‘Mines that killed soldier this week were known to be faulty, had exploded in summer heat before’

M15 antitank mines date from Korean War, were modified with a home-produced device susceptible to intense heat, ex-officers say; several exploded in 2010 but IDF continues to send soldiers to clear them

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

The landmine of the type that exploded in the Golan Heights on Tuesday, killing Cpl. Roi Alphi, was known to be faulty and susceptible to heat, Hebrew media reports said Friday. There had been several previous explosions of the same mines when they were uncovered during mine-clearing work on the Golan three years ago, the reports said, and veteran Combat Engineering Corps reserve officers had warned the army to stop sending soldiers into such minefields until a solution was found for the faulty mechanisms.

Nonetheless, the IDF has persisted in sending thousands of soldiers into the minefields during the three years since, and even continued with mine-clearing operations elsewhere in the north, in minefields containing the same mines, after Tuesday’s fatal incident, the reports said.

The IDF Spokesperson’s office refused to comment on the reports while the investigation of the fatal incident continues. But a military source told The Times of Israel that the incidents this week and in 2010 were “completely different… and should not be seen as a trend.”

The unnamed officers quoted in the Hebrew reports said it was unacceptable that the investigation into Alphi’s death was being carried out by senior officers in the same Combat Engineering Corps that had failed to prevent the disaster by ignoring the previous explosions and warnings.

The ex-Combat Engineering officers also urged the IDF to immediately halt all mine-clearing operations in the M15 minefields, until a solution to the problem was found.

Roi Alphi (photo credit: Courtesy)
Roi Alphi (photo credit: Courtesy)

Cpl. Alphi, 19, was laid to rest Thursday night in the military section of the cemetery of his hometown, Gan Yavne. Alphi, who was in advanced training in the Combat Engineering Corps, was clearing a minefield in the southern Golan Heights, near the small town of Yonatan, when the anti-tank mine exploded after being uncovered and exposed in the blazing sun on Tuesday afternoon. Alphi was inducted into the IDF in November. He was the fifth of five children, with three brothers and a sister.

IDF sources have confirmed that Alphi did not step on the anti-tank mine, which in any case was meant to require some 140 kilograms to detonate. It had been discovered a short time earlier, uncovered, and marked, in accordance with the correct procedures. Alphi was very close to the device when it exploded and was killed instantly. Two soldiers nearby were very lightly injured.

According to Friday’s Hebrew reports in Haaretz and the Inyan Merkazi (Central Issue) websites, the mine that killed Alphi was an M15 US-made mine, first deployed during the Korean War half a century ago. Israel has deployed hundreds of thousands of these antitank mines on the Golan — first in the 1970s, then “upgrading” them in the late 1980s, and modifying them again in the late 1990s. In recent years, it has become routine for soldiers in advanced training in the Combat Engineering Corps to work on clearing these minefields.

The Inyan Merkazi report said the M15s — which contain 10 kilograms of explosives — were supplied to Israel free of charge from US surplus. Haaretz said the IDF first used them in 1974 — when they were already 20 years old. It “upgraded” them, including with a special silicon grease, in the late 1980s, when it became clear that they were no longer reliable. And in the late 1990s, it modified them again because of their unreliability, adding a home-produced pressure-plate called the “Pa’alul” (Hebrew for “stunt”). The reports said some 300,000 Pa’alul mechanisms, made of steel or hard-plastic, were manufactured and affixed to the M15s. The mine that killed Alphi was one such device, the Hebrew reports said. Military sources did not confirm this.

In August 2010, during mine-clearing operations near the Druse village of Buqata, in the northern Golan, two M15 mines with the Pa’alul attachment exploded after they had been exposed by Combat Engineers in precisely the same kind of operation in which Alphi died. The devices detonated even though they had not been touched, Haaretz reported. The closest soldiers were some seven meters away, and nobody was injured.

Some two weeks later, in the course of an on-site investigation by the IDF team that was probing that incident, two more mines exploded precisely as the investigative team was at work in the minefield, meters away from where the soldiers were standing. A local Druse farmer said he had heard other blasts from mines exploding at around the same time, Haaretz reported.

The military source who spoke to The Times of Israel claimed that the mine that killed Alphi did not feature a “key mechanism” that was part of the mines that exploded in 2010. The source was apparently referring to the “Pa’alul” but would not specify this. The Hebrew reports were adamant that the M15 that blew up this week did feature the Pa’alul mechanism.

Combat Engineering Corps soldiers this week in the field where the mine exploded (photo credit: Screen capture Walla)
Combat Engineering Corps soldiers this week in the field where the mine exploded (photo credit: Screen capture Walla)

A variety of causes were posited for the spontaneous explosions of mines that should only detonate when a heavy vehicle passes over them, but the most likely cause was exposure to heat, Friday’s reports said. Unnamed ex-officers in the Corps told Haaretz that the modified M15 with the Pa’alul was susceptible to heat, and that prolonged exposure in the hot sun could cause the device to detonate. Other contributory factors cited were the simple fact that the mines are now almost 50 years old, that some include thin electric wires and plastic parts, that they have been out for decades in hot weather, that some may not have been buried deeply enough, and that there have been field fires in the area.

One factor that was emphatically not a cause of Alphi’s death, one source told Haaretz, was that he was relatively inexperienced. “The soldiers should not have been sent to that place. The disaster could have happened if all the soldiers there were company commanders.”

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