accident.

But Barlev told Kan news on Tuesday that Sharabi’s death, “under my command, deep inside Syrian territory,” still weighed on him heavily, opening the door to the censor allowing new details of the incident to come out.

Sharabi was killed during a routine but complex operation conducted behind enemy lines on December 18, 1984, the details of which remain redacted.

Several kilometers beyond the border, as the commando forces drove toward their destination, one of their vehicles took a turn at high speed and overturned, killing Sharabi and injuring eight others.

The operation was immediately halted and other vehicles assisted in evacuating Sharabi’s body and the wounded back to Israeli territory.

Staff Sergeant Barak Sharabi, a soldier in Sayeret Matkal who was killed in Syria in 1984 (Courtesy Barak Sharabi memorial website)

Barlev had taken command of Sayeret Matkal in March of that year. Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew sister site, reports that the operation, Barlev’s first major one as commander, was one of the greatest operational blunders in the unit’s history and caused long-lasting damage to Israel’s intelligence operations.

“We were set back years,” a former senior officer in the unit said. “We recalculated. Everyone was hurt: the unit, Mossad, Shin Bet, the Yamam [police special forces]. Secrets and operational methods were revealed. We had to delay [actions] and change methods. Everyone was in shock for years.”

A former officer in Sayeret Matkal on Tuesday said Barlev was to blame for the incident, as a similar crash to the one that occurred during the operation happened during the months of training that preceded it.

“Two or three weeks before the operation officers, came to Barlev and told him that team was going to have a disaster,” the officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We never do something in the unit if there are doubts, but Barlev didn’t want to hear it. He was rather lacking in experience at that point.”

The operation was approved by the IDF chief of staff as well as then-prime minister Shimon Peres and defense minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Then-Sayeret Matkal commander Omer Barlev during his military service (Courtesy)

“You can’t ignore so many advance warnings and set out on such a sensitive and complex operation,” another former officer said. “You can’t compromise on such an issue. It was driving operationally within enemy territory. The moment you get behind the wheel any error is critical and can lead to disaster.”

But the commander of the operation, Shahar Argaman, who would later go on to lead Sayeret Matkal himself, rejected claims that Barlev was to blame.

“I don’t think so,” Argaman told Zman Yisrael. “It was a very complicated operation. There are always slipups. With that operation, we jumped two steps forward, and when you walk along the edge sometimes you fall.”

Shahar Argaman (Kan screenshot)

Argaman added that the operation “included many daring aspects. We’ve done far more complex things since then.”

He also praised Barlev’s conduct after the deadly accident, saying he oversaw the forces’ extraction from his command post calmly and professionally.

Still, the former commander was critical of Barlev for revealing the information now. “Barlev was wrong” to do so, he said. “It was not right to say what he said. There are still secrets behind this that should not be revealed.”

Public Security Minister Omer Barlev attends a ceremony at the Israel Police National Headquarters in Jerusalem, September 5, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

As for Sharabi, he has been described as one of the unit’s quiet but highly effective soldiers, who was killed after signing on beyond his mandatory service.

“Barak was an excellent soldier,” Argaman recalled. “He was in the force that set out on the operation because of special abilities he had, which I cannot reveal.”

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