Col Golan Vach Courtesy IDF

By Toby Klein Greenwald

I conducted two interviews with Col. Golan Vach, 49, one two weeks into the war, from which I bring some excerpts here, and the second almost three months later.

Part One: October 2023

Colonel Vach, who lives in Beit Rimon, a kibbutz in the lower Galil, until recently headed the IDF’s famed National Rescue Unit of the Home Front Command, 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 (where a condo building collapsed).

A thirty-five-year veteran of the IDF, Vach, an Orthodox officer, sums up his unit’s role simply: “What we do is save lives.” Despite being a veteran commander, he was overwhelmed by what he saw in the aftermath of the Simchat Torah massacre.

Col. Golan Vach: “I was born and raised in Kiryat Arba and attended Yeshivat Or Etzion, a military high school. I was in the pre-military mechinah of the yeshiva for two years and then joined the paratroopers, ultimately serving as commander of Maglan [the elite commando unit within the paratroopers]. Subsequently, I served in the Givati Brigade, which is responsible for performing operations to maintain the security of Israel’s South. In 2009, I transferred to the Home Front Command, where I established the Search and Rescue Battalion.”

The unit aids in rescue and recovery from terror attacks, floods, earthquakes, and other disasters. “But the attack on October 7,” says Vach, was different, because first of all, “It was a man-made disaster, if you can call them men. Secondly, I have seen many terror attacks during my service in the IDF but the scale, the number of casualties, the brutality of the slaughter, was so broad, so cruel, so inexplicable, that it made this event something that even now I’m not sure I can define. It is incomprehensible.

“The first site we went was where the Supernova outdoor music festival took place [where over 360 people were massacred], in the forest next to Kibbutz Re’im. That was the most terrifying night I have ever experienced. The terrorists set cars on fire—and they were still on fire when we got there. It was surreal. Only that morning we were celebrating Simchat Torah, and that night we found ourselves walking among fires and extracting the remains of dozens of young people. Subsequently, we went through the kibbutzim: Be’eri and Kfar Aza. It was a barbaric massacre.

“IDF soldiers, and the first response teams of the kibbutzim (kitat konenut), police officers, the local civil defense squads, and ordinary civilians stormed into the fire, some of them without ammunition, with their bare hands to stop the terrorists. I saw emergency squads with their pistols emptied out; I saw heroism at the highest level.

“This comforted me in some way, because I am a soldier, and I was part of a system that failed in its primary mission, which is to protect the residents of the kibbutzim. It comforted me to see that the IDF bounced back very quickly. With the help of HaKadosh Baruch Hu, the IDF took control of twenty-two bases and kibbutzim in twenty-four hours.”

Col. Vach called the disaster “an inside job,” as there were Gazan Arabs who worked in the kibbutzim and gave information to the terrorists. “They [also] knew all the entrances of the army bases…And there is no question they also got internal information from traitors inside, from Israeli Arabs.” [This refers to Arabs who live inside the pre-Six Day War, 1967, borders of Israel. They are full Israeli citizens. – TKG]

Politically, said Vach, “Right now, in Israel, there is no left and no right. No more. The Kutz family was murdered—all five of them. An entire family wiped out. I found them.  The Kutz family believed in good neighborly relations with the Palestinians and every Saturday afternoon, they flew kites in the direction of Gaza, as a sign of good neighborliness, trying to show that the borders cannot divide us. They were the first to be killed. Ofir Libstein, the mayor of the regional Sha’ar HaNegev Council, had a dream to establish a joint Palestinian Israeli industrial zone between Kfar Aza and Gaza. He was part of the first response team, and he also was slaughtered.

“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. It was pure hatred of Jews and Judaism. They did not differentiate between babies or the elderly… I saw women in difficult situations for me to see. I saw elders whose bodies were defiled after they were dead. I saw children who had been burned. I carried many dead babies. They intended to humiliate, to eliminate, to burn, and to cause psychological horror. Their intention was to horrify Israeli society and the Jewish nation worldwide. But they achieved the exact opposite. In fact, they succeeded in uniting the whole Jewish nation worldwide.

