Elite Israeli Troops Went on a Rogue Op Inside Syria. The Result Was Deadly

It started with an accident that killed three soldiers, continued with a hate crime and ended with an incursion into Syrian territory. Haaretz investigation reveals the cover-up surrounding this elite team in the Israeli army

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Go to comments
Credit:
Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich

It was a fairly routine night along the Syria-Israel border on the Golan Heights, or at least that was what many in the defense establishment thought. In fact they may still think so, even after some time has elapsed. What happened in those hours a short distance across the border received no more than a terse mention in the media, at best. The Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson’s Office didn’t provide much information at the time, noting only exchanges of fire and adding that “our forces sustained no casualties.” But the story is much bigger than that, as an investigation by Haaretz shows.

It turns out that the exchanges of fire were preceded by an unplanned, unauthorized foray into Syrian territory by a team from the elite reconnaissance battalion of the Golani Brigade. The fighters, led by First Lt. Guy Eliahu, had an address: a structure in which Syrian personnel were present, who did not constitute a threat to Israel. The soldiers demanded that those inside come out and just like that – the shooting began. Its lethal results would become apparent afterward.

This story is just another link in a chain of events in which the same Golani reconnaissance team has been involved in the past two years. Already in February 2018 (and in the weeks that followed), red lights should have begun flashing in the headquarters of Golani Brigade at Shraga Base, near Kibbutz Lohamei Hageta’ot in Western Galilee. At that time, the focus of events was far from the Golan Heights – on Highway 6, the Trans-Israel Highway, near Bat Hefer, a community east of Netanya. A truck driver from East Jerusalem ran into a convoy of Hummer military vehicles carrying Golani troops that was driving slowly along the side of the highway. Three soldiers were killed. It was not a deliberate ramming attack, and the driver was charged only with reckless driving.

An investigative article published in March in Haaretz (Hebrew edition) revealed multiple flaws in the behavior of the team commander, Lt. Eliahu, before and after the accident – the latter including coordination of testimonies and falsification of a document.

Now it turns out that in the over two years that have elapsed since that incident, the same soldiers were involved in a series of questionable events, ranging from a so-called “price tag” operation against Palestinians in a Nablus refugee camp – carried out as “revenge” shortly after the accident involving the East Jerusalem truck driver – down to the incident that night across the Syrian border. What all these events have in common is the behavior of the entire chain of command in the reconnaissance battalion (of which Eliahu’s team is one unit) and its superiors, who ignored or were unaware of what was happening.

Burst of gunfire

It was toward the end of Operation Good Neighbor, between the years 2013 and 2018, in which the IDF provided humanitarian aid to Syrian civilians who were victims of the lengthy civil war in their country. In this period, Israeli personnel and Syrian interlocutors also met from time to time.

“It was quite routine activity in the sector,” a member of the Golani reconnaissance unit recalled. According to the fighters, they were called upon to escort forces to the border fence and back, and no more. “They would enter and we would remain for security purposes in Israeli territory,” a member of the unit who served in the area during the past few years emphasizes. “There were also cases when we waited for the Syrian civilians who entered Israel, to ensure that they were not terrorists.”

These ties, and the actual encounters that took place, are no longer a secret. Indeed, Lt. Gen. (res.) Marco Moreno, who served as the main liaison with the Syrian insurgents, confirmed them in an interview with Channel 12’s “Fact” program in May 2019. Moshe Ya’alon, then the former defense minister, also spoke in praise of the project. “We didn’t have one terrorist attack in their [i.e., the insurgents’] sector,” he said.

Soldiers from the Golani Brigade, on a training exercise in the Golan Heights.
Soldiers from the Golani Brigade, on a training exercise in the Golan Heights. Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

That may be true, but there was a serious shooting incident that was concealed.

Returning to that same night, over a year ago: Haaretz has learned from sources familiar with the story that on that particular day, it was decided to send the Golani reconnaissance team, under the command of Lt. Eliahu, on a routine patrol along the border. But at a certain point, “Eliahu and his team decided that they wanted to get to a building across the border,” according to one person who served in the area at the time. “He and other soldiers from the team reached the structure.”

Eliahu approached with a few soldiers, as the others waited along the wall outside, as cover.

“Eliahu knocked on the door and shouted ‘Iftah al bab!’ [open the door],” one source says, adding, “At that moment, there was a burst of gunfire from inside the building, from the other side of the door.” Why did those inside begin to shoot? “They were taken by surprise,” says another person familiar with the event. “They thought they had been discovered, and that Syrian soldiers, Hezbollah or members of the Shi’ite militias operated by the Iranians had shown up.” The people inside, the source says, had no reason to think there were IDF soldiers at the door.

But once the shots were fired, there was no turning back: “The force started shooting into the building, and the soldiers killed two or three of the people inside,” the source says. Afterward, “they ran back into Israeli territory. It was only there that they reported the encounter and said they had been shot at.”

