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IDF releases name of elite Druze officer killed in Gaza operation 2018, prompting lawmakers to call for changes to law enshrining Israel as 'Jewish state'

Controversial law has the potential to divide the coalition with some parties rejecting calls to tinker with the wording

Lt. Col. Mahmoud Kheir El-Din (left) and another officer, in an undated photograph published by the IDF on May 15, 2022. (Photo: IDF Spokesperson)

On Sunday, the Israeli army released the name of an undercover officer who was killed in a botched covert special operation in Gaza in November 2018. 

Due to the sensitivity of the mission, the officer was known only by his first initial, M or mem in Hebrew, while the circumstances surrounding his death were held secret for the past 3.5 years.

After his family pushed to have him recognized, the government consented to reveal the name and details of the heroic career of Lt.-Col. Mahmoud Kheir El-Din – an elite IDF combat officer who was also a member of Israel’s Druze community. 

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett praised the officer’s contribution and dedication to the security of the Jewish state. 

“Three-and-a-half years have passed since the late Lt.-Col. Mahmoud Kheir El-Din fell in battle in a covert operation in Khan Yunis; only now are we permitted to reveal his name and thank him for his contribution and his dedication to the security of the state,” Bennett said. 

Kheir El-Din, who died at age 41, was a fighter in the Paratroopers Brigade Reconnaissance Unit and later rose through the ranks of the army to become a lieutenant-colonel in the IDF Special Operations Division. Bennett called him “a hero of Israel.” He was posthumously awarded the Chief-of-Staff's commendation.

“Now the people of Israel have the privilege of openly knowing him,” Bennett said. “He leaves behind a widow, the wonderful Nahed, and two orphaned sons. May his memory be blessed.”

Lt. Col. Mahmoud Kheir el-Din and his wife Nahed, in an undated photograph published by the IDF on May 15, 2022. (Photo: IDF Spokesperson)

After the release of Kheir El-Din’s identity, Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman called on the government to amend Israel's basic law which critics say discriminates against non-Jews in Israel – even Druze citizens like Kheir El-Din who reach senior positions in the military and government.

“There is a clear contradiction between the Nation-State Law in its current form and the praise given to Lt. Col. Mahmoud Kheir El-Din,” Liberman wrote in a tweet on Sunday. 

In 2018, Liberman, supported the Nation-State Law which enshrined Israel as a Jewish state. But now he is calling on both the opposition and coalition to work together to reevaluate its wording and “to do what’s necessary rather than settling for words like ‘brothers in arms’ in regard to the Druze community.”

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said he supported Liberman. 

“I agree with every word,” he said on Twitter.

Gilad Kariv of the Labor party, said the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, which he heads, will deliberate amending the law.

“Liberman’s call is an important opening to anchoring the principle of equality in a Basic Law of the State of Israel, as well as strengthening the legal status of the Declaration of Independence,” Kariv wrote on Twitter.

Bennett’s right-wing Yamina party, however, is not on board. 

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked said on Monday that her Yamina party would veto any such plans.

“I recommend that my friends in the coalition stop amusing themselves by thinking they can make changes in Basic Laws that are not agreed upon,” Shaked tweeted Monday morning. “It won’t happen, as is set in the coalition agreement.”

Changing the law to be more inclusive may not need the votes of the entire coalition in this case. The head of the Joint List of Arab parties said he would back such legislation.

“I call on the coalition to work with the Joint List in order to pass the bill despite Shaked’s opposition,” Ayman Odeh said.

KHEIR EL-DIN’S STORIED CAREER AND FINAL MOMENTS

On that fateful night of Nov. 11, 2018, Kheir El-Din participated in a high-risk Israeli military undercover intelligence-gathering operation in the city Khan Younis, inside the combustible Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Hamas operatives stopped the car in which the Israeli undercover soldiers were traveling and began interrogating them. 

Tensions developed as the Hamas men became increasingly suspicious. Eventually, the commander of the Israeli undercover unit decided to open fire and killed several Hamas terrorists. However, unintentionally, the Israeli officer also fatally hit Kheir El-Din and injured another member of the Israeli team. Following the failed intelligence-gathering operation in Gaza, the unit returned to Israel.

An Israeli military probe later identified faulty planning and several tactical mistakes that reportedly led to the lethal firefight with Hamas terrorists in Gaza. The investigation also recognized that the action of the officers likely prevented an even greater tragedy. Kheir El-Din was commended for his calm during the tense Hamas interrogation.

Following the failed IDF undercover operation in Gaza, Hamas and other Gaza-based terrorist organizations launched around 500 rockets and mortar shells at Israeli civilians living in communities adjacent to the Gaza Strip. The Israeli army responded to the rocket fire by targeting numerous terrorist targets in Gaza. At the time, fears of a full-blown war between Hamas and Israel ran high, however, the hostilities lasted only for three days. 

Kheir El-Din who initially enlisted in the IDF’s Paratroopers Reconnaissance Battalion in 1997, joined the Military Intelligence Special Operations unit in 2002 where he served until his death in Gaza in 2018. 

The Arabic-speaking Druze minority in Israel numbers around 140,000 and is concentrated in the Galilee region in northern Israel. Despite their small numbers, Druze Israelis have contributed greatly to the Israel Defense Forces since the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948 with several Druze officers reaching the rank of general. 

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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