Monday, July 13, 2015

YBA Alumni Profiles: Lt. Matan Horesh, YBA Givat Shmuel

In his first interview since Operation Protective Edge, Lt. Matan Horesh talks about his decision to enter the tunnel to search for Lt. Hadar Goldin, his nagging sense of personal failure, the many months he refused to talk about the operation, and his objections to the Facebook campaign to give him a medal

by Tal Ariel Amir, Ma’ariv Online, July 11, 2015
Lt. Matan Horesh (Photo: Ariel Besor)
Sometimes at night Lt. Matan Horesh returns to that day, “Black Friday,” in the Gaza Strip, when he chased through the tunnel where Hamas terrorists dragged the body of Lt. Hadar Goldin, z”l. He relives the scene again; he feel of the dank concrete walls and the darkness that enveloped him and Lt. Eitan Fund. In his dream they stride forward, shoulder to shoulder, searching in the dark for their kidnapped comrade. Suddenly the terrorists step out before them. Fund and Horesh open fire and manage to kill them, then make their way back, carrying Goldin on their backs wounded, but still alive.

That is the dream that Lt. Horesh, the officer who received a citation for his bravery in battle for what happened that night, prefers to dream. On other nights he wakes up disappointed when the painful reality slaps him in the face. In some dreams, he is walking alone toward the end of the tunnel when he sees the barrel of a gun pointing at him between the eyes, with a terrorist’s finger about to pull the trigger. That's when he wakes up.

Lt. Hadar Goldin, z"l
The battle of Rafah, on Friday, August 1, 2014, is considered one of the most significant battles of Operation Protective Shield. Three fighters from the Givati ​​recon unit, the commander, Major Benaya Sarel, Lt. Hadar Goldin and Staff Sergeant Liel Gidoni, were killed by Hamas an hour after the announcement of a cease-fire. The attempted abduction of Goldin and the heroic effort to rescue him resonated loudly in the media. But while Fund was presented as the hero who found the evidence that led to the pronouncement of Goldin's death, it seemed that Horesh was absent from the headlines. His frustrated friends pressured him to tell about his part in the incident, but the officer preferred to remain silent.

When the IDF’s Citation Commission published its intention to decorate Fund, a friend of the Horesh family decided to open up a Facebook page calling for Lt. Horesh to be awarded the Order of Courage medal. The impact of the campaign on the officer was like an unwanted bear hug. Only later did it become clear that Horesh was on the top of the list of soldiers to receive decorations, along with the other fighters involved in the tunnel episode.

Lt. Matan Horesh (Photo: Ariel Besor)
In his first in-depth interview, Lieutenant Horesh, who will start next week training cadets at the IDF Combat Officer Training Base, discusses his decision to enter the tunnel with Fund, the months of silence about the operation and his reservations about the campaign calling on the IDF to give him a medal: “I knew that the intentions were good, but I really disliked the campaign, because I was afraid people would think I was behind it," he says. 'I don’t have a Facebook account, so at first, I didn’t know what impact it had on the public and the media. But when people began to mention it to me, I immediately forbade my family to be interviewed and asked them to erase the page.”

Were you afraid that the public would doubt your worthiness if you were to receive the Citation for Courage because of the campaign?
"At no stage did I stop to think about if receiving a medal would hurt me or not. It’s just that all the hoopla is not my nature. After the operation, I concentrated on my soldiers and our operational deployments in the field. I just didn’t feel comfortable about the campaign. I don’t care about what people think about me; what is most important to me is that I tried to save Hader.

How did you react when you retreated from the Gaza Strip and left Hadar Goldin behind?
The moment when we left Gaza seemed strange to me. I didn’t feel that we are abandoning Hadar, the battalion did everything to find him at all costs, and the evidence of that is that the family was able to give him a burial. However, I had the feeling of a missed opportunity. In the final analysis, we returned to Israel and he was not with us."

