As he does every weekend, on a recent Saturday Benny Ben-Israel, a former Israel Air Force fighter pilot who has been paragliding for 18 years, strapped himself into a harness attached to a fabric wing, jumped off the a cliff in Zichron Yaacov and began to glide. But around 20 minutes later he found himself facing two Apache attack helicopters that circled around him until he was forced to land.
For decades, Havat Habaron Cliff has been a popular spot for hang gliding and paragliding. For years, Yuval Drori, head of the Israel paragliding club, for years coordinated members’ activities with the IAF, as required by law in order to prevent in-air incidents. He says the military recently stopped cooperating with him.
“We have an air force that has a state,” Drori told Haaretz.
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“At every opportunity they stress that if they could, they’d force us out of the sky. Scrambling copters is a serious escalation... especially in Zichron on Saturday afternoon, when everyone knows there are dozens of amateurs in the air.”
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After the incident, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit confirmed the interception in a statement, saying an unidentified paraglider in the skies above Zichron Yaacov was flying through a civilian aviation route without authorization, endangering civil aircraft.
Unidentified sources challenged the army’s claims, saying that IAF personnel had in fact approved the paragliders’ activity in the area that day.
The IDF statement went on to say that details of the incident were submitted to the police, for the purpose of prosecuting Ben-Israel. Police officers questioned Ben-Israel after he landed but released him without filing charges.
“I’m telling you unequivocally that Ben-Israel followed all of the rules,” said Doron Danan, an aircraft accident investigator with the Transportation Ministry for 20 years. He said the incident could have ended very differently, if not for Ben-Israel’s experience as a pilot. He said the air force pilots were unaware that even at a distance of 300-400 meters, the wind created by the helicopter can deflate the wing of the paraglider and cause a disaster.
Ran Cohen, a lawyer and paragliding enthusiast representing Ben-Israel, recently sent the IAF a warning letter before legal action. He requested an accounting of the event that led to the decision to scramble the helicopters to intercept his client.
“Whoever decided to send those helicopters to the gliding civilians simply went mad,” Cohen said, adding, “It’s incomprehensible for two armed combat helicopters to approach a paraglider and hover in front of him at a distance that endangers him.”
The IDF refused to comment on the claims in Cohen’s letter, saying only that it had received the letter and will address its contents.
Ben-Israel and his lawyer say they want to know the protocol for intercepting civilian paragliders within Israeli territory and are demanding details surrounding the incident including who gave the order to scramble the helicopters, whether anyone verified that the hanglider was in fact in a no-fly area and who decided to bring Ben-Israel down. They have also demanded to know whether, as members of the paragliding club maintain, the helicopters were first scrambled to paragliders in the Daliat al-Carmel area and redirected to the Zichron area after failing to intercept anyone.