Troops honored for rescue mission after failed Gaza raid
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Troops honored for rescue mission after failed Gaza raid

IDF releases redacted radio chatter from helicopter sent into Khan Younis to evacuate special forces troops caught in firefight with Hamas last year

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi presents a citation of merit to the family of an IDF officer killed in a failed intelligence operation in the Gaza Strip last year, on September 22, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi presents a citation of merit to the family of an IDF officer killed in a failed intelligence operation in the Gaza Strip last year, on September 22, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israel Defense Forces on Sunday awarded citations of merit and other commendations to a number of soldiers for their roles in a mission to evacuate a special forces team during a firefight last November with the Hamas terror group following a failed raid in the Gaza city of Khan Younis.

The military on Sunday also released an edited audio recording of the radio chatter from the helicopter sent in to rescue the troops, in which the pilot and flight crew can be heard demanding a proper count of those on board, a move that put the aircraft at risk of attack but was necessary to ensure no one was left behind.

On the night of November 11, 2018, the Israeli special forces troops entered Khan Younis on an intelligence-gathering operation, some details of which remain classified almost a year later.

During the mission, the soldiers were stopped and questioned by Hamas operatives. As the Hamas members became more suspicious, one of the Israeli officers opened fire, killing several Hamas members but also inadvertently hitting two of this comrades, killing one of them — who for security reasons can only be identified by his rank and first letter of his Hebrew name, Lt. Col. “Mem” — and injuring the second.

In response to the raid and the deaths of its men in the firefight, Hamas and other terror groups launched a massive three-day attack on Israel, firing some 500 rockets and mortar shells at Israeli cities and towns near the Gaza border and leading the sides to the brink of war.

A posthumous citation of merit that was presented to the family of an IDF officer killed in a failed intelligence operation in the Gaza Strip last year on September 22, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi awarded three commendations, known in Hebrew as a tzalash. One was given posthumously to “Mem,” one to another soldier in the special forces unit and one to the officer who led the operation and whose stray shot killed “Mem.” He too can only be identified by rank and first initial: Lt. Col. Aleph.

“A tzalash, a citation of merit, is given primarily when there’s proper functioning and the presence of danger, and that’s the situation that you were in. Going from a situation that went awry required a series of actions under threat of danger, which led us to a situation where we had no choice but to cite you for merit,” Kohavi said during the ceremony.

The military lauded Aleph for his actions, despite the friendly fire accident, saying in a statement earlier this year that he “acted calmly, courageously and heroically, and allowed the troops to be rescued.”

An undisclosed number of soldiers from the special forces unit received commendation from Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Tamir Hayman — a slightly lower honor that is a general-level citation of merit.

Three members of the flight team — its captain, copilot and mechanic — also received general-level citations of merit from Israeli Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin. Five airmen earned brigadier general-level citations of merit from the commander of the Tel Nof air base.

Israeli Air Force commander Amikam Norkin stands with eight airmen who received commendations for their roles in a rescue operation following a failed intelligence operation in the Gaza Strip last year, on September 22, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

“There was a team that was trained in the heritage of the air force and on the value that we don’t leave any soldier behind… In this case, with the precision and the skill, the determination to complete the mission with courage and bravery, and that ‘just a bit more’ — this rescue became a chapter in the ethos of the air force,” Norkin said at the ceremony.

Mem’s citation was presented to his wife, parents and children in a private ceremony in their home.

Palestinians stand next to the remains of a car allegedly used by Israeli special forces during an operation in Gaza, which was was later destroyed in an Israeli airstrike, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on November 12, 2018. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Mem earned the commendation for “operating with his team behind enemy lines, with determination, levelheadedness and courage in order to defend his comrades with initiative and fearlessness, for taking a lead role in dominating the enemy and for acting wisely in moving to dominate [the enemy],” the army said.

According to an IDF investigation of the failed mission released earlier this year, Mem behaved calmly during the initial Hamas interrogation and succeeded in delaying the firefight for several minutes.

At some point, Aleph determined that they were about to be exposed and opened fire at the Hamas operatives.

