“Tzevet Peretz”, Daniel Perez’s tank crew, part of Battalion 77.

Battalion 77: Heroes of October 7

BY RABBI ARON WHITE

At 6:30am on October 7th, the tank soldiers of Battalion 77 woke up to the sounds of sirens like everyone else. They were the unit of tanks assigned to the Gaza border at that time. As there were no intelligence warnings of a heightened level of threat, only the regular forces were there, and moreover their ranks were depleted because it was Shabbat and Simchat Torah. On the morning of October 7th, there were 14 tanks and their crews on army bases around the Gaza border.

Within a few minutes, they would be called into action to face a threat no-one had imagined and a scenario many orders of magnitude greater than what they were equipped for. Starting in those early hours of the morning, the 50 soldiers of Battalion 77 had no choice but to try and defend the border as best as they could, to stem the tidal wave of death and destruction coming over it. By the end of the day, many of them had given their lives, others were injured and others captured. They killed hundreds of terrorists, saved countless lives and protected many Israeli towns. This is the story of the heroism of Battalion 77.

Ido Somech

Ido Somech is a 19-year-old tank driver from Afula. On October 7, he was based close to Be’eri. Immediately after the sirens sounded at 6:30am, his tank crew was directed to head to the border following reports of terrorists invading. In the radio recording from the tank, you hear the mefaked (officer) of the tank, Shai Levinson, guiding the loader, Ophir Testa, the gunner, Ariel Eliyahu, and Ido, the driver. Shai stood with his head out of the turret, directing the tank towards the streams of Hamas terrorists as they poured over the border. “Suddenly, I saw a terrorist on a motorbike directing an RPG towards the tank from about 40 meters away,” said Ido. It was too close range to fire the tank’s gun at them, so Ido used the tank to drive over the terrorist. “My heart rate was probably at 200,” said Ido. “You are hoping that you don’t die, that you won’t be hit by one of the RPGs.” At about 6:55am, the tank was hit by an explosive, and the radios in the tank went silent. Ido struggled to breathe as smoke filled the tank, but he was alive. Eventually, Ophir Testa came onto the radio, barely alive, and said that Ariel Eliyahu was still breathing. As there was no sign of their commander, and the loader and gunner were both critically injured, there was no way he could keep fighting, so Ido started driving to Re’im to get medical attention. As Ido kept driving, he saw an army jeep, and hoped they would be able to help treat Ophir. As he got closer, Ophir suddenly realized they were Hamas terrorists dressed up as soldiers, and Ido managed to run them over with the tank.

As Ido drove towards Re’im, he found himself at the site of the greatest carnage that day – the Nova music festival. Shockingly, while the army had approved the Nova festival, the tank division in the area had not been informed that it was taking place.

“Daniel and I were hiding in the front of a car,” said Mai Suissa, a woman who had attended the party. “The terrorists were going car by car, shooting each one.” “As the terrorists were standing above us, we heard a loud noise from the road – it was a tank,” said Daniel. In those few seconds, the terrorists were scared off, and Mai, Daniel and probably many others were saved as Ido’s tank drove onto the scene. 

Ido found himself in the middle of a shoot-out. “I saw a battle of about ten policemen and security guards fighting about fifty terrorists,” said Ido. “The tank couldn’t shoot, but it is still a tank.” He drove his tank to protect the policemen. Ophir Testa, barely alive at this point, used the last of his strength to get down from the tank to give his gun to someone, and was then killed. 

Ido saw through the window that Hamas terrorists were starting to climb onto his tank, and he knew they were going to enter the tank. “At that point, I knew I was going to die, but I said to myself – at least let me take some of them down with me.” He moved out of the driver’s cabin towards the entrance, crouching down and shot the first terrorist as he entered. The other terrorists had not realized anyone was alive in the tank, and they retreated, throwing grenades into the tank. Ido started to drive around backwards and forwards, the only way he had to fight off tens of terrorists who were trying to conquer the tank. Eventually, the engine gave out, and Ido had to get out of the tank. “Before I went, I checked Ariel’s pulse one time, but he was dead.” 

