Aharon Katz was an IAF Weapon System Operator that was killed during an operational sortie in Lebanon. His watch was found and returned during a “Mossad” top-secret operation in Syria. This is a story of memory, commemoration and the complex reality of security in Israel

Noa Fenigstein | Translation: Ohad Zeltzer Zubida & Ofri Aharon

There are stories so incredible, uncommon and surprising, that even the most creative authors could not write – rather reality itself: over 30 years ago, the body of late Maj. Aharon (Araleh) Katz – an IAF Weapon System Operator – was returned to Israel, two years after he was killed in the First Lebanon War during aerial strike sortie against Syrian SAM Battery in the Beq’a valley in Lebanon. Today, years later, after a long, winding journey whose details cannot be shared, Araleh’s wrist watch has been returned to his family.

On July 24, 1982 Araleh and Pilot Gil Fogel’s F-4 “Phantom” was hit by a Syrian missile, Araleh was killed and Fogel was taken captive by Syrian forces. Although his Overall and yarmulke were returned to his family, the where about of his watch he received after finishing Pilots Course and wore during the flight, remained unknown.

For years, the watch remained in Syria. Through an operation conducted by the “Mossad” (Israeli Secret Service) in Syria, the watch has returned to Israel and was recently returned to Aharon Katz’s family.

“There are moments that cannot be described in a life of operations man” shared Tamir Pardo, the former head of the “Mossad”, before granting the watch to Araleh’s family. “One evening, I was informed ‘we have the watch’.
There was great excitement. I called the IAF Commander and he was just as excited. We have had conversations before, but suddenly, we were dealing with something completely different”.

Thirty Three Years Later: A Fallen WSO’s Watch Has Been Returned

Photo by: Hagar Amibar

“In the IAF’s unofficial pantheon, Araleh is an honorary member. The conversation with Tamir moved me”, shared Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel, IAF Commander.

After finding the evidence, an investigating team that integrated IAF and “Mossad” members was established with the purpose of return the lost watch to the family. The members took apart the watch and according to its serial number, found a range of years in which the owner graduated from Flight School. They went through lists of Pilot Course graduates until they were able to solve the mystery.

“Of all the things we do – helpful or exciting, there is nothing more exciting than this event”, a “Mossad” serviceman told the family. “It is a great honor for all of us. We are proud and happy that we could do something like this throughout our service and are happy we were able to make you happy”.

“These aren’t robots that only deal with missions”, stated IAF Commander. “These are people with huge hearts”.

Thirty Three Years Later: A Fallen WSO’s Watch Has Been Returned

Photo by: Hagar Amibar

“Whoever wants life, must be rooted strongly in his past”
The excitement in the air was immense. Araleh’s family, “Mossad” and IAF servicemen congregated in order to return the watch and to commemorate the one-time event. “We learn a lot about the IDF Ethical Code, about a military moral. The sensitivity and delicacy in which you have taken care of the family – is amazing. A military system which works in this way is something special. Thank you for this special ethicality. ‘Mossad’ servicemen- we survive thanks to you and don’t even know what you do. I just hope that no one’s hair fell on the way”, said Daniel Hartman, Araleh’s family’s representative, to the people who returned the watch and labored on its analysis. “It is very easy to forget the dead, but a bereaved family never forgets. We cannot defeat death, but we can defeat forgetfulness. Thank you, for it being important to you to say you haven’t forgotten”.

The connection to IAF Servicemen, its fallen and missing and the year-long escort of their families, are basic morals in the IAF. The force’s legacy is one of the central pillars of its culture and activity. “Whoever wants life, must be rooted strongly in his past”, said Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel.
“Quite often I am asked why we invest so much in our relationships with the bereaved families and in the commemoration of the fallen, but it is important to us inside no less. When you send someone to fight and he may lose his life, he knows that no matter what happens, the IAF will always be beside his family. We don’t pretend to accept the loss, but we will be another aspect which gives a shoulder, embraces sheds a tear together”.

Thirty Three Years Later: A Fallen WSO’s Watch Has Been Returned

Photo by: Hagar Amibar

The Legend Will Stay
Aharon Katz is the son of Ziporah and Michael, Holocaust Survivors. As a child he wanted to be a paratrooper, but after he passed the tests and was found suitable for Flight Course, he went to Flight-School where he found time to engage in Torah and even teach his friends. After graduation he was positioned in an F-4 “Phantom” Squadron establishment team. He began his path as a young WSO, progressed in his service in the squadron and was the first WSO to serve as a First Deputy Commander of a Squadron in the IAF.

During the “Yom Kippur” War, he was among the few IAF combatants who were decorated by the “Medal of Distinguished Service”, but on account of his modesty, only a small number of close friends knew about it. The “Medal of Distinguished Service” is usually awarded for a specific act, but in an exceptional way, Araleh was awarded with the Medal for his level-head, courage, outstanding execution abilities and devotion to the mission throughout the war.

“When I was in formation leaders course as a young Lt. in the ‘Bat’ Squadron, all of the ‘Yom Kippur’ war veterans were still in the Squadrons. Even then, Araleh’s name went everywhere”, shared the IAF Commander. “A daring warrior, immense operational experience, received the ‘Medal of Distinguished Service’ not for an isolated event but for his general conduct – an exceptional thing”.

“Our history is an equally important weapon as any other weapon we possess. Beyond the return of the watch,
these events create a process which brings up the memory, sharpens and deepens the issue of legacy. This figure, Araleh, will remain. He isn’t going to disappear. The legend will remain flesh and blood of great stature”.

The Family’s Message:
33 years have passed and the memory is still sensitive and painful amongst the family, therefore we prefer not to be interviewed on the topic. Nonetheless, it is important for us to give thanks to the “Mossad”, the IAF Commander, the Head of the Personnel Directorate, the Head of the Accident Investigation Branch, the Head of the Casualties Department and to all of the authorities who were involved. Everyone did for us with love and acted with extreme sensitivity, gentleness and concern. We will always greatly appreciate you.
 

Thirty Three Years Later: A Fallen WSO’s Watch Has Been Returned

Photo by: Hagar Amibar