20 years on, Israel marks helicopter disaster that claimed 73 soldiers

Bereaved families, president and IDF chief gather at Kibbutz Dafna for a ceremony to remember the fallen

President Reuven Rivlin speaks at a memorial service on Kibbutz Dafna to mark the 20th anniversary of an IAF helicopter crash that killed 73 soldiers. (Screen capture: Ynet)
President Reuven Rivlin speaks at a memorial service on Kibbutz Dafna to mark the 20th anniversary of an IAF helicopter crash that killed 73 soldiers. (Screen capture: Ynet)

Israel on Wednesday marked the 20th anniversary of its most devastating air disaster — the collision between two military helicopters that claimed the lives of 73 soldiers en route to locations in the country’s then-security zone in southern Lebanon.

On February 4, 1997 the two Israeli Air Force helicopters took off from two different airports in northern Israel, one heading for an IDF post at Beaufort Castle and the other flying to the “Pumpkin” military outpost. The two aircraft collided in midair over a moshav in the Upper Galilee, killing everyone on board. Most of the soldiers were in their late teens or early 20s, and came from communities across the country.

Attending Wednesday’s memorial service at Kibbutz Dafna in the Galilee, close to the crash site, were the bereaved families of the soldiers, gathering together for the first time since the 30th day after the crash. The kibbutz is also the location of a memorial to the soldiers, comprising 73 boulders — each accompanied by the name of one of the fallen — surrounding a small pool.

The meeting of the families was coordinated by the company commander and brigade commander, who in the aftermath of the accident also made contact between the bereaved. The relatives still stay in touch, meeting on a regular basis to provide ongoing support, even attending each other’s family celebrations.

The new monument (2008) for the 73 IDF soldiers who found their death in th 1997 Israeli helicopter disaster, when 2 helicopters collided over She'ar Yeshuv in northern Israel (photo credit: Chen Leopold/Flash90)
A monument for the 73 IDF soldiers killed in the 1997 Israeli helicopter disaster over She’ar Yeshuv in northern Israel (Chen Leopold/Flash90)

“This is a connection of families born out of death,” said the parents in a statement, according to Channel 2. “It helps us to move on, it binds us and helps us. It’s more than family.”

Also in attendance were President Reuven Rivlin, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot.

“On February 4, 1997, the skies and the ground shook,” said Rivlin at the ceremony. “Everyone old enough at the time will never forget that earth-shattering night, that terrible flight — a flight without survivors. In the words of [Israeli writer] Haim Hefer: ‘The images of the portraits on the front pages of the papers seared like a laser into the brain,'” he said.

“We carry the horrifying words ‘helicopter disaster’ etched on our hearts forever,” he continued. “Children who were not yet born at the time, who today are themselves soldiers, some of them officers, are still dealing with the question of what could have been. What if that special son of each and every one of you — brother, husband, father — so beloved, so esteemed, were still alive. We think of the unborn grandchildren [and] the children who grew up without a father, with longing and missed opportunity.”

The fallen, the president said, reflected Israeli society as a whole.

“The family of the ‘helicopter disaster’ is the family of Israel. Jews, Druze and Bedouin, secular and religious, from all communities, cities, kibbutzim and moshavim, the center and the periphery, sons who were a cross-section of society,” he said.

In a written message, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also paid tribute to the fallen, telling those gathered that their sons did not die in vain. Netanyahu, who on Wednesday was in the US for a meeting with President Donald Trump, was also prime minister at the time of the accident.

“I know it’s difficult to comfort families who have lost a loved one, but there is one thing you can say: The flame of the mission our sons held in their hands still burns, and IDF fighters continue to ensure security in the north of the country and everywhere else, despite the frequent blows to our region,” Netanyahu said in his message.

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