A helicopter carrying a wounded Israeli soldier who was injured during an operation in the Gaza Strip lands outside Beersheba’s Soroka Medical Center on November 11, 2018. (Twitter)

A team from the Israeli Air Force’s elite heli-borne Unit 669, which specializes in search and rescue, was sent in to retrieve the troops from Khan Younis, accompanied by fighter jets and attack helicopters, which provided air support.

According to the IDF, 20 minutes passed between Aleph opening fire at the Hamas operatives and the special forces unit landing in Israel. During that time, the Israeli Air Force struck 70 targets inside Gaza in order to give the Unit 669 Sikorsky CH-53 helicopter the necessary cover to safely land and extract the troops, the army said.

The transport helicopter spent a total of three minutes on the ground in the Gaza Strip. Of that, 48 seconds were spent getting everyone on board the craft, and another two minutes and 12 seconds were used checking that no one was left behind, a situation that could have hugely significant strategic implications for Israel.

Israeli Air Force commander Amikam Norkin presents a citation of merit to a pilot who took part in a rescue operation following a failed intelligence operation in the Gaza Strip last year, on September 22, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

That decision by the pilot and the flight team was cited as one of the primary reasons for the citations of merit presented by IAF chief Norkin.

“The [rescue] teams operated professionally, calmly and courageously, and showed leadership under uncertain conditions. Their actions displayed the values of camaraderie during battle, determination and dedication to the mission, which saved human lives. For this the flight crews were awarded citations of merit and certificates of appreciation,” the army said.

‘How many are there?’

In the redacted recording released on Sunday, the pilot of the transport helicopter can be heard demanding a precise count of the number of people on board in order to ensure that no one was left behind, despite the risk posed by staying inside the Gaza Strip.

“How many are there? How many are there?! You need to count [redacted number of soldiers]. We need you to tell us that there are [redacted number of soldiers]. We can’t take off without that,” the flight team is heard saying over the radio. (The images used in the video released by the IDF were illustrative, not from the actual operation.)

The flight crew notes that there is massive gunfire in the area.

After several seconds, the team receives confirmation that all of the troops are on board.

“Everyone is here?” someone asks.

“Yes,” another responds. “We got it. We’re on our way out. We’ve already left.”

On board, medics from Unit 669 tended to Mem and the other injured soldier.

“Within five minutes we’ll be at the hospital,” someone from the flight crew is heard saying in the recording.

A member of Hamas’ Al-Qassam Brigades stands next to the remains of a car that was destroyed following an Israeli airstrike, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on November 12, 2018. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

According to Hamas officials, the Israeli soldiers were from the Sayeret Matkal elite reconnaissance unit and entered the coastal enclave through a proper border crossing, either Israel’s Erez Crossing or Egypt’s Rafah. They were said to have been driving through Gaza in civilian vans, approximately three kilometers (two miles) from the border.

The terror group said the special forces unit was made up of both men and women, who were dressed in traditional Palestinian Muslim attire.

Israel has not confirmed any of those claims.

The findings of the IDF probe into the operation and rescue mission were mixed, identifying a number of tactical errors and faulty planning that led to the firefight, alongside courageous actions by members of the special forces unit who took part in the raid that prevented a greater disaster, including by the officer who accidentally killed Mem with a stray shot.

Overall, IDF chief Kohavi determined the operation to have failed in its stated mission. The highly public, embarrassing debacle led to a series of shakeups within Military Intelligence, notably the early resignation of the head of Military Intelligence’s Special Operations Division.

Several lower ranking officers from within the Special Operations Division also stepped down from their positions this year in the wake of the failed mission.

“The chief of staff determined that the operation’s mission was not carried out. He expressed deep sorrow at the death of Lt. Col. Mem and noted the courage displayed by the soldiers,” the army said in a statement in July.

“The chief of staff noted that a breakdown of how the events transpired raised a number of errors and mishaps that led to the troops being exposed, which signify shortcomings in the way it was carried out and in the planning process.”

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