This Week in History: ‘I didn’t betray my country’

Golani Brigade soldier Uri Ilan commits suicide after being captured on a reconnaissance mission in Syria.

Uri Ilan 311 (photo credit: Courtesy/Wikipedia)
Uri Ilan 311
(photo credit: Courtesy/Wikipedia)
On January 13, 1955, in a solitary prison cell in Damascus, Uri Ilan scribbled one final short note. He secretly hid the scrap of paper in the lining of his clothes along with eight others he had stashed during his time in captivity. The Hebrew note read: “I didn’t betray [my country]. I committed suicide.”
Just over five weeks earlier, Ilan and four other Golani Brigade soldiers snuck into the Syrian Golan Heights in order to retrieve recordings from a phone-tapping device that was monitoring Syrian communications. The soldiers were captured near the town of Kuneitra, which today lies in the demilitarized zone along the Syrian border.
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The five were brought to Damascus and held in prison for interrogation. Having been captured on a reconnaissance mission, the Syrians viewed their prisoners as potential intelligence jackpots. Their captors completely isolated the Israeli soldiers from one another in order to inflict psychological as well as physical torture.
Each soldier was told that the other captives had already been hanged in a Damascus public square. The only way to avoid suffering the same fate was to start talking, the interrogators told each soldier.
Meanwhile, each of the Golani soldiers was subject to unimaginable torture. The pain, suffering and hopelessness piled, grew and suffocated the youngsters.
Ilan, born in 1935 at Kibbutz Gan Shmuel to a member of Israel’s first Knesset, was raised in the early years of the state when no value trumped those of patriotism and sacrificing one’s self for the good of the nation. When the notes hidden in the lining of his clothes were discovered upon the return of his body, Uri Ilan became the new-born modern State of Israel’s iteration of Massada. In taking his own life rather than revealing intelligence secrets, he had done exactly what his nation expected of its sons.
Ilan also likely knew that had he not hanged himself with an improvised rope fashioned from a bed sheet in that prison cell, he would have been looked down upon and ostracized by the same hyper-nationalist, hero-driven Israeli society of that time which had sent him deep behind enemy lines only five weeks earlier.
That is exactly what happened to the other soldiers from Ilan’s unit who were captured alongside him and also tortured in isolated cells in the Damascus prison.
For fellow Golani soldier Meir Moses, it only took three weeks of excruciating, inhumane torture and constant threats of a public hanging before he told his Syrian captors the location of the listening devices they had been sent to retrieve.
The Israeli government and military spared no effort in seeking the soldiers’ release, including an operation carried out by Ariel Sharon, in which some 40 Syrians were captured and held in order to gain leverage for an eventual prisoner exchange. But in a move reflective of the values held by Israeli society, government and military at the time, when the swap finally took place nearly a year and a half later and the soldiers were returned home, Moses and fellow prisoner of war Meir Ya'akobi were publicly shamed, tried for treason and demoted to the rank of private.
Although his rank was restored a decade later following the Six Day War, only in 2005 – 49 years later – did then-president Moshe Katsav finally pardon Moses. Perhaps indicative of the extraordinary effect Ilan’s suicide and final note had on Israeli society’s treatment of Moses and Ya’akobi, no soldier has ever been charged for revealing state secrets in enemy captivity since.
Ilan, however, was made a national hero, a legend of folkloric proportions.
Decades later, then-prime minister Ariel Sharon wrote to Uri Ilan's family, describing how his death "remains etched deeply in my soul." The young soldier's final scribbled words, "Lo Bagadeti," Sharon added, along with "his legacy full of pain, blood and faith - became the guiding fire of the spirit of the combat forces before they would set out to battle, during it and after the fire died."