Today, a year after Operation Protective Edge, you think Goldin's rescue operation should have been handled differently?
'I have only myself to criticize. Sometimes I think maybe I should have run faster in the tunnel; or maybe I shouldn’t have gone back to get reinforcements. But now, in hindsight, I see that the possibility of finding Hadar was doomed from the start because of the element of time. It took several minutes before it became clear to us that he was abducted, and until we entered the tunnel. In all likelihood by that time he was already out the other side, in the heart of the Hamas stronghold."

"I acted like a robot"
Horesh started Operation Protective Edge as a young second lieutenant, straight out of Officer Training School and intended for the job of Engineering and Sabotage squad commander, in the Givati Brigade’s Reconnaissance Battalion. He received his squad just ten days before the ground forces entered the Gaza Strip, and one day before the start of the operation. Initially Horesh’s squad was intended to deal with the evacuation of the wounded, however, just before the zero hour, his orders were changed to provide security back-up for the company commander, Major Eli Gino. The operation was a challenge for the beginner commanding officer. He did not know his squad of fighters, their strengths and weaknesses, and he had no time to run drills alongside them beforehand.

Hamas terror tunnel in Gaza
Saturday, July 19, was set as the day the Givati ​​Reconnaissance Battalion would enter Gaza. The fighters’ objective was to seek out and secure tunnels used by Hamas combatants in the Rafah District. After a day of searching without success, the regiment returned to Israel, and the next night went into the Khirbet Khizeh neighborhood further to the north. “We situated ourselves with the battalion's command post in one of the houses, around which the rest of our units were stationed,” says Horesh. “In the morning one of our units identified three terrorists coming up from the ground, and killed one of them. The our battalion identified two snipers. One of them was killed and the other captured and used as a source of information. Because of him we found a tunnel with a cache of weapons, hidden under the rubble of a house.

When did you see Benaya for the first time?
I didn’t know him personally, but I saw him at every briefing with the battalion commander. I remember he always demanded high-quality performance and was highly motivated. The most memorable thing I remember him saying was when he asked the company commander if he would make it home for his wedding, which was scheduled for two weeks later. It impressed me. Everyone told Benaya that the operation will be behind us by then. I was closer with his communications assistant, Liel Gidoni, who went through boot camp with me. I never saw him when he wasn’t smiling and calm.”

Lt. Matan Horesh (Photo: IDF Sokesperson)
The battalion came and went to and from Khirbet Khizeh, until it was decided to return to the area of Rafah again, a day before the kidnapping. There were rumors of a ceasefire and we wanted to find the tunnel that we couldn’t find on Sunday,” says Horesh. “We congregated at the staging area and then I had a moment of crisis. I was tired and I thought about the squad of soldiers I got. There was no time for a briefing and I didn’t really know the soldiers well. I felt alone. I found a few seconds of silence and opened my cellphone. That was a mistake. WhatsApp was full of messages about Roey Peles, my friend from the officers' course. They all wrote that he was killed, but I didn’t react. I called a friend and heard that I missed the funeral and shiva. I hung up the phone, I sat down on the sand and just cried. That was the first time someone so close to me was killed. After a few minutes I realized that I had to separate my emotions from the fighting, and to work only with my head. From that moment, I turned off my phone and functioned like a robot. I can understand the dilemma and the desire of soldiers to hear what's going on with other forces, but when you need to fight, it hurts motivation and can be depressing.”

Did you have bad feelings about the continuation of fighting?
“Just when I was told we were going into Rafah for the last time, because the next day will be a ceasefire, I thought about Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, who were captured on the Lebanon border on the last day before a cease fire. I was afraid that the soldiers will be less vigilant, and that could be a weak point. I spoke with them, I told them to be vigilant and said that it’s impossible to know what will happen; that there may be surprises waiting for us, because a soldier could still be killed tomorrow. After that, I took out my tzitzit, which I had left in my pack because of the heat, and I decided I would wear them until the end of the fighting.”

