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'With damage that he had sustained, he didn't have a chance'

Surgeon who tried to save Rabin: Nobody had the guts to declare him dead

25 years on, Yossi Klausner speaks for 1st time about treating the prime minister after shooting at Tel Aviv peace rally, says scale of the loss just gets more profound

Prof. Joseph Klausner, the surgeon who tried to save Yitzhak Rabin's life on November 4, 1995, in a Channel 12 interview on October 28, 2020 (Channel 12 screenshot)
Prof. Joseph Klausner, the surgeon who tried to save Yitzhak Rabin's life on November 4, 1995, in a Channel 12 interview on October 28, 2020 (Channel 12 screenshot)

The surgeon who tried to save Yitzhak Rabin when he was shot at a Tel Aviv peace rally in 1995, has spoken for the first time about the events of that evening, telling of the desperate attempts to resuscitate the prime minister, the faint hope he would survive, and the devastating moment he had to declare his death.

“The more time that passes, the force of that loss — for me at least — only gets stronger,” Prof. Joseph (Yossi) Klausner told Channel 12 news in an interview broadcast on Wednesday, ahead of the 25th anniversary of the assassination. “Those are moments that will stay with me throughout my life.”

Right-wing extremist Yigal Amir shot Rabin to death on November 4, 1995, at the end of an event the prime minister had held in Tel Aviv to demonstrate public support for his efforts to make peace with the Palestinians.

Klausner, the then-head of surgery at the city’s Ichilov Hospital, a position he had held since he was just 39-years-old, said that he had watched the peace rally on television and had listened to Rabin’s speech.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin speaks to a crowd of more than 100,000 Israelis at Tel Aviv’s Kings of Israel Square, Nov 4, 1995, shortly before he was assassinated (AP PHOTO/Nati Harnik)

“I was then reading some medical material. I’ll never forget the phone call. At about 10.02 p.m. my deputy Dr. Motti Gutman phoned. He said we’re [going to be] treating Rabin, he’s critically injured, maybe dead….He has bullet wounds,” Klausner said.

The doctor rushed to the hospital and then to the operating theater, which was packed with around three times the normal number of people.

“There were desperate attempts to resuscitate him. The monitors showed waves as though the heart was working, but that was because his chest was open and they were massaging his heart,” Klausner said.

More than 100,000 Israelis crowd Tel Aviv’s King’s of Israel Square, Nov. 4, 1995 in a show of support for the government’s peace-making policies (AP PHOTO/Nati Harnik)

“There were a few minutes on the monitor that showed signs of life. The heart actually pumped and even produced some blood pressure. There were a few minutes like that that gave a faint sense of hope… but it was artificial because of the huge efforts to revive him,” the surgeon recalled.

“It was clear at this stage that there was really no chance to save him but we continued to try. There was no readiness to give up. Nobody who understood it had the guts to declare [that he was dead],” Klausner said.

The surgeon said that at 11:07 p.m., just over an hour after he had received that initial phone call, he had no choice but to declare the prime minister’s death.

“I had to stand up and tell everybody that I’m very sorry, but we have to announce his death. Because we had exhausted all our best efforts. I thanked them. It was a terrible moment. A terrible moment. I will never forget it,” he said.

“I saw people — surgeons, anesthetists, people from intensive care — collapsing on the floor. I’ve never seen anything like it. People lying on the floor; some of them crying heart-rendingly. It was a rare sight — I’ve never seen it before or since,” he said.

Israelis react to the announcement of the death of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin outside Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, Nov 4 1995 (AP PHOTO/Eyal Warshavsky)

Klausner said that he tried to comfort some of them, but also realized that there were practical steps that needed to be taken in the face of such a momentous event, including signing the prime minister’s death certificate.

“I went over to two of them, placed a hand on a shoulder, a head — with no words,” he said. “When you are on duty, you can’t let yourself get into that situation… there are things you have to do; you have to write up the paperwork.”

Klausner also participated in the post-mortem later that night, when it was discovered that assassin Yigal Amir had used hollow-point bullets to maximize the damage.

Yigal Amir reenacts the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in Tel Aviv. (Government Press Office)

But the surgeon said that even if the shooting had happened today, with all the advances in medical technology and techniques since 1995, Rabin still would not have survived. “No way,” he said. “He didn’t have a thousandth of a chance.”

Even if Rabin had a paramedic traveling with him, able to administer instant care, as the prime minister does today, it would have made no difference. “With the kind of damage that he had sustained, he didn’t have a chance,” Klausner said.

The surgeon said that 25 years later, the significance of Rabin’s loss seemed even more pronounced.

“Twenty-five years have passed, a whole generation… The more time passes, the more you understood the significance, the scale of the loss,” he said.

Israelis light candles in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, Nov. 3, 2007 to commemorate the 12th anniversary of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s death (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

Rabin was a legendary Israeli military leader, commanding a unit in the pre-state Palmach fighting force and then rising through the ranks as a career soldier to become Israel Defense Forces chief of staff at the time of Israel’s Six-Day War victory.

Bill Clinton looks on as Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shake hands during the signing of the Oslo Accords, September 13, 1993. (photo credit: courtesy GPO)

He then launched a political career that saw him serve two stints as prime minister.

After he was elected premier for a second time in 1992, he sought to make peace with the Palestinians, trying in vain to forge a permanent accord with PLO leader Yasser Arafat.

In 1994, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with then-foreign minister Shimon Peres and Arafat for his part in signing the Oslo peace accords.

Eitan Haber, standing outside Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital, announces the death of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, Saturday, Nov 4, 1995. Rabin was gunned down by a Jewish extremist following a peace rally in central Tel Aviv earlier that evening. (AP PHOTo/Eyal Warshavsky)

Eitan Haber, Rabin’s closest political aide, who famously issued a tearful announcement of the prime minister’s death by assassination, died earlier this month.

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