Responsible soldiering

Military Police are still investigating the circumstances of Yosefi’s death to determine whether criminal charges should be pressed.

Evyatar Yosefi (photo credit: FACEBOOK)
Evyatar Yosefi
(photo credit: FACEBOOK)
New IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi made a welcome move this week, dismissing five officers for their roles in the death of paratrooper Evyatar Yosefi, who died during a training accident in the Galilee in January.
Yosefi, 20, who was posthumously raised to the rank of sergeant, served in the elite Gadsar paratrooper reconnaissance battalion. He was killed as he tried to cross the fast-flowing Hilazon stream in a particularly severe storm during a nighttime navigation exercise. Yosefi’s partner managed to cross the swollen stream but Yosefi – like the other soldiers, carrying a heavy load on his back – slipped as he reached the bank and was swept away. Two other soldiers required treatment for hypothermia during the exercise.
Military Police are still investigating the circumstances of Yosefi’s death to determine whether criminal charges should be pressed.
Immediately following the disaster, an IDF commission of inquiry was appointed, headed by Col. Oren Simcha. Kochavi – who became IDF chief of staff just after the tragedy – has taken the findings seriously.
His tough measures against those involved send out a message that the “Smoch alay” (“Trust me”) thinking will not be tolerated. The infamous Israeli “yehiyeh b’seder” mentality – the belief that “It will be alright” – has no place in today’s modern army. Commanders can demand the best of their soldiers, but there can be no justification for playing with soldiers’ lives “to toughen them up” or simply because of a tendency to reach for extremes and hope for the best.
There is, of course, a huge difference between taking unnecessary risks in a training exercise and having to take dangerous actions in a real-time, vital military operation. Even in the latter case, the risks must be carefully weighed against the likely value of the operational outcome.
On the night Yosefi so pointlessly lost his life, all the commanders were well aware of the extreme weather. Some of the soldiers, and reportedly at least one parent, questioned whether it was safe. During the exercise itself, several soldiers radioed their commanders to ask whether they should try to cross the stream. They reportedly received a laconic answer wishing them luck and a threat that they would not pass the elite course if they decided to drop out of the exercise.
It is hard to imagine what the threat of being dropped from the course would mean to soldiers in the last week of their training. What’s more, the soldiers – having already asked their commanders whether it was safe to proceed – would most likely trust the experience of the higher ranking officers and commanders.
That’s why it’s so important that Kochavi is establishing a new protocol which unequivocally places the responsibility on those officers who betrayed the trust placed in them. Calling the exercise “reckless” and “an incident of the utmost gravity,” Kochavi determined that not only was the commanders’ behavior unprofessional, it was unethical.
“In the incident in question, the commanders throughout the chain of command did not act in accordance with the extreme vigilance expected of them in planning the exercise and in directing it,” Kochavi said, adding that “the central meaning of IDF commanders is the responsibility for the lives of their soldiers.”
Simcha’s inquiry reportedly found a series of failings in the planning and execution of the exercise from which Yosefi did not return alive, including ignoring the harsh weather conditions and resulting changes to the terrain.
Kochavi dismissed the team leader and deputy platoon commander, both lieutenants; the platoon commander, a captain; the commander of the training program, a major; and the battalion commander, a lieutenant colonel. The commander of the Paratrooper Brigade, Col. Yaki Dolf, also received an official command reprimand, showing that Simcha’s findings involved the entire chain of command.
It is hard to ignore the similarities of the Hilazon tragedy with the Arava disaster in April 2018, in which 10 members of the Bnei Zion pre-military academy were killed in a flash flood, also having warned the staff that the conditions were dangerous and despite the announcements to avoid desert wadis due to the dangerous weather.
Nothing will bring Yosefi or the Bnei Zion cadets back to life, but hopefully Kochavi’s clear stance will make those in command think twice and prevent future – avoidable – tragedies.