Army Chief Takes Tough Stance on Training Death

In response to the first fatal accident to take place on his watch, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi opts for a severe approach, dismissing Paratroopers Brigade officers

Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi at a ceremony at the Glilot army base, March 11, 2019.
Moti Milrod

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi reacted as required to the fatal training accident in January in which Sgt. Evyatar Yosefi drowned in the Hilazon stream during a navigation exercise.

Two months after the accident, following an operational investigation by the army, Kochavi decided to punish the entire chain of command that was involved in directing the exercise. The Paratroopers Brigade commander was reprimanded and five officers at all ranks under him – from the Paratroopers reconnaissance team commander to the commander of the brigade’s reconnaissance battalion – were dismissed from their posts.

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This was the first serious mishap Kochavi had to deal with since assuming his post in mid-January, and it happened in the Paratroopers, the brigade in which he began his army service and which he later commanded. The findings of the investigation left no doubt; there were some 30 errors revealed in the planning, approval and implementation of the exercise. There was a fundamental command failure at all levels. The investigation also showed that there were clearly several points at which intervention by any of the various commanders could have prevented Yosefi’s death.

The investigation showed that a spirit of arrogance prevailed. The commanders were not familiar with the details of the exercise, did not identify any of the overt shortcomings and did not observe the rules of military discipline. Even worse, it is clear that the intermediate ranks ignored the warnings of the soldiers and medical staff regarding the bad weather, which worsened as the exercise continued. When the belated decision to stop the exercise was finally made, it was made in a way that only hastened the drowning disaster, because despite the decision the fighters were not forbidden to cross the river to the end point.

The Military Police investigation, which is still under way, exposed another dangerous aspect, which was reported by Haaretz’s Yaniv Kubovich: That after Yosefi’s drowning there was apparently pressure exerted on the fighters to coordinate their testimonies with their commanders in an effort to come up with a version of events that might reduce the culpability of those involved.

A large number of the problems exposed were common to other Israel Defense Forces failures over the years, which is apparently attributable to the characteristics of many elite units, with their lofty professional demands, pressure to succeed, and the high motivation of the fighters, who generally don’t complain or allow themselves to fail. All this led to a fatal outcome this time.

The punishments imposed by Kochavi are relatively severe compared to those doled out to commanders involved in accidents during the past decade. When former Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot decided to delay the promotion of a commander in the Duvdevan unit after a fighter died when a weapon was played with, Kochavi and other Paratroopers officers sought to ease the punishment. In another incident in which a fighter in the Maglan commando unit was seriously injured during a stupid “ritual” that involved jumping from a moving Jeep, only the junior officers were punished.

But this case presents an important difference. In the previous accidents, the senior commanders failed by not knowing about the negative conduct of the fighters; the junior commanders either didn’t know or sometimes turned a blind eye. In the drowning incident, however, it was the senior commanders themselves who approved the training exercise and were aware of the conditions in the field, yet they did not cancel or stop the exercise.

Jurist Ruth Gavison wrote a Facebook post over the weekend, calling on Kochavi not to give in to “the sweeping demands that the commanders’ heads roll.” She warned that too severe a punishment could lead to commanders and soldiers fearing to tell the truth during debriefings, and that the commanders cannot be judged harshly just because there was a bad outcome. “This principle has to be that commanders are measured by … the decisions that were made when they were made and under the conditions that were known when they made them.”

Kochavi, however, did not take this advice. It seems that in contrast to Gavison, he believes that such mitigating circumstances might be relevant in combat (he himself, as commander of the Gaza division, was not ousted for the abduction of Gilad Shalit, which took place on his watch), but not under training conditions, however elite the unit might be.

Along with the meticulous reconstruction of what led to the disaster, the investigation also notes that the commanders’ actions led to the soldiers’ loss of faith in the military establishment. This is a serious outcome, which could have far-reaching ramifications.