Two days after Israel launched a ground offensive in the Gaza Strip last summer to destroy cross-border tunnels, an anti-tank missile fired by terrorists killed 21-year-old Bar Rahav, a Combat Engineering Corps second lieutenant who took part in battles in Rafah.
Now, his family and friends must get through their first Remembrance Day, which begins Tuesday evening, as mourners who have lost a treasured son and a happy young man.
Bar grew up with his two brothers and a sister in Ramat Yishai, in the picturesque Jezreel Valley, and went to school in Nahalal.
“He was a happy kid,” Naama Rahav, his mother, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday.
“He was always smiling. His friends called him ‘the national smiley.’ He always laughed, even when it wasn’t the most fitting time,” she said. “He looked like a Jezreel Valley youth. He wore sandals and shorts, and enjoyed spending time in the area with friends.”
Bar gave up a promising career as a player on Israel’s national water polo team to defend his country. Considered one of the country’s best water polo players in his age group, at 18 he had to choose between being a professional athlete or doing full-time military service.
“It was a tough choice. We told him that it was his decision and that we trusted him to take it. He chose the military, and fought to get into Combat Engineering,” Naama said. “He wanted a combat unit and said, ‘If I give up a sports career, let it be for combat.’” During basic training, Bar’s commanders recognized his remarkable character and cited him for being a good example to others.
“The award was not just for excellence, but also for helping his friends,” Naama said.
He was selected to join the 605th Combat Engineering Reconnaissance Battalion.
“He fell in love with the army,” she said.
Bar completed a squad commander’s course and then began an officer’s course. He was sent on leave before beginning the final segment of the course, but the conflict in Gaza erupted and he was called back, being told to report to the Combat Engineering training base in the southern Negev.
There, the army quickly assembled a unit. It was one of the first to enter Gaza on a mission to destroy tunnels and engage Hamas guerrillas.
“Bar was there for two days. He was killed on Saturday, July 19,” Naama said.
“One minute before it happened, he did something that characterized him.
He asked his platoon commander if there was anything he could do, and the commander asked him to go back around and make sure that no equipment had been left behind. As he went back, the missile struck,” she said.
“During past Remembrance Days, we would attend the local ceremonies.
We always stood as a family, together. When the siren blared, I would hug my four children and pray that nothing would happen to them.
This year, I will hug one less,” she added, between tears.
“We have very supportive relatives and friends who look out for us at all times, when we are sorrowful, and when we have had enough. They help us,” she continued.
“Bar’s friends told us on the night it happened: ‘We are also your children.’ And they are acting accordingly,” she added.
“Does it help? A little. He is with us every moment. I dream about him at night. I think about him every moment of the day. It is very hard,” she went on. “In the past, Remembrance Day was when we honored the bereaved families. Today, we are on the other side. I hope that we are the last ones.”
Sec.-Lt. Zabar Shualy, today an officer in the 769th Engineering Corps Battalion, met Bar during their platoon commander’s course, and fought with him in Gaza when the IDF launched the ground offensive.
“He was a golden guy. I connected with him instantly. He always had a smile on his face. He made you feel like you’ve known him for 10 years,” Shualy said.
Meeting up again at the Combat Engineering training base just before the ground offensive, Shualy and Bar were uncertain about whether they would be ordered into Gaza. Both remembered how, during Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, Israel ultimately decided to limit its actions to an air campaign.
“We still trained in the most serious way. Everyone was ready. We arrived at the staging areas with high adrenaline,” Shualy said.
“We entered with a Puma armored engineering article,” he continued.
“We crossed the fence, and that is when I realized it was not a game. I said to myself, This is it. I’m ready.”
The unit blew up a Gaza watch tower that blocked its view, and proceeded on its mission. But at some point, the Puma broke down. Soldiers went to work to fix it, while others fanned out to secure the area.
“Then Bar asked the commander, ‘Is there anything left to do?’ This was so in line with what Bar would do,” Shualy said.
Inside the vehicle, he heard a deafening explosion, followed by heavy smoke.
“We bolted out of the Puma,” he continued. “I heard myself shouting, ‘Bar has been hit!’ We could not hear much after the blast.”
Paramedics and army medics surrounded Bar and started treatment before he was evacuated in a tank.
The following hours were agonizing.
“We were not sure if he was still with us,” Shualy said. “No one wanted to say that he was not. We clung to a hope, that maybe he’s only seriously wounded and that he will come back to the course in a few weeks.”
That hope was shattered when the training base commander informed the soldiers that Bar had succumbed to his wounds.
“A minute passed, filled with lots of anger and other emotions that I can’t explain, all intertwined,” he went on.
“We sat still for a few seconds, understanding what had happened. We talked to our platoon commander.
The worst thing to do is sink in the middle of an operation.”
Two days later an armored personnel carrier arrived to take Shualy and fellow unit members to visit the family during its shiva mourning period.
“That was a big shock. We were in the middle of battles, explosions and sand in the air. We headed out and realized there was another world. It was difficult to grasp,” he said.
“There is a saying: Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are,” Shualy said. “By the sheer quantity of people at the shiva, you could tell who Bar was. People who knew him for a year, army friends, school friends, people who knew him from the water polo activities. He was someone who touched everyone. It is something I can’t even describe.”
Asaf Balas knew Bar from the time they were together in kindergarten.
“We went to the same elementary school and high school, and were in the same group of friends. We were very close friends. He always smiled.
Seeing him without a smile was not an option,” Balas said.
On the night of July 19, Balas was sitting with friends when a relative called to say she had heard that Bar was killed in action.
“Two friends and I took a car and drove to the family’s home,” Balas continued. “We did not see anyone and thought maybe this is a rumor.
We returned home and called Bar’s younger brother, Nir. He told us: ‘It is true.’” Balas described the feeling as a shock wave.
“We went as a group to the family home that same Saturday,” he said.
“Afterwards, we did not go to sleep.
We talked about what we would do now. In the following days, we went to the shiva, and made sure there was always someone at the family’s home.
We helped with the chairs, the food.
We would sleep over a lot. We tried to make them smile, a little.”