'The people in the building weren’t terrorists,' a source says. 'Without the team’s operation, none of this would have happened, and they wouldn’t be dead.'

From that moment tensions rose in the area, say various sources. “A tank squad from the 77th Battalion of the Armored Corps was brought in,” one says. “They requested authorization to fire a shell into the building, but didn’t receive it – and it wasn’t clear why then.” Later, the picture became clear.

“In retrospect, we understood that people in the structure had been killed in the initial volley of fire at the entrance to the building,” he adds. “The whole story was that the people in the building weren’t terrorists,” says another person knowledgeable about the circumstances. “Without the team’s operation, none of this would have happened, and they wouldn’t be dead.”

A need to know

Indeed, this “surprise” trip across the border had not been planned in advance, and sounds more like an initiative by what was known by other Israeli troops in the area as “Team Eliahu”: a close-knit group of soldiers who gathered around the commander, Guy Eliahu. They gained a reputation as an independent force, which in the spirit of its leader did not feel obligated to following certain operational procedures. Or, as one person who is well acquainted with the reconnaissance unit explains, “They made it clear to the other soldiers in the unit that what happens in Team Eliahu stays in Team Eliahu.”

Golani troops.
Credit: Abir Sultan / IDF Spokesperson's Office

But in this case the story was far bigger than the team itself, as were the risks that were taken and their implications.

“The whole incident was understood only after it ended and the team had returned to its base,” says one of the people Haaretz spoke to. “It could easily have ended with soldiers being kidnapped or with bodies of soldiers in Lebanon or in Tehran.”

“It was decided to keep this story quiet,” the source adds. “To this day, many people who care about the unit don’t know why.”

On the face of it, things should have ended differently. After the incident, the deputy chief of staff carried out a debriefing to which were invited top brass from the IDF Northern Command, and officers from other branches of the General Staff, from the Golani Brigade and its reconnaissance battalion. But the information conveyed then referred mainly to what happened after the encounter inside Syria, not before.

“At that time, it wasn’t clear who knew about the story, and even today it’s not clear which of the officers who were part of the debriefing knew what really happened,” says one source. “There were only a few officers and soldiers who knew in real time – and kept quiet. Mainly from the Golani reconnaissance battalion and brigade, and possibly also from the Golan Heights territorial brigade.”

'Team Eliahu' gained a reputation as an independent force, which in the spirit of its leader did not feel obligated to following certain operational procedures.

The source adds that he is not necessarily surprised by this: “The battalion personnel didn’t feel that anything was amiss. That’s exactly how it is among the reconnaissance fighters: Everything is permitted and everything stays in the unit.” In fact, he says, there is a general feeling that in Golani, not only do they turn a blind eye – they also encourage people to think big, outside the guidelines.

“They went nuts in the territorial brigade because [during Operation Good Neighbor] security personnel were always showing up at the border, did what they did, and left,” the same source explains. “It drove them crazy; they kept wanting to know what was going on there. Every commander who was in that sector will tell you that the subject came up all the time in conversations with them. There was generally a feeling that if you think big and bring in new information – it will be welcomed. They allowed the boundaries to be stretched.”

Not everyone who was serving in the area at the time agreed with the way the story was handled by Golani. Accordingly, a number of soldiers and officers made sure that the information – including what did not come up in the debriefing – reached the brigade commander, Col. Shai Kelfer. But it was very quickly made plain to them that investigation of the incident was closed, due to lack of interest.

“Kelfer and the other commanders in Golani decided, in effect, not to deal with this story,” one source explains. “The brigade commander intimated to the people around him that as far as he was concerned, the incident was history, that it ended as soon as it had begun.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Golani commander Col. Shai Kelfer, in 2015.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Golani commander Col. Shai Kelfer, in 2015. Credit: Ariel Hermony / Defense Ministry

Letting off steam

The history of the Golani Brigade’s elite reconnaissance unit and, particularly, of Team Eliahu shows that the way the incident in Syria was handled was not an isolated occurrence. According to everyone who spoke with Haaretz, the common denominator of the stories is a conspiracy of silence: Officers ignore and whitewash problematic events time and again. Another connecting thread is Lt. Eliahu. “He is an officer with no inhibitions,” says one source who knew his team. “It’s not clear why the commanders ignored his actions – some of which border on criminal offenses – over the years.”

Some of those actions took place in connection with the accident on Route 6 on February 13, 2018, in which three staff sergeants – Eshto Tepso, Shiloh Siman Tov and Bar Yakubian – were killed. The investigative report published by Haaretz in March revealed a number of glitches that transpired even before the truck ran into the convoy of Hummers. The most serious was that the soldiers should not have been traveling on the highway at all after dark. Eliahu’s team set out very late and made unscheduled stops. At the moment of impact the Hummers were traveling slowly along the shoulder of the road, with only dim lights, so passing vehicles were not able to discern them. According to the lawyer representing the Arab driver who was charged in the incident – he too did not see them. “He was surprised at the convoy of Hummers, which suddenly appeared in his lane,” attorney Tsafrir Yagur said.

