Principal, Guide in Israeli Pre-army Program to Face Homicide Charges for 10 Drowning Deaths

Prosecution goes a step beyond police recommendation to charge the principal with ‘negligent homicide’

Flash floods in Israel: Abandoned truck found in southern Israel's Ein Tamar April 27, 2018
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The principal of a pre-army program and a guide face homicide charges after 10 students on a school outing drowned during a flash flood in southern Israel last year, the prosecution announced on Wednesday.

The 10 victims, nine girls and one boy of around 18 years old, all students at the Bnei Zion pre-military seminar, died in April 2019 during a hike at Nahal Tsafit, south of the Dead Sea.

The Southern District prosecutor’s office has summoned the principal, Yuval Kahan, and the guide, Aviv Berdichev, to hearings, to be held at a later date, where they will give their version of events prior to the prosecution’s final decision on whether to indict them.

Originally the police recommended that Kahan be charged with negligent homicide, and that Berdichev be tried for homicide. Prosecutor Shai Nitzan decided to step up the charge against Kahan to homicide after concluding that the principal’s conduct had been worse than police had suspected.

The difference between negligent homicide and homicide is the state of mind. Negligent homicide is when the suspect could not have anticipated the outcome of his deed; homicide requires a degree of indifference or rashness regarding the outcome.

Ella Or, Gali Balel, Agam Levi, Shani Samir, Adi Ra’anan, Yael Sadan, Maayan Barhum, Romi Cohen and Tzur Alfi were killed in a flash flood April 27, 2018

For days before the school trip, warnings had been issued about the danger of flash floods in the southern Israeli desert where the students were supposed to go. Kahan and Berdichev knew about these warnings before and during the trip, yet did not cancel it. Kahan even knew, the prosecution said, that all Education Ministry trips to the flood-prone areas had been canceled, but he ignored that information.

The two also knew that the deputy commander of the Arava valley rescue operation objected to the timing of the trip; and another guide at the school had urged Kahan and Berdichev to cancel it precisely because she was worried about potential floods.

Flash floods in Israel: Abandoned truck found in southern Israel's Ein Tamar April 27, 2018
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The school had even paid a meteorological company for a forecast, which the two saw, and which said flooding was highly likely in that area.

Kahan and Berdichev even got a warning right before the group descended into the Tsafit stream bed, but went ahead with the trip anyway, taking an “unreasonable risk,” the prosecution said.

Parents of the victims stated that the prosecution’s decision to proceed with indictments, subject to hearings, speaks for itself about the causes of the disaster, and that the decision to charge the principal and guide with homicide attests to the gravity of their misdeeds by omission and commission. They said they are waiting for the prime minister to fulfill his promise to set up a public inquiry into safety at the pre-military seminars.

Israelis watch flooded water running through a valley blocking the main road along the Dead Sea in the Judean desert on April 25, 2018.
MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP

Nati Simhoni and Asaf Klein, legal representatives for Kahan, said the charges did not sit with Kahan’s reputation as a leader with principles, as an educator of the highest rank, and with his responsible conduct in general and in this case particularly. “We hope that after we present our version during the hearing process, the prosecution will reach the conclusion that he shouldn’t face trial at all,” the lawyers stated.

The 10 victims were Ilan Bar Shalom, from Rishon Letzion; Ella Or, from the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim; Gali Belali, from Givatayim; Agam Levi, from Moshav Herut; Shani Samir, from Shoham; Adi Ra’anan, from Mikhmoret; Yael Sadan and Maayan Barhum from Jerusalem; Romi Cohen, from Moshav Maor; and Tzur Alfi, from Mazkeret Batya. 

Meanwhile, Bnei Zion has announced that it would resume activity in 2019 and start to sign up new students in the coming weeks.

A map of the Nahal Tsafit area.