Cover Story

Speaking with IDF Colonel Golan Vach

Photo: Marco Bello/Reuters Pictures


“We evacuated bodies, but we saw the spirit of the Jewish people.”

Colonel Golan Vach, who lives in Beit Rimon, a kibbutz in the lower Galil, heads 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. The unit operates search and rescue missions, aiding in rescue and recovery from terror attacks, floods, earthquakes and other disasters.

Israel has a long track record of lending its expertise in disaster relief and rescue efforts on the international stage. Col. Vach has been deployed on numerous rescue missions, most recently to Surfside, Florida, when a condo building collapsed and to Turkey following an earthquake that claimed thousands of lives. 

In his civilian life Col. Vach brings groups to Israel and accompanies them for their first year of aliyah through an organization called “Klitat Kehilot Yisrael” (“The absorbing of the communities of Israel”). He is also a composer who sings with his Vach family choir.

A thirty-five-year veteran of the IDF, Col. Vach, wearing army fatigues and a yarmulke, sums up his unit’s role simply: “What we do is save lives.” Despite his varied experience in working in disaster zones, he was overwhelmed by what he saw in the aftermath of the Simchat Torah massacre. In the interview that follows, conducted only two weeks into the war in early October, he shares his initial thoughts and feelings. 


Toby Klein Greenwald: Tell us a bit about your background and how you came to be the commander
of the National Rescue Unit. 

Col. Golan Vach: I was born and raised in Kiryat Arba and attended Yeshivat Or Etzion, a military high school. So I’ve been in uniform since the age of fourteen—that’s thirty-five years. I was in the pre-military mechinah of the yeshivah 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 executing missions and performing regular 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.

Klein Greenwald: Where did you receive your rescue training? 

Col. Vach: In 2009, after being in combat units for seventeen years, I was asked to lead a new search and rescue unit intended for use during emergencies in Israel and to assist with international catastrophes as well. When I switched to Search and Rescue, I needed training. While I did get some training from the instructors in the Home Front Command, the majority of my training was from two other sources: I learned a lot from the soldiers and colleagues in my unit—all of whom are experts in their fields, whether they are engineers, technicians or other specialists. Secondly, I learned from experience. I assisted in many, many disaster rescue missions in Israel and overseas. With each experience I had, I tried to learn how to be a better rescuer and commander and how to improve the capabilities of the unit. I believe our Rescue Unit is the best such unit in the world. 

In 2010, we went to Haiti after it experienced a tremendous earthquake. Since then, our unit has been saving lives and making a kiddush Hashem in Mexico, Albania, the Philippines as well as in other places around the world.

Until 2013, I was the commander of the Rescue Unit at the training base in Zikim, one of the sites attacked on October 7. I visited the base the week after the attack just to give the soldiers a hug.

Klein Greenwald: You have seen so many disaster sites. Only a few months ago, you participated in Israel’s rescue mission to help locate survivors and provide aid after the earthquake in southern Turkey. What was different about the devastation you saw in the wake of the Hamas attack? 

Col. Vach: First of all, this was not a natural disaster. 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 amount of casualties, the brutality of the slaughter, was so broad, so cruel, so inexplicable that even now, as I speak to you, I’m not sure I understand all the parameters. I’m not sure I can even explain exactly what I saw. It is incomprehensible. 

Today you have more than 300,000 soldiers being propelled and carried by the 7 million Jewish citizens of Israel as well as by Jews around the world.

The first site we went to was the site of the Supernova outdoor music festival, next to Kibbutz Re’im, where more than 260 people were massacred. That night was the longest and the toughest; it was the most terrifying night I have ever experienced. The terrorists had set cars on fire—and they were still on fire when we got there. It was surreal. Just 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. I will not go into details. I will just say that this was a barbaric massacre. 

I do, however, want to make an important point: The soldiers, volunteer security teams of the kibbutzim (Kitat Konenut), police officers and even ordinary civilians stormed into the fire, some of them without ammunition, to stop the terrorists with their bare hands. I saw emergency squads with their pistols emptied out. I saw heroism at the highest level. 

As terrible as this slaughter was, these heroic individuals prevented an even greater catastrophe—the terrorists intended to go to Kiryat Gat, a city that is more than forty kilometers (around twenty-five miles) from Otef Aza. [Otef Aza refers to the populated areas of Israel that are within 4.3 miles of the Gaza Strip border. The region is populated by 70,000 Israeli citizens.]

I cannot imagine what would have happened had they advanced to Kiryat Gat.

The extraordinary level of heroism comforted me in some way because I am a soldier, and I was part of a system that failed in its primary mission to protect the residents of the kibbutzim. And I saw all the marks of this failure. It also 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. This could not have happened without the expertise and, even more so, the courage of many IDF soldiers. This was also a unique situation as there was no real coordination. Regaining control of the kibbutzim involved individual soldiers and commanders making spur-of-the moment decisions in a totally unfamiliar and unanticipated situation, and sometimes in opposition to the orders they got. They followed their instincts, and they charged into the storm. We lost so many soldiers, but the IDF was successful in ending the attack.


A thirty-five-year veteran of the IDF, Colonel Vach, wearing army fatigues and sporting a yarmulke, sums up his unit’s role simply: “What we do is save lives.” Photo: REUTERS/Washington Alves


Klein Greenwald: In some of the news reports, you are quoted as saying that it was an inside job. Can you explain that? 

Col. Vach: Hamas had internal intelligence from Arabs who worked in the kibbutzim. This is not an assumption. It’s a fact. I heard this from their employers. The residents of Gaza knew the names of the families, where they lived, where they hid their jewelry, where the mayor of the Sha’ar HaNegev Council, Ofir Libstein—one of the first to be killed—lived, where the kibbutz armory was located . . . They knew all the entrances of the army bases. They knew which unit was inside each base. They knew everything. 

