‘I survived to tell their story’
The 34-year-old Arab-Israeli experienced conflict first-hand, losing close friends and even his own foot during military service.
For Haddad, the day reminds him of those he has loved and lost. It drives home the fact that, “I had a chance to continue living, and they didn’t.” These were his words to a South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) audience over Zoom on Yom Hazikaron on Tuesday morning.
“Every year, I have the same struggle. However, when I speak to people, I feel my energy return because I can tell them about the real heroes of Israel.”
Haddad enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) at 18. During the 2006 Lebanon War between Israel and Hezbollah, he was sent to the Lebanese border.
While based in a village in south Lebanon, he and his unit took shelter in a house one evening. Early the next morning, a nearby Israeli tank was hit by a missile, sending soldiers rushing to assist the men inside.
“It was still dark when we heard a massive explosion about a kilometre away,” recalled Haddad. “One of our tanks had been hit by Hezbollah.
“When we arrived, we saw a horrific sight. Four crew members were badly injured, and their commander was in very bad condition.”
Haddad says he will never forget the man’s scream or the agony on his face. “He called for help, but we didn’t focus on that. We had to evacuate him and his crew as soon as possible.”
His unit placed the wounded men on stretchers, and bolted towards their shelter, where a reservist doctor administered first aid. He told Haddad that unless they were evacuated to Israel, the injured men would die within a few hours.
“It was 05:30, and we had few options,” says Haddad. “We communicated with high command, which said a chopper should come to evacuate them. The whole mission was supposed to take half an hour, and we’d be back in our shelter by 06:30, before light.”
However, the evacuation took almost an hour, and Haddad’s unit had to return to the shelter in broad daylight.
“We went back at 07:00,” he recalls. “By that time, we were sitting ducks.” Indeed, on their return, the men were spotted by Hezbollah operatives, who launched a missile in their direction.
Haddad says that in darkness, soldiers in the field maintain a short distance between themselves, keeping only an arm’s length away. In daylight, however, they keep a considerable distance, staying only within sight of each other. Haddad realised that his unit was still keeping the distance used at night, meaning they were more vulnerable to being hit.
“A real miracle occurred,” he says. “A minute before they launched the rocket, I yelled out that we must switch to day distance. We scattered, and a second later, the rocket hit.
“If we hadn’t changed our distance, 50% to 60% of the unit would have been hit. Instead, only I was injured when the rocket hit a wall close to me. The explosion threw me in the air, and I landed on my stomach.”
Haddad knew that he was injured, feeling blood on his face. When he turned over onto his back, he saw his foot. It had been cut off. “I yelled out, and my soldiers rushed in and took me to the shelter, where the doctor started treating me. I had shrapnel in my legs and hands, my foot was placed next to me, and I was choking on my own blood.”
He overheard the doctor say that he must be evacuated immediately. Haddad was placed on a stretcher, and hurried to the waiting helicopter. Though the soldiers carrying him came under heavy fire, miraculously, none of them were hit.
“We arrived at the chopper, and when I saw the unit who helped to evacuate me, they looked like angels,” he said. “Until today, they are wearing white in my imagination.”
Haddad got back to Israel, where is foot was surgically reattached.
“I was lucky,” he said. “I came close to being among the soldiers killed in battle for our country. I’ve asked myself repeatedly since then why I was saved, and I come to the same answer every time: so that I can share the story with others, and tell people about the bravery of the IDF.”
Among them, he includes Roi Klein, a commander under whom he served during the Lebanon conflict, and who gave his life when he jumped onto a grenade thrown by terrorists at his men.
“People tell me I’m a hero,” says Haddad. “I’m not even close to being one. The heroes are those who saved me, people like Roi. Israel’s soldiers become family within seconds of meeting, and remain family for life.
“Every soldier that dies defending Israeli doesn’t do it for nothing. He does it for all of us, Jews and Arabs.”