Israeli Special Ops Commander Killed in Covert Gaza Mission in 2018 Revealed

The Israeli military had kept that name of its officer classified. Lt. Col. Mahmoud Kheir el-Din 'deserves that everyone know who he was, an Israeli hero,' the army's Operations Directorate head says

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Palestinians inspect the remains of the car that was used by the Israeli force, in Khan Yunis, Gaza, in 2018.
Palestinians inspect the remains of the car that was used by the Israeli force, in Khan Yunis, Gaza, in 2018.Credit: Suhaib Salem/Reuters
Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich

The Israeli army has permitted on Sunday the declassification of the name and photo of Mahmoud Kheir el-Din, a commander from the Druze town of Hurfeish who fell during a covert mission in the Gaza Strip in 2018.

Lt. Col. Mahmoud Kheir el-Din was 41 years old when he died, leaving behind a wife and two sons after having served as an officer, combatant and commander in the Intelligence Corps’ Special Ops division in the Israel Defense Forces. The IDF prohibited publicizing his name until now out of concern for state security.

On November 11, 2018, a special ops force was operating in the Khan Yunis area of the Gaza Strip, under the command of Kheir el-Din. The behavior of some of the undercover soldiers raised the suspicion of Hamas operatives, who asked to see their identity papers.

Mahmoud Kheir el-DinCredit: IDF spokesperon

After discussions lasting 45 minutes, the Hamas operatives decided to take several members of the force for questioning. When Kheir el-Din realized his force was about to be split up, he physically confronted one of the senior operatives, allowing one of his colleagues to take out a gun that was hidden in the vehicle they were using.

This colleague opened fire, killing seven Hamas operatives. Kheir el-Din, who was in the line of fire, was also hit and killed in the shooting. Immediately after the incident, the force was evacuated by an IDF helicopter.

Then-Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot gave Kheir el-Din a posthumous honorable mention, for "displaying responsibility, leadership, coolness and supreme bravery under fire in order to protect his teammates, demonstrating initiative and a seeking of contact with the enemy." Head of the Operations Directorate Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva noted that Kheir el-Din's conduct during the operation allowed the rest of his force to escape unharmed.

Since the occurrence of this incident, military censors prohibited the publication of Kheir el-Din's name and photo since he took part in many operations carried out by the Special Ops division, and military intelligence was worried that exposing his identity could endanger sources and other combatants who served with him on sensitive missions.

Haliva said the move to release Kheir el-Din's identity was coordinated with his family, and followed two months of work on the issue by the Ops Directorate staff. “After examining this issue, we realized that declassifying his name and photo would not be harmful to state security,” Haliva said. “I think Mahmoud deserves this honor, and that everyone knows who he was, an Israeli hero.” Other details of the mission remain classified.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called him "an Israeli hero," adding in a statement: "Only now can we reveal his name and thank him for his contribution and dedication to our national security."

Kheireddine was born in the Upper Galilee town of Hurfeish, the oldest of seven siblings. After joining the paratroopers’ reconnaissance unit, completed an officer training course and became a platoon commander at the army’s officers school. In 2002 he was located by special ops recruiters from military intelligence and joined their unit as a combatant and commander.

During his military service he completed his degree in law at the College of Management in Rishon Letzion, as well as a graduate degree in education and business administration at Haifa University. He had also set up, with some friends, a non-profit organization that works toward promoting the Druze community in Israel.

He was married to Nahed, and they had two sons. Haliva said of him that "he was an educator, a special person not only as a commander, but in terms of his values.”

Kheireddine was killed shortly after the Knesset has passed the nation-state law that defines Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people, consequently sparking protest among the Druze community in Israel. Some claim that Kheir el-Din's identity was not publicized due to considerations other than state security, and that the move was advanced by senior officials who worked with then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an attempt to prevent embarrassment due to their support of the law.

Another team is working to release the photo of Lt. Col. Immanuel Moreno, an officer in Sayeret Matkal, the General Staff’s reconnaissance unit, who was killed at the end of the Second Lebanon War. Since that incident, his photo has remained classified. “We’re looking into this case as well, seeing whether we can declassify it,” said Haliva. “Where possible, we’ll publish details in order to honor the memory of Israel’s heroes.”

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