More Than a Third of Israeli Army Deaths in 2016 Were Suspected Suicides

Some 41 soldiers died during army service, though suicide rate among troops has been stable for past three years.

Israel Defense Forces soldiers in the Golan Heights, November 2016.
Gil Eliahu

More than a third of the soldiers who died during military service in 2016 took their own lives, according to the Israel Defense Forces’ personnel division.

A total of 41 soldiers died last year, with 15 committing suicide – the leading cause of death. Some of the other soldiers died of causes unconnected to their military service.

The suicide numbers for the two previous years were identical, the IDF personnel division noted. Officially, last year’s suicides are still deemed “suspected suicides” because investigations are still ongoing.

A senior officer in the IDF personnel division said one of the suicides last year involved a career soldier of Ethiopian descent. In 2015, there were three soldiers of Ethiopian origin who took their own lives.

Most of the suicides last year were soldiers doing their mandatory military service and in the middle of their time in the army, rather than new conscripts. All of the soldiers were male, most in forward units but not necessarily in combat units, the officer said.

IDF sources said they believed the suicide rate could be substantially reduced, noting it requires awareness of the problem on the part of commanders, along with awareness among the soldiers’ friends regarding their early emotional distress.

Army sources added, however, that there has been a decline in the number of army suicides compared to previous decades, though 2013 was a better year in relative terms with seven soldiers taking their lives.

“We can’t know about every case in advance, but we are doing a lot to deal with the issue,” said one officer. They cited recognition that holiday periods are a particularly sensitive time, as a result of which commanders are asked to verify their soldiers’ whereabouts – especially those who are known to be experiencing emotional difficulties. It was also decided to provide new officers with training on how to identify mental distress.

In addition to suicide, there were also deaths during military operations, terrorist attacks, training and operational accidents, aviation and highway accidents and illness, the personnel division reported.