Along the Israel-Egypt border fence near Mount Harif three people were walking slowly, remembering Artillery Corps soldier Netanel Yahalomi who was killed there two and a half years ago when terrorists disguised as asylum seekers opened fire at his unit.
At this special gathering held ahead of Memorial Day Netanel's father, Rabbi Shmuel Yahalomi, was joined by his son's commander Lieutenant Benjamin Vinter and Sgt S., a fighter in the Caracal Battalion who shot and killed one of the terrorists, heroically preventing a large scale attack.
Corporal Netanel Yahlomi managed to shoot 23 bullets at the terrorists on the Egyptian border, before he was killed. Corporal S. launched, but it was too late for her to save him. For Memorial Day, the fighter, who later received a citation for her actions that day, returns to the scene of the incident to reunite with Netanel's father and his commander.
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It is relatively quiet these days on the Egyptian-Israeli border, thanks to the completion of the aw-inspiring border fence that stops the infiltration of asylum seekers, terrorists and smugglers.
This was not the case in 2012. Corporal Yahalomi, a young soldier who had just joined the Artillery Corps a few months prior, was patrolling the border with his unit. Infiltrators were still flowing into Israel, a fact three terrorists took advantage of when they used such a group of asylum seekers as cover on their approach to the border.
The terrorists broke away from the group, positioned themselves and opened fire at Yahalomi's unit. Yahalomi was killed from the first round of fire, but he still managed to return fire. His friend was moderately wounded and the fire exchange continued.
A bigger attack was thwarted by the resourcefulness of 21-year-old Corporal S., who returned fire and killed one of the terrorists. She later received a military citation from the head of the command for her actions.
A smile of revenge
The father, the commander and the fighter were reunited at the same spot Netanel was killed. They looked at the desert landscape, the spot where Netanel was hit, and cried tears of longing.
"It was a Friday I'll never forget. Our unit received a call on the radio 'we're under fire' and we immediately went out to the area," remembers S. "I spotted the terrorists on my left and right. I ran towards their direction, focused on the terrorist from the left and opened fire. A short while before that I passed by Netanel and saw him lying on the ground lifeless. I remember the look on his face, his blue eyes which remain engraved in my memory. We checked his pulse and realized there was no hope," S. said.
"After I shot the terrorist, a sense of relief came over me and I even managed to smile. A smile of revenge that we managed to kill the one who tried to kill us and there is no way he is ever coming back. A sense of closure. I believe that because of Netanel's initial reaction, who managed to fire 23 bullets before he was killed, a greater attack was prevented," S. added.
Since the incident, S. has kept regular contact with the family. "I didn't know them before the tragedy, but since then we became a family. I have a great relationship with Avital, Netanel's sister. We are the best of friends who talk about everything."
Rabbi Shmuel, Netanel's father, told us that he could not fall asleep the night before the special gathering. "When I arrived at this spot, where he was killed, I got very emotional. It's not easy for me to stand here. Whenever I come here, I meet more people who knew him and I learn more details about the incident."
"I imagine Netanel fighting here. He was a very nimble boy. His reaction to the terrorists fit his personality. As a child, Netanel was a mischievous boy, but he also studied the Torah for many hours and volunteered to work with youth. I want to immortalize what he managed to accomplish in his short life," Rabbi Shmuel said.
"A strong bond of friendship and support," was formed between Rabbi Shmuel and Netanel's unit friends. "We meet a lot and observe the Shabbat together. It’s a bond that will last forever".
No less than 30 friends from Netanel's military unit arrived to Moshav Nof Ayalon, where the family lives, to observe the Shabbat together and mark Netanel's 22nd birthday.
Netanel's commander, lieut. Vinter, remembers Netanel as "real and determined. He always volunteered to be in the field and always volunteered to help. He was in a great shape and had remarkable running abilities. He always knew the right thing to do and did it all the way. He was a man of truth and integrity and his bond with his friends was rare. He used to smile even when things got really difficult."
A song of heroism
For Memorial Day, Yedioth Ahronoth published a commoration song titled "His Smile," written by S.'s partner, Barak Moustaki, following her experience.
"Two months after we met, S. asked me to write a song about the incident," said Moustaki. "I was very surprised. How can I write a song about an event I wasn't a part of?"
"But she kept asking and eventually I told her - 'okay, tell me all of the feelings and emotions that you felt in those moments, and help me get as deep as possible into the situation.' We sat at a cafe, S. told me about the fears and memories that haunt her, and I started to write."
"The song talks about soldiers meeting death. His smile is the smile of an angel inviting soldiers to join him. S. told me how she charged towards Netanel who was wounded, and how she saw the bullets missing her and hitting the ground. She looked death straight in the eyes."
The song describes the moment in which she realized Netanel had been killed. The most powerful verse to her, Barak said, is the last one; "looking at you (Netanel), you are here next to me, I can feel you, but you can't feel me."
Avital Yahalomi, Netanel's sister, was also extremely touched by the song. "I met S. at Netanel's funeral and we stayed in touch ever since. It's more than friendship. At a certain point she told me about the song and sent it to me. It's a very unique and moving song, talking about those who left and those who stayed. I don't think there are many songs that talk about the experience of those who survived," Avital said.