Lt. Col. Salman Habaka, 33, commander of the 188th Armored Brigade’s 53rd Battalion, from the Druze village of Yanuh-Jat in the western Galilee, was killed on Thursday, battling Hamas in the northern part of Gaza.
Habaka is the most senior officer to have been killed so far during the IDF’s ground operation in the Gaza Strip.
On October 7, when 2,500 Hamas terrorists launched their surprise onslaught in the south of Israel, Habaka was one of the first IDF soldiers to enter Kibbutz Be’eri. He was responsible for neutralizing dozens of terrorists, and rescuing residents holed up in their homes and shelters.
En route to the south, he reportedly instructed part of his battalion to rapidly redeploy from Hebron in the West Bank to Tze’elim in the south, and from there to move to the kibbutzim Kar Aza, Nahal Oz and Be’eri, where Hamas terrorists were carrying out massacres. He led two tanks to Be’eri and joined forces with a paratroop contingent there.
“The scene at Be’eri was very bad,” he said later (Hebrew video). “But we saw we had one main mission: To save the remaining residents and kill as many terrorists as possible… We went house to house and cleared out [the terrorists].”
Habaka was celebrated as a hero over the following days, and his family traveled from western Galilee to an IDF assembly area in the south to support and encourage him as he prepared to enter Gaza with his battalion. He was also interviewed on a number of local news channels and social media accounts, sharing his account of October 7.
He told Channel 13 that he raced to the south when he saw the first alerts coming in on the Saturday morning. En route, when he realized the unprecedented nature of Hamas’s surprise attack, he started making calls to his battalion’s tank crews. “It was a Saturday, a holiday; it was very hard to get people to come in,” he said.
“If it can drive, it can shoot, and it’s got a radio – it’s on its way,” he told Channel 12 about his organization of the resources he gathered. “Our mission was to secure the area, evacuate residents out of the line of fire, and defeat the terrorists” who had burst into Israel.
War erupted after Hamas’s October 7 massacre, which saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border into Israel from Gaza by land, air and sea, killing some 1,400 people and seizing some 240 hostages of all ages under the cover of a deluge of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities. The vast majority of those killed as gunmen seized border communities were civilians — including babies, children and the elderly. Entire families were executed in their homes, and over 260 were slaughtered at an outdoor festival, many amid horrific acts of brutality by the terrorists.
“What we saw when we entered [Be’eri] was the stuff of nightmares,” Habaka told Channel 12. “Houses on fire, overturned cars, dead terrorists. We saw terrorists in the houses, I must say they’re a bunch of cowards, hiding in the shelters. It was hard for us at first to distinguish between the terrorists and the civilians, so we had to be careful.”
Habaka leaves behind him a wife and a two-year-old son, along with his parents, two brothers and three sisters.
Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.