An Israeli submarine mistakenly torpedoed a boat carrying refugees and foreign workers off the Lebanese coast during the 1982 Lebanon War, killing 25 people, Channel 10 news revealed Thursday, after the IDF finally lifted military censorship on reporting on the 36-year-old incident.
According to Channel 10, the incident occurred off the coast of the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli in June 1982 as Israel was enforcing a naval blockade of Lebanon.
Israeli forces had entered Lebanon that month in an attack against the PLO bases that marked the beginning of what came to be known as the First Lebanon War. The Gal-type submarine was taking part in “Operation Dreyfus,” namely the navy attempt to prevent Syrian naval forces from intervening in the fighting.
According to Channel 10, which had filed a petition to the High Court of Justice against the censorship of its report on the incident, a local boat apparently tried to take advantage of a brief ceasefire and flee the area with a group of refugees and foreign workers on board.
The captain of the Israeli submarine, identified as “Maj. A,” believed the boat was carrying Palestinian fighters fleeing from the IDF, however, and gave an order to fire two torpedoes at the boat, sinking it.
The captain told a later IDF inquiry that he was convinced there were Palestinian terrorists on the boat and that he had seen 30 to 40 men, all wearing similar outfits, which he believed to be military uniforms. He also ascertained there were no women and children on board the vessel, the captain testified.
“I looked carefully over the ship from end to end, and I saw there were no women or children on board,” Maj. A. testified. He added that he continued to monitor the ship as it sank, and still did not see women or children. “I kept watching for two hours, until darkness had completely fallen.”
The captain of the Lebanese boat and 24 others died in the Israeli strike. Channel 10 said later Thursday there had been 54 people on board in all, and that the boat had been trying to reach Cyprus. It noted that the sea in the area at that time was filled with vessels, some carrying terrorists, and some civilians seeking to escape the war.
Channel 10 said that it appeared that amid the chaos of the war, the Palestinians and the Lebanese never realized that the boat was sunk by an Israeli submarine.
The report featured no footage of the incident; it was accompanied, rather, by illustrative and simulated footage.
The vessel and its occupants were not identified in Thursday night’s TV report.
The IDF only investigated the incident 10 years after it occurred, after the head of the submarine unit demanded a probe to glean operational lessons from the event, the report said.
The IDF investigation into the sinking found that while the captain had made a mistake, he had been acting within his operational orders. It noted that he had not fired on several other ships believed to be carrying Palestinian fighters due to suspicions there were innocent civilians on board.
“It was not a war crime and there was no misconduct, there is no place for legal action,” the IDF report found, according to Channel 10.
However, a former senior IDF officer who has been investigating the incident told Channel 10 he disagreed.
Col. (Ret) Mike Eldar, who commanded the 11th flotilla during the war, said the captain acted improperly and accused Israel of trying to cover up the incident.
“We have rules of engagement even on submarines, you don’t just shoot a boat because you suspect maybe there was something,” he told Channel 10, adding that the submarine should have summoned a navy patrol boat to investigate.
Eldar said he sought to have Israel acknowledge the incident for decades.
“I turned to the police, the army, the justice department and they all ignored me,” he said. “It’s insulting, personally and nationally.”
He also pointed to the testimony of the second in command of the submarine, Capt. B. He had testified that following previous incidents in which the Israeli submarine had refrained from firing on suspicious ships, the mood shifted to “an atmosphere of a desire to attack and fire at any cost. I believed we should not fire because the identification was not definite.”
According to Eldar, there were several other officers who wanted to testify at an inquiry but were not allowed to.
Channel 10 said it believed the IDF had sought to avoid the incident becoming public partly because of shame over what occurred. It said several senior navy officers from that period were still refusing to be interviewed about it.