The Israel Police opened an investigation Thursday after 10 high school students were killed in a flash flood while on a hike in the Judean Desert.
The trip to Nahal Tzafit, a riverbed in the southern Dead Sea area, was organized by the Tel Aviv-based Bnei Zion pre-army preparatory program, which the students were considering attending after they graduated high school.
On Thursday night, the head of the program and two staff members were reportedly questioned by police. According to unconfirmed reports, they are suspected of negligent homicide for holding the hike despite flood warnings in the area.
A senior police officer — equivalent in rank to an army colonel — was put in charge of the case, police said in a statement.
“Israel Police investigators began collecting evidence and looking into the circumstances of the incident,” police said.
The 10 fatalities were identified as of Friday morning as Shani Shamir from the central city of Shoham; Ella Or from Ma’ale Adumim; Maayan Barhum and Yael Sadan from Jerusalem; Tzur Alfi, the only boy who was killed, from the central town of Mazkeret Batya; Agam Levy from the central Israeli town of Herut; Romi Cohen of Maor, near Hadera; Gali Balali from the Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim; Adi Raanan of the northern Israel moshav of Mikhmoret; and Ilan Bar Shalom of Rishon Lezion.
The hike was apparently not the first field trip by Bnei Zion that ended in injury. Last year, the pre-army program, known in Hebrew as a mehina, went on a hike that resulted in multiple students suffering from serious dehydration, according to the Walla news site.
Organizers of Thursday’s trip told the participants that they had contacted the “relevant authorities” beforehand, according to WhatsApp messages obtained by the Kan news broadcaster.
“Don’t worry,” the message read, “we are well-prepared for the hike and the academy has checked with the relevant authorities. It will be fun and wet, and an experience!”
In the aftermath of the tragedy, an argument broke out between the ministries of education and defense over who was ultimately responsible for overseeing the mehina‘s hike, as both government offices provide it with funding.
The Defense Ministry insisted it was under the purview of the Education Ministry.
“By law, the Education Ministry is the body responsible for approving educations programs for pre-army preparatory programs. The Defense Ministry is not responsible for the education plans, especially field trips,” the ministry said in a statement.
The Defense Ministry said it was “saddened the body that is responsible is not taking responsibility, but passing it on to someone else.”
The Education Ministry said it was not informed of the trip ahead of time and did not grant approval for it.
“The trip was not reported to us, our situation room was not told in advance, and we did not give any permission for such a trip,” the ministry said in a statement.
This ministry’s “situation room” is an office that is solely dedicated to approving and monitoring schools’ field trips. However, as Bnei Tzion is a private institution and not part of the state education system, it is not legally required to receive approval from the center.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who is in the United States on an official visit, said his ministry would remain in contact with the deceased students’ high schools in the coming days.
“A heavy tragedy has struck the State of Israel. Our hearts are with the families of the teenagers who met their deaths in flash floods in the south,” he said.
Bennett’s office would not say whether the ministry would be conducting an internal investigation of Bnei Tzion or the protocols regarding pre-army programs’ field trips in general.
Six Israeli Air Force helicopters — five of them flown by the elite Unit 669 search-and-rescue team — along with police units and the local Arava emergency search-and-rescue unit led the massive operation to find the youths after they were swept away in the flash flood.
Magen David Adom paramedic Nir Yafit, who was on the scene when the IDF helicopters carrying the victims landed, said it was “a very difficult sight.”
“We did an initial casualty assessment — the first causalities who reached us were unconscious, without a pulse and not breathing, suffering injuries and showing signs of drowning,” he said.
“With the help of an IDF medical team we did a medical check and after a short time we declared them dead. It was a very difficult feeling — we had hoped that we would be brought injured people who could be saved, but sadly, we were helpless. The casualties who reached us showed no signs of life, and we could do nothing but declare them dead,” Yafit added.
Thirteen members of the Bnei Tzion group were found and retrieved by rescuers without harm, and two were lightly hurt.
One student was still listed as missing on Thursday evening. Her body was found hours later.
“We will keep going until we find them all,” police spokesperson Meirav Lapidot told reporters at the scene.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his condolences to the families of the 10 teenagers.
“The State of Israel mourns the promising young lives that were cut short by this tragedy in the Arava,” he wrote on Twitter.
The rain caused flash floods throughout the Negev and West Bank and battered the rest of the country for a second day in a row Thursday.
A bus tipped over in heavy rains at the Rotem Junction near the Dead Sea, but the 35 passengers were unharmed.
“All the passengers are safe and units are at the scene,” police said in a statement.
MDA medics also treated a 40-year-old woman who was lightly injured when a falling tree crushed her car in the north of the country, near the Sea of Galilee.
Powerful rains fell in Eilat in the afternoon, causing flooding and shuttering the southernmost city’s airport. Route 90, the main north-south highway through the desert to the Red Sea port, was closed from the city’s entrance to the Arava Junction, close to the site where the class trip was swept away.
An IsraAir flight on its way to Eilat was diverted Thursday afternoon to the Uvda air base, with officials explaining that the runway in Eilat’s airport was too flooded to allow planes to land.
On Wednesday, two teenagers were killed in separate incidents after they were swept away by flash floods.