On Israel’s Memorial Day observances for “fallen soldiers and victims of terror attacks,” the Defense Ministry’s commemoration unit claimed that 183 Israelis “were killed in the line of duty or in terror attacks since last year’s Remembrance Day,” according to YNet. The number appears to represent a wild exaggeration that is inconsistent with past statistics documenting the number of Israeli soldiers killed annually in combat operations versus those who died by suicide or in accidents. In recent years, suicide has been either the leading cause or among the leading causes of deaths in the Israeli army.
While I was having lunch in Tel Aviv last summer with my friend Ruth Hiller, a founder of the Israeli anti-militarization group New Profile, she told me that around 50 percent of Israelis buried in military cemeteries had died through suicide, accidents or fratricide. I asked my roommate at the time, Yossi David, a left-wing Israeli blogger who had served in occupied Hebron, if Hiller’s figures were accurate. “All I know is that there were two suicides a month in my unit during training,” David said. “It happened all the time.”
In 1989, the Israeli army’s personnel department put the rate of suicides at 35 a year. By 2003, during the height of the Second Intifada, 43 Israeli soldiers died by suicide, making it the leading cause of death in the army. By 2010, suicide was on the rise again. During the first seven months of the year, 19 soldiers had killed themselves, a ten percent spike from the previous year. That number exceeded the number of deaths that occurred that year in combat operations.
In 2008, an Israeli border policeman committed suicide in front of French Prime Minister Nicholas Sarkozy. A young soldier shot himself last year after learning that his friend had committed suicide moments before. The phenomenon continues to plague the Israeli army despite Brigadier General Avi Zamir’s pledge in 2005 to “wage an all-out war on suicide by soldiers.”
The suicide rate has been particularly high among Ethiopian members of the Israeli army. By 1997, six years after an airlift brought the second wave of Ethiopian immigrants to Israel, Ethiopian soldiers accounted for 10 percent of army suicides — but comprised only four tenths of a percent of the army. Racism was a key factor in the epidemic. One soldier’s suicide note read: “Every morning when I get to the base, six soldiers are waiting for me who clap their hands and yell, `The kushi [black] is here.'”
During Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s last major combat operation, the army suffered its largest loss of life in an accidental incident of fratricide, when a tank shell killed three members of the Golani Brigade. This year, several Israeli troops died at the Gaza border when their comrades accidentally rained mortars down on their position.
40 Israeli prison guard cadets died weeks before in the Carmel Wildfire when their bus was trapped in the flames. The cadets presumably comprised the majority of the 70 “soldiers and civilians” whom the Israeli Army spokesman claimed (via Twitter) were “killed in operational duty and terror attacks since last Memorial Day.”