Yaniv Kubovich’s investigative report in Tuesday’s Haaretz about the accident in which a paratrooper drowned in the Galilee’s Hilazon Stream includes chilling details that ought to keep every parent of an Israeli combat soldier awake at night.
No less worrying is the fact that some of the testimony published in the article was never presented to the military inquiry committee appointed to investigate the incident. Assuming that the Israel Defense Forces are interested in uncovering the whole truth, this requires the committee to recall all the witnesses to the incident so that it can obtain the full story.
On the day after the incident, which occurred on January 7, Kubovich reported that the meteorological forecast published on the Water Authority’s website had warned of flooding in the area. His latest report shows that members of the army Medical Corps had warned both before and during the navigation exercise that conducting it in stormy weather could be dangerous, but they were yelled at and ultimately ignored.
Moreover, the soldiers reported that the current was very strong, but their commanders ignored them, thinking they were exaggerating. And after the accident, some of the soldiers felt the high command was pressuring them to coordinate their testimony and protect the company commander who led the exercise.
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The soldiers’ stories, as recounted to Haaretz by their parents, also reveal that they weren’t warned against crossing the stream in the pouring rain. But perhaps the most worrying detail is that one of the soldiers participating in the navigation exercise developed severe hypothermia even before Sgt. Evyatar Yosefi drowned. Though the commanders summoned a helicopter to evacuate the hypothermic soldier, this didn’t lead them to abort the exercise.
The picture that arises from Kubovich’s report is that the exercise commanders were excessively arrogant, took exaggerated risks and ignored the likely effects of the storm, despite being warned by the soldiers. After the accident, there was apparently an effort to cover up for the commander in the field. All this roused anger and frustration among the soldiers, who may have to follow this same chain of command onto the battlefield.
It’s also worth noting that neither the soldiers who warned about the storm nor those who reported the dangerous conditions during the exercise are pampered desk jockeys. Rather, they are combat soldiers in the paratroopers’ elite reconnaissance unit. If they saw fit to issue a warning, despite being on the last leg of their unit’s training course, it should have been obvious that they weren’t just whining.
There seems to be at least some connection between this fatal accident and several previous accidents that occurred in the paratroopers' sister brigade, the Commando Brigade, and in two other elite paratroopers units, Maglan and Duvdevan. All were serious incidents that pointed to problems of discipline, oversight and judgment in a long list of units manned by very highly motivated soldiers.
The army has to prepare its soldiers for the kind of difficult, demanding scenarios that may occur in wartime, and this requires training exercises that demand great effort of the soldiers. But the need to produce tough soldiers doesn’t justify a mishap that ends in death, such as happened last month at the Hilazon Stream.
This presents a test for the IDF’s brand-new chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi – a test involving the very brigade in which he served and which he later commanded. That is surely unpleasant, even though it also happened to some of his predecessors.
Shaul Mofaz, as a new chief of staff in 1998, had to deal with an error in the field by the paratroops at the Sejoud outpost in southern Lebanon. (Kochavi was commanding a territorial brigade at the time). Former chiefs of staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Gadi Eisenkot, both products of the Golani Brigade, respectively faced a disciplinary issue with Brig. Gen. Chico Tamir and a criminal case with Brig. Gen. Ofer Buchris. In all these cases, the message sent to the army was that IDF chiefs of staff don’t give free passes to their former subordinates and friends.
The current incident is being investigated by both the Military Police and a command-level in-house inquiry. The chief of staff can’t intervene in the criminal case, but a command statement is a different issue. He currently has both a need and an opportunity to make clear that such behavior is unacceptable.
But even before that, both the in-house inquiry committee and the Military Police would do well to go back and seek out the testimony that hasn’t yet reached their investigations. There are soldiers who know more than they were asked about, and other soldiers weren’t questioned at all.
Yosefi, a highly motivated soldier in an elite unit, died an unnecessary death. The IDF must not accept this as a decree of fate. And full implementation of the lessons of this horrifying accident will depend largely on the chief of staff.