Defense Ministry to recognize soldiers who swam in toxic river as disabled veterans

Navy troops were forced to scuba dive for years in the deeply polluted Kishon River, leading to high rates of cancer and other illnesses; Gantz calls decision ‘historic justice’

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

View of the Kishon River that overflowed following heavy rain near Emek junction in northern Israel, on January 9, 2020. (Anat Hermony/Flash90)
View of the Kishon River that overflowed following heavy rain near Emek junction in northern Israel, on January 9, 2020. (Anat Hermony/Flash90)

The Defense Ministry will recognize all Israeli Navy veterans who were forced to swim in the heavily polluted Kishon River in northern Israel during their service and have since contracted a disease as IDF disabled veterans, giving them access to additional benefits and services, after years of refusing to do so.

Until now, these soldiers have not received this designation as a group, as investigations were unable to definitively prove a connection between their illnesses and their time in the polluted river, though some of them were recognized as IDF disabled veterans, particularly those who developed their sicknesses while they were still in the military.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz called the decision to recognize all of the so-called “Kishon divers” as IDF disabled veterans “historic justice.”

“The goal was to send a clear message to IDF soldiers: We are responsible for sending you to battle. We want to bring you home safely, and we will escort those who are injured. This is our responsibility and it doesn’t have an expiration date,” Gantz told reporters.

The Kishon River in northern Israel was used as a dumping ground for years for hazardous waste by petrochemical companies operating out of the port city of Haifa, turning the stream into one of the most polluted bodies of water in the country. The river was found to contain high levels of particularly toxic chemicals, like mercury and arsenic, killing off many of the fish and other wildlife that previously lived in it. It was also known to occasionally catch fire.

Despite this, however, the river was used as a training area for the Israeli Navy’s elite Shayetet 13 and its scuba unit until the early 1990s, with soldiers swimming and diving in it regularly. In total, more than 10,000 soldiers were exposed to the river’s polluted waters over the years, the military found in 2000.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz leads a Blue and White faction meeting at the Knesset, on January 31, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

That year, a damning report was published in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper that found that soldiers from these units were becoming sick with cancer and other serious illnesses at far higher rates than in the general population.

In response, the military launched a commission of inquiry, led by a judge, to investigate the allegations, but it did not reach a firm conclusion. As a result, a compromise was reached in which some of the soldiers were recognized as having contracted their illnesses due to their military services, while others were not. Over the years, there have been repeated lawsuits filed by those veterans who were not recognized, along with civilian fishermen who worked in and around the river, against the government and the chemical companies responsible for the pollution. None of them have been successful.

In December, Gantz ordered a review of the matter. A former air force officer, Brig. Gen. (res.) Ran Bashvitz, was appointed to conduct the investigation and instructed to take a “holistic view, including scientific figures, illness rates, compounding influences and the trends in new research about exposure to dangerous chemicals,” the Defense Ministry said.

Bashvitz’s probe determined that the soldiers’ exposure to toxic chemicals in the Kishon River was so extreme that it was “incomparable to any other case like it.”

As a result of the findings, the ministry agreed to adopt a highly irregular across-the-board policy and recognize every “Kishon diver” who later contracted an illness, regardless of type, as an IDF disabled veteran and grant them the benefits that go along with that. These benefits are wide-ranging and include things like discounted municipal taxes, education grants and property tax exemptions.

Though any such veteran will be eligible, former cadets from the Israeli Naval Academy during the years in question will be fast-tracked for recognition as they spent particularly long periods of time in the river, the Defense Ministry said.

This decision was made as part of a wider effort in the Defense Ministry known as “One Soul,” or in Hebrew “Nefesh Ahat,” which aims to improve the treatment of IDF disabled veterans.

The “One Soul” initiative was launched after a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, Itzik Saidyan, set himself on fire outside a ministry office as a form of protest against the poor treatment he had received. Saidyan sustained severe burns throughout his body and was near death for several weeks, but has since recovered somewhat and been able to leave his hospital bed.

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