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ISRAEL: The odd case of the AWOL commando

July 25, 2010 |  8:36 pm

Last week, the country was on edge as a soldier from an elite unit mysteriously disappeared during training. The 20-hour drama sent all systems into overdrive as a manhunt was launched, underscoring Israel's sensitivity to possible abductions of soldiers and offering a glimpse into the high-pressure training of the army's elite units.

Nadav Heiman (or Hyman, or Haiman, depending which paper you read), 21, was taking part in a training session with one of the IDF's top units, Sayeret Matkal, an elite recon unit entrusted with intelligence missions over enemy lines, among other things. The exercise -- a combination of grueling physical tasks and equally intense mental challenges -- was part of an advanced training session held in southern plains. After completing a certain segment, the soldier made for a patch of trees and bolted clear into the night.

It was 4 a.m. but the system went into high alert. His friends started looking for him, combing a 2- to 3-kilometer radius. By dawn, he'd been declared missing and half the country was on the case.

Any young guy disappearing in treacherous terrain -- the area is nook-and-crannied with endless ancient water-holes and caves -- is cause for concern. That's all the more true when he's a member of one of the army's top elite units, potentially a prime catch for terrorists. Israel is super-sensitive to possible abduction of citizens and soldiers, a dreaded scenario posing practical as well as strategic problems. The government is under constant pressure from within and without to strike a deal with Hamas to release Gilad Shalit from his four-year captivity in Gaza. The Second Lebanon War broke out after Hezbollah seized two reservists in July 2006.

In a rare move, the police appealed to the public, asking for help and issuing the soldier's description. Later on, his name and picture were released too. Elite unit soldiers are not identified in Israeli media by name or picture. The massive search involved army forces, police, civilian volunteers, trackers, night-vision gear, drones, thermal equipment, off-road vehicles -- the works. He was said to be carrying a tracking device -- perhaps a lesson from a previous case in which a soldier from the same unit fell off a cliff to his death on a solo-orienteering assignment -- but it wasn't giving off any signals. A local mayor even consulted a psychic. 

Meanwhile, a profiling team got to work, concluding the soldier had probably disappeared for personal reasons and hadn't been abducted. This didn't stop an enterprising Palestinian group from promising an announcement involving the soldier within 72 hours. To be on the safe side, the army quickly sealed off the area with a military order and sent Bedouin workers home.

20 hours later, the soldier showed up at his parents' place after walking around 20 kilometers. At least the guy can navigate.

The family explained he wasn't AWOL and that there has been a "misunderstanding" or "disagreement" that their son would work out with the army. He wants to continue serving in "the unit", as it's called in Israel, said his father, who complained that details publicized during the search endangered his son.  Everyone now recognizes his name and face, although when members of this unit go abroad, they don't exactly go through passport control. But still. And anyone could have snatched him on his way home.

It still isn't clear what made him bolt. But many speculate it is related to the high-pressure training that, in addition to arduous physical tasks, involves intense mental training that takes soldiers to the edge, and screens for those more likely to snap. Every person has a breaking point, lawmaker Yohanan Plessner, a former officer in the unit, said in a radio interview, and the training is meant to prepare for that moment. Sending potential snappers over enemy lines can endanger not only the unit but get the entire country into trouble, he explained.

A few months ago, Sayeret Matkal received a special citation of merit from Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi  for successfully carrying out an unspecified complex operational mission (the naval commando unit got two, for a "successful chain of complex assignments"). The citations were awarded behind closed doors. Israel's political leadership features numerous graduates of the prestigious unit, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, among many others. 

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Above: A news feature about Sayeret Matkal broadcast on Israeli TV Channel 2, via YouTube.