IDF Col. Golan Vach. Photo courtesy of the IDF.
IDF Col. Golan Vach. Photo courtesy of the IDF.
featureIsrael at War

‘What we do is save lives’

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

Col. Golan Vach, a 35-year veteran of the Israel Defense Forces, 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, including in Turkey, Haiti, the Philippines, Mexico, Albania and Surfside, Florida (with the condo building that collapsed). In civilian life, he helps new immigrants to Israel through an organization called “Klitat Kehilot Yisrael.”

As I wrote recently in Jewish Action Magazine, Col. 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 massacre. 

He and his soldiers spent the first few days of the war carrying out bodies from the Nova music festival and the kibbutzim; 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 Oct. 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.” 

In a new interview, Vach said, “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, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D-N.Y.), 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 Oct. 27, Col. 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, who is himself 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…”

He described a dilemma he faced in Gaza. “How should I [communicate] the importance of being part of the combat units to my search and rescue unit?” he said.  

“I thought it’s important that we accompany the combat units closely, so if there is an incident, we are nearby. Usually a search and rescue unit stays outside and we are sent to the location as needed. Now we were, on the one hand, fighting, and then switching hats and evacuating those Israeli soldiers who were wounded or killed,” he explained. Sometimes the casualties were a result of the collapse of infrastructure. Such was the case with the 21 soldiers who died in the collapse of a building on Jan. 22. 

“A few weeks later there were dozens of my soldiers escorting the units, but I still had hundreds of soldiers, I think the best men on the market, who were not accompanying combat units. So I found an area in which we could deal with the hundreds of buildings in which had been found ammunition, weapons, grenades, explosives and mines.”  

First they had to ensure that the area was clear of hostile forces. Afterwards they destroyed more than 800 buildings where the Hamas weapons had been hidden.

Then, in the area they were assigned, he told his soldiers, “Let’s find these tunnels.” They cleared them of grenades and weapons, then destroyed them. The three main tunnels found in the northern part of the Gaza Strip were found by Vach’s units. 

“Several weeks after we were inside Gaza, I saw something incredible,” he recalled. “We got…intelligence that there is a capability that we [could use to] locate the terrorists. We saw the signals of the terrorists surrounding the area that we were assigned to, and none of them were inside. It meant that our job was done so well that they didn’t have the opportunity to advance into the zone, not underground and not on the surface, because we had cleared it above ground and underground,” he said.

He also took explosives experts along with his unit and, in the refugee camp of Jabalya, they took down seven buildings of the leaders of the Oct. 7 massacre. “We destroyed hundreds of buildings that our intelligence indicated were connected to those who directed and carried out the massacre,” he said. 

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” as more ordinary missions for a search and rescue unit. “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 minus four degrees to take a boy out [of the rubble] by risking yourself [like we did in Turkey], 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 given the responsibility to manage and lead 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 to make sure that the citizens of Israel are safe, like Isaiah says (2:4), and it’s the inscription on the building of the United Nations—‘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 anymore,’” 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.  

“I thought that the face of evil is to see the horror at the Nova festival and in Be’eri, or Kfar Aza. But it turns out that the face of evil is entering a children’s classroom in one of the schools in Gaza and to see the reality contrasted between our classrooms and their classrooms. How do those Gaza children grow? What do they learn? 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 Oct. 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. People asked me, after what [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan said about Israel, if something happens in Turkey tomorrow, will you go again? 

“And I said, if I’ve been asked, of course I’ll go. There are human beings there, they are in trouble, I will come. He said what he said, but they are not my enemy. And I’m not distinguishing between people in Turkey and people in Italy and people elsewhere because of what Erdogan said.  

“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.”

How is it possible to change the thinking of those hundreds of thousands of children? Is there any hope? 

“I don’t know what will happen many years from now. It won’t be easy. It won’t be fast. It will take time, maybe decades. But what we need to do right now, tomorrow morning, is dismantle any capability of them to execute their beliefs. That’s it,” he said. 

“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.”

Originally published by The Jewish Journal.

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