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Rafael "Raful" Eitan, who drowned in the Mediterranean aged 75, was a leading figure in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), of which he became Chief of Staff.

Stocky, wiry and determined, with sharp, square features, Eitan knew no fear, and, as a field commander, always inspired confidence in the men he led, infusing them with a desire to do their utmost.

Under the supervision of the then Defence Minister Ariel Sharon, Eitan planned and executed the Israeli incursion into Lebanon in June 1982. The aim was to destroy the bases and infrastructure of the PLO. But on September 16-17 1982, Christian forces massacred hundreds of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, and public pressure in Israel forced Menachem Begin's government to appoint a commission of inquiry into the tragic events.

In its report, the Kahan Commission ruled that Lieutenant-General Eitan had been negligent, and had failed to do anything to prevent or limit the killings. But unlike Sharon, who was forced to resign following the Kahan Report, Eitan managed to cling to his job, because the commission ruled that, as he was about to complete his term as Chief of Staff, it would not pass judgement on his suitability to continue in office.

He was born Rafael Kaminsky at Moshav Tel Adashim, a co-operative farming village in the Jezre'el Valley in Palestine, on January 11 1929. Aged only seven, Rafael already knew how to use a gun; and at 17 he joined Palmach, the elite strike force of Hagana, the Jewish underground militia in Palestine, then under the British mandate.

During the 1948 War of Independence, Eitan served in the 4th battalion (called "Ha'portzim") of the Harel Brigade ; in the tough battle of San Simon, in Jerusalem, he distinguished himself and was severely wounded.

In 1949, after the War of Independence, Eitan left the army and returned to Tel Adashim, but he rejoined the IDF in January 1954 after a friend approached him saying: "The Arabs are killing Jews and you are milking cows." A year later he was given command of a paratroop platoon. This was the "retaliatory actions period" in which Israeli military units would cross the border to tackle the enemy on its own land.

On one occasion in 1955, during an operation against the Egyptians at Kanuila, near Effat, he single-handedly destroyed a well-defended enemy position.

On October 29 1956, Eitan, by then commander of the 890 Paratroop Battalion, was parachuted with his 395 men close to the Suez Canal in an action which provided the pretext for the British and French governments to join the war and recapture the Canal, nationalised by Nasser on July 26.

During the Six-Day War in 1967, Eitan led his paratroop brigade in Sinai to the Suez Canal. He was severely wounded when a bullet went through his head, but he recovered and returned to full service after the war.

When, on December 26 1968, the PLO attacked an El Al aircraft in Athens, killing one passenger and wounding another, Colonel Eitan led his paratroopers in a daring operation two days later. It was aimed at putting pressure on the Lebanese government to stop terrorists, many of whom were using Lebanon as a base from which to attack Israel and Israeli targets worldwide.

Four helicopters transported Eitan and his men to the airport at Beirut where, within 30 minutes, they placed explosives, blowing up 13 Arab aircraft worth more than $100 million.

On October 6 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a simultaneous attack on Israel. The Commander of the Northern Front, Yitzhak Hofi, whose headquarters was at Safed, placed the defence of the northern part of the Golan in the hands of Eitan who, from his underground command bunker at Nafekh, was closer to the theatre of war and in a better position to control and direct the battle. Trapped in the bunker, and surrounded throughout the first night by Syrian tanks, Eitan directed the battle with cool leadership until the Syrians were pushed back.

Eitan's next appointment, in April 1974, was head of the Northern Command. He played a key role in the decision in 1975 to create and train the soldiers of the South Lebanese Army (SLA) under Major Sa'ad Hadad. In August 1977 Eitan was made Chief of the Operations Branch at General Staff, and eight months later he was appointed Chief of Staff. A man of few words, at the ceremony to instal him he limited himself to a 20-second acceptance speech.

Considered more a fighting soldier than a planner, each of Eitan's promotions had been regarded as his last, and that he was chosen for the top job was a surprise. But it was felt that, unlike his predecessor, Eitan would devote all his energies to improving the performance of the IDF while leaving politics to the politicians.

This, however, was not to be. On May 11 1978, in the traditional Independence Day interview of the Chief of Staff (given on Israel's 30th anniversary), Eitan stated that the IDF could not guarantee the security of the state without retaining full control of the Golan Heights, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It was the first time that a Chief of Staff had publicly pronounced his own views on so controversial an issue, and there was a wave of public protest, and calls for him to resign. But Eitan had the unswerving support of the Right-wing Prime Minister Begin, and he survived.

In 1979 the Defence Minister, Ezer Weizmann, resigned and, until the 1981 elections, Eitan took over the defence portfolio in all but name. With Begin's approval, he virtually dictated a huge increase in the military budget over the objections of many in the cabinet.

Despite his roots in the Labour movement, Eitan was notorious for his hawkish views and his hostility to the Arabs, whom he once called "drugged cockroaches". After his retirement from the IDF, in 1983, Eitan entered politics, establishing Tsomet (meaning "Junction"), a Right-wing political party which united with Tehiyah ("Revival") before the 1984 elections. Eitan was elected to the Knesset. and served as Minister of Agriculture in Yitzhak Shamir's Likud government in 1990-91.

In the June 1992 elections, on a platform of clean government, secularism and support for retaining all of Eretz Yisrael (Greater Israel), his party increased its seats from two to eight.

Before the 1996 elections Eitan joined with Likud in a Right-wing bloc and, when Benjamin Netanyahu was elected, he appointed Eitan Minister of Agriculture and the Environment and deputy Prime Minister. Within the government Eitan was a committed opponent of the Oslo accords.

Eitan was an amateur pilot, carpenter and a farmer who produced cooking oil. Last year he was appointed logistic co-ordinator for the Ashtrom company, which was improving the breakwater at the port of Ashdod. In 1985 he published his autobiography, Raful - A Story of a Soldier.

Raful Eitan was twice married. By his first marriage he had five children; a son, an air force pilot, was killed in a plane crash.

Copyright The Daily Telegraph (2004)

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