Tze’elim - Eliyahu Hershkowitz - 01122011
Soldiers taking part in exercises at the Tze’elim base Wednesday. Photo by Eliyahu Hershkowitz
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IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz cut an exercise short on Wednesday after two artillery shells landed nearby by mistake. No one was injured, but army sources say the accident at the Tze'elim base in the Negev raises "suspicions of serious negligence that could have ended in a terrible disaster."

The shells landed several dozen meters from GOC Central Command Avi Mizrahi and a group of soldiers.

The Israel Defense Forces is investigating the incident. According to the initial findings, the shells were fired after an error by a safety officer who failed to properly follow procedures.

The mishap occurred at around 7 A.M. during a training exercise for a reservist paratroop brigade.

The shells fell one after another about 200 meters away from Gantz, ground forces commander Shlomo (Sami ) Turgeman and other officers who were looking on from an observation point.

The chief of staff, who was the first to see that the shells had strayed, immediately ordered the exercise stopped. After an initial assessment, it was decided that the infantry soldiers would proceed with the assault they were practicing, but without artillery cover.

"The chief of staff views the incident gravely and has instructed the ground forces commander to appoint an investigative committee to examine the circumstances of the incident," the IDF Spokesman's Office said.

The shells were fired by a relatively modern Israeli-made 155 millimeter M-71 cannon. Before the shells were fired, soldiers noticed that the cannon had sunk into the sand. The soldiers tried to address the issue before firing the cannon, and it again sank into the sand. It was then pulled out.

Procedure under such circumstances calls for the cannon's aim to be rechecked by the safety officer, who examines the angle at which the cannon is positioned. The officer in this case found a divergence from the correct position.

Although small divergences are allowed, the safety officer apparently gave the go-ahead even though the cannon's aim was shown to diverge from the desired position greater than procedures allow.

It is possible the safety officer sought to speed things up because previous checks had already delayed the firing of the shells, holding up the entire exercise.

The incident caused embarrassment at general staff headquarters, though it should be noted that over the past decade there has been a substantial decline in the number of training accidents.

The Tze'elim base has been the site of two tragic accidents. In 1990, five reservists were killed by a stray shell. In 1992, five soldiers from the elite Sayeret Matkal special operations unit were killed by the mistaken firing of a missile. The two accidents led to the overhaul of IDF safety procedures for training exercises.