JERUSALEM (Nov. 23)
Rafael Eitan died the way he lived, facing the storm alone. After Eitan drowned Tuesday while braving winter squalls to inspect a pier he built off Ashdod port, friends and colleagues voiced no surprise at the fate of the 75-year-old former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff.
"He always said he wanted to die on the battlefield, so I guess, in a way, he got his wish," lawmaker Nehama Ronen told Army Radio.
Nicknamed "Raful" and rarely seen without his trademark kibbutz cap, Eitan was for many Israelis the image of the old sabra — always ready to match tough talk with action.
"His life’s story is characterized by a warm and courageous bond to the land; he recognized that we have to fight in order to defend the existence of the State of Israel," Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in a statement.
But Eitan was forced to end his military career after he was reprimanded following the 1982 massacre by an Israeli-allied Christian militia of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps outside Beirut.
Born in Moshav Tel Adashim in 1929, Eitan as a boy led reprisal raids against marauding Arabs. He joined the Palmach, a Jewish militia in pre-state Palestine, at age 16.
After Israel was born, he went on to serve in all its wars, leading the country’s only deployment of troops by parachute, the 1956 operation against Egyptian forces in the Mitla Pass.
"He was a brave commander and a brave soldier," said Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who served under Eitan and later became IDF chief of staff.
When he was chief of staff, Eitan put a premium on discipline, stamping out what he saw as the slovenliness that had crept into the ranks in the 1970s, and insisting that troops wear berets at all times. He was widely admired for innovations that allowed the IDF to retain its technological superiority over Arab foes.
Like Sharon, who stepped down as defense minister following the Sabra and Shatila massacre, Eitan bounced back as a right-wing politician.
Having formed Tehiya and Tsomet, nationalist factions opposed to ceding any land captured in the 1967 Six-Day War in peace deals, Eitan joined the coalition governments of Yitzhak Shamir in 1988 and Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996.
He served as agriculture and environment minister, but caused diplomatic stirs with remarks such as the observation that an Israeli crackdown could reduce Palestinians waging the first intifada to the status of "drugged cockroaches in a bottle."
"His slurs against the Palestinians as a collective were unacceptable, but nonetheless I extend condolences to his family," said Ahmed Tibi, an Israeli Arab lawmaker.
Eitan quit politics in 1999 after his party failed to win any Knesset seats in the general election, returning to work as an olive farmer, encouraging disadvantaged youths to gain professional experience during their military service and pursuing several construction projects, including the port at Ashdod.
"Raful never forgot his great love — the land and labor. Thus, to our sorrow, he met his end," Sharon said. "I lost a comrade-in-arms and a friend."
Eitan is survived by his wife, Ofra Meyerson, with whom he lived in Herzliya, and three daughters. His two sons died under tragic circumstances — one of illness at age 10, and the other in an accident while training as an Israel Air Force pilot.
Eitan was to be buried on Wednesday.