Eitan Karmi, the Israel Air Force pilot who intercepted an Egyptian missile fired at Tel Aviv in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, died Monday at the age of 76. He succumbed to serious injuries incurred in early January when the light plane he piloted crashed at the Ein Vered airfield in the Sharon region of central Israel.
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Karmi was born in Israel to parents who immigrated to Palestine in the 1930s – his father from Moldova and his mother from Poland – and settled in Petah Tikva. He saw action in the Six-Day War, the War of Attrition, the Yom Kippur War and the Lebanon War, downing nine MIGs in dogfights.
In the afternoon of the first day of the Yom Kippur War, October 6, 1973, he thwarted what could have been a serious attack on Tel Aviv, resulting in mass casualties. An Egyptian bomber flying over the Mediterranean Sea launched a Kelt cruise missile at the city; it was detected by Israel Defense Forces radar systems and air-raid sirens were activated. Two IAF Mirage jets on standby were dispatched from the Hatzor air base to intercept the missile. Karmi's accomplished the mission.
Subsequently, in an article in the IAF magazine, he said that he initially thought the missile was a plane. Then, in an interview four years ago with TV Channel 1, he said, “We looked up and saw a glowing dot in the sky, high up and opposite Tel Aviv. We started climbing and I closed in on it, firing at it from 400 meters away. It was hit and pieces flew off. [This action] didn’t deserve a citation; it was one of the easiest instances of downing an enemy aircraft that I experienced. There was no maneuvering, it was relatively simple."
A few months after the 1973 war, on an intelligence-gathering flight over Syria, Karmi's plane was hit. He managed to escape Syrian airspace and landed in the sea, off the northern coast of Israel, near Acre. After ditching his aircraft, Karmi was picked up by an Arab fisherman, Tawfiq Hilwani. “He was our pilot, belonging to our country,” Hilwani said years later.
“I wouldn’t want to be in a Syrian jail. If I need to bail out, I prefer Lebanon. They have good hummus and ski resorts,” Karmi told Channel 1 jokingly.
In 2014, following an article in which columnist Gideon Levy launched a scathing attack on IAF pilots during that year's Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, Karmi cancelled his subscription to Haaretz after 40 years. He went on to spearhead a protest against the newspaper.
“We’re at war," he declared in an interview to the 103 FM Radio Lelo Hafsaka station. "Kids aged 18 to 20 are getting killed and it’s simply delusional to write such a hateful article. It’s not directed at pilots, it’s against the entire IDF. This is a crossing of red lines. A paper has some responsibility, this isn’t Facebook.”
After finishing his military service, Karmi worked as a pilot for El Al and owned a renovation business. After retiring from airlines, he worked as a flight instructor. He leaves behind a wife, twin sons, a daughter and grandchildren.