Operation Protective Edge (Tzuk Eitan, or “Operation Solid Cliff,” in Hebrew) produced countless heroes on the Israeli side. But one fighter will perhaps remain a symbol of the war, for his courage and modesty.
He coincidentally shares the name of the operation and is known, for security reasons, only as Lt. Eitan.
The 24-year-old officer, deputy commander of a Givati Brigade reconnaissance unit, was born and bred in Jerusalem.
He is the son of Suzy and Simcha, who made aliya from New York in 1985, and graduated from the capital’s Horev Yeshiva High School and then the Eli pre-military academy.
On August 1, two members of his unit – Maj. Benaya Sarel, 26, from Kiryat Arba, commander of the brigade’s Reconnaissance Battalion, and St.-Sgt. Liel Gidoni, 20, from Jerusalem – were killed in a Hamas ambush in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip.
Fearing that a third soldier, Lt. Hadar Goldin, had been abducted by Hamas gunmen who escaped through a terror tunnel, Lt. Eitan asked his company commander and then his battalion commander for permission, against standing orders, to enter the shaft and try to rescue his comrade. When they said no, Lt. Eitan appealed to a higher ranking officer, and got the green light from Givati Brigade commander Col. Ofer Winter via the deputy commander.
Winter ordered Lt. Eitan to throw a stun grenade into the tunnel before going in.
He ran into the tunnel without a helmet, vest or rifle and spent more than half an hour underground, with two of his soldiers behind him, searching for Goldin. They ran almost a kilometer in the claustrophobic structure, which had been dug some 20 meters underground and led to a maze of other tunnels, signposted in Arabic.
And although they did not recover Goldin’s body, Eitan and his men found remains that were to provide enough forensic evidence for the IDF to declare the 23-year-old soldier killed in action.
Goldin had been killed and Hamas gunmen had dragged his body through the tunnel, an IDF investigation determined.
Lt. Eitan said in media interviews upon his return home that he did not consider his actions heroic, and any other soldier in the IDF would have done the same.
“I don’t want a medal. I’m no hero,” he told Yediot Aharonot.
“If not me, someone else would have done it. This is not some kind of heroic feat. This is the essence of being a combat soldier, of being a commander.”
Nevertheless, his commanding officers have recommended Lt. Eitan for a citation.
Asked on Channel 2 what his parents thought of his actions, he replied that his mother was probably angry over his decision to endanger his life.
His parents said, however, that he had acted in the spirit of the values with which he had been raised.
“The decision wasn’t really a decision,” his mother, Suzy, said. “He just saw what he needed to do and did it.”
“Eitan always wanted to be a combat soldier, to give everything he could,” his father, Simcha, said. “He always wanted to be the best he could be, in yeshiva and in the army.”
On his way home to Jerusalem last week, Lt. Eitan stopped at the Goldin family home in Kfar Saba, and in an emotional encounter, returned several personal items belonging to Hadar, including his tefillin, cellphone and notebook.
Goldin’s parents and his identical twin, Tzur (an officer in the Paratroop Brigade), hugged Eitan and praised his courage.
“He risked his life,” said Goldin’s father, also named Simcha.
Lt. Eitan said he had been strengthened by the Goldins, whom he called “a family of heroes.”
While Lt. Eitan was visiting the family as they sat shiva for their son, President Reuven Rivlin entered the room.
According to someone present, everyone stood up as a sign of respect, but Rivlin told Lt. Eitan to stay where he was, saying: “You are a hero of the State of Israel. I can wait.” And the president did indeed wait until Lt. Eitan’s condolence visit was over.
“You may take your act of heroism for granted, but it gives us a lot of hope,” Rivlin told him. “Your decision is awe-inspiring. You soldiers are heroes on a personal level, and also on a national and moral level.”
Lt. Eitan, we salute you. You made Israel proud.