Open letter to Officer N., the 'friendly' firer - opinion

Officer N. shot his fellow IDF officers, killing them after mistaking them for suspicious people.

 View of Nabi Musa base outside the area where two officers Maj. Ofek Aharon and Maj. Itamar Elharar from the Egoz commando unit were killed in a friendly fire accident outside a base in the Jordan Valley on January 13, 2022.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
View of Nabi Musa base outside the area where two officers Maj. Ofek Aharon and Maj. Itamar Elharar from the Egoz commando unit were killed in a friendly fire accident outside a base in the Jordan Valley on January 13, 2022.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Dear Officer N., who shot the two commanders with “friendly fire,”

“Is your son okay?” a friend asked last Thursday. That’s not a question you want to hear with two children serving in the army. Our son is fine – but three sons of Israel aren’t: two died, and you, whom we all embrace as a son, are left reeling, sleepless, scarred, having shot the other two mistakenly.

In acronym-heavy Israel-army-speak, it’s YaDaTz, short for yeri du-tzedadi, mutual shooting, In English, it’s “friendly fire” – an unnervingly warm-and-fuzzy-sounding term for a soldier’s worst nightmare.

Far worse than dying in battle, and worse than falling in some accident, it happens surprisingly frequently – up to 20% of wartime casualties sometimes. With friendly fire, the dead are victims – but the shooter is, too. In a second, at your age – of what, 21? – you faced a life-and-death decision. Instantly, you could have been a hero – or a martyr. Alas, now you’re haunted.

According to media reports, last week, two commanders, Maj. Ofek Aharon and Maj. Itamar Elharar, were patrolling with two others. They improvised – hunting for thieves who had recently stolen military equipment, because that’s the kind of forward-thinking commanders they were. They encountered you, another principled, proactive officer, being equally vigilant and spontaneous – because that’s the kind of commander you are.

  View of Nabi Musa base outside the area where two officers Maj. Ofek Aharon and Maj. Itamar Elharar from the Egoz commando unit were killed in a friendly fire accident outside a base in the Jordan Valley on January 13, 2022.  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) View of Nabi Musa base outside the area where two officers Maj. Ofek Aharon and Maj. Itamar Elharar from the Egoz commando unit were killed in a friendly fire accident outside a base in the Jordan Valley on January 13, 2022. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Apparently seeing four armed strangers approaching, without helmets, you fired first, fearing they were terrorists. The two commanders died – one 28 years old, one married and 26 years old.

The army will investigate, hoping to learn something to avoid future SNAFUs – despite their inevitability, which is why that acronym emerged in World War II for “Situation Normal: All Fouled Up.” In the Duvdevan unit’s recent friendly fire incident, a grenade hit by a bullet didn’t detonate thanks to an army redesign after Maj. Eliraz Peretz died in 2010 when a terrorist bullet exploded his grenade.

But while hoping some good might result, we all must live with the horror, primarily the Aharon and Elharar families – then you. Your next mission is working through this trauma; do not let this split-second derail your entire life.

We have never met – but I know you. I know your values, your dedication, your idealism, your skill. You devoted 21,040,000 seconds – eight months – to officers’ training. You added at least another 47,335,428 seconds – 18 months – to your enlistment commitment of 84,151,872 seconds – two years, eight months. Who are we to judge you, given what you have already sacrificed to keep us safe, and given how much more you committed to contribute?

Everyone must learn not to define ourselves by our worst moments. Admittedly – your worst is worse than most. But learn about Israel’s first general, Mickey Marcus – killed by a sentry; the 24 Nahal 931 soldiers killed by an Israeli Phantom jet in Lebanon in 1982, and the five soldiers killed in 2009 and 2014 in Gaza by Israeli tanks. Considering the chaos, the fear and the threats our young heroes face, and the firepower we give you, only your extraordinary training prevents even more catastrophes.

I beg you, face your mistake, but don’t define yourself by it.

ADMITTEDLY, I’M just an “abba” and a laptop warrior. I never protected my country – as you already have at your tender age. I never risked my life for others at any age, even for a second. Seeking reinforcement, I consulted my friend Lt.-Col. Eliav Dikstein, who served as a commando for 13 years, and is now an entrepreneur who founded an extraordinary Jerusalem-based charity network, Otefet Or (Wrapped in Light).

Addressing the facts as reported, Eliav said that if he were your commander, first, he would hug you tight and cry with you.

“After time just empathizing, we would start chatting,” Eliav said. “I identify fully with him. If I felt threatened by armed strangers circling, at night, in a danger zone, I would probably shoot, too. It’s just that he faced that situation – not me.

“I would remind him that he is an extraordinary person and officer, whom I love and appreciate. In fact, this whole story seems to be one of taking initiative, with good intentions – despite the tragic result. He did what we trained him to do: Think big picture! Be proactive! Pursue the enemy! He’s exactly the kind of person we want, forward-thinkers trying to change the facts on the ground – to our benefit.

“Unfortunately, while chopping wood, chips fly. Superstars like him, who resist the status quo, take risks to improve situations, knowing that being bold magnifies the chances of both doing great and messing up. Mistakes – and their resulting tragedies – are a part of life and certainly a part of a commando’s super-activist life.”

Eliav would conclude by saying: “Am Yisrael – the Jewish people – and I have been so proud of you until now, appreciating the many nights you invested and the many risks you took to protect Israel’s citizens. Despite this tragedy, we remain proud.

“We – the entire unit – are with you. We will get through this together – because we, I, stand with you and understand what you tried to do.”

Eliav embodies the values and the patriotism, the sensitivity and vulnerability, behind so many IDF uniforms. The IDF remains an army of Sabras – tough outside, soft inside.

Moreover, let’s remember who remains most guilty for your predicament – the ammunition-and-armor thieves, our many enemies, and their enablers. You should be in college sweating exams, not in country sweating bullets. Instead, haters compel you to defend Israel’s existence – second by second.

Fortunately, as I see with my children, serving our country is also good for your soul; it develops character. I hope the army keeps you in command, granting you many more seconds of service to drown out this horrific millisecond. And I hope you accept that challenge.

My young, heroic, star-crossed friend: life in Israel is a high-wire act. Some – too many – fall and miss the net. Right now, you’re falling, I hope you see the net of love, of values, of support, of appreciation, of hope – “Hatikvah!” – waiting to catch you.

I and millions of others are hoping, praying, challenging you to bounce back, as Jews have always done in our roller-coaster history of tragedies... and triumphs.

The writer is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University and the author of nine books on American history and three on Zionism. His book Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, coauthored with Natan Sharansky, was recently published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.