Two young women kneel on the ground at the edge of Argentina’s Laguna de los Tempanos, a breathtaking lake that draws millions of visitors each year. In the photo of the pair, visible on a large rock between them is a sticker that says “Peace ya man,” accompanied by a photograph of a young, handsome man.
“Even from the end of the world we remember you, forever,” the girls wrote on Facebook to accompany the picture. It was a dedication to their friend, St.-Sgt. Matan Gotlib, who died in Gaza serving in last summer’s Operation Protective Edge.
It is just one of many photos of this kind, all posted to a Facebook page titled “Remembering Matan” – part of a campaign to canonize his memory.
One of Gotlib’s greatest passions was traveling, explains his brother Omer, and like so many Israelis, he had planned to travel after his army service – which was supposed to end in November.
In this way, the idea behind the stickers campaign was hatched one night during the August shiva mourning period; his family decided to print hundreds of stickers for his friends – who did get to fulfill their travel plans – to take with them.
“So it will be like Matan is traveling with them,” Omer explains, noting that his brother’s catchphrase was, “Peace ya man.”
Gotlib was one of three soldiers killed on July 30 in a booby-trapped house in Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip. Gotlib was on the second floor when a terrorist set off an explosive from another house, linked to that one by a terror tunnel.
“They [the IDF] told us he died on the spot – I hope that’s really the case,” Omer reflects.
Gotlib was part of the IDF’s elite Maglan unit. He was last with his family on June 12 before being dispatched to the Hebron Hills for Operation Brother’s Keeper, in search of the three kidnapped teenagers later revealed to have been murdered; he was then sent to the Strip to take part in the fight against Hamas in Operation Protective Edge.
“We had no contact with him, we knew nothing; I was terrified, stressed, certain something would happen to him,” Omer tells the Magazine. He recalls sleepless nights, until the evening that Gotlib’s unit was allowed out of Gaza for a reprieve. “A weight lifted off me. I felt so happy, such relief; from then on I was calm. I thought nothing would happen.”
But intelligence transmitted to the unit about a terror tunnel some 36 hours later marked the beginning of Gotlib’s end, as he embarked on his next and last operation.
Omer hadn’t told his younger brother that he and his wife were expecting a baby, as he didn’t want to distract him while he was serving. Gotlib never officially found out, yet his army mates say he would tell them proudly that he was going to be an uncle soon.
Gotlib’s last WhatsApp message was to his other brother, Nitzan; he said the song, “Yoman Masa” (Journey Diary) by his musical idol Aviv Geffen had been in his head all week, and that he intended to write his own journal about his experiences in Gaza when he got out. The rock star, who attended Gotlib’s funeral, has since made that final message famous; dedicating the song to his fallen fan at concerts around Israel, displaying pictures of Gotlib and his WhatsApp message on the large screens.
This was the catalyst for the creation of another song that will immortalize Gotlib, “Matana Shkufa” (Transparent Present), written by his childhood friend Alon Nakash. “When he was little and people used to ask him what his name meant, he always used to tell them that it meant a present,” Nakash says, explaining the title of the song.
“And he was an open book, you could see all his feelings.”
The song talks of a “short story with a great beginning,” referring to Gotlib’s life. “After the shiva, a lot of feelings, phrases and words surrounding the loss of Gotlib accumulated, so I put them together in this song.”
“He was a good friend, he knew how to listen and how to give everything he had,” Nakash recounts. “He was straight-up, always letting everyone know how much he loved them and how important they were to him.”
Gotlib’s family, friends and acquaintances paint a picture of a fun-loving, vivacious, generous and sociable young man, the heart and soul of every party, a boy who transformed into a man over the course of his IDF service. His cousin Meiri Zarmi says he would get tired just listening to what he had done in a day.
“Girlfriend, friends, jeeps, traveling – he didn’t stop. He didn’t wait for things to happen, he didn’t think too much, he just did it – full-speed.”
“In retrospect, it was as though he knew…” Omer chimes in. “He did everything to make the most of the time he had. He lived as if there was no tomorrow – and there really was no tomorrow.”
Gotlib was strikingly handsome, and his face likely remains etched in the memory of many members of the public who saw his youthful smile flash up on their TV – one of the 66 faces of soldiers that flitted across their screens over the course of the 50-day conflict. But his brother says that those who had the honor of knowing him got to see how much more beautiful he was inside.
“We want other people to also learn who this amazing person was,” Omer says, explaining the drive behind their sticker campaign. “He never caused harm to anyone. He was always in the center of everything – doesn’t matter if it was first grade or the army, somehow he was always in the center.”
His mother, Ruchama, adds that he was very moral and generous, always taking care of everyone around him.
“He loved to give, he had a lot of motivation, he was a good boy.”
One way in which Gotlib contributed to others was through his heavy involvement in the Scouts. In addition to leading groups in his own branch, he used to volunteer at a branch in an underprivileged neighborhood, helping out however he could, be it running activities or painting the scout house.
A former member of his Scout branch and his neighbor in his hometown of Rishon Lezion, Noa Yarkoni says that as a leader, Gotlib’s passion for what he was doing truly shone through. “He loved the Scouts and it was important to him that we would, too – when we looked at him we knew he really believed in what he was doing.”
Of particular note was his love for the country and his value of friendship.
She said he drummed into them that “ein lanu eretz aheret” (“we have no other country”) and “we must take care of it and contribute.” He worked hard to bring his group of Scouts together, to help them bond.
“He would always be disappointed when people didn’t attend activities,” she remembers. “For his birthday, he had been planning a session for us for ages, and he really encouraged us all to come.”
It was the first time the entire group showed up, because they saw how important it was to him; the session was about friendship and coming together as a group. “He helped transform us into what we are today,” the 17-yearold Yarkoni says, crediting that year in Scouts, with Gotlib as her leader, as one of the most meaningful in her life thus far.
Following Gotlib’s death, a new Scout group was named after him, and both in the area school and in the youth group, there are often activities about him. “He was an amazing person, impossible to describe in words – everyone needs to know his story,” Yarkoni declares.
Omer says he and his family are often asked if they want revenge; he responds that the best revenge would be peace.
“They [Hamas] lose if there is peace.
I don’t want one [more] person to die, whether they are good or bad. We [the Gotlibs] believed in life.”
In this way, Matan’s mantra of “Peace ya man” lives on, as does his memory – all over the world.