"We knew he went out on missions, of the type that the Shaldag [Unit] carries out, to bring intelligence from all kinds of places, but he didn't talk about it and we didn't know a great deal more than that," Zeevik Rosenthal tells me as we sit on the sofa at his family's well-appointed house in Mevaseret Zion. "Only after his death, we saw all sorts of medals and awards describing how he was in countless operations, and 550 people came to the funeral, mostly from the unit, all with similar stories... and suddenly you receive the full picture of who your son was."
Zeevik's son, Chief Warrant Officer Ido Rosenthal, was a legendary fighter of the Shaldag (Kingfisher) commando unit, one of the IDF's most senior and classified units. He was killed on October 7 in the first hours of the Hamas rampage through the Gaza border communities.
Apparently on his own initiative, Ido left his home in Moshav Ben-Shemen and made his way to the Shaldag base. From there, together with a few comrades, he headed south. In the first chaotic hours following Hamas's destruction of the border fence, with the official defense structures hardly functioning and the civilian communities largely without defense, he and his colleagues hurled themselves at the enemy. They were heavily outnumbered. They did not hesitate. The cost was high.
So I am at Zeevik's house to try to piece together the events of that day and to explore a single one of the accounts by which, on October 7, official structures of Israel descended into chaos and dysfunction for a period of several deadly hours, and nonetheless individuals and small groups of Israelis stepped into the resultant void. And I want also to take a closer look at one of those individuals, not necessarily in order to generalize from the particular to the communal.
We were joined at the house in Mevaseret by Ido's sister, Noa Ziv. The portrait of Ido that emerges, as we sift through the photos and documents that Zeevik places on the table in front of us, is of a singular and very far from ordinary man.
Ido Rosenthal in the IDF
A regular soldier, Ido Rosenthal spent the greater part of his adult working life as a fighter of the Shaldag Unit. So we should begin by understanding a little about this unique and most discreet of Israeli military formations.
Nothing much exists officially with regard to it. Its veterans, like Ido, don't tend to go into detail. Nevertheless, a fair amount of general information can be gathered.
Formed in 1974 by colonel Muki Betser, the unit was initially intended to specialize in forward air control. Today it has moved far beyond that function. Now it specializes in long-range penetration deep inside hostile territory, special operations, and reconnaissance inside enemy areas, often related to intelligence-gathering tasks. From its beginnings as a reserve company of the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, it is now operated from within the Israeli Air Force.
"Shaldag's mission as forward air controllers is only their rather outdated and official task," a former Military Intelligence officer of my acquaintance tells me. "They are an integral part of every war and major operation."
As to the precise nature of the actions in which Ido took part, it's not possible to say. But among the very long list of operations that are associated with this small unit during the period of his service, according to unofficial sources, are Operation Orchard, the mission to destroy the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007; and Operation Sharp and Smooth, a successful raid on Baalbek in southern Lebanon during the 2006 Second Lebanon War. In the former operation, according to the Sunday Times, Shaldag fighters, operating on the ground in Syria, carried out their classic role of identifying targets for aircraft, and infiltrating and marking a depot adjoining the plutonium reactor under construction at al-Kibar.
Shaldag is one of the very top tier of Israel's special forces units. It shares this distinction with the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit; Shayetet 13, the naval commandos; and Unit 669, the airborne rescue unit. This is the environment in which Ido spent his working life, with breaks to study visual communications at Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem, and to travel. And to raise three children with his partner, Noga, in Ben-Shemen.
Ido Rosenthal, the man
Ido loved nature, hiking, and hard traveling. "He went once from Mongolia to China on a motorcycle, all the way across China and to Thailand – 3,500 km on a motorbike," Zeevik tells me.
Ido was of Hungarian and Iraqi Jewish origin, and grew up in Jerusalem. As a young man in his early 20s, already four or five years into service in Shaldag, he sometimes used to come out to the city's music bars, to have a beer and meet with friends. I was a part of that scene, too, about 20 years ago, and he and I had a number of mutual friends. I even remember him from those days, as I told Zeevik and Noa.
What I chiefly remember about him (which I didn't tell them) was a sort of contrast.
On the one hand, I remember that Ido had an unmistakable physical presence. That is, he was very obviously an unusually tough man, with an easy fluency about his movements suggesting supreme physical fitness.
On the other hand, there was absolutely nothing assumed or pretentious about any of this. He did not refer to his military service, had no interest in conveying any image, still less any aura of mystery, and he liked talking to people about all the things people who gathered in those places liked to talk about – music, beer, sometimes history and politics, as I remember. No arrogance or nonsense about him.
I only spoke to him a couple of times and don't claim to have known him or to have been his friend. Ido's cousin, however, Ziv Adika, with whom he was very close, is a good friend of mine from those days. Ziv played the bass in a Jerusalem punk band that was well known around those times. Ido used to go to their concerts when he was home on leave.
"I gave him a poster of Crass [a well-known British anarchist punk band from the 1980s] once," Ziv tells me as we sit in his apartment in central Jerusalem. "You remember that one, with the dead guy's hand and the message 'Your country needs you'? Ido stuck it up at the Shaldag HQ, but they made him take it down." We laugh. "But they loved him there, you know? And because he was so good at what he did, like 100% and a lot more, they let him get away with those things.
