The friendly-fire incident last week that resulted in the deaths of two Israeli officers—Maj. Itamar Elharar, 26, and Maj. Ofek Aharon, 28—is one of the most difficult the IDF has seen in recent years. That is also why it is so shocking: the tragedy could have been avoided. The fact that it was not necessitates a thorough investigation into the circumstances that led to the tragedy.
The preliminary investigation, conducted immediately after the incident, paints quite a clear picture. The incident began with the theft of some equipment from a military base, including night-vision goggles, and some commanders’ decision to go looking for the thieves in the middle of the night. The IDF could not adequately explain on Thursday why the search was conducted at such a late hour. Perhaps the commanders thought that the thieves would return at night.
The search was carried out by two contingents, one led by Elharar and Aharon and the other by a young team commander in the unit. There was no coordination between the two groups, which is what led to the fatal encounter. Each believed, mistakenly, that they were facing a threat, and opened fire.
It is unclear how commanders from the elite Egoz Unit, with such extensive training and experience, went out on patrol in the middle of the night without the most basic coordination—and without helmets and communications devices.
All these matters will be at the core of the investigation into the tragedy, headed by Maj. Gen. (res.) Noam Tibo. The commission must expand its scope beyond the results of the preliminary investigation, for this is the only way the IDF can ensure that no stone was left unturned, and prevent such tragedies from occurring in the future. As such, the probe must review operational procedures.
Who approved the operation, what exactly was approved, and who knew about it. The commission must also investigate whether any pressure was exerted to recover the stolen equipment, over-motivating the officers, and if so, by whom.
Lt. Col. A., the commander of Aharon and Elharar’s unit, has caused controversy in the past by criticizing a soldier whose weapon was stolen during training. The IDF turned a blind eye.
And the chain of responsibility cannot end with the unit. In the Duvdevan Unit, which like Egoz is part of the Commando Brigade, there have been several serious incidents in recent years, including the death of Staff Sgt. Shahar Strug, 20, who was killed in March 2018 when a firearm his roommate was playing with was accidentally discharged.
After Strug’s death (and after the training exercise accident that left Cpl. Eli Hayut from the Maglan Unit paralyzed in August 2018), a special committee was appointed to examine the normative conduct of elite units.
It found “discrepancies” in their routines and decided to establish a special school to train the Commando Brigade—comprising the Maglan, Duvdevan, Egoz and Rimon units.
Now, the new investigation must examine whether the committee correctly identified the discrepancies, and whether appropriate action was taken.
The military must not fear an exhaustive probe into the matter, even if it would lead to strict conclusions that would affect senior officers. At a time when the public is losing confidence in the IDF, the military has no choice but to act, and do so with full transparency.
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.