There was an ambulance that had been stolen three months ago from Kfar Saba. This ambulance was left, with the engine running, on the back road of their route, the terrorists’ route, with medicines inside waiting for them.

The terrorists got internal aid from traitors inside Israel, from Arabs. [Interviewer’s note: This refers to Arabs who live inside the pre-Six Day War, 1967, borders of Israel. They are full Israeli citizens.]

Klein Greenwald: How do you think this massacre will impact the country politically?

Col. 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 weekend, 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, had a dream to establish a joint Palestinian-Israeli industrial zone between Kfar Aza and Gaza. He was part of the volunteer security team, and he, too, was slaughtered.

Klein Greenwald: What are some of the challenges of dealing with this disaster site that are different from other sites you’ve dealt with?

Col. Vach: 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 didn’t differentiate between men, women, babies or the elderly. They intended to humiliate, to eliminate and to cause psychological horror. Their objective was to horrify Israeli society and the Jewish nation worldwide. 

But they achieved the opposite—the exact opposite. In fact, they succeeded in uniting the entire Jewish nation worldwide.

Today you have more than 300,000 soldiers being propelled and carried by the 7 million Jewish citizens of Israel as well as by those Jews around the world who want only one thing—to demolish [Hamas], to win, to beat this evil.

Klein Greenwald: What do you think Israel will learn from this? 

Col. Vach: It’s too early to predict the long-term effect of this massacre. I can only discuss the short term. What do we need to do now? We need to provide the citizens of the kibbutzim, of Sderot, of Ofakim, with real protection.

We cannot expect the residents of Otef Aza to return to their homes without eradicating the evil that emanated from Hamas over the years. And there is no chance they will return to their homes without proper protection. 

Real protection means that Hamas cannot remain an entity that can threaten any Jew in any manner. The answer is not protecting ourselves with safe rooms and shelters.  

The soldiers, volunteer security teams of the kibbutzim, police officers, and even ordinary civilians stormed into the fire, some of them without ammunition, to stop the terrorists with their bare hands. . . . I saw heroism at the highest level.

With the help of Hakadosh Baruch Hu, we must clear the region of this kind of threat if we want to provide our citizens with the security that we could not give them this past Simchat Torah.

I’d like to share a story. It was the fourth day of the mission to recover bodies last week; it was also my forty-ninth birthday. We were driving back to our base, and, after having carried out more than two hundred and fifty dead Jews from the fire and destruction, I felt it was the saddest birthday of my life. Just before the sun set, I asked a small wish of Hakadosh Baruch Hu: I asked for Am Yisrael to win.

And suddenly, out of nowhere, two terrorists opened fire from the right side of the road. We charged at them. One member of our group was wounded, but we killed both Hamas gunmen. 

Standing next to the two terrorist beasts we had just killed, I felt a small, small sense of victory. I thanked Hakadosh Baruch Hu that I was granted the opportunity to revert back to being a soldier, not a body carrier, for a few minutes. 

Klein Greenwald: Is there something you want to say to our readers, most of whom are North American Orthodox Jews? 

Col. Vach: Yes, I want to tell American Jewry that in spite of everything, your place is in Israel. And if you think that what happened is a good reason for you to stay in America, you are deeply, deeply wrong.

Klein Greenwald: In your experience, how do people recover from such devastation? What does it take? 

Col. Vach: First of all, by remaining united. The community should stay together. All the kibbutz members who’ve been relocated from Otef Aza should stick together and not be fragmented. Secondly, by doing things to advance the situation on a practical level. Do not wallow in grief and blame; instead, do things, be proactive. 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. 

Klein Greenwald: If we eradicate Hamas, what do you foresee going forward? Will the communities be rebuilt? 

Col. Vach: It depends. I would not automatically say yes. It depends on what Gaza will look like. If Hamas is stripped of its ability to attack again, then we can return to the place and rebuild.

Klein Greenwald: How do you, as a religious Jew, cope with the trauma you see up close? And what is your closing message to our readers? 

Col. Vach: I am not the first Jew to witness such a tremendous chillul Hashem. Seeing the devastated sites, 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.” That was my feeling during the past few days, but at the same time I felt that Hakadosh Baruch Hu is directing us to a certain point, to a place of our unification.

How many people have I heard say over the past two years, “We need a real war right now to remind us who we are”? Prior to the Hamas massacre, we felt that the fight between the political parties regarding judicial reform was so important. But it was so toxic, so wrong. And we couldn’t stop it. The negative energy and bad feelings among Am Yisrael was beyond our ability to fix. 

I won’t speak on behalf of Hakadosh Baruch Hu, but this massacre was an external reminder of who we are. While I was looking at the devastation and searching for human remains among the destruction, 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 sand of the sea. 

I participated in the delegation to Turkey after their earthquake. I saw the Israeli flag there, as we proudly represented the Jewish State. I’ve received medals from various presidents around the world for my rescue work. They have all told me that Israel is the most advanced and beautiful country in the world.

When we soldiers were tasked with carrying out the burnt remains of young people from the music festival, the bodies were lovingly handled by the wonderful Chareidi volunteers of the chevra kadisha; no one was willing to go to such a place, but they did. 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. So while I felt I was at a very low point last week, 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. 


Toby Klein Greenwald, a regular contributor to Jewish Action, is a journalist, playwright, poet, teacher and the artistic director of a number of theater companies. She is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from Atara—the Association for Torah and the Arts.


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This article was featured in the Winter 2023 issue of Jewish Action.
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