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‘What We Do Is Save Lives’

April 1, 2024

by: Toby Klein Greenwald ~ JNS

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Col. Golan Vach, a 35-year veteran of the Israel Defense Forces, talks about dealing with the aftermath of October 7.

Monday, 1 April 2024 | Col. Golan Vach, a 35-year veteran of the Israel Defense Forces [IDF], until recently headed the IDF Home Front Command’s renowned National Rescue Unit, which has assisted in some of the most difficult disaster rescues and humanitarian aid missions around the world. In civilian life, he helps new immigrants to Israel through an organization called “Klitat Kehilot Yisrael.”

Vach, an Orthodox officer, summed up his unit’s role simply: “What we do is save lives.” Despite being a veteran commander, he was overwhelmed by “the scale, the number of casualties, the brutality” that he saw in the aftermath of the Simchat Torah [rejoicing in the Torah] massacre.

He and his soldiers spent the first few days of the war carrying out bodies from the Nova music festival and the kibbutzim [collective community]. Some of the cars were still on fire, burning bodies inside them. But he also describes how IDF soldiers, citizen defense squads and even ordinary people with their bare hands “stormed into the fire…to stop the terrorists. I saw heroism at the highest level.”

Many of those murdered on October 7 were people who believed in good neighborly relations with the Palestinians, he said. Now, he added, the citizens of that area must be provided with real protection. “We cannot expect them to return to their homes without eradicating the evil that emanated from Hamas…This was not an attack against the IDF. It was not an attack against the State of Israel. It was an attack against the Jews.

“For the first three weeks we dealt with the aftermath of the disaster, like the rest of the IDF and the rest of this country.  We evacuated all the bodies and then we started to search for the missing. Many of the missing were not found as a result of being burned, and we walked from house to house to search for remains.” They brought in archaeologists to sift through the ashes.

He was also assigned the responsibility of escorting VIPs like the head of the European Parliament, ministers, ambassadors and many journalists to the massacre sites.

“I cannot remember many time periods in my IDF service as difficult as those three weeks, for several main reasons,” he said.

“The first reason is that each time one describes what happened, it takes you back to the humiliation and to the horror and to the fact that you, an IDF soldier, are part of the system that failed, and you’ve just explained to a foreigner exactly what the enemy did.

“The second reason is that I, like all the rest of the IDF combat units, was waiting for the ground attack, for the counterattack. We heard that there were a lot of pressures, from both inside and outside, that Israel not enter Gaza, and we knew that going in was the right thing to do.”

When the IDF started the ground offensive in Gaza on October 27, Vach went in with some soldiers from his search and rescue unit to accompany another unit that was fighting in the northeast side of the Gaza Strip in Beit Hanun. He was wounded in the hip by a ricochet from one of the booby traps there, but he stayed in and they spent 10 days fighting there.

“Unfortunately, four days later, the command team of the unit I escorted all went over a booby trap near one of the tunnels that they had discovered and from the 10 that led this company, that we were part of, they were all wounded.” Four were killed, including two close friends of his.

One of those close friends, Yossi Hershkovitz, a beloved principal of Pelech Boys High School in Jerusalem, had composed a song while fighting in Gaza. After his death, Vach taught it to Hershkovitz’s family and they recorded it professionally. Vach, a singer and composer, also sang on the recording, which can be found on a YouTube channel called “yossi memorial.” The words are from Psalms 23:4: “Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness I fear no harm, for You are with me…”

“Usually, a search and rescue unit stays outside, and we are sent to the location as needed. But we were, on the one hand, fighting, and then switching hats and evacuating those Israeli soldiers who were wounded or killed,” he explained.

Vach told his unit, “Let’s find these tunnels.” The three main tunnels found in the northern part of the Gaza Strip were all found by Vach’s units.

After three months inside Gaza, he said, “We discovered that our mission there was to be a tool in the hands of the IDF to destroy Hamas, the enemy. And I say it comes from the same place of cherishing life. If you love human beings, if you cherish and sanctify life, it gives you the opportunity and the capabilities to fly to the farthest place in the world and in -4°C [24.8°F] to take a boy out [of the rubble] by risking yourself [referencing his past rescue missions around the world], and this also gives you the power to kill the bad guys,” he added.

“We left Gaza in the beginning of January, and a few weeks later I relinquished my role to another officer who had waited patiently for me to finish commanding this incredible unit, after six years and two months,” he said.

“Now I’ve been responsible for managing and leading all the aspects of search and rescue efforts in the Home Front Command. I was fortunate to pass the command on, walking on two legs, healthy, after so many things that we did together for the benefit of Israel and for the world. I said thank you to Hakadosh Baruch Hu [God], to all those who supported me, to the entire group that surrounded me and helped me in my job.”

The situation in the region is far from settled, according to Vach.

“We have at least a few more years of war to settle the situation and ensure the safety of the citizens of Israel, as Isaiah 2:4 says: ‘And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more,’” he said.

“But right now, we need to do the opposite, to take the swords, to fight and invest every capability to defeat the evil,” he added.

“The face of evil is in children’s classrooms in in Gaza. You see pictures of shahids [martyrs], those people who explode themselves among citizens. You see pictures of the kids with Kalashnikov rifles, with the green headbands of Hamas on their foreheads.

“You see our whole map, the map of Israel, in every classroom, you see our country on each one of the walls, with inscriptions in Arabic of ‘Our home’, with a picture of Al Aqsa [Mosque]. It is very clear to you that they educate and raise and teach their children that you are not a person, that you should be eliminated and our home is basically their home. And this is the face of evil. This is the end of innocence.”

Whoever seeks to understand the war, he said, “Don’t go to Be’eri or to Kfar Aza. Enter one of their [Gaza’s] classrooms. Understand who will be the terrorist of 10 years from now, of 15 years from now.

“I killed two terrorists personally, with my hands. They were in their 20s. And when I entered these classrooms, I understood that they were children during ‘[operations] Cast Lead’ [2008–9], ‘Protective Edge [2014]’ and ‘Guardian of the Walls [2021].’ They were kids. They were implementing and executing what they learned.

“I think that the most powerful thing that people should hear is the call one terrorist made to his parents on October 7. He was a child who had been educated and raised on the ideal of killing people because they are Jews, so as an adult, he exclaimed exuberantly, ‘How happy, how proud are you of me, father!?’ as he excitedly described the Jews he had murdered.

“Now you understand that this is the face of evil, and from now on, you cannot go to sleep, and the IDF should be very determined to dismantle this evil,” he said.

“But I want to add something. I love people.  I love human beings.  And [being in Gaza] won’t take away from me the sensitivity that I have when I see a child, when I see a baby. What we need to do right now, tomorrow morning, is dismantle their capability to execute their beliefs. That’s it.”

“But the people of Gaza…70% of them voted for Hamas. And Hamas and the classrooms bring you to the sad, sad understanding that Hamas is raising evil. We will put our children’s lives in danger as long as Hamas controls Gaza.”

“The IDF till now is one of the most efficient, moral and professional armies in the world, if not the most. I’m not familiar with many armies that face this challenge, to fight inside the most populated area in the world, and to do what we did. The IDF is doing the right thing to fulfill the two missions that have been given by the Defense Ministry: eliminate Hamas and rescue the hostages.”

Posted on April 1, 2024

Source: (Excerpt of an article originally published by the Jewish News Syndicate via the Jewish Journal on March 31, 2024. Time-related language has been modified to reflect our republication today. See original article at this link.)

Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of the IDF/