Cancer drives Israeli deputy defense minister to end his life

TEL AVIV — Israeli leaders and the public at large reacted with shock and sorrow at the suicide of Mordechai Gur, Israel's deputy defense minister.

Sunday's weekly Cabinet meeting opened with a moment of silence in Gur's memory.

With tears in his eyes, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin gave an uncharacteristically emotional eulogy for Gur, who was Rabin's comrade-in-arms and close political ally for almost half a century.

"Motta was a special person, sensitive and strong, a soldier and a civilian, a lover of books and of writing, and above all, a friend," Rabin said. "You knew at all times that he was with you and at your side. May his memory be blessed."

Known throughout Israel by the affectionate nickname "Motta," he committed suicide Sunday after years of fighting cancer.

Gur, 65, was found dead early Sunday morning by members of his family in the garden of his home in a Tel Aviv suburb. A gun was found next to his body. He had a single bullet wound to the head.

Gur, who had suffered from terminal cancer, left a suicide note in his study saying he no longer wanted to be a burden to his family.

A retired lieutenant general, Gur commanded the Israeli paratroop unit that liberated all of Jerusalem during the 1967 Six-Day War. He personally headed the force that entered the Old City and reached the Western Wall and Temple Mount.

News of Gur's death dominated Israeli news bulletins Sunday, pushing aside stories about peace negotiations with the Palestinians and Syrians.

Throughout the day, Israeli radio stations broadcast the historic words Gur uttered on the third day of the Six-Day War:

"The Temple Mount is in our hands. The Temple Mount is in our hands. And now the entire Old City is in our hands, and we are very, very happy."

Along with the Israeli public, Gur was mourned by government leaders and members of the opposition.

On Israel Radio, Gur was praised as both a military man and as a politician by a host of public figures, including Likud member of Knesset Ariel Sharon, a former defense minister, and the recently retired Israel Defense Force chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak.

Born in Jerusalem in 1930, Gur joined the Palmach, the elite unit of the Haganah, the pre-state army, and continued to serve in the army after the State of Israel was founded.

During his military career, he took part in many of Israel's special operations beyond enemy lines. Rising through the ranks, he served as Israel's military attache to Washington during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

A year later, he was appointed Israel's 10th IDF chief of staff, a position he held until 1978.

In 1976, he was responsible for planning and carrying out Israel's daring rescue of 102 airline hijack victims from Entebbe Airport in Uganda.

Gur's one major blunder occurred in 1977, when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat announced his visit to Jerusalem as a token of peace. Gur warned Israel's then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin that the visit was a trap and that it would be followed by war. He was sharply criticized at the time for his stance.

Gur entered politics in 1981 as a member of the then opposition Labor party. He was elected to the Knesset, and in 1984 he became minister of transportation in Israel's national unity government. Since then, he held many public posts, including minister of health.

Among those mourning Gur were leaders of Israel's settlers movement. The Yesha Council, representing Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, said it was grieving over the loss of a true friend. Gur had served as a go-between Rabin and the settlers, enjoying the trust of both.

Considered a hard-liner in the Labor Party, Gur was among those who last year attended the founding congress of a group known as The Third Way. The group took its name in an effort to provide an alternative both to dovish elements favoring a return of all or most of the land captured in the 1967 war, and to hawkish leaders who vow not to return one inch of land to neighboring Arab countries.

But in his role as deputy defense minister, Gur clashed in December 1993 with Shlomo Goren, the former chief rabbi and chief military chaplain, who advised Israeli soldiers to refuse to obey any orders to participate in military operations to evacuate Jewish settlements from the administered areas.

Describing Goren's views as "totally unacceptable," Gur said at the time: "The spiritual world view of a single person should not be allowed to determine positions in a democratic society. The majority must prevail."