Israelis gather to bury Hadar Goldin, once thought Hamas captive

Troops from the late 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin's Givati Brigade salute the fallen soldier at his funeral Sunday in Kfar Saba, Israel.
Troops from the late 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin's Givati Brigade salute the fallen soldier at his funeral Sunday in Kfar Saba, Israel. McClatchy

Israelis surged through quaint tree-lined streets and crowded among the graves of a military cemetery here Sunday to bury Hadar Goldin, the soldier briefly thought to be captured by Hamas. Thousands of his countrymen listened to instructions about taking cover from rockets and wept along with rows of soldiers in the purple berets of Goldin's Givati Brigade.

Goldin, 23, was declared dead Saturday, a day after the army reported him missing.

“Hadar, my brother, we don’t need words between us,” said his twin, Tzur. “Your life is mine and mine is yours.”

On Friday morning the army reported that Goldin had been with two fellow soldiers near the southern Gaza city of Rafah when they were ambushed by a suicide bomber. Goldin’s two comrades were killed and he was declared missing.

Speculation about his whereabouts started immediately. On Saturday evening Goldin’s mother, Lea, pleaded that the army stay in Gaza until her son was found. Hours later though Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, a distant relative of Goldin’s, arrived at the family home and announced their son had died.

The false report of the soldiers capture led to condemnations around the world. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon noted the attack on Goldin violated a ceasefire that had begun just an hour and a half earlier, and that “such moves call into question the credibility of Hamas's assurances to the United Nations.” President Barack Obama also had demanded that the soldier be unconditionally released.

Military spokesman Peter Lerner said Sunday that Goldin was part of a squad dismantling tunnels in Gaza. After the attack killed his two colleagues, Goldin was badly wounded, Lerner said. Militants dragged him into the tunnel, and more Israeli soldiers followed to try to release Goldin. In the tunnel, enough clues to Goldin were found a blood-soaked uniform and ammunition vest, and enough body tissue to perform a DNA test. Late Saturday, a committee of the army declared Goldin dead.

Sunday, Hadar Goldin’s remains were brought to the burial plot in a coffin draped in an Israeli flag.

His father, Simha Goldin, director of the Diaspora Research Center at Tel Aviv University, said it was hard to cry for a son who was so often smiling. As an officer, he did not swear or let his soldiers swear, his father said. He kept a personal prayer in his prayer book to remind him to see the good in others, not the bad. Simha Goldin urged the 15,000 mourners to take his son’s outlook with them. “Do not hate one another,” he said.

Goldin and his twin were both serving in Gaza. Days before Goldin was killed, he told local Channel 7 radio, “Everyone should know how to give of himself. To give, not necessarily in combat, but to carry the stretcher together.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu privately told Goldin’s parents on Sunday: “This is pain that has no relief, not even for a moment. I hope that you will find consolation in the fact that he fell to uphold the people of Israel in the struggle for our independence.”

When many assumed Goldin had been captured, it raised the specter invoking of an Israeli military doctrine that requires soldiers to avoid falling into enemy hands at all costs. Daniel Nisman, founder of the Tel Aviv-based geopolitical risk consultancy the Levantine Group, explained the Hannibal protocol, named after the ancient Carthaginian commander who poisoned himself to avoid falling into Roman hands.

“Let’s say there’s a soldier who has been taken into a tunnel, or taken into a vehicle, (the Israeli military) would fire on that tunnel or vehicle to try to release them,” Nisman said - even if that fire would kill the soldier.

Nisman doubted Goldin was killed by Israeli soldiers. More likely was that he died from injuries he sustained in the attack Friday. However, he said, the pressure on Israeli soldiers to prevent capture is high because of the collective memory of the lopsided prisoner exchange that freed captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011.

In that exchange, Israel released 1,027 Palestinian prisoners including several who had carried out attacks on Israel.

“The Hannibal directive is being enforced very aggressively,” Nisman said. “They are doing more than ever to prevent a Gilad Shalit scenario.”

Goldin was a religious young man, and had just gotten engaged two weeks ago. His fiancee, Edna, mourned for him at the grave.

Goldin was one of 64 soldiers who died during Operation Protective Edge. This figure is far lower than the 1,800 people who have died in the current fighting in Gaza, according to Palestinian health officials. However, far more Israeli soldiers have died in this operation than in the 2012 Pillar of Defense, when there were two fallen soldiers, or in the 2008-9 Cast Lead, when nine soldiers died.

Israelis flocked to Kfar Saba to pay their respects. They parked in a nearby soccer stadium and rode free shuttles to the tiny military cemetery, between pine trees and short apartment blocks faced in stucco.

Aliza Noach, 50, said she came to the funeral from Alfei Menashe, a settlement in the northern West Bank. She met her three sisters and two brothers at the funeral. Noach said she was gripped with Goldin’s fate, and although she is not religious, she found herself trying to bargain with God on Saturday to bring Goldin home.

“I don’t know anyone from his family,” Noach said. “I just saw them on TV and my heart broke.”

Arik Kasten said he did not know Goldin either, but drove to Kfar Saba anyway.

“I also have a son in the army”, said Kasten, 49, a jewelry merchant from Bet Hanan, south of Tel Aviv. “Hadar gave his life for me. I’m giving some of my time to him. I wish I could give him something else.”