Flash Flood Tragedy: Staffer Told Police She Warned Against Deadly Hike in Southern Israel

Three staff members of the pre-army preparatory program were arrested after 10 teenagers were killed in flash floods

Rescue helicopter searching for teenagers caught in flash floods in southern Israel, April 26, 2018
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

A counselor at the pre-army preparatory program that organized a trip in which 10 Israeli teenagers were killed by flash floods told investigators she suggested the trip be canceled because of weather conditions, Haaretz learned Saturday.

Another staff member backed up her claim with evidence, police said. She was questioned by police Thursday and was then released to house arrest. Parents and other sources told Haaretz that staff members altered the trip's route multiple times because of concerns over potential flooding.

  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

Also on Saturday, the search resumed for Ayman Jaber, a 47-year-old truck driver who went missing Friday in the Zin stream in the south. Jaber’s overturned truck was found the same day near the community of Ein Tamar. Rescue crews fear that he may have been swept by floodwaters across the border into Jordan and drowned after surging water burst a dam. Drones have been put in service over the border in coordination with Jordan to assist in the search.

Jaber, a resident of the town of Taibeh, was working as an independent driver. He is married and the father of four, the oldest of which is in the third grade. Relatives said he left for work in the middle of the day on Friday but contact with him was lost in the early evening.

The search for Jaber has been hampered by concerns that the flooding may have dislodged landmines from a period of prior military conflict with Jordan in the area near the border, a common concern during flooding in areas with minefields. The army and police were called in to deal with the possible danger.

'We're going to die'

Meanwhile, the families of the 10 hikers are demanding answers as to how such a disaster could have occurred. Several parents and members of the program raised concerns to staff before the trip and received reassurances. "As some of you have noticed, there may be rainy weather in the south on some of the days of the trip," a guide wrote in a WhatsApp group for participants. "The trip is of course still occurring."

Most of the victims were 12th graders who were enrolling in the Bnei Zion pre-military academy starting this fall for the next academic year’s program before enlisting in the military. On Friday, Yuval Kahan, the head of the Bnei Zion preparatory seminar, was arrested for alleged negligent manslaughter for his decision to take the group of teenagers out on the trip, despite the harsh weather conditions. Aviv Bardichev, a fellow staff member, was also arrested and both will remain in custody until Tuesday.

Text messages show that one of the girls who was killed told friends she was worried for her safety on the hike, the Israel Television News Company reported. "I can't believe I'm actually going hiking in weather like this. It doesn't make sense to go to a place that's completely flooded. It's tempting fate. We're going to die – I'm serious," she wrote to her friends on the messaging application WhatsApp a day before the trip.

The victims of the floods were: Ella Or, from Ma’ale Adumim; Gali Balali, from Givatayim; Agam Levy, from Moshav Herut; Shani Shamir, from Shoham; Adi Ra’anan, from Mikhmoret; Yael Sadan and Maayan Barhum from Jerusalem; Romi Cohen, from Moshav Maor; Tzur Alfi, from Mazkeret Batya and Ilan Bar Shalom from Rishon Letzion.

The flash floods this week also took the lives of four other minors. On Friday, the bodies of Yazen Mohammad Asrahana, 10, and Ahmed Samich Asrahana, 9, were found in a reservoir that flooded in the El Fuwar refugee camp south of Hebron. The two were likely playing near the makeshift reservoir – which serves as a watering tank for local farms – when rain and flooding pushed them inside.

On Wednesday, a 16-year-old died after being swept away in the Mamshit Stream in the southern Negev, near his home in a Bedouin encampment. That same day, a 17-year-old Palestinian girl died in the desert hills east of Bethlehem in the West Bank. She was herding sheep and was swept away by the flood.