Two officers from a commando unit were killed in a so-called friendly fire accident at a base in the Jordan Valley in the West Bank late Wednesday night, the Israel Defense Forces said.
According to the military, the officers — both company commanders in the elite Egoz unit — were performing a patrol at roughly 11 p.m. around their base, known as Nabi Mussa, just north of the Dead Sea after a training exercise. As they were walking, they spotted a person they thought was a suspicious figure, but was in fact another officer.
As the officers, Maj. Ofek Aharon, 28, and Maj. Itamar Elharar, 26, approached him, he apparently opened fire at them, seeing that they were armed and believing he was under attack. Aharon and Elharar were fatally wounded and were pronounced dead shortly thereafter.
“The officers were killed after a mistaken identification led to a friendly fire incident,” the IDF said in a statement.
The military initially said that Aharon and Elharar had attempted to arrest the third officer, calling for him to halt and firing into the air, but this was later found not to have been the case. The IDF currently believes that the third officer fired first, though this was still being investigated, according to IDF Central Command chief Yehuda Fuchs.
The fatal misunderstanding came a night after someone broke onto the Nabi Mussa base, named for a nearby pilgrimage site, and stole military equipment from it, including powerful night-vision goggles, the IDF said.
Military bases are regularly robbed, and in a bid to combat this, last November the IDF changed its open-fire policies to allow soldiers to use deadly force to stop thieves.
Fuchs denied any connection between this rule change and the Aharon and Elharar ‘ deaths, saying the other officer did not believe he was opening fire to stop a thief but to protect himself from armed attackers.
Describing the deaths as “painful and unfortunate,” IDF Spokesperson Ran Kochav told the Kan radio broadcaster on Thursday morning that the military would investigate the circumstances but had yet to name an officer to lead the probe.
He said IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi was heading to the Jordan Valley base on Thursday morning to meet with the unit’s commanders in order to begin the investigation.
In addition to consoling the families of the officers who were killed, Kochav said that the military would be compassionate toward the officer who mistakenly killed them.
“We will need to embrace the officer, to take care of him, to show that we are protecting him. He, of course, did this accidentally, resulting in the deaths of his friends,” Kochav said.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz expressed his condolences to the families of the fallen officers, promising a thorough investigation.
“The IDF is in the midst of a comprehensive investigation, and we will do everything to ensure that a tragedy like this does not repeat itself,” Gantz said in a statement.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett also consoled the families, saying their loved ones had “devoted the best years of their lives to the security of Israel and the defense of the homeland.”
“The entire people of Israel mourns their passing,” he added.
The deadly misunderstanding occurred late Wednesday but the military censor barred publication of any details until the families of the officers had been notified. Initially, the army only acknowledged that “a serious incident” had taken place on the base and requested that the public refrain from posting or speculating about the incident.
The deaths came a week after two IAF pilots were killed in a helicopter crash in the sea off the coast of Haifa.