Lt. Col. Shimon Siso.
Lt. Col. Shimon Siso.

Following that incident, the next chapter took place in the West Bank settlement of Shavei Shomron, where the reconnaissance unit was on a routine security mission. In fact, the Hummers had been on the way to that settlement when the accident occurred. The mood among the soldiers was gloomy, and the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Shimon Siso, decided that they had to resume their routine quickly. “They have to resume activity so they won’t get depressed,” Siso told officers in the battalion.

The next day it was decided to send Team Eliahu to make night arrests at a refugee camp in the Nablus area. Upon returning to Shavei Shomron before dawn, they didn’t report anything out of the ordinary. However, the following morning, a soldier from the Civil Administration – Israel’s governing body in the West Bank – arrived at the base where the soldiers were and asked to speak to the officer in charge. Referred to Siso, the officer explained that he had video footage from Palestinians in which soldiers under Eliahu’s command were seen vandalizing cars at the refugee camp, including puncturing tires.

A few hours later, this information was reported briefly in the media, quoting one unnamed soldier from the Golani reconnaissance battalion. The army’s official response was that this was an exceptional and grave event, “which will be investigated, and the soldier will be dealt with accordingly.”

Siso, in fact, ordered an internal investigation. But when Lt. Eliahu realized that everything had been caught on film and that others in the IDF were also aware of what had occurred, he admitted to the damage done in the camp. The soldiers, he explained, felt a need to take revenge on Arabs, because the driver of the truck in the highway accident had been an Arab from East Jerusalem.

Eliahu testified that after the team made the necessary arrests on the night in question, one soldier started to vandalize vehicles nearby, “to let off steam.” When his comrades-in-arms saw this, he related, they vandalized more vehicles and also threatened Palestinians who approached. Eliahu admitted that he did not stop them. “I felt that I needed to let them let go,” he said. “We wanted to avenge the terrorist attack [i.e., the accident].”

At the end of the investigation, Siso consulted with several officers in the unit and at the brigade level, and summoned Eliahu for a talk. Afterward, he decided not to refer the matter to the office of the military advocate general, nor to punish Eliahu. In fact, according to various sources, the conclusions of the investigation that were passed on were inconsistent with the testimonies that had been gathered. Neither the fact that a number of soldiers had taken part nor the fact that Lt. Eliahu gave them a free hand was mentioned. It’s unlikely that this is what was really meant by “dealing accordingly” with anyone involved in the incident.

Golani troops train in the Golan Heights.
Golani troops train in the Golan Heights. Credit: Gil Eliahu

However, some soldiers in the battalion were uncomfortable with the lack of action and thus information about the incident eventually reached the brigade commander at the time, Col. Shlomi Binder. But time passed and the routine in the battalion continued unchanged. Nor did any message arrive from Binder, who shortly afterward was promoted to brigadier general and is currently the commander of the 91st Division, a territorial body deployed in northern Israel.

Col. Shlomi Binder.
Col. Shlomi Binder. Credit: Gil Eliahu

Thereafter, soldiers and officers again tried to put out feelers and to bring information about the debacle to the attention of the brigade’s top brass. The message they got back, however, was that the story must remain within the battalion and that there was no intention of punishing anyone on the Eliahu team.

Two years went by. Then, a few days ago, Haaretz requested a response concerning the Nablus incident. The request came as a surprise: Senior IDF officers, including staff at the military advocate general’s office, said they knew nothing about the case. Finally, the IDF Spokesperson offered the following response: “At issue is an exceptional and serious incident in which one fighter among a team needlessly punctured a number of tires during an operational activity. Immediately after the act, the event was investigated by the battalion commander and it was decided to suspend the fighter from the rest of the operational deployment and to reprimand the team’s commander for not stopping the act. After the incident, the gravity of the incident was stressed to the entire battalion and it was explained that such incidents would be dealt with severely in the future.”

According to everyone who spoke with Haaretz, the common denominator of the stories is a conspiracy of silence: Officers ignore and whitewash problematic events time and again.

Nevertheless, information gathered by Haaretz shows that, despite the IDF’s official response, no soldier was suspended.

Furlough time

The General Staff was unaware of the hate crime in Nablus, but did know about the road accident. A comprehensive investigation was conducted in its wake and submitted to the chief of staff and to the military advocate general’s office. The conclusion: Lt. Eliahu had exceeded his authority with respect to the Hummers’ trip on Route 6 and acted “contrary to the safety directives and to the briefing he had received.” However, he received only a mild punishment afterward: a disciplinary hearing before the Golani brigade commander. No more. By that time, Shai Kelfer had replaced Binder. A few months later, Kelfer sent Eliahu to a company commanders course at the Tactical Command College, paving his way potentially to even more senior assignments in the reconnaissance unit and the brigade.

