IDF Chief of Staff Refael “Raful” Eitan

Rafael “Raful” Eitan was IDF Chief of Staff from 1978 to 1983.

By Gideon

In 2005, Eitan was voted the 24th-greatest Israeli of all time in an internet poll conducted by an Israeli newspaper.

Considered more a fighting soldier than a planner, each of Eitan’s promotions had been regarded as his last, yet his performance on the battlefield propelled him to the top position in the IDF.

A brave warrior with a rough, blunt, personality. He was wounded four times in battle, twice in the head (in the battle for the San Simon monastery in Israel’s Independence War, and in the Sinai Peninsula in the Six Day War) and continued anyway.

A man of few words, at the ceremony to promote him to the IDF’s chief of staff, he limited himself to a 20-second acceptance speech.

Eitan joined the ranks of the Palmach when he was 16 years old. He was trained in the reconnaissance unit, where he fought as a platoon sergeant in the Harel Brigade. In a particularly difficult battle at the San Simon monastery in Jerusalem, he was wounded in the head. He finished the war as a deputy company commander without having to go through an officers’ course.

In 1949, after the War of Independence, Eitan left the army and returned to Tel Adashim. In 1951 he enlisted again in the IDF, this time as the Operations Officer of the 9th Brigade, where he took a battalion commander’s course and a paratroop course, and was appointed commander of the first paratroopers company.

He was awarded the Medal of Valor following the Kantilla Operation (October 28, 1955) for storming a steep cliff in front of the enemy fire and with his bare hands he eliminated a firing position that interfered with the fighters’ progress.

In December 1955 he was wounded in the stomach and pelvis in the Kinneret operation against the Syrians. During the Sinai Campaign. Eitan commanded the battalion that parachuted into the Mitla Pass, the only operational jump in the history of the IDF, and in 1964 was appointed commander of the Paratroopers Brigade. During the Six-Day War in 1967, Eitan led his paratroopers brigade in Sinai to the Suez Canal. He was severely wounded when a bullet went through his head, but he recovered and returned to full service after the war.

When, on December 26 1968, the PLO attacked an El Al aircraft in Athens, killing one passenger and wounding another, Eitan led his paratroopers in a daring operation two days later. It was aimed at putting pressure on the Lebanese government to stop terrorists, many of whom were using Lebanon as a base from which to attack Israel and Israeli targets worldwide. Four helicopters transported Eitan and his men to the airport at Beirut where, within 30 minutes, they placed explosives, blowing up 13 Arab aircraft worth more than 100 million US dollars.

He was appointed commander of the Jordan Valley and developed the combat doctrine of the pursuers (after infiltrators from the Jordanian border in the 1970s).

On October 6 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a simultaneous attack on Israel. The Commander of the Northern Front, Yitzhak Hofi, whose headquarters was at Safed, placed the defense of the northern part of the Golan in the hands of Eitan who, from his underground command bunker at Nafekh, was closer to the theatre of war and in a better position to control and direct the battle.

Trapped in the bunker, and surrounded throughout the first night by Syrian tanks, Eitan directed the battle with cool leadership until the Syrians were pushed back, capturing the Golan Heights enclave. A few days after the fighting ended, he was promoted to the rank of Major General. Eitan’s next appointment, in April 1974, was head of the Northern Command. He played a key role in the decision in 1975 to create and train the soldiers of the South Lebanese Army (SLA) under Major Sa’ad Hadad.

In April 1974, shortly after being appointed Northern Command Chief, Eitan commanded a military operation that led to the capture of a highly important strategic location – the peak of Mount Hermon. Mt. Hermon stands at over 2,000 meters high, and this battle proved to be one of the most challenging and strategically important in the IDF’s history.

In August 1977 Eitan was made Chief of the Operations Branch at General Staff, and eight months later he was appointed Chief of Staff. The fact that he was chosen for the top job was a surprise. But it was felt that, unlike his predecessor, Eitan would devote all his energies to improving the performance of the IDF while leaving politics to the politicians.