"We were afraid that everything was booby trapped"
On Thursday night, July 31, the regiment returned to northeast Rafah. The field commander of the battalion, including Horesh and his fighters, settled into one of the buildings. Some 400 meters from them, not far from a complex of greenhouses, Sarel’s forces settled in. "In the morning, as I was about to put on tefillin, one of the soldiers came up to me and told me that a man on a motorcycle had just passed by outside,” Horesh recounts that fateful Friday. “It was weird and I asked them to stay alert. I thought that maybe because of the ceasefire, a few civilians might be returning already to inspect the damage to their homes. I bent down to take the tefillin, then heard a volley of gunfire.”

The house where Lt. Hadar Goldin was abducted.
(Photo: IDF Spokesperson)
“I remember that shortly before that, Benaya reported that a sniper was spotted in the building across from his position and asked for someone to pick him off. Just then the battalion commander called for all unit commanders to report in, and only Benaya didn’t respond. Another officer reported that he could see bodies on the ground. They were Benaya and Liel. Not far from them was the body of a
terrorist. The rescue team approached them and noticed traces of blood leading to the adjoining building, which looked like a kind of watchtower. Inside they found the opening to a tunnel. Once it became clear that Hadar was missing, a “Cannibal Alert” [soldier abducted] situation was declared.”

Lt. Eitan Fund (Photo: IDF Spokesperson)
The commander, Major Gino, Horesh and the other soldiers rushed to the area of the shooting and took cover behind the greenhouses. On the radio they heard that Lt. Fund went down into the tunnel to search for Goldin. “Eitan realized it would be difficult for him to move forward with all his battle gear on, so he came back up," Horesh said. “We arrived at the place just as he came out of the tunnel. I saw the tunnel entrance on the left corner of the building with its iron lid ajar. Eitan said he could not see anything in the tunnel, so I told him I would go down with him because I had a flashlight on my rifle. We took off our flak jackets and helmets, and took a walkie-talkie. Eitan took a pistol from someone and we went down the iron ladder. The tunnel was completely dark. The flashlight illuminated just a few meters ahead. The air smelled of dust. Eitan shot into the dark, but suddenly his pistol jammed. We decided to continue anyway, and around every 40 meters I shot into the darkness ahead. My ears were constantly ringing because I had no earplugs."

Did you think about the dangers awaiting you in the tunnel?
“Not at first. My body was full of adrenaline and I was just thinking about Hadar. My rifle safety was off with a live bullet in the chamber the whole time we were down there. I thought that if one of the terrorists succeeded to harm me, at least I’d have one bullet to shoot him with before I die. On the top of the tunnel was a wire and I thought it was a booby-trap. I remember that we walked a few minutes following the trail of blood, then we saw the first item that belonged to Hadar. The walkie-talkie didn’t work deep inside the tunnel, so we returned back to report, and then continued searching. As we progressed, we found more of Hadar’s things and there was no doubt he was seriously injured. At one point we got to a fork in the tunnel, so we returned back for reinforcements, and Lt. Shaked Kedar and Staff Sgt. Mekonen Tz'alatz'ao joined us. They also received medals."

Weren’t you afraid it was an ambush?
"That's why we took reinforcements. Tz'alatz'ao was in charge of communications with the officers outside, and Kedar covered us near the fork with his weapon drawn. Eitan and I continued following the blood stains. I saw the drag marks on the ground and realized that Hadar could not walk by himself. We moved about 600 meters and reached a kind of a room with guns, rocket launchers, RPG’s and vests. We were afraid that everything was booby-trapped, but we continued following the tunnel until we got another fork. I noticed blood marks were gone, and it was odd."

What do you think is the reason?
"I believe that the terrorists reached their back-up force and they evacuated Hadar from that point with motorcycles. At that moment Tz'alatz'ao came running and said the brigade commander ordered us out of the tunnel. I was hoping we were called out because they found Hadar. When I realized they hadn’t found him, I was disappointed. But Reconnaissance didn't give up. Our entire force charged the Hamas stronghold, while under fierce gunfire. Our commanders had intelligence information indicating a mosque as the place where is the tunnel exit was located. Our fighters found the opening, but there was no sign Goldin. They were forced to retreat, and two days later our forces returned to Israel."