However, the reconnaissance unit found itself in the spotlight again. The trial of the civilian driver from the accident opened, and with it a Pandora’s box: reports of attempts to obstruct the investigation and the trial, falsification of a document, destruction of evidence, witness tampering, not speaking the truth in interrogations (prima facie), debriefings that were “lost” and memories of officers and soldiers that were “erased.”

One item that was missing was the report of Eliahu’s debriefing by Lt. Col. Siso, the battalion commander, immediately after the accident. When Siso was asked to submit that information to the court, he stated that the notes, which he had taken by hand, were not available and he didn’t know where they were. Subsquently, Siso concluded his assignment in the reconnaissance unit, and is currently an officer in the Tactical Command College, which Eliahu is attending.

The issue of the falsification of a document in this case is also worth a look. In an attempt to avoid testifying in court on the specified date, Lt. Eliahu submitted an official document bearing the name and signature of the college’s commander, Lt. Col. Ido Journo. The document stated that Eliahu was supposed to take part in an exercise that day from which he could not be absent. An examination by Haaretz, however, revealed that the content of that letter was fabricated and that the lieutenant was actually on leave at the time with his family in a hotel.

Golani troops train in the Golan Heights.
Golani troops train in the Golan Heights. Credit: Gil Eliahu

In response to this revelation, Brig. Gen. Rafi Milo entered the picture. He had made headlines in March 2019 (as commander of the Galilee Division) by entering a Hezbollah border tunnel without authorization and passing through it with a number of his subordinates all the way in to Lebanon. Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi reprimanded Milo and punished him by delaying for a year a possible promotion.

This time, though, it was Milo doing the reprimanding. In his current capacity, as commander of the IDF Staff and Command College, he investigated Lt. Eliahu’s behavior. “The officer was supposed to go on leave with his family,” he wrote. “The letter [submitted by Eliahu] included false information, according to which his absence from the hearing was due to participation in an exercise. The officer signed the document in the commander’s name without his authorization.”

In light of the gravity of the act, Milo wrote, Eliahu was given a disciplinary hearing and sentenced to a 21-day prison term – of which seven days were suspended. Milo added that, “The incident will be taken into account in regard to decisions about the officer’s future in the Staff and Command College.”

In practice, Eliahu is still a cadet in a course under the commander whose signature he forged. In the weeks ahead he will complete his training and become a company commander in the Golani Brigade’s reconnaissance battalion. As for the prison term, after Eliahu spent seven days behind bars, the commander of the military colleges, Maj. Gen. Itai Virov, commuted his sentence and released him. Why? “Personal reasons,” Haaretz was told.

Events unknown

Haaretz asked the IDF Spokesperson’s Office for the army’s response to all the events described here. In regard to Syria, the army stated initially that it had no knowledge of the event described in the investigation and that no soldier had crossed the border. In an additional comment, it was noted that at the time there were no lookouts in the area and that the cameras weren’t working.

This week, in a more comprehensive official response, the IDF stated that on the date in question operational activity occurred “in the enclave adjacent to the border fence with Syria. Before embarking on it, full and in-depth battle procedures took place. During the activity, IDF fighters were aware that firing was aimed at them and responded with gunfire to eliminate the threat.

“Contrary to the reporter’s claims, the force crossed the border after receiving approval from those so authorized in real time. The event was debriefed at all levels of the Golan Heights and Mt. Hermon Brigade, in the Habashan Division and in Northern Command. The attempt to portray a cover-up or a concealment of the event during the operational activity or afterward is baseless.”

In regard to the full and in-depth battle procedures cited in the response, a senior military source who spoke with Haaretz said that he was not aware that a particular protocol existed prior to the incident, and that at the time, when the event was reported, the army was convinced that a Golani force had been involved in a encounter while engaged in routine activity.

As for the falsification of the document, the IDF Spokesperson’s Office stated that the Eliahu was given a disciplinary hearing “by the commander of the Staff and Command College for sending a letter signed by his commander in which he maintained that he was absent from the court hearing because of his participation in an exercise, when in practice this was not so. Within the framework of the disciplinary procedure he confessed, assumed responsibility and expressed regret for his deed.

“At the same time, the continuation of the track of his military service was examined by a committee headed by the commander of the Staff and Command College, Brig. Gen. Rafi Milo. After examining the full range of circumstances, the committee decided to permit Lt. Eliahu to continue on the training track in the Tactical Command College, subject to a review of his suitability for the post of company commander in a year’s time, taking into account the event and with a view to his performance during training.”

Comments