Soldier who ran into Gaza tunnel to save comrade cited for heroism

Sixty-seven medals handed out to soldiers for outstanding service during 50-day conflict with Hamas-led fighters

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

IDF Lt. Eitan Fund during a decorations and citations ceremony at the Palmachim air base, February 2, 2015 (photo credit: Flash90)
IDF Lt. Eitan Fund during a decorations and citations ceremony at the Palmachim air base, February 2, 2015 (photo credit: Flash90)

The IDF on Monday awarded citations and medals to dozens of soldiers for their courageous actions during last summer’s conflict in the Gaza Strip, including some medals given posthumously.

In total, 67 citations were given during a ceremony at the Palmachim air base, which was attended by Israel Defense Forces commander Lieutenant General Benny Gantz and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.

The highest decoration, a Distinguished Service Medal, was awarded to Lt. Eitan Fund, 24, who famously rushed into a tunnel to try and stop the kidnapping of Hadar Goldin during an ambush near Rafah on August 1, 2014.

Goldin was killed in a surprise attack as a temporary ceasefire during the 7-week conflict was due to begin, and his body dragged into a tunnel.

Believing Goldin to still be alive, and in effort to prevent a dreaded scenario for the IDF in which one of its soldiers would be captured by Hamas, Fund plunged into the darkness of the tunnel armed only with a pistol.

As four of his soldiers followed him, Fund began a desperate effort to save Goldin. Although Fund was not able to locate Goldin, he did recover enough of the dead soldier’s remains for the IDF to pronounce him dead and give him a full military burial.

Hamas apparently still retains some of Goldin’s remains as well those of another IDF soldier Oron Shaul, who was killed in a separate indicent.

“In a developed society, medals should not be awarded after a war but rather for developing the land,” Fund, 24, said as he received his medal. “But if necessary, we would do it a second and third time, with our heads held high.”

IDF soldiers Oron Shaul (left) and Hadar Goldin (right) (photo credit: Courtesy/Flash90)
IDF soldiers Oron Shaul (left) and Hadar Goldin (right) (photo credit: Courtesy/Flash90)

Speaking before the ceremony, Fund noted that, despite the honor, the presentation would still be an emotional challenge.

“We remember our friends who fell and all the bereaved families,” he said. “It is hard to receive a medal for such a serious incident. I hope we get over it, that we’ll know how to deal with it.”

The rescue effort also led to another of the citations given during the ceremony. In the minutes after Fund and his comrades had disappeared into the tunnel and, with their fate unknown, Staff Sergeant Meir Unterberg led another four soldiers in their wake to provide additional support, earning him a citation.

Four female soldiers also received citations for their actions.

Lt. Regina Pekman, a medical officer, was decorated for her work in organizing the treatment of injured soldiers fresh from the field of battle.

Three other women each received a Letter of Commendation. Sergeant Ronnie Jackson, Corporal Noa Teitel, and Sergeant Lihi Meir were all honored for their actions in observation units where they identified terrorist infiltrations into Israel and helped direct IDF forces to their locations.

Gantz spoke of the readiness to face danger displayed by those who were decorated at the event.

“There are many courageous stories,” he said. “Courage is relevant for all those who took part in the campaign, from the simple fact that they chose to do something despite the possible dangers.

“Under heavy fire, and despite all the dangers, you proved what bravery is,” said Gantz, addressing the decorated soldiers. “In the heat of battle you took the extra step of courage and bravery that decided the battle and opened the way to succeeding in the mission.”

Ya’alon also praised the commitment of the soldiers.

“You acted calmly and with courage, with wisdom and resourcefulness while demonstrating leadership and risking your life,” he said. “You knew that you could pay with your lives for your actions, but you were ready to go further and with your bodies protect your comrades and the citizens of Israel.”

IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz speaks during a decorations and citations ceremony at the Palmachim Airbase on Feb 2, 2015. (photo credit: Flash90)
IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz speaks during a decorations and citations ceremony at the Palmachim Airbase on February 2, 2015. (photo credit: Flash90)

Four Chief of Staff citation medals were presented to other soldiers for their action. Reservist
Sergeant first class Omri, 26 — identified only by his first name due to his role as a warrior in the IDF’s secretive “Cherry” brigade that operates in the West Bank — was honored for using his own body to shield another soldier by standing next to him after a grenade was thrown at them.

Another reserve soldier, Staff Sergeant Yugav Ofir, 22, was decorated for providing covering fire for other troops who were under attack as was Sergeant Sohar Elbaz, 20, who killed four gunmen who attacked him.

Citations were also awarded to army units for the efforts during the conflict. The Maglan and Sayeret Matkal commando units, the Mechanical Engineers Division, and the Central Command all received citations. The engineers were recognized for their work in destroying networks of cross-border tunnels used by Hamas members to launch attacks inside Israel.

Six decorations were given to soldiers killed in combat, one of whom was Lt. Col. Dolev Keidar, who chose to lead his soldiers into an area where there were warnings of possible terrorist infiltrations into Israel.

He was ambushed and killed along with two of his soldiers in a firefight with Palestinian fighters, but in so doing prevented a serious terror attack inside Israeli territory, the army said.

The IDF’s Iron Dome batteries also received citations.

During the 50-day conflict, the IDF launched a major incursion into the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip to counter persistent rocket attacks on Israeli border towns and to destroy cross-border tunnels that threatened Israeli towns.

Over 2,000 Gazans were killed during the fighting, according to Palestinian tallies, though the IDF said up to half of that number were combatants and blamed Hamas for all civilian fatalities since it emplaced its war machine in residential areas.

During the conflict, Palestinians in Gaza fired over 4,000 rockets at Israel’s towns and cities including some that reached as far as Tel Aviv and beyond. In total, 67 IDF soldiers were killed along with six civilians in Israel.

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