“We worked in the dark. We were not allowed to turn on flashlights. Everything was very close; the air force, the tanks. There were whistles and firing. I don’t know if they knew who we were and what our mission was, but the order that they were given was to enable us to do the work and to guard us. I did not see any terrorists, because I was focused on my work, working under fire.”
This is how Capt. Eli, commander of a search unit in the south, describes one of the operations that he and his fellow soldiers were involved in at the beginning of the ground operation in Gaza. A Givati Brigade armored personnel carrier had been hit by Hamas fire and nine soldiers were killed. The search unit was called in to retrieve the bodies.
The mission was to search for and locate the remains of Israel Defense Forces soldiers in enemy territory. His squad is one of the Military Rabbinate’s search units—Yasar in IDF parlance—whose story is told here for the first time.
These soldiers, who have not previously spoken to the media, are the ones who found and recovered the bodies of murdered victims of the Oct. 7 assault on Israeli communities facing the Gaza Strip.
Now they are busy in the combat zone in Gaza itself.
There are five Yasar battalions in the IDF: Golan, Galilee, Central, South, and General Staff. Another company is operated by the 98th Paratrooper Division. The Yasar soldiers are called into action in difficult cases where there is concern that the dead body is not intact. Otherwise, it is the responsibility of the Medical Corps to return fallen soldiers to the home front.
The need to establish search units arose after the armored personnel carrier disaster in May 2004, when two IDF APCs were attacked in separate incidents in the Gaza Strip: six soldiers were killed in Gaza City’s Zeitoun neighborhood and seven died on the Philadelphi Route on the Egyptian border.
After the latter attack, the slain soldiers’ comrades were the ones who had to search and locate the remains scattered in the sand.
The shock created by photos of the search operation led to the realization that dedicated units had to be established to handle difficult cases and bring them to a proper Jewish burial as soon as possible. Another, and no less important, goal is to prevent the enemy from using bodies as bargaining chips in negotiations.
The Yasar soldiers include veterans of combat units, and the demand to serve in these units is high. A large number of the soldiers served in regular IDF service in the ultra-Orthodox Nahal or hesder yeshivah programs.
Yasar South, which has borne the brunt of the current war’s search efforts, was ready on high alert and was given the assignment quite by chance. On that horrific morning, battalion commander Lt. Col. Elyasaf and his company commanders were together on a joint vacation in Tiberias. “Within 12 hours of the outbreak of the war, we started working,” the commander recalls.
Their own methods
Lt.-Col. Elyasaf: “We managed to get there quickly because we were all together. We mobilized the battalion and by evening began to conduct searches.
“The second reason we were ready was that in the weeks before the war, I insisted on a full regimental exercise, which was due to start on Oct. 8. This was an exercise that had been postponed several times.
“But I insisted. I cannot explain why. We prepared for the exercise for two months, including the use of a large amount of equipment. The men were ready for action.”
Q. You are the military equivalent of the ZAKA civilian search organization. How come no one has heard about you?
Capt. Eli: “I don’t want to get into comparisons with others. We have our own methods of operation. We built a dedicated force for this particular mission. We did meet the ZAKA volunteers in action. They could only go to secure places, but unfortunately, there was enough work for everyone.”
Q. When there is complete darkness and it is forbidden to turn on a light, as you described earlier, how can you search?
Eli: “We use starlight, night vision devices and other techniques. I won’t say that it is not scary to work under fire, but when you are in a war zone, you realize that this is a mission that no one else can perform.
“During the work, you are totally focused on what you are doing. Our responsibility is to be there for each and every dead soldier, and that is what we do, even under fire. Sometimes the scenes are difficult, and it takes time to get over it. But our morale is high, because we know that no one else would do this.”
Elyasaf: “If the enemy spots us, that will not make us give up. We trained for it, both mentally and operationally. In this regard, we are much more than ZAKA, because we are involved in a military mission. There is 150% effort for every casualty. The goal is to leave nothing behind.”
Some of the unit’s operations are prohibited for publication. Two weeks ago, there was significant activity for 48 hours inside the Gaza Strip. Another operation was conducted in conjunction with the naval commandos.
Elyasaf, company commanders Yair and Eli and soldier Yitzhak are reluctant to go into detail, even on matters that have not been defined as classified. The sights they saw and the horrifying scenes they experienced, as the whole world already knows, are very difficult. This is probably also why they have not been interviewed before now and that even in the conversation with this reporter, held at the IDF’s Tze’elim Base, they spoke only in general terms.
Another unique feature of the Yasar activity is the precise documentation of the operations and findings, so that they can be used in the future to identify bodies or to assist the activities of the IDF Unit for Locating Missing Persons, known as “Eitan.” The documentation of every meter of activity is conducted using maps and cameras. The unit works shoulder to shoulder with Eitan, and has done so during this war.
Q: Tell me about one moment that stands out.
Eli: “While conducting searches in Kibbutz Kissufim, near the Gaza border, during the second week of the war, we were told that a terrorist had been spotted. In one second, you go from search mode to combat mode and realize that the task now is to defend ourselves.
‘We are all veterans of combat units. Being in the Yasar means both being a combat soldier and dealing mentally with everything you see. Although we see things that were not part of our training, we know how to deal with them. We talk about it with the soldiers and feel that we are blessed to have been given this opportunity to carry out this mission. It is an enormous privilege to be where we are, in this time and place.”
Elyasaf: “We were not recruited to engage in a battle of propaganda. We are not here for the world. We are here so that the State of Israel knows that there are hundreds of people who are doing everything possible to bring our boys and girls home. This is the reason I agreed to be interviewed, so that every father and mother in Israel would know that this is what we are doing here.”
Previously published by Israel Hayom.