The silence of warriors
YBA Givat Shmuel
Matan Horesh was born in Bat Yam, and raised in Holon. He attended the YBA yeshiva high school in Givat Shmuel and he spent two years before recruitment at the Shavei Hevron Hesder Yeshiva. In March 2012 he joined the Tracking, Engineering and Sabotage Company of the Givati ​​Brigade. When he finished his officer training course he was supposed to lead a team that was two months away from the end of their basic training, and then continue commanding them in operational missions. The young officer risked his life for a soldier who he didn’t know. He talks about camaraderie and friendship as the highest values, and doesn’t try to hide the difficult moments he experienced during the operation.

“I'll never forget the way we headed back to Israel,” says Horesh recalling those agonizing hours. “The silence of fighters and commanders was like a deafening scream. I saw them all subdued, and it wasn't easy for me to internalize the fact that we had left behind Hadar; we were not able to rescue him. All the way, I thought about his parents, and I wondered how we, as the IDF, would deal with the incident.”
How did you manage to go on?
“It wasn’t easy. For three months I refused to talk about the operation or what I went through in the tunnel. I was surprised when I read the media accounts about the search for Hadar, because I didn’t feel as if we did anything unusual. I wasn't interested in all the talk about citations, and I felt I was becoming closed and dispassionate after the operation. Like, ‘Someone’s getting married? That’s nice. Someone died? Well, life goes on.’ I started to become agitated only after representatives of the IDF's Missing Persons Unit interviewed me about the kidnapping. I couldn’t stop replaying in my mind all the efforts we made to rescue Hadar. It was mostly a process of self-flagellation. I was constantly thinking about what I did wrong and what I could have done differently."

Have you tried to talk with professionals?
“I joined the group therapy discussions in the battalion and told the group that the melancholia that overcame me was bothering me. As if the human part of me was buried. Eventually, I got to the point where I was able to discuss my personal feelings.”

As he describes the dilemmas that accompanied him after the war, it is hard not to think about the description of his actions that earned Horesh the IDF citation. “He showed initiative in his actions, fortitude of character and a willingness to carry out his mision above and beyond the call of duty, and at great personal risk,” said the IDF report. Talking about the medal is awkward for Horesh and he squirms uneasily in his chair. “I didn’t go into the tunnel to win a medal. I never thought that trying to prevent the abduction of a fellow soldier was such a heroic action. IDF teaches us about the importance of not abandoning soldiers in the field, so that's what I did.”

In January this year the media reported that Fund would probably get the Bravery Medal, which was changed to the Distinguished Service Medal, how did you feel when your name was not mentioned?
"At first it was a bit strange, but I didn't care. Three people were killed in that battle, and one of them I knew personally, so why should I waste time over the question of whether someone mentioned my name or not?”

IDF Citation Ceremony (Photo: IDF Spokesperson)
You weren’t offended?
“Definately not. Eitan received the Distinguished Service Medal, because he initiated the tunnel entrance, and entered first. I do not see any less honor in the citation I received, both of us risked our lives for an important purpose.”

Did the kidnapping changed your military perception?
“One of my goals as an educator of officers now is to emphasize to them the importance of being prepared for any extreme situation. You must not be euphoric going into battle, because the battle will not be waged as you expect. Today I believe that were it not for Operation Protective Edge, I would be a very different commander. There is a difference between talking about the battlefield and being a part of it. This is not just theory, but something I experienced. The decision to reject the position of deputy company commander for now, in order to train another cycle of combat officer cadets, was my own. Future officers are the heart of the IDF and the future generation. They are the ones that will affect the soldiers and pass on what I will teach them.”

Will you tell them about your personal experiences and the search for Goldin in the tunnel?
“I believe that the issue will come up.”

Did Operation Protective Edge have any effect on your desire to remain in the army?
I have signed on for another year, and I am not ruling out the option to stay on even longer. I always knew about the importance of the IDF for our country’s defense, but after Operation Protective Edge, that knowledge has been sharpened even more.



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