Egoz Soldiers Survive Intifada Only to Die in Lebanon

In this war, bad news travels faster than ever before. So far, the fighting in Lebanon has been waged very close to the camera lenses of Israeli television networks. When broadcasts are interrupted by live reports from "a tough day of battles north of Avivim," viewers on the home front don't require much explanation. The availability of uncensored (and not always verified) news on some Internet sites and the prevalence of text messages from soldiers near the frontline are way ahead of army representatives.

On Thursday afternoon, when soldiers from Golani's Egoz unit engaged in fierce battle with Hezbollah fighters in the village of Maroun Ras, rumors spread almost immediately: Five soldiers killed. Although the IDF doesn't like to admit it, many of its elite units bear a clearcut sociological label. Just as Maglan, which lost two soldiers from kibbutzim in a battle in the same area on Wednesday, has remained a bastion of kibbutz members, Egoz draws religious officers and soldiers.

When the extent of casualties in the incident became clear, there was a wave of worried telephone calls among graduates of the pre-military academies, in and out of uniform. This time, they knew for sure, our friends will be among the dead. The next day, Friday, names of three of the dead were released: Major Benji Hillman from Ra'anana, a graduate of the academy at the settlement of Eli, and Staff Sergeant Raphanael Muskal from Mazkeret Batya, a graduate of the academy at Keshet on the Golan Heights. Staff Sergeant Nadav Balva of Carmiel and Staff Sergeant Liran Saadia of Kiryat Shmona were also killed in that encounter.

Even among a generation of remarkable Golani field commanders, Benji Hillman, 27, stood out. He spent a large part of his service in Egoz, which was established in 1995 to deal with Hezbollah and developed expertise in fighting guerrilla forces in South Lebanon. After the withdrawal from Lebanon, in May 2000, the unit was left nearly unemployed. Its then-commander, Tamir Yidai, incorporated Egoz into the fighting that erupted in the territories several months later. Because of his previous job, running the deputy chief of staff's bureau, Yidai continued to get beeper notices from the operations brigade. He located the more active sectors in the West Bank and sent his men there.

In the summer of 2002, ahead of an Egoz arrest sweep in the Nablus casbah, Haaretz photographer Pavel Wolberg snapped Hillman as he painted his face together with other officers. For Hillman, then the unit's operations officer, it was a final mission before a big trip overseas. Even a momentary visitor could not miss him: energetic, brimming with humor, the object of open affection from commanders and comrades alike.

Hillman, who immigrated from Britain at age 4, is survived by his parents, Daniel and Judy, sister Abigail, brother Shimon, and his wife of three weeks, Ayala.

Relatively few brown berets could be seen at his funeral on Friday in Ra'anana, because most Golani soldiers are busy fighting up north.