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This week is Israel’s Day of Remembrance for 27,000 soldiers killed in battle during Israel’s wars. As part of the commemoration, the Israeli security minister, Omer Bar-Lev, was asked about soldiers under his command (he was once head of the Israeli elite commando unit, Sayeret Matkal) who died under fire (Hebrew). Bar-Lev, who is known for serially misspeaking, spoke of a secret mission inside Syria in which one of the commandos was killed under fire. Several others were wounded in the top-secret operation. Though the event happened in 1984, it remains under strict military censorship. A more comprehensive account of the disaster by a former Sayeret Matkal commander, Musa Tzabari is published in Hebrew here. Thus Bar-Lev was not supposed to speak publicly of it. But he did, revealing the mission happened deep inside Syria.
Bar-Lev did not name the soldier who died. But Israeli media have reported it was Staff Sgt. Barak Sharabi. He was about to be released from military service but his commander, who was planning the operation, asked him to remain in service as part of the unit conducting the mission:
A member of the Shin Bet security agency who participated in the operation in which Sharabi was killed described the operation as “very complicated” in a 2014 interview with the Makor Rishon newspaper. “It’s no secret that the unit’s operations are very sensitive, and disclosure of this incident could have disclosed operational methods and directly harmed state security.”
Bar-Lev did not reveal the purpose of the mission. But an Israeli source told me that the IDF was planting surveillance devices inside Syria. Somehow, the unit came under enemy fire and was nearly annihilated. At least eight were injured. As Sharabi was the company medic, he would’ve been tending to them when he was hit. Avi Dichter and his deputy, Musa Tzabari desperately sought to extricate them and they did so successfully. But the operation was an unmitigated disaster.
There are several aspects of this story which don’t add up. Why would a failed operation conducted nearly 40 years ago remain under such a veil of secrecy? If all the unit was doing was planting bugging devices, why would that be such a top-secret mission worthy of ironclad secrecy? In fact, those planning it included then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, AMAN chief Ehud Barak, Sayeret Matkal commander Bar-Lev, and field commander Avi Dichter (later Shin Bet chief and minister). This indicates it involved far more than planting bugs behind enemy lines. Further, why would Sharabi be asked to extend his service by an entire year for the sake of this mission? Why was it considered so sensitive and so complicated?
Here, a participant in the operation reveals that it was extremely complicated. This confirms it was more than what’s being reported:
“There was a lot of excitement in the air,” one of the soldiers from the operation told the Ha’ir newspaper in 2004. “You need to understand,” he said, that the group had been preparing for that night for three years.
Another likely reason for the secrecy was the disastrous outcome:
“The operation that the unit set out on went disastrously awry, which led to a difficult and protracted rescue of soldiers from the force, together with Sharabi who had been killed and eight combat soldiers who had been wounded. That’s all that is allowed to be written regarding the complicated operation, but it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that if the soldiers had been spotted that night by the enemy, it could have led Israel into a war,” the Makor Rishon report stated.
The IDF and security apparatus desperately conceal their failures from the public. First, failures have implications during budget negotiations. The military services cannot justify huge increases in funding if they produce failures that get Israeli boys killed. Second, the nation takes enormous pride in the army. It is a national symbol of patriotism and sacrifice. If the military is disgraced, the entire nation is too. Thus, the military-intelligence apparatus is loathe to expose or admit failure. One of the surest ways to conceal such disasters is by shrouding them under military censorship.
I reject censorship, especially the draconian version offered by Israel. I am proud to fight on behalf of transparency, even if Israel and Israelis accede to it.
NOTE: I’ve done three separate public talks and interviews over the past week. Two of them dealt with the Ramadan uprising at Haram al-Sharif and Israel’s role in inciting religious violence. The third was a KPFA interview on Israel’s betrayal of Ukraine during the Russian invasion. Please give a listen:
Parallax View podcast: The Al-Aqsa Mosque Uprising, Israel, and Palestine
LA Jews for Peace talk: The Al Aqsa Crisis and Failure of US Middle East Policy (see video above)
KPFA Flashpoints interview: Why is Israel Neutral on the War in Ukraine?
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.