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IDF reports 31 fatalities in 2021, a slight increase; suicide still leading cause

Military figures show at least 11 soldiers took their own lives, 10 killed in car crashes and one in combat

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

Mourners attend the funeral of Israeli soldier Omer Tabib, 21, in Elyakim in northern Israel, on May 13, 2021. Tabib was killed when Palestinian terrorists in Gaza fired an anti-tank missile near the border. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
Mourners attend the funeral of Israeli soldier Omer Tabib, 21, in Elyakim in northern Israel, on May 13, 2021. Tabib was killed when Palestinian terrorists in Gaza fired an anti-tank missile near the border. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

The Israel Defense Forces saw a slight increase in the number of soldiers’ deaths over the past year — 31 compared to the previous year’s 28 — as well as a small rise in the number of suicides, according to fresh statistics released by the military on Tuesday.

Suicide remained the leading cause of death in the military in 2021, with at least 11 soldiers believed to have taken their own lives and another two whose deaths are currently designated as accidents but which may also have been suicide, Brig. Gen. Yoram Knafo, chief of staff of the IDF Manpower Directorate, told reporters.

Of the 11 soldiers believed to have died by suicide, three were members of the Ethiopian community, far above the number that would be expected based on their representation in the population. One of the two additional people who may have died by suicide was also Ethiopian.

Knafo said the military was aware of the issue and was working to better address it, while trying to not stigmatize soldiers from the Ethiopian community.

A number of studies in Israel have found a higher incidence of suicide among Ethiopian Israelis than the general population. A Health Ministry report from 2020 found that Ethiopian immigrants were 4.1 times more likely to die by suicide than Israeli-born Jews.

The number of suicides in the IDF in 2021 marked an increase over the previous year, when nine soldiers were believed to have died by suicide, though Knafo said that overall, the number of suicides in the military has held steady at roughly 10 each year over the past four years.

Only one IDF soldier was killed in combat over the past year. Omer Tabib was hit by an anti-tank guided missile on the Gaza border during May’s conflict with terror groups in the Strip.

Another soldier, Yonatan Granot, died after he was shot in the head by another soldier who had allegedly fired a weapon on their base in violation of orders and is currently on trial for manslaughter.

Ten soldiers were killed in car accident while on leave, and six soldiers died of illnesses in 2021, none of them from COVID-19, Knafo said. This included Col. Sharon Asman, the commander of the Nahal infantry brigade, who collapsed and died following a run due to an undiagnosed heart condition, he said.

Last year, no soldiers were killed in work or training accidents, Knafo said.

Two military-related deaths that were notably not included in the 2021 figures were Barel Hadaria Shmueli, who was shot in the head by a Palestinian gunman during a riot along the Gaza border, and an intelligence officer who died in military prison under mysterious circumstances while awaiting trial for grave security offenses.

Shmueli’s death was not included in the figures as he served in the Border Police, and was thus outside the IDF’s purview, while the intelligence officer, whose name is barred from publication, had been discharged from the IDF before his death, also putting him outside the scope of the IDF statistics.

In 2021, the military noted a significant rise in the number of severely injured soldiers, with 67, compared to the previous year’s 41. This was the largest number of troops with severe injuries since 2014, when Israel fought a 51-day war in the Gaza Strip, including a ground invasion.

According to Knafo, 11 of the 67 were soldiers who became seriously ill with the coronavirus.

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