IDF chief sacks 5 officers, censures colonel over soldier’s drowning in exercise

IDF chief sacks 5 officers, censures colonel over soldier’s drowning in exercise

Military says investigation into accidental death of Sgt. Evyatar Yosefi, 20, in a flooded stream in January, found series of glaring errors and overall disregard for details

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Paratrooper Evyatar Yosefi, 20, drowned during a training exercise in northern Israel on January 7, 2018. (Facebook)
Paratrooper Evyatar Yosefi, 20, drowned during a training exercise in northern Israel on January 7, 2018. (Facebook)

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi on Sunday dismissed five officers from their positions and officially reprimanded the commander of the Paratroopers Brigade over their failure to prevent the drowning of a soldier in a swollen stream in northern Israel during a navigation exercise in January, the army said.

The army chief’s decision was made after he was presented with the findings of a probe into the drowning of Sgt. Evyatar Yosefi, 20, which found a series of significant failured throughout the chain of command that the military said were the ultimate cause of the serviceman’s death.

“The investigation determined that the way in which the exercise was prepared deviated from army orders, did not adhere to the characteristics of the training series, was conducted with many errors and was carried out in a manner that lacked concern for details,” the Israel Defense Forces said in a statement.

“The behavior of the chain of command during the event, which did not live up to what is expected of IDF officers, was what created the conditions that led to this tragic consequence.”

An ongoing Military Police investigation into Yosefi’s death will determine if any criminal charges are to be filed against his commanders.

Kohavi’s decision to discharge the five officers up the chain of command — from Yosefi’s team leader to his battalion commander — was the army chief’s first major disciplinary action since taking over the position in January.

Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi (2nd-L) speaks with soldiers taking part in a snap drill at the Tzeelim base in southern Israel, simulating a future military conflict in the Gaza Strip, in a photo released by the Israeli Defense Forces on February 26, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

In a statement, Kohavi accused the officers of unprofessional and, in some cases, immoral conduct.

“This is an event of the utmost gravity, which led to a tragic result whose roots are in a series of errors and mistakes in preparing for the exercise and the way in which it was carried out, under unprofessional leadership by the entire chain of command and unethical leadership by part of the command. This led to recklessness in the exercise under the gaze of the commanders and without them doing anything to prevent it,” the army chief said.

“In the incident in question the commanders throughout the chain of command did not act in accordance with the extreme vigilance expected of them in planning the exercise and in directing it,” Kohavi added.

On January 7, the Paratroopers Brigade’s reconnaissance battalion was hiking around the Hilazon stream near the northern city of Karmiel, working in pairs to learn how to navigate and survive in the wilderness.

Rescue forces search for a soldier who was swept away in the Hilazon stream in northern Israel on January 7, 2019. (Israel Police)

Before dawn that day, Yosefi, 20, from the Tel Aviv suburb of Givat Shmuel, and his comrade received the order over the radio that the unit was regrouping. As they made their way to the designated spot, the pair came to the Hilazon stream, which was swollen from the previous night’s rainfall.

They decided to cross the stream, but Yosefi slipped on the muddy riverbank as he got to the other side and fell into the water, an army official said at the time, speaking on condition of anonymity.

His partner threw him a rope, but the paratrooper could not hold onto it, and was swept away. His body was found several hours later.

The military’s investigation into Yosefi’s death found that his commanders had failed to adequately prepare for the inclement weather and its effects on the ground.

“The decision to head out to the exercise under a series of conditions (weather, terrain, physical and mental exhaustion) that raised the level of complexity and danger for the exercise, without taking the necessary steps to prepare for these conditions, contributed to the event,” the military said.

Screen capture from video or the rescue efforts to find a man who was swept away by the Hilazon Creek on January 7, 2019. (Israel Police)

The navigation exercise had been approved by the relevant bodies before the unit set out, including by the commander of the Paratroopers Brigade. The process included checking the weather conditions, the army official said at the time.

However, while the military said the decision to hold the exercise had been properly approved, the decision to continue the exercise despite the “many warning signs that came up during it, effectively led to the commanders of the exercise to lose control over the condition of the soldiers in the field.”

In addition, the soldiers had not received the necessary safety instructions before setting out for the exercise.

The soldier’s team leader, a lieutenant, his deputy platoon commander, a lieutenant, his platoon commander, a captain, the commander of his training program, a major, and his battalion commander, a lieutenant colonel, were all dismissed from their positions on Sunday.

The commander of the Paratroopers Brigade, Col. Yaakov “Yaki” Dolef, also received an official censure on his record, the military said.

Kohavi also ordered his deputy, Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, and the commander of the IDF Ground Forces, Maj. Gen. Kobi Barak, to improve the safety protocols for IDF units in general and special forces units in particular.

“In addition, the chief of staff also ordered all IDF units to hold a two-day training session in the next months about safety in general and safety during training exercise in particular,” the IDF said.

The investigation into Yosefi’s death was led by Col. Oren Simcha.

The findings were also presented to the serviceman’s family, the army said.

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