Education Ministry Let Teens Hike in Negev Site a Day Before 10 Killed There

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Israeli rescue services personnel operate near the site where a group of Israeli youths was swept away by a flash flood, Israel, April 26, 2018.
Israeli rescue services personnel operate near the site where a group of Israeli youths was swept away by a flash flood, Israel, April 26, 2018.Credit: \ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

The Education Ministry allowed a school to go to the Nahal Tzofit area the day before 10 teenagers were killed in flooding there, despite official warnings of floods in the southern streambeds.

During the trip last Wednesday by 10th graders from the Gan Nahum Gymnasium in Rishon Letzion in the area of the Little Makhtesh, there was a flood not far from there. Parents contacted the school administration and asked to halt the trip, but they were told that the Education Ministry’s situation room was still giving it a green light. When the students were supposed to start their hike the class coordinator decided that the weather was too risky and called them back to the buses.

In a WhatsApp message sent to the parents, school staff reported that the pupils had been taken to a covered, heated camping area in Kfar Nokdim, where they would sleep overnight, and that according to the Education Ministry they would be able to continue the trip the following day. Several parents expressed concern for their children’s safety and demanded that the trip be canceled immediately. In the end, the trip was diverted to a different location.

Liel Even-Zohar, a member of the Rishon Letzion City Council, said, “Fortunately, additional tragedies were averted because of lots of luck along with action by the people in the field. But of course we must investigate and examine how to prevent such situations in the future. I expect an inquiry by the Education Ministry, the school and the municipality, and for lessons to be learned and published.”

The Education Ministry said, “Hikes on dangerous routes were canceled or diverted to alternative sites. As for the trip in question, we of course understand the parents’ concerns, but the trip was diverted to areas that weren’t dangerous. The situation room was in continuous contact with the trip guides and made sure that the buses left the area.”

On Sunday, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira said he planned to examine the conduct of the authorities in last Thursday’s trip to Nahal Tzofit, where 10 teenagers were killed by flooding. Shapira’s office said the investigation would be conducted jointly by auditors responsible for the Education Ministry and the Public Security Ministry, as well as the Defense Ministry, since the trip had been sponsored by the Bnei Zion pre-military academy (mechina) in Tel Aviv. After the tragedy, the Defense Ministry and the Education Ministry each blamed the other for failing to halt the trip.

The teens, most of whom were planning to attend the mechina next year, were taken on the trip despite the warnings of several agencies about possible flooding in the southern streams. On the eve of the trip, the Nature and Parks Authority warned, “It is forbidden to enter any hiking routes in the stream beds and drainage basins where there is a risk of flooding. This constitutes a real risk to life.”

Police on Sunday raided Bnei Zion’s offices, taking document binders and computers. On Friday the director of the mechina, Yuval Kahan, and another staffer, Aviv Berditchev, were arrested on suspicion of causing death by negligence for organizing the trip and allowing it to take place. Their detention was extended until Tuesday.

One counselor on the trip, a resident of the Arava, told police Thursday that she had warned against the trip before it began. The counselor, the daughter of the deputy commander of a rescue squad, also reportedly consulted with him about the trip. According to the report by Israel Television News, the father warned against setting out, saying, “Don’t take a chance,” and the counselor passed that message on to Bnei Zion staffers.

Attorney Zion Amir, who is representing Berditchev, told the Kan network Sunday morning that the mechina had made all the necessary inquiries and evaluations before the trip. “We’re not talking about criminals,” Amir said. “There was a tragedy, and the tendency to immediately find someone to blame doesn’t always square with the facts. “

Attorneys Nati Simhoni and Assaf Klein, who are representing Kahan, said, “Our position is that it wouldn’t be right at this time to pay attention to the various media reports; we just want to stress that they do not reflect things as they are.”