“Now we need to provide the citizens of the kibbutzim, of Sderot, of Ofakim, with real protection. We cannot expect them to return to their homes without eradicating the evil that emanated from Hamas…”

TKG: How do people recover from such devastation? What does it take?

Col. Vach: “First of all, by remaining united. All the kibbutz members who’ve been relocated from that area should stick together and not be fragmented. Secondly, by doing things to advance the situation on a practical level, by being proactive, not wallowing in grief and blame. Thirdly, the recovery depends on how Hakadosh Baruch Hu will guide Medinat Yisrael and the IDF—what Gaza will look like, and what the future will be.”

TKG: How do you, as a religious Jew, cope with the trauma you see up close?

Col. Vach: “I walked among the flames, and I said, ‘To see Jews in the land of the Jews under the protection of the IDF being killed like this—this is just a chillul Hashem, a desecration of G-d’s name.’ But at the same time, I felt that HaKadosh Baruch Hu is directing us to a certain point, to a place of our unification.

… While I was searching for human remains, I felt that I was standing in the lowest place on Earth. At the same time, I felt that I was part of a nation that will attain the loftiest heights. Hakadosh Baruch Hu is expecting us to grow. Yisrael is compared to the stars of the heavens and the sands of the sea.

“I’ve received medals from presidents around the world for my rescue work. They all told me that Israel is the most advanced and beautiful country in the world.

“When we were carrying out the burnt remains of young people from the music festival, the bodies were lovingly handled by the wonderful volunteers of the chevra kadisha. That’s the people of Israel.

“I’m so sorry that we needed this reminder. But I felt HaKadosh Baruch Hu even in these places. I never felt abandoned. I know what we, the Jewish people, are capable of. And I know that HaKadosh Baruch Hu is guiding us and that He loves us.”

Part Two: February 2024

“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. We found more in the attics and under collapsed walls but 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 archaeologists to sift through the ashes.

“I was given the responsibility of describing to many important people—VIPs like the head of the European Parliament, ministers, NY Governor Kathy Hochul, ambassadors from most countries of the world, and many journalists and reporters—exactly what happened.

“I cannot remember many time periods in my IDF service as difficult as those three weeks, for several main reasons.

“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, and we didn’t know when it was going to take place. We heard that there were a lot of pressures, from both inside and outside, that Israel not go into Gaza, and we knew that going in was the right thing to do. The waiting period was the most difficult one; we were just waiting to pay back, to return some of the lost respect of our murdered brothers and sisters.”

When the IDF started the ground offensive in Gaza on October 28, Col. Vach went in with some soldiers of his Search and Rescue unit, to accompany another unit that was fighting in the east-north side of the Gaza Strip in Beit Hanun. He was wounded in his hip by a ricochet from one of the booby traps there, but he stayed in, and they spent ten 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 ten that led this company, that we were part of, they were all wounded. Four were killed—Moshe Leiter, who was a very close friend of mine, Sergey Shmerkin, Matan Meir, and Yossi Hershkovitz, another close friend. Another six were severely injured. Most of them lost their legs.

“There was a story that I took out from the fighting, a song that Yossi Herskovitz composed.”

Hershkovitz was the beloved principal of Pelech Boys High School in Jerusalem. Vach taught the song to Hershkovitz’s family, and they recorded it professionally. Vach also sang on the recording, and it went viral. It 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…”

“The second time I left Gaza, I had a dilemma. How should I intermediate the importance of being part of the combat units to my search and rescue unit, which is not routinely part of the missions that do combat?

“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.” Sometimes the casualties were a result of the collapse of infrastructures. Such was the case with the twenty-one soldiers who died in the collapse of a building on January 22.

“We created the missions, and we took them forward and we pushed the system to acknowledge that this is the right thing to do. Many of the missions, including those of my units, were not given by the supreme command, but were created by the lower level of command. The boots on the ground require commanders with open eyes, with the desire to change and advance the reality to the victory.

