The Kishon Affair burst onto the Israeli public’s radar in 2000, after a media report about the high rate of cancer among Shayetet 13 soldiers, and divers from the Underwater Mission Unit, who had dived in the Kishon Port during their service.
The Kishon Port is small, located at the eastern edge of Haifa Bay. Over the years, it has become extremely polluted. The Kishon River, which empties near the port, channeled industrial sewage from a few of the surrounding factories, including some from the petrochemical industry. The pollution could be smelled in the water.
As a young officer, I had the dubious honor of diving in the port’s waters when our vessel anchored there, as part of efforts to screen for underwater mines. The water was very murky, even with a flashlight. The stench was awful, and after the dive it was very difficult to wash off the layers of filth. At the time, Israeli Navy units trained and operated in Kishon Port, and there was little awareness of the pollution or the possibility that it could damage people’s health.
When malignancies started to appear in a number of combat veterans from these units, all of whom had dived and trained in the polluted Kishon water, it led to the supposition that overexposure to the filthy water had caused the aberrant number of cases. In 2000, after the matter was exposed in the media, then-IDF Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz decided to set up an investigative committee headed by Justice (ret.) Meir Shamgar and two senior medical experts to probe the affair. The committee interviewed dozens of people, including some who had contracted cancer and were already in declining health, as well as experts in the field.
Without getting into the details of the committee’s work, it recommended that all diving or swimming in the Kishon Port area be stopped immediately, and in 2003 published its conclusions. The committee could not prove a direct link between the soldiers’ activities in the port and their disease, partly because of the lack of studies available, but could not rule out a connection.
Justice Shamgar, who looked at the matter from a legal point of view, argued that the unusually high number of cancer cases among the Navy personnel who had served there was enough to show a connection. The commission’s recommendation was that even though there was no scientific, medical proof that the sailors’ cancer was the result of their exposure to the port’s waters, everyone ever exposed to the pollution during their military service should be recognized as a disabled veteran, and awarded care and benefits from the Defense Ministry.
Mofaz adopted the committee’s conclusions, and Amos Yaron, then-Defense Ministry director-general, in a meeting in which I took part, announced the new guidelines for recognizing the sailors affected by the Kishon Port pollution.
In 2009, apparently because there were so many affected and their treatment was so costly, then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak decided to set up a committee that would re-examine the criteria for recognizing the “Kishon disabled.”
The Shani Commission, which was established as a medical committee, submitted its findings in 2010. Like the Shamgar Commission, the Shani Commission did not discover any direct link between the veterans’ past activity in the port and their cancer. As a result, Defense Ministry coverage for treatments for the various types of cancer from which Israeli Navy veterans were suffering was cut back, effectively dealing a major blow to seriously ill—in some cases, dying—combat veterans.
The commission’s conclusions were nothing new, yet led to the defense establishment turning its back on combat veterans who had been recognized in principle by the Shamgar Commission. The Israeli government has an obligation to its soldiers. Neglecting the sick sailors and their families does serious harm to the values of the IDF and the norms and values that are taught to IDF combat personnel and their commanders.
One need not mention the desperate act of Itzik Saidian to illustrate the frustration of sick combat veterans, their widows and children, and the families, who are not recognized. Defense Minister Benny Gantz must announce the government’s clear commitment to all combat veterans, who were acting under orders and who, now that they are sick and disabled, need support from the system.
Vice Adm. (ret.) Eliezer Marom served as commander of the Israeli Navy from 2007–2011.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.