A landmine explosion that killed an Israeli soldier on Tuesday was not the first of its kind and could have been prevented, said Israel Defense Forces reserve combat engineers.
- Israeli soldier killed during land mine clearing near Syrian border
- Israeli army officer injured by landmine blast near Syria border
The IDF was warned three years ago that faults in assemblies added to anti-tank mines could cause casualties, say officers in the Combat Engineering Corps.
The IDF refused to comment on the claims while the investigation of the incident was still underway. But it unofficially confirmed that the mine that blew up, killing Cpl. Roie Yisrael Alfi, 19, during an advanced training course in the Golan Heights, had been subject to the method the engineers described, which involves attaching Israeli-made pressure plates to the mines.
In August 2010, two similar explosions occurred in the Golan Heights within two weeks of each other. The explosions happened near both soldiers and civilians, but no one was injured. The explosions were investigated and the results were reported to the combat engineers, but the dangerous operations near the mines continued.
A reserve officer in the engineers, who has planted tens of thousands of mines in the Golan, said yesterday there is no connection between the tragedy and the inexperience of the soldiers involved in the incident, who were training.
“The tragedy would likely have occurred even if all the soldiers in the field were company or battalion commanders,” said the officer. “Even before the investigation is over, it should be completely and immediately banned – at least for the entire summer – allowing soldiers to enter minefields of the M15 type where the Israeli pressure plates are used. Examinations of the [mine] fields must take place during winter.”
The Golan has been heavily mined over the years in at least three stages. It started in 1974 after the Yom Kippur War and the separation of forces with Syria. Rafael Eitan, then the head of the Northern Command and later IDF chief of staff, wanted to strengthen the front lines against a possible Syrian attempt to repeat their 1973 attack. Other senior officers convinced the political echelon to deny most of his proposals, forcing him to make due with laying mines.
Hundreds of thousands of M15 anti-tank mines were subsequently laid in the Golan. The mines came from American military surplus from the Korean War and were already 20 years old at the time, said an officer who was involved in laying them. Manufactured in 1954, the mines were laid without any protection for the triggering devices. In 1987, it was learned that they had deteriorated and were becoming less effective. Some did not work at all, and others could be set off by the weight of a person, rather than only by that of a large vehicle.
Between 1987 and 1989, the engineering corps replaced the mines with others from the same batch of 25-year-old M15s, said the officer. This time, the soldiers applied special silicon grease that was supposed to protect the trigger mechanisms for decades. A decade later, in 1998, the mines were discovered to still be unreliable. To correct the problem, the Israeli pressure plates were placed on top of the original pressure plates.
Twelve years later, the Lahav Division’s engineering battalion was given the job of once more renewing the mine fields. The plan was to expose the pressure plates and place anti-personnel mines next to the M15s, exploding them. In August 2010, engineers exposed two such mines in a field near the village of Buqata in the northern Golan, and when they moved on to a third mine the first one exploded. The soldiers were seven meters away, but no one was injured.
The work was halted, and experts were brought in to investigate. A few weeks later, while soldiers were investigating another nearby mine field, two more mines blew up without being triggered. It turned out that a month earlier a brush fire had broken out in the field. A Druze farmer told the officers that three mines had exploded a few days before – and that this was a rather common event.
A number of explanations were offered: The mines were buried less deeply than expected; the metal pressure plates could heat up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, causing them to explode; the Israeli pressure plate mechanism was faulty; the explosive material in the mines expanded and pushed the triggering mechanism up, and chemicals in the soil affected the mines. There were no signs of any terrorist activity. Experienced officers raised other possibilities and said the operations violated safety regulations in place for decades.