Police Question Commanders on Suspicion of Involvement in Soldier's Death

Sgt. Evyatar Yosefi fell into a stream and drowned during a training exercise on a stormy night

Memorial to Evyatar Yosefi
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The Military Police have commenced a criminal investigation into the behavior of commanders during a navigation exercise in January during which a soldier drowned.

Sgt. Evyatar Yosefi, a member of the paratroopers’ elite reconnaissance unit, fell into the Hilazon Stream and drowned while crossing it with the unit during stormy conditions on the night of January 7. So far, the Military Police have questioned the company commander, the squad commanders and the commander of the unit’s training school on suspicion of involvement in Yosefi’s death.

Sources involved in the investigation expect the police to also question the commander of the Paratroops Brigade, Yaki Dolef, under caution, meaning as a suspect in a crime.

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The chief of staff had appointed an in-house inquiry to determine exactly what happened on the night of January 7, when Yosefi drowned, but it has been suspended while the police investigation proceeds.

The officers questioned by the police in this case are not supposed to talk with the media about their versions of events. Nevertheless, based on the officers’ conversations with other members of the military, it seems they are all sticking to the same story, which is that they were following army regulations and commands. Yosefi’s death was an accident which would have been hard to prevent, they argue.

Soldiers who have given statements to either the Military Police or the in-house inquiry have also presented a united front, but their story differs radically from what the officers are saying. The soldiers’ version raises serious questions about the officers’ decisions prior to and during the exercise.

The discrepancy between the soldiers’ stories and those of the officers is what led the army to freeze the in-house inquiry until the Military Police investigation finishes, based on concern that the in-house inquiry might provide a chance for people to coordinate their testimony. But the gaps between the soldiers’ stories and those of the officers also make the police investigation much harder.

Such gaps are unusual when the people being questioned are all from the same military unit, and may indicate a lack of trust between the soldiers and their commanders.

A Haaretz investigation published earlier this week https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-israeli-soldier-s-death-in-military-exercise-was-preventable-testimonies-show-1.6952943 found that according to the soldiers, their parents and other people familiar with details of the incident, bad decisions were made before and during the navigation exercise. The commanders approved the exercise even though both the soldiers and medical personnel had warned about the stormy weather and the poor condition of the terrain. The officers also declined to stop the exercise even after some of the soldiers developed hypothermia or got stuck in the mud. Moreover, the officers approved crossing the Hilazon Stream despite being aware of flood warnings in force. Nor did they call off the crossing after some soldiers reported that they had fallen in and that the current was extremely strong. One soldier even said he almost drowned.

The Israel Defense Forces haven’t responded to these claims because of the police investigation. Any public statement could be viewed as interference in the investigation.

The Haaretz report found that officers had asked the soldiers to go easy on the company commander in their testimony, arguing that he was about to be demobilized and what they said could affect his future. The report also found that when the soldiers first reported that Yosefi had been swept away by the current, the officers didn’t immediately approve sending a medical crew to the site. Instead, they accused the soldiers of being “crybabies.”