JERUSALEM – An Israeli tank commander from the country’s minority Druze community, who was killed in combat in Gaza, should serve as a symbol for all Israelis that in order to defeat darkness the country must unite, the father of the soldier, the highest-ranking military officer to be killed so far, told Fox News Digital.
Lt. Col. Salman Habaka was hailed as a hero following Hamas’ surprise mass terror attack in Israel on Oct. 7 after commandeering two tanks and heading to battle thousands of Palestinian terrorists even before his own commanders realized what was happening. Less than four weeks later, on Nov. 2, Habaka, 33, was killed in action by a Hamas sniper as Israeli forces deepened their ground incursion into Gaza.
Stories of heroic acts committed by Israelis in stopping Hamas terror atrocities have shone a spotlight on some of the country’s minority communities who also played their part in preventing more terror. Israel’s non-Jewish population is around 20%, including Muslim, Christian and Druze, an esoteric, monotheistic religion that incorporates elements of all Abrahamic religions and other philosophies.
‘On the morning of Oct. 7, we had a family event planned,’ Habaka’s father, Emad Habaka, told Fox News Digital from his home in the Druze village of Yanuh Jat, in northern Israel. ‘I called him to check if it was still going ahead but he told me that he had to go back to his base immediately. When I asked him why, he just told me to turn on the TV.’
While the elder Habaka, like most other Israelis, was still trying to figure out what was happening in southern Israel, along the border with the Gaza Strip, his son – already a decorated IDF commander – was speeding to his base in the Negev desert to retrieve his tank.
‘He somehow understood what was going on and even though he received no orders from his commanders, he decided to get his tank and head into battle,’ said the father, 60, describing Salman, a father of one, as a modest and respectful person who always did whatever he could to help other people.
According to Salman’s own retelling a few days after Hamas’ day-long rampage through southern Israel, murdering more than 1,400 people – civilians and soldiers – and taking some 240 people hostage, he rushed from his home, also in Yanuh-Jat, to join the fighting.
‘I drove from the Galilee to a base near Tze’elim in order to get the tank and reach the community as quickly as possible to save every soul I could,’ he recounted to Israeli media outlets.
Arriving at Kibbutz Be’eri – one of the communities worst hit by Hamas terrorists – Habaka said he joined the other soldiers fighting there.
‘I saw Col. Barak Hiram and the first thing he ordered me to do was to fire a tank round into the house,’ Habaka told Israeli media. ‘The first question you ask yourself is whether there are civilian hostages in the house. We conducted all the preliminary actions before deciding to fire into the house, but as soon as we fired into that house, we were able to move from house to house and free the hostages. The fighting continued until evening, within the kibbutz’s streets.’
Later, Habaka said that what stayed with him was how cowardly the terrorists were, taking over civilian communities on a Jewish holiday in order to ‘murder, slaughter and abduct elderly people and infants.’
Heading into Gaza a few weeks later, Habaka told the soldiers under his command that he expected ‘the Israeli people to continue standing united, to continue to be resilient because only together will we know our strength.’
The Israeli Druze community live in numerous villages dotted across northern Israel. They have had a presence in the region for at least a thousand years, and their communities are also found in Lebanon, Syria and parts of Jordan.
Roughly 8% of Israel’s Arab minority, which is roughly 20% of the country’s population of 9 million, Druze are fiercely loyal to whichever state they live, and in Israel, most of the men serve in the military under a compulsory enlistment law.
However, because the Druze speak Arabic, follow some Islamic practices, and have Arabic-sounding names, Jewish Israelis often confuse them with Israel’s mainly Muslim Arab minority and, in the past, especially during periods of high tension between Israelis and Palestinians, they face some discrimination.
Emad Habaka said that following Hamas’ brutal attack, it was time for attitudes in Israel toward the Druze, and other minorities, to change.
‘We are all citizens of Israel,’ Emad Habaka told Fox. ‘We invest in this country, and we give our best sons up to fight in the army. There needs to be more focus on equality between Jews and other groups.’
‘My son believed that the only way to defeat our enemies, the only way to defeat darkness, was to fight together,’ Habaka said. ‘This is a strong message to all the people of Israel.’
Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told Fox that the Druze had a special place in the cultural, religious and ethnic mosaic that is Israel.
‘I’ve had the privilege of knowing a number of Druze soldiers serving in the IDF,’ he said. ‘They are courageous fighters and loyal patriots. Lt. Col. Salman Habaka lived and died as a hero. His memory is a blessing to his community and to all of Israel.’
While the elder Habaka said he is destroyed by his son’s death, he has found comfort knowing Salman died a hero. In the week since Salman was killed, his father described an outpouring of condolence calls from top military officials and some of the country’s leadership, as well as many of those he saved from Kibbutz Be’eri.
‘He killed many of the terrorists and history will remember what he did there,’ said Habaka, adding, ‘It took us two or three days to really understand what he did on Oct. 7… He went there based on instinct and he took his soldiers to save lives, I was so proud of him, only heroes do things like that.’
Asked how he views the ongoing conflict – especially as Israeli forces move deeper into Gaza and more soldiers and civilians stand to die – Habaka told Fox: ‘We did not choose this war, it was forced on us and we need to do whatever we can to protect the State of Israel.’
‘I really hope that we can win this war, bring back the hostages being held in Gaza, and bring back peace,’ he said.