Two IDF officers were killed late Wednesday night in what the military is calling a “serious” friendly fire accident in the Jordan Valley.
“The officers were killed after a mistaken identification led to a friendly fire incident,” the military said.
The two officers were identified as 28-year-old Maj. Ofek Aharon and 26-year-old Maj. Itamar Elharar, platoon commanders in the Oz Brigade’s Egoz Unit.
According to the IDF, the troops had night vision equipment stolen on Tuesday night from their tents in the Nabi Musa base. Troops had been updated on the theft, and were told to be vigilant to prevent more equipment from being stolen.
Following a drill, two teams – uncoordinated and without helmets, vests or radios – voluntarily went out to search for the powerful night vision goggles. One patrol consisted of three company commanders and a soldier. The other patrol was an officer acting alone. While officers on the base knew of the two patrols, the patrols did not know about each other.
“The night before they had equipment stolen, and they just finished a drill, and they were concerned that thieves would come back and take more,” said Central Command head Maj.-Gen. Yehuda Fuchs.
He said the team with Aharon and Elharar identified a suspicious figure 200 meters away on a mound, flanked him until they were just several meters away, and yelled at him in Arabic.
The other officer, who had gone out alone, said he had not seen anything suspicious.
“Then he heard noises, turned around, and saw the other team that he was sure were armed terrorists,” Fuchs said.
Despite being only 10 to 15 meters away from each other, they did not recognize that they were all from the same unit, and did not fire into the air or begin arrest procedures. It is still unclear who opened fire first.
The two officers were given emergency medical care on the ground and evacuated by helicopter to Hadassah Ein Kerem in Jerusalem, where they were pronounced dead.
Aharon was buried in the military cemetery in Gan Yavne, and Elharar in the military cemetery in Kiryat Malachi on Thursday evening, surrounded by hundreds of troops, family and friends.
“I did not believe that this would happen, that you would leave the house on your last journey,” Elharar’s mother was quoted as saying by Channel 12. “I always warned you, ‘Itamar, take care of your soldiers, be careful.’
“Wherever you went, you left such a great imprint, a legacy. High school, in the moshav and army. You had a modest wedding during corona, and now a funeral of this magnitude. You see how many people love and cherish you.”
Aharon’s father, Eli, called his son “humble, brave, a warrior and competitive,” he was quoted by Channel 12 as saying. “Your modesty is what led you to the top,” adding that he had always held senior positions, as a soldier and as a commander. “You got Ofek healthy and complete, and I got him back in a coffin. I love you and you are my most precious, my child.”
IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi traveled to the base and spoke with commanders at the scene, including Central Command head Maj.-Gen. Yehuda Fuchs, Central Command 98th Division head Brig.-Gen. Ofer Winter, Commando Brigade head Col. Menni Liberty, and other commanders.
An investigation team headed by a Maj.-Gen. Noam Tibon (res.) along with other commanders was created, as well as an investigation by Military Police.
Kohavi has also ordered an immediate halt to all non-critical activities throughout the military to discuss the recent events.
Sending his condolences to the families, Kohavi said: “The preservation of human life is at the forefront of our minds. It is our duty to thoroughly investigate this incident and draw lessons from it at all levels of command.”
IDF Spokesperson Brig.-Gen. Ran Kohav called it a “serious incident” that had an “extremely difficult” ending. Speaking to KAN radio on Thursday morning, Kohav said that the officer “of course did this accidentally, resulting in the deaths of his friends.”
Kohavi said there have been several incidents of friendly fire in the past, and the loss of “the two commanders, our best, is a painful loss. Every few years such an event happens by accident. When it comes to fighters and officers in elite units, it hurts even more.”
In February, 22-year-old St.-Sgt. Yonatan Granot was killed after another soldier on his base accidentally fired a Ruger rifle without checking to see whether it was loaded. The soldier is currently facing trial for reckless manslaughter.
זהו בוקר עצוב מאד.אני מבקש למסור תנחומים מעומק הלב למשפחותיהם של שני הקצינים אשר נהרגו הלילה בתאונה טראגית.שני המפקדים הקדישו את שנותיהם הטובות ביותר לביטחון ישראל ולהגנה על המולדת.עם ישראל כולו אבל על לכתם.צה"ל מתחקר את האירוע הקשה והלקחים הנדרשים יופקו.יהי זכרם ברוך.
— Naftali Bennett בנט (@naftalibennett) January 13, 2022
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett mourned the two commanders who “devoted their best years to Israel’s security and defense. The whole nation of Israel mourns their deaths,” he wrote on Twitter.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz sent his condolences to the families, saying, “Unfortunately, there is nothing that can recover the great loss to the families, friends and brothers-in-arms. The IDF is in the midst of a comprehensive investigation, and we will do everything so that such a disaster does not happen again.”
The Nabi Musa training area is just south of Jerusalem and off the road that leads to the Dead Sea. It is frequently used by infantry units and Armored Corps for combat training.
There are Palestinian and Bedouin villages nearby that require soldiers to be on alert during training sessions.
Two months ago, the military announced it was loosening its open-fire regulations. Until now, troops could only open fire if their lives were in immediate danger. The new regulations allow soldiers to use deadly force against thieves on military bases, at firing ranges, and along the southern borders.
The IDF has struggled for years to deal with theft from military bases, with thousands of arms and rounds of ammunition stolen. Authorities want to stop stolen weapons – including assault rifles and other firearms, grenades and explosives – from ending up in the hands of criminal organizations or terrorist groups in the West Bank.
The Wednesday night accident came a week after two air force pilots were killed when their helicopter crashed into the Mediterranean off the coast of Haifa. The IDF is still investigating the cause of the crash.