Bereaved Mothers Blame New IDF Chief Rabbi for Sons' Deaths

Yuval Azoulay
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Yuval Azoulay

The mothers of two Israel Air Force sergeants killed in a training accident in 1992 called on the military yesterday to revoke the appointment of Lt. Col. Rafi Peretz as the new chief rabbi of the IDF, saying Peretz did not allow them access to medical assistance that could have saved their lives.

Assaf Rosenberg and Gil Zuriano, both from the airborne rescue and evacuation unit 669, fell to their deaths from a Sikorsky S-65 helicopter piloted by Peretz during a rescue drill. The mothers of the two sergeants say Peretz left their sons to bleed for nearly an hour rather than letting paramedics treat them or flying them to the hospital.

"Both our sons were killed by the negligence and oversights of the IDF and the Air Force, and this is an insult to both their memories," Zuriano's mother, Leah Zuriano, told Haaretz. "His appointment as chief military rabbi is horrific. He commanded the exercise and didn't stop it even after severe malfunctions began to happen."

Peretz is set to replace Brig. Gen. Rabbi Avihai Rontzki as chief military rabbi this summer, in accordance with a decision made by Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and approved by Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Peretz, who heads the military preparatory program Etzem, is a helicopter pilot and a colonel in the reserves, but will be promoted to the rank of brigadier general before assuming his new post.

The IDF said it stood by its decision to appoint Peretz chief military rabbi.

While serving as chief of staff after the accident, Barak appointed one of two inquiry committees to investigate the incident. That committee and one appointed by Maj. Gen. Herzl Bodinger, who was commander of the Air Force at the time, said the accident, which took place over the Dimona stream, was caused by a technical fault with the equipment.

However, family protests led to the establishment of a third, external committee, chaired by judge Eliyahu Winograd, which found that the sergeants' deaths were caused by the operation of a special crane to which their cable was attached. Three officers, including the chief of the squadron and the commander of the rescue unit, were indicted. Peretz was not disciplined, despite persistent accusations from the families.

Eighteen years later, the Rosenberg and Zuriano families are still campaigning for sanctions against Peretz.

"After Assaf and Gil fell 20 meters to the ground, Peretz landed the helicopter some 15 meters away but locked it up, didn't leave the cockpit himself and didn't allow any other soldier in the craft to get out and help the boys," Zuriano said yesterday. "There were four 669 fighters there that all trained as paramedics, and they were all locked in the helicopter by the pilot, who didn't want to expose them to the horrific sight."

In addition to keeping the paramedics inside the helicopter, Peretz also refused to take the sergeants to the hospital, which could have saved their lives, Zuriano said.

"An expert from Hadassah Ein Karem hospital testified to Winograd's committee that if the boys had been evacuated immediately, at least one of them would have survived," she said. "But Peretz waited for another rescue helicopter to arrive and didn't even let his co-pilot to get out and help them. The boys slowly bled to death. I'm nauseated by the thought this man will be the top religious authority in the military."

Rosenberg blamed Peretz for the accident and said she would fight his appointment.

"As far as I'm concerned, he's the most responsible for the accident," she said. "There was a side wind rocking the cable [that was part of the rescue drill]. He should've stopped the exercise at once but didn't. He has no right to be chief military rabbi. I'll go to war against his appointment, both legally and publicly. I'll go on a hunger strike if necessary."

The two mothers are backed in their protest by the Movement for Quality Government, which had supported their legal struggle with the IDF. The movement's chairman, Eliad Shraga, appealed to Barak and Ashkenazi to reconsider the appointment.

"Peretz sat in his cockpit for 50 minutes," wrote Shraga. "If he had examined them more closely, he would most likely try to evacuate them to a hospital. They could have been in Soroka hospital in Be'er Sheva within six minutes, and at least one of them might have survived. This was a military and a moral failure."

The IDF spokesperson said the army "once again extends its condolences to the families for the tragic accident in 1992. We find it regrettable that the matter is raised once more against Peretz, even if the families are motivated by inconsolable grief."

"Measures were taken against then-Major Peretz. While we don't wish to belittle the seriousness of the accident and the measures taken, it was decided the measures were not grave enough to bar Peretz from taking other positions in the IDF," the army said. "He is still a pilot and a flight instructor, as well as an educator for many years. Peretz's candidacy for the position of chief military rabbit was given all due consideration by the authorities of the IDF, and he was found suitable for the post."