Two officers from a commando unit were killed in a so-called friendly fire accident at a base in the Jordan Valley in the West Bank late Wednesday night, the Israel Defense Forces said.
According to the military, the officers — both company commanders in the elite Egoz unit — were performing a patrol at roughly 11 p.m. around their base, known as Nabi Mussa, just north of the Dead Sea after a training exercise. As they were walking, they spotted a person they thought was a suspicious figure, but was in fact another officer.
The officers, who were identified as Maj. Ofek Aharon, 28, and Maj. Itamar Elharar, 26, attempted to arrest this “suspect,” first calling for him to halt and then firing their weapons into the air, according to the military.
This third officer, hearing the shots but apparently not knowing they were fired by fellow soldiers, then shot back, fatally wounding both of them.
“The officers were killed after a mistaken identification led to a friendly fire incident,” the IDF said in a statement.
The fatal misunderstanding came a night after someone broke onto the Nabi Mussa base, named for a nearby pilgrimage site, and stole military equipment from it, including powerful night-vision goggles, the IDF said.
Military bases are regularly robbed, and in a bid to combat this, last November the IDF changed its open-fire policies to allow soldiers to use deadly force to stop thieves.
Describing the deaths as “painful and unfortunate,” IDF Spokesperson Ran Kochav told the Kan radio broadcaster on Thursday morning that the military would investigate the circumstances but had yet to name an officer to lead the probe.
He said IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi was heading to the Jordan Valley base on Thursday morning to meet with the unit’s commanders in order to begin the investigation.
In addition to consoling the families of the officers who were killed, Kochav said that the military would be compassionate toward the officer who mistakenly killed them.
“We will need to embrace the officer, to take care of him, to show that we are protecting him. He, of course, did this accidentally, resulting in the deaths of his friends,” Kochav said.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz expressed his condolences to the families of the fallen officers, promising a thorough investigation.
“The IDF is in the midst of a comprehensive investigation, and we will do everything to ensure that a tragedy like this does not repeat itself,” Gantz said in a statement.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett also consoled the families, saying their loved ones had “devoted the best years of their lives to the security of Israel and the defense of the homeland.”
“The entire people of Israel mourns their passing,” he added.
The deadly misunderstanding occurred late Wednesday but the military censor barred publication of any details until the families of the officers had been notified. Initially, the army only acknowledged that “a serious incident” had taken place on the base and requested that the public refrain from posting or speculating about the incident.
The deaths came a week after two IAF pilots were killed in a helicopter crash in the sea off the coast of Haifa.