Ido got out of the tank, and joined two partiers who were fleeing the Nova festival. All around them were gunshots and terrorists. “We saw five people coming towards us, with rocks and knives. I killed one, but then my gun jammed. They started attacking me with the rocks, breaking my jaw and nose.” Ido managed to get away from them, but the two people he was with were killed. Ido would lie down for 5 hours together with two other partiers from the Nova festival, in tremendous pain from the injuries to his face. 

As he lay there, his tank, just a few hundred meters away, became a protection point for many of the partiers, who gathered around it. A few policemen gathered around them and the tank to protect them. A symbol of the IDF, the tank gave them hope, even if it was no longer functional. Around 5:00pm, the IDF and police found Ido, and were able to take him to Soroka hospital. Ariel Eliyahu and Ophir Testa were killed that day, and buried a few days later. Shai Levinson, the commander of the tank, was killed, and his body was taken by the terrorists to Gaza.*

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The first of the official “Ten Values of the IDF” is commitment to the mission, a trait exemplified by numerous soldiers from Battalion 77. Ben Zonshein is a captain from Herzliya who was based in the southern part of the Gaza region. A few minutes after the rockets were fired, he got a call from Asaf Chamami, the commander of the Southern Gaza Brigade, saying there was a terrorist infiltration near Nirim. Ben led his tank towards Nirim, where his crew fought with terrorists. During the next few hours, he engaged terrorists at Ein HaShlosha, Magen and Nirim, killing tens of terrorists. These kibbutzim are close to Nir Oz, the kibbutz from which one quarter of the residents were murdered and kidnapped. Ben’s tank helped ensure the other kibbutzim did not suffer the same fate.

Outside of Magen, their tank was hit and they were unable to keep fighting. Ben and his tank squad got out of the tank, flagging down a passing car of policemen to get a ride back to their base, where they hoped to get onto another tank. When there wasn’t space to get into the passenger seats, Ben climbed into the trunk of the car. The car drove them back to their base, where Ben would take command of defending the base from the terrorists trying to invade it. After the base was secured, Ben got into another tank, and spent the next 48 hours fighting to expel the terrorists from southern Israel.

Ben Zonshein

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Daniel Perez always told his soldiers that they have to be ready, as you never know when a war or attack is going to happen. When his team assembled in the bomb shelter as the sirens blared, many soldiers were still in their pajamas, but Daniel’s team was fully dressed and in uniform. They immediately headed out to the border near Nachal Oz, preventing terrorists who were heading for Sa’ad and the Nachal Oz base from getting in. Three soldiers in the tank, including Daniel, were killed on that day. One soldier is believed to be alive and remains in captivity.

Daniel Perez hy”d

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The Yahalomi family was taken captive by Hamas from Nir Oz and was en route to Gaza when Eyal Zopolski’s tank from Battalion 77 passed by, offering a brief window of opportunity for the Yahalomi women to escape to freedom. In a matter of seconds, three women were saved from captivity. While Eitan (12) was fortunate to be released in the initial hostage exchange, Ohad (50) the father of the family remains in captivity. 

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What stands out about these soldiers is their remarkable blend of bravery, commitment and humility. Many expressed that when confronted with a large number of terrorists and chose to engage them head-on, they knew they probably wouldn’t come out of it alive. The most basic human instinct is for self-protection, but these soldiers’ primary instinct was to fight and safeguard Israel. All those interviewed carry themselves with pride but without a trace of arrogance. Most haven’t had the opportunity to reflect further, as they’ve been fighting in Gaza since October 7.

On that morning, at 6:30am, no-one in the country knew what was going on. These 50 soldiers saw it in their periscopes, with bullets and RPGs firing at them, and were the first line of defense of the opening salvo of this war. They are an inspiration to the hundreds of thousands of Israeli soldiers who follow them. 

*  This story is based on the televised documentary “One Tank at the Nova”, screened on Channel 12 in April 2024.

 

Rabbi Aron White is the Managing Editor of HaMizrachi magazine.

© 2024 World Mizrachi

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