A green bullet-proof army jeep snakes along the narrow streets of Hebron’s Old
City as the sun sets over the ancient, disputed city, perched high up in the
Lt.-Col. Shahar Spada, deputy-commander of the IDF’s Judea
Brigade, is at the wheel.
“Respect is not guaranteed by rank. These marks
on my shoulder don’t mean a thing,” Spada tells The Jerusalem Post as the jeep
passes by hardened Palestinian youths loitering on a street
“Respect is earned,” Spada continues. “It’s how you behave
personally with the soldiers under your command that counts, the example you
set. The ultimate worth of a commander is measured by how his soldiers conduct
themselves in his absence.”
Minutes later, he is out of his jeep,
greeting young soldiers warmly, patting them on the back and asking them how
Spada is a powerfully-built man who exudes
optimism. Neither of these attributes can be taken for granted, in light
of his life story. It is difficult, if not impossible to hear Spada’s story
without being overwhelmed with a feeling of respect.
Fifteen years ago,
Spada was a young paratrooper on patrol in southern Lebanon, two years before
Israel’s withdrawal from its security zone in the land of cedars.
explosive device went off nearby, causing him severe shrapnel wounds. He
suffered a punctured lung, a broken collar bone and multiple deep shrapnel
penetrations to his back. Spada somehow survived the incident, but the IDF was
convinced that his career in the armed forces had come to an end.
however, had other ideas. “I believe in willpower. If you want to get it done,
nothing can get in your way,” he says.
He spent the next 26 months
rehabilitating himself, swimming laps in a pool and, eventually, jogging. He
rebuilt himself back up from scratch.
“The first time I cried was from
the frustration I felt when the IDF called me to say I would be discharged
because of my injuries,” he recalls. “It was like a knife to the heart.” Spada
admits that “everyone thought I was crazy” for wanting to go back, including
thenpresident Ezer Weizman, who visited him personally.
tooth-and-nail against the decision to discharge him, arguing with seven army
medical committees before finally being approved for service by an eighth
committee, a day he describes as one of the happiest in his life. “We have no
other country,” he says, summing up the motivation for his actions.
took no disability benefits, nothing from this country,” he says. “As long as I
can stand on my feet, and as long as I have the family God gave me, I have
everything I need.”
Back in the army, Spada quickly rose through the
ranks, passing a commander’s course. His motivation for becoming a commander, he
said was the unparalleled satisfaction of leading soldiers in the defense of
He was in the thick of the fighting during Operation
Defensive Shield in 2002, taking part in intense urban warfare against
Palestinian gunmen and suicide bombers in Nablus, Kalkilya and Tulkarm, when one
night he received a call from the army informing him that a suicide bomber was
heading toward an Israeli target. “I learned the details on the route. The
adrenaline was high. We captured him, with the explosives,” he says. As
fighting erupted across the West Bank, Spada married the love of his life, with
whom he would go on to have four daughters.
An officer who had been a
guest at his wedding was killed in a firefight just two days after the
FEW STORIES encapsulate the proximity of ordinary family events
and extreme violence that characterize Spada’s life as much as the events that
unfolded on the night before his first baby daughter’s naming
In the middle of the night, Spada was called out with his unit
to Kalkilya to intercept a terrorist. A firefight ensued, and his subordinate
was shot in the leg.
Spada saw that the wound was not life threatening,
borrowed his subordinate’s bulletproof vest and charged into the battle zone,
exchanging fire with the terrorist before shooting him dead.
afterward, Spada returned to his home, where his anxious wife was waiting. “I
asked her to give me a haircut because I looked a mess,” he says.
go from zero to 100 in seconds,” says Spada, acknowledging, though, that this
ability to spring into action was earned at a high price.
In the summer
of 2006, Spada was studying Middle Eastern affairs at Bar-Ilan University when
he heard that another war had broken out. He rushed to join the paratroopers,
entering southern Lebanon once more to fight against Hezbollah terrorists in
Today, Spada is deputy commander of the Judea
Brigade, which is tasked with securing Hebron, one of the most complex and
difficult-to-defend areas in the West Bank, where Israelis and Palestinians live
practically on one another’s doorsteps. The religious, conservative city is a
Hamas stronghold, and the calm there is deceptive.
“It can easily erupt,
and an attack could occur without leaving an intelligence signature,” Spada
“People don’t stop thinking about launching attacks and we don’t
stop thinking about preventing them,” he says. “Now is a period of calm, but the
motivation for attacks hasn’t dropped.”
So what is stopping a Palestinian
gunman from climbing a hill or mounting a rooftop in the city and opening fire?
Spada says it’s the deterrence his force has created, by making terror cells
wholly uncertain about when – and from where – IDF soldiers will
“It’s the uncertainty that we aim for. We work for this all the
time. We create it, and it’s our defense.” he explains. The gunman will think
that he can’t shoot from this spot because he saw an IDF patrol pass by at 2
a.m. and again at 8 a.m, and he is entirely unsure about when and how many
soldiers could appear next. Naturally, intelligence plays a crucial role as
well, Spada notes.
When attacks do slip through, Spada cannot help but
hold himself accountable, he says. “’How did I miss this?’ That’s what I ask
myself.” Throughout all of the gun battles, the struggle to recover from his
injuries, and his day-to-day security missions, Spada says he has not fallen
prey to fear – except on one occasion, which occurred far from the traditional
Spada was in Jerusalem with his wife in December 2001 when
they were caught up by chance in the midst of one of the most brutal suicide
bombing attacks Israel had ever seen, involving two suicide bombers on foot and
one more in a vehicle. The target: civilians at Jerusalem’s Zion Square.
He and his wife were visiting the area when the first blast went
Spada instinctively drew his firearm and ran toward the attack,
instructing his wife to stay in their vehicle. As he made his way toward
the blast site, he heard two more blasts. Spada ran back to his car and was
horrified to discover that his wife was not there. He began frantically
searching for her, while also encountering seriously injured people, taking off
his belt and shoelaces to tourniquet their wounds.
“I jumped over dead
bodies and helped the injured, all the while asking, ‘where is my wife?’” he
Fortunately, he later found her safe and well.
were murdered and 155 were injured in that attack.
experience has left him convinced that jihadi terrorism can be stopped. “The
army can do better than them,” he says, noting the steep drop in such attacks
since the bad old days of the second intifada.
“People come here to
Hebron and feel safe,” he says. “That’s my mission.”