Thousands gathered Monday for the funeral of an IDF special forces senior officer who was killed overnight during a covert operation in the Gaza Strip that ran into trouble and culminated in a fierce exchange of fire with Palestinian gunmen.
President Reuven Rivlin, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Communication Minister Ayoub Kara represented the government as the lieutenant colonel was laid to rest.
The soldier, 41, and identified in media only by the Hebrew initial “Mem,” was from a community in northern Israel. He was survived by his wife and two children.
“I came to thank and to salute a hero, on behalf of the entire State of Israel. The very best of our boys, whose memory will be forever engraved in our hearts,” Rivlin said. “Your pain is our pain, your grief is our grief. The grief of the whole people, the whole people of Israel.
“Mem was one of the bravest and most daring soldiers and commanders of the State of Israel and he fell defending the citizens of Israel, the children of Israel,” he added. “He lived the values he was brought up on: bravery, self-sacrifice, daring and determination, and that is how he died.”
In a eulogy, Bennett said the lieutenant colonel would go down in history “as one of the greatest Israeli heroes, alongside Yoni Netanyahu and Roi Klein.” He was referring to the brother of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was killed in the 1976 Israeli hostage rescue in Entebbe, and an Israeli soldier who jumped on a grenade in the 2006 Second Lebanon War to save his men.
The slain officer “did not hesitate to take part in this complex mission and was not afraid to endanger his life,” continued the minister, a member of the high-level security cabinet. “He dreamed of being a teacher. He will no longer be able to do that, but generations of children will be educated about his legacy.”
One of those who attended the ceremony eulogized Lt. Col. Mem as “a modest hero, and one of the finest warriors,” the Ynet news site reported. “Many citizens owe him their life. He risked his life time after time. It is hard to eulogize him. He was the salt of the earth… a daring commander.”
Most details of the raid in Gaza remained subject to military censorship and could not be published.
The army described the incident, in which another officer was moderately injured and which sparked hours of clashes, as an intelligence-gathering mission that went awry.
Condolences and commiserations over the death of the officer came Monday from senior Israeli figures including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Rivlin, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein.
Netanyahu tweeted: “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 injured soldier, who has also not been identified, regained consciousness Monday morning, and was not in life-threatening danger, Beersheba’s Soroka Medical Center said in a statement.
After he regained consciousness, his wife and children were allowed to see him for a short time.
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.
At some point during the 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 to bomb the surrounding area and made its way 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.”
According to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, seven Palestinians were killed in the exchange and another seven were injured. Their funerals were held in Gaza Monday.