On July 26, Maj. Ro'i Klein, deputy commander of Battalion 51 of the Golani Brigade, was killed during fighting with Hizbullah guerrillas in the southern Lebanese village of Bint Jbail. On the same day a legend was born, one that senior IDF officers claim will become part of military heritage for generations to come.
This is Klein's story: It was supposed to be another raid into a southern Lebanese village. Battalion 51 of the Golani Brigade entered Bint Jbail on Sunday July 23 and took up positions on the outskirts of the town, the same place where Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah delivered a victory speech following Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000.
The first two days in the village passed fairly quietly. The battalion, commanded by Lt.-Col. Yaniv Asor, killed four Hizbullah guerrillas as they maintained positions along the town's outer edge. "Following the first day of fighting we were very confident," Asor told The Jerusalem Post, recalling the feeling among his troops in the first days of the war.
But then on Wednesday morning everything went wrong. At 3 a.m., Asor received orders to sweep into the town, not for a pinpointed raid but to conquer. The battalion split into two groups - Asor led Company A and Klein, his deputy, took charge of Company C.
As the soldiers began taking up positions inside homes in the center of the town, Klein's men spotted a number of Hizbullah guerrillas moving towards them. One of the soldiers, Evyatar Cohen, nicknamed "Red," opened fire. Lt. Amichai Merhavia, a squadron commander, took two soldiers and charged the guerrillas, hiding behind a nearby wall. The gunmen threw grenades at the soldiers. Merhavia and two others were killed.
Meanwhile, Klein was inside a home adjacent to the wall from where he was in touch with Asor and issuing orders to the other squads. Understanding that Company C had walked straight into an ambush, Klein sprinted out of the house, went to the nearby wall and began overseeing the evacuation of the dead and the wounded while firing and throwing grenades in the direction of the Hizbullah gunmen.
Then came the Hizbullah grenade. It landed next to Klein, a father of two children from the settlement of Eli. According to soldiers who witnessed the incident, Klein, with only a split-second to think, jumped on the grenade, threw his body over it and absorbed the blast thereby saving the lives of his soldiers. In his last seconds of life, Klein mustered the strength to shout "Shema Yisrael," the prayer declared by Jewish martyrs throughout the generations.
Alongside Klein, seven other soldiers from the battalion were killed during the battle of Bint Jbail. Klein was buried the next day, on his 31st birthday.
"He was an unbelievable person," Asor says. "He had a multi-faceted personality and lived several lives all in harmony with one another."
Klein, Asor said, was an enthusiastic saxophone and piano player and was also an observant Orthodox Jew who "never compromised his beliefs." According to Asor, who has recently been appointed commander of the elite Egoz unit, while Battalion 51 suffered heavy losses, it never stopped fighting during the war. "The battalion has energies and does not break down," he said. "We went in there knowing that it would be difficult and dangerous but that was our job and this was a war."
Klein's story, he said, would go down in military history as one of the few cases when a commander sacrificed his life for others. "His persona came alive in that one incident," Asor said of his former deputy and friend. "He was a brave and focused commander and at the same time his love for the soldiers was the source of his motivation."