“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 in the market, who were not accompanying combat units.

“So, I found an area in which we could take care of the infrastructures and 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 from terrorists. 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 they destroyed them. As a search and rescue unit they were used to crawling in small spaces, rescuing people, and he trained others as necessary.

The three main tunnels that were found in the northern part of the Gaza Strip were found by Vach’s units. “We dealt with kilometers of tunnels,” says Vach.

“You make sure that you bring your soldiers back safe and that there is no one who can surprise you.

“Several weeks after we were inside Gaza, I saw something incredible. We got a signal of intelligence that there is a capability that we can 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. This is what we did for five weeks.”

They also discovered that they had some explosive experts in their unit. He took those experts, trained dozens of soldiers, walked kilometers into the refugee camp of Jabalia and took down seven buildings of the leaders of the October 7 massacre.

They continued this night after night, and sometimes during the day. “We destroyed hundreds of buildings that our intelligence indicated were connected to those who directed and carried out the massacre.

“What are the missions of a normal Search and Rescue unit in Uzbekistan, France, or Italy? You could list five examples, and all are common to search and rescue units everywhere.

“But after three months inside Gaza, we discovered that our mission there was to be a tool in the hands of the IDF to destroy Hamas, the enemy. Who would think of a group of people who are responsible for saving lives to take others’ lives, if you call them people, these monsters. And I say it comes from the same place of cherishing life.  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. Because you cherish life. And those bad guys are the evil.

“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 gorgeous and incredible unit, after six years and two months.

“Now I’ve been given the responsibility to manage and lead all the aspects of Search and Rescue efforts in the Home Front Command. It’s called a promotion, but, you know, the first love is the best love. 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, to all those who supported me, to the entire group that surrounded me and helped me in my job.

“I was privileged to command this unit and I have many things to do still.  “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.’

“But right now, we need to do the opposite, to take the swords, to fight and invest every capability to defeat the evil.

“I thought that the face of evil is to see the horror at the Nova festival and in Be’eri, or Kfar Gaza. 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, of our country, with a picture of Al Aqsa. 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.

“The person who wants to understand what this war is about—don’t go to Be’eri or to Kfar Aza. Enter one of their 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 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 October 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.

“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 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 percent 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.”

TKG: 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 added, “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 Ministry of Defense; eliminate Hamas and rescue the hostages.”

TKG: What have you been doing in the last three months that has to do with your work with new immigrants?

“They are always on my mind. During my first vacation of eight hours, after 30 days, I spent two-and-a-half hours in Haifa, visiting the last group that I brought from South America, before I went home. I encouraged them and told them that I expect them to not even consider leaving Israel, even for a vacation, because we need them here. Baruch Hashem, they all stayed. I did Zoom sessions from the top of a building in Gaza, with a helmet on, to meet families from South Africa, Australia, North America, and England.”

He adds, “I keep thinking—what Israel should look like, what are the values of our country, what combines us all as a society?” He quotes from an article by Ben Gurion, “Yehud V’Ye’ud” (“Uniqueness and Destiny”), who wrote that our two missions are kibbutz galuyot, the ingathering of the exiles, and “Ve’ahavta le’re’achah kamocha—Love your neighbor as yourself.”

“Ben Gurion said that the whole existence of the State of Israel is to establish a model state, to be a light to the nations, and to do that, we need all our power, all our brothers and sisters, that have been spread all over the world. This should be the spiritual and cultural center of the Jewish people and kibbutz galuyot is our obligation and so is ve’ahavta lecha kamocha—we should remain people who love human beings.

“Despite all the disagreements that we have, we should treat one another with respect, love, camaraderie, partnership—this is the basic condition that we need to establish a model state here. This is it.” n

Part One was adapted with permission from Jewish Action, the magazine of the Orthodox Union, vol. 84, no. 2 (winter 2023).

The writer is an award-winning journalist and theater director, and the editor-in-chief of She lives in Israel.


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