"He never had fear. Of Anything. As kids in Ramot and the German Colony we used to jump off roofs, over fences, and he was just without fear. There are people like that, right?"
So it would seem. The following is an account of Ido's activities on the morning of October 7 as related to me by his father and sister, who in turn base it on many conversations with comrades from Ido's unit.
On that morning, at just after 8 a.m., having become aware of the events in the South, Ido left his home in Ben-Shemen. He made his way to the Shaldag base, somewhere in central Israel. At the base, the unit maintains a number of helicopters fully equipped for emergency response. Other fighters had already begun to gather there. Ido was assigned to a four-man team, led by the Shaldag deputy commander. He was the No. 2 in this hastily assembled group. They boarded the helicopter after equipping themselves for action and receiving weapons. They took off around 9:30 a.m. The helicopter landed at Kfar Maimon.
Shaldag's helicopters are loaded with small, rough-terrain vehicles which the unit uses to travel across hostile territory on its deep penetration missions. The four fighters boarded one of these and began to head in the direction of Kibbutz Be'eri. Hamas had already entered the kibbutz and were in the midst of slaughtering its inhabitants.
On the road, the Shaldag men came across a lone Hamas terrorist. They killed him in the short exchange of fire that followed.
Arriving at an IDF position, they were told by the officer commanding there that they could go no further. "Ahead of here there's areas containing and controlled by terrorists," he told them.
"That's what we came for," the commander of the Shaldag force replied, and they continued on their way.
Somewhere in the course of all this, they had picked up another two reserve fighters, so the team now numbered six.
Arriving close to Be'eri, the team identified a large group of around 30 Hamas terrorists making their way across the open ground from Be'eri in the direction of Kibbutz Alumim. The Shaldag men decided to engage. Exiting the vehicle, they left two fighters next to it as a rescue force if needed. Four, including Ido, went forward, advancing as an infantry section across the open ground.
At the appropriate distance, the four charged the group of 30, opening fire. Around 10 of the terrorists were killed in this first attack, with the remainder taking shelter behind some sand dunes in the open ground. A firefight ensued. One of the terrorists managed to get to the side of the Israeli force and opened fire. The first of the Shaldag men was wounded. A round went through his hand, penetrated his ceramic vest and then remained between the vest and his chest. The soldier, seeing the blood spreading from his hand, assumed he was dying. Ido reached him, assessed the situation, and said that he would be okay, telling him to crawl back in the direction of the vehicle.
Making his way back to the vehicle, around a minute later the wounded soldier heard a long burst of automatic fire. This, it appears, was the burst that killed Ido, a bullet entering his neck, and wounded the commander of the team, the deputy commander of Shaldag. The two remaining members of the force pulled back, with Ido's body.
The commander noted that the 20 or so remaining terrorists remained hidden behind the dunes, evidently looking to continue the firefight. He managed to radio back and called for a helicopter gunship, which arrived after a few minutes, wiping out the remaining Hamas men.
"And that's it, that's the story," Zeevik tells me in Mevaseret Zion. "So, because of their action, they saved Kibbutz Alumim. The group [of terrorists] that was supposed to go to Alumim didn't get there. Ten killed by Ido's group, and the remainder by the helicopter crew. And as a result, the community was saved."
His family speaks
We talked a while longer. More anecdotes, more memories. For example, the time that Ido, most unusually, had asked his mother to iron his class A uniform. "There's some ceremonial army event," he had remarked when asked the reason. And only years after, they discovered by chance that he had needed the uniform to receive the Israel Security Prize, a major citation, from then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman.
And the family gathering they had on Friday, October 6, when Zeevik and his brother-in-law, both combat veterans, had reminisced and argued about the positions along the Suez Canal prior to the 1973 war, and Ido had gathered all the family's kids for a game of soccer as he liked to do.
"I accept all of it, and I don't have any complaints about the specific situation that Ido came to," Zeevik tells me, by way of parting. "He was a fighter... Ido went to save civilians. That was his profession, and he loved what he did."
And his cousin Adika said something similar. "I used to say to him, 'Enough already. You've done your part.' But he died as he would have wanted to have died, in battle, not, I dunno, aged 70, of cancer, you know?" And then, by way of conclusion: "They didn't bury him on Mount Herzl. Noga didn't want that. He's buried in a place next to Ben-Shemen. In a place of trees and nature, like he loved."
Piecing it together
I have seen some camera footage of the Shaldag men operating around Kibbutz Be'eri. One should not imagine them as a hastily assembled, improvised force. They came in from their base in helicopters, properly equipped. They look like what they were: highly trained special forces operators moving with speed and effect.
Nevertheless, it remains the case that for many hours on October 7, the security structures of the State of Israel largely disappeared, effectively ceased to function. Ido Rosenthal was one of the small group of fighters, men and women, who stepped into the breach and chose to bear the burden and the heat of the day.
Even after they arrived at Kfar Maimon, the Shaldag men could have chosen to wait at the first position they reached for orders from somewhere or other above. Even after they continued forward, they could have assessed that the 30-strong force ahead was too numerous to engage and waited for assistance. They didn't. They chose to go forward. Five hundred and thirty people – men, women, and children at Kibbutz Alumim – were saved. But Ido Rosenthal was killed.
May his memory be a blessing.
Jonathan Spyer is director of research at the Middle East Forum and director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. He is author of Days of the Fall: A Reporter's Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars (2018).