Seventy-three Israeli soldiers headed for South Lebanon were killed Tuesday night when two army helicopters collided in midair near Israel’s stormy northern border.
This was the worst air force disaster in Israel’s 50-year history.
One of the U.S.-made transport helicopters fell in a fireball on the upper Galilee community of Shaar Yeshuv, setting an empty bungalow ablaze but not causing any casualties on the ground. The other aircraft plunged into a kibbutz cemetery a few hundred yards away.
Ambulances and medics rushed to the area but quickly turned the sites over to army rabbis and returned from the fiery crash scene empty-handed. There were no survivors from either craft.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordecai and chief of staff Maj. Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, in a grim 2 a.m. news conference, confirmed that 13 officers and 60 soldiers were killed in the collision of two Sikorsky CH-53 transport helicopters. The choppers were en route to deliver the troops to Israeli outposts in occupied South Lebanon.
“This is the heaviest national tragedy that has ever befallen the Israel Defense Forces,” Shahak said. “We have lost the finest of men who defend the security of the north with their bodies and who had been on their way to carry this out.”
Mordecai said that, given the magnitude of the disaster, he was taking the unusual step of asking an external committee headed by David Ivri, a former air force commander and a retired general, to investigate the crash. The Israel Defense Forces normally investigate their own accidents - a fact that has been the subject of much public criticism in recent years.
Gen. Eitan Ben-Eliyahu, commander of the air force, declined to speculate on the cause of the 7 p.m. wreck. “We make sure not to make estimations and not to speculate before all details have been examined,” Ben-Eliyahu said. “But I can say now we know of no technical problem prior to the incident.”
An army spokesman said heavy fog and rain in the zone appeared not to be the cause of the crash and dismissed the possibility of a guerrilla attack.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the collision an “unimaginably heavy tragedy” and promptly canceled a trip to Jordan planned for today and a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat scheduled for Thursday. Both Arab leaders offered their condolences in telephone conversations with Netanyahu, as did U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
“The whole country weeps today over the loss of these young fighters,” Netanyahu said. “We lost many dozens of the best of our sons, brave, good soldiers.”
The army initially tried to censor news of the accident, as it normally does until families can be notified of military deaths. But the high toll and the helicopters’ plunging onto civilian areas made secrecy impossible.
In Israel, a country with mandatory military service, where every family has a son, daughter or friend in the military, Tuesday’s crash was experienced as a grave national tragedy. The army ordered all soldiers in the northern command, whether sitting in Israel or South Lebanon, to call home; the government asked Israelis to keep the telephone lines free so families of the dead could be notified quickly.
National television and radio broke into their usual programming to broadcast live from near the charred wreckage as crews pulled out bodies still strapped into olive-drab seats. Trucks ferried load after load of corpses to the nearby town of Kiryat Shemona for identification.
Yuval Shuster described the midair crash from his vantage point in nearby Kfar Solde: “Two helicopters passed over my house without their lights on. Then there was a flash. One fell straight away and the other wavered for half a kilometer … then it also exploded,” he said.
About 1,000 Israeli soldiers routinely patrol a nine-mile-wide zone in South Lebanon that was occupied in 1985 to prevent Palestinian guerrilla attacks on Israel’s northern border. Israel now is fighting a low-intensity war there against the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, a Lebanese guerrilla army of Shiite Muslims who are trying to oust the occupying army. Israel lost 26 soldiers in fighting in southern Lebanon last year and four more in guerrilla attacks so far this year.
The last attack - which left three dead a week ago - fueled debate in the country over Israel’s costly role in southern Lebanon, with some political leaders calling for a unilateral withdrawal.
But Netanayahu ruled out such a possibility, saying Israel’s withdrawal depends on a peace agreement with Syria, the de facto power in Lebanon. Syria says it will not return to the negotiating table until Israel agrees in principle to return the Golan Heights, captured in the 1967 Mid-east War.
Tuesday’s air crash reignited public debate, with opposition Labor leader Shimon Peres calling on the government to “put an end to the tragedy in Lebanon” and saying Israel must “pay the price for peace.”
The army’s worst previous air accident occurred in May 1977 when a Sikorsky crashed, killing 54 Israeli paratroopers; the army after that wreck decided to lower the aircraft’s maximum capacity to 36 or 37.
The Sikorsky is considered the workhorse of the Israeli army and a generally reliable aircraft. Nonetheless, another Sikorsky helicopter crashed last March in southern Israel minutes after takeoff, killing seven soldiers.
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