In the annals of Israel’s numerous brutal wars and conflicts, Jerusalem District Commander Col. Shai Belaish has been indelibly scarred by tragedy and loss.
These include the deaths and life-threatening injuries of young men who served with him and under his command in southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, as well as a bullet wound to his head that nearly took his life.
Yet, despite the profound horrors that have defined his 20 years of IDF service, Belaish, 39, married and the father of three from Ashkelon, continues to actively serve the country he loves to honor the memories of his fallen brothers.
Indeed, after serving as company commander in the elite Givati Brigade for 14 years, Belaish was named Jerusalem District commander six years ago. In this esteemed role, he will lead this year’s Remembrance Day ceremonies in Jerusalem.
According to Belaish, it is his story of loss that propels him to continue to fight, and makes leading the memorial services his greatest honor.
In 1996, Belaish nearly died after sustaining a gunshot wound to the left side of his head during a deadly gunfight in the Gaza Strip. Three other IDF soldiers were killed in the exchange.
“It was a very big gunfight and the bullet exited through another hole in my head,” he said.
Two years later, within a two-week period as a company commander stationed in southern Lebanon, he lost two soldiers, Nicolai Rappaport, 19, and Asaf Rosenfeld, 22, in a gunfight against Hezbollah.
Six other men in his unit were critically wounded, before killing four terrorists.
“A couple weeks after Nicolai was killed, our base, Karkom, was attacked by missiles, and Asaf, my platoon commander, died. Two soldiers from another unit were also killed,” he said. “So it was a very hard time for me as a company commander that two of my soldiers died in a very short time apart, and six or seven others were hospitalized.”
Asked why he continues to serve so many years after the deaths, and nearly losing his own life, Belaish said he “returned to fight in the memory of the soldiers that died.”
“What was hard about my service was not being wounded, but sending home soldiers who died on the mission I sent them,” he said.
To be sure, Belaish said the memories of his fallen soldiers’ continue to haunt him.
“Every morning that I wake up, and before I go to sleep, I think about them,” he said.
To honor Rosenfeld’s memory, Belaish said he spends every Remembrance Day and Independence Day with the fallen soldier’s family. Because Rappaport’s family decided to return to Ukraine after losing their son, he said he has been unable to do the same to honor Nicolai, which has been a source of pain.
However, in his role as Jerusalem District commander, Belaish is now charged with overseeing military ceremonies at the Western Wall and Mount Herzl for Remembrance Day, Independence Day, and Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Under the auspices of the Home Front Command, which is in charge of the ceremonies, Belaish will lead this year’s Remembrance Day and Independence Day memorials, honoring Rappaport and Rosenfeld, as well as the thousands of fallen soldiers who have bravely served the IDF.
“This closes a circle for me, because once I was a field commander and now I’m in charge of the memorials for those I served with, as well as all the other soldiers killed,” he said.
“It’s a great duty and great honor to do these ceremonies,” said Belaish of the four that will take place over a two-day period beginning Sunday evening.
The first memorial will take place Sunday at 8 p.m. at the Western Wall. On Monday two other ceremonies will be held on Mount Herzl, at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., to respectively honor both soldiers’ killed in battle and civilians killed by terrorist attacks.
A fourth ceremony to mark Independence Day will take place at Mount Herzl on Monday at 8 p.m.