This, however, was not to be. On May 11 1978, in the traditional Independence Day interview of the Chief of Staff (given on Israel’s 30th anniversary), Eitan stated that the IDF could not guarantee the security of the state without retaining full control of the Golan Heights, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It was the first time that a Chief of Staff had publicly pronounced his own views on so controversial an issue, and there was a wave of public protest, and calls for him to resign. But Eitan had the unswerving support of the Right-wing Prime Minister Begin, and he survived.

In 1979 the Defence Minister, Ezer Weizmann, resigned and, until the 1981 elections, Eitan took over the defence portfolio in all but name. With Begin’s approval, he virtually dictated a huge increase in the military budget over the objections of many in the cabinet. During his term in office he underwent a personal tragedy when his son Yoram, a pilot with the rank of major in the air force, was killed in a training accident in southern Israel (1981).

As Chief of the General Staff, Eitan established the unique Talpiot program. Talpiot uses the extraordinary minds of Israel’s brightest youth for developing ground-breaking technology. These recruits, who undergo many tests to qualify for the program, complete a bachelor’s degree at the Hebrew University, while studying special subjects that link the IDF with the latest scientific developments. After completing 40 months of schooling and training, the graduates receive officer ranks and are integrated into the various development and research units of the IDF.

In 1979, Lt. Gen. Eitan established the visionary IDF Center for Promoting Special Populations. The Center provides teens coming from difficult backgrounds with the opportunity to turn their lives around through a meaningful IDF service. He understood that military service was often the last chance for many teens to pursue a higher education and thus a more successful future. Approximately 1,200 new recruits enter the project each year. 90 percent of the recruits complete the program and go on to serve in different roles in the IDF. 75 percent serve the full mandatory three years, while 10 percent serve in combat units.

He was Chief of Staff at the time of the Israeli air attack on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor complex on 7 June 1981.

Under the supervision of the then Defence Minister Ariel Sharon, Eitan planned and executed the Israeli incursion into Lebanon in June 1982. The aim was to destroy the bases and infrastructure of the PLO. But on September 16-17 1982, Christian forces massacred hundreds of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, and public pressure in Israel forced Menachem Begin’s government to appoint a commission of inquiry into the tragic events. The commission ruled that Lieutenant-General Eitan had been negligent and had failed to do anything to prevent or limit the killings. But unlike Sharon, who was forced to resign following the Report, Eitan managed to cling to his job, because the commission ruled that, as he was about to complete his term as Chief of Staff, it would not pass judgement on his suitability to continue in office.

Despite his roots in the Labor movement, Eitan was notorious for his hawkish views and his hostility to the Arabs, whom he once called “drugged cockroaches”. After his retirement from the IDF, in 1983, Eitan entered politics, establishing Tsomet (meaning “Junction”), a Right-wing political party which united with Tehiyah (“Revival”) before the 1984 elections. Eitan was elected to the Knesset. and served as Minister of Agriculture in Yitzhak Shamir’s Likud government in 1990-91. In the June 1992 elections, on a platform of clean government, secularism and support for retaining all of Eretz Yisrael (Greater Israel), his party increased its seats from two to eight.

Before the 1996 elections Eitan joined with Likud in a Right-wing bloc and, when Benjamin Netanyahu was elected, he appointed Eitan Minister of Agriculture and the Environment and deputy Prime Minister. Within the government Eitan was a committed opponent of the Oslo accords.

In 2003, Eitan was appointed logistic co-ordinator for the Ashtrom company, which was improving the breakwater at the port of Ashdod. Rafael “Raful” Eitan, was drowned in the Mediterranean on Monday, 23 November 2004 at the age of 75, while inspecting construction. The assessment is that after Eitan got out of the car, he tripped over the strong winds and fell into the stormy waters.

Eitan was an amateur pilot, carpenter and a farmer who produced olive oil. In 1985 he published his autobiography, Eitan – A Story of a Soldier.

Eitan was twice married. By his first marriage he had five children.

“Lt. Gen. Rafael Eitan, 11th IDF Chief of the General Staff, was an inspiration to many soldiers and citizens in Israel. He was a commander, role-model and educator, dedicated to the education, welfare and future of all his soldiers.” (IDF)


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