Two squads of Israeli paratroopers, patrolling the hills of southern Lebanon early Monday, mistook each other for pro-Iranian guerrillas in the pre-dawn darkness and fought fiercely until four of their number were killed and three more wounded in one of the Israeli army's bloodiest incidents of fatal "friendly fire."
The deaths sent virtually all Israel into mourning. The loss of a single soldier brings national grieving, and the deaths of four young men, aged 20 to 22, in such circumstances was a tragedy felt throughout this land.
The soldiers were finishing an overnight patrol intended to ambush Shiite Muslim guerrillas trying to infiltrate Israel's self-proclaimed "security zone," a 10-mile-wide strip along Lebanon's border with Israel. The squad holding the high ground apparently mistook its colleagues for guerrillas as they were joining up to return to base.
"As a result of a misunderstanding created in the area--the details of which are being investigated--the two forces exchanged fire between them which caused the casualties," a starkly worded army communique said of the episode, which occurred at 4:30 a.m.
The two squads were within yards of each other when they began firing with automatic rifles, machine guns and grenade launchers, a military spokesman said. Commanders were puzzled because the two lieutenants in charge had talked by radio and then sighted each other; the troops themselves were combat veterans.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who is also defense minister, canceled his other engagements to fly with Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, the armed forces' chief of staff, to the central sector of the security zone, an area south of the Lebanese village of Qabrikha, to lead the investigation.
The clash between the two Israeli patrols and the subsequent rescue operation eventually attracted the attention of sleeping guerrillas of the pro-Iranian Hezbollah, according to military sources. Cobra helicopter gunships raked nearby villages and roads with machine-gun and rocket fire to protect the Israeli forces' retreat.
The clash was the latest in a series of fatal "friendly fire" incidents in which Israeli soldiers have been killed after ignoring standing orders and safety procedures, and it seems certain to have political consequences, with the opposition questioning Rabin's ability to handle the premiership and to oversee Israel's defense Establishment.
"To my distress, I cannot say even on such a painful day that this is the last operational error of the Israel Defense Forces," Barak said later, and Rabin called it "a very heavy tragedy."
The tough reality that Israel has avoided facing in recent months is that more soldiers die from "friendly fire" incidents, carelessness and outright negligence than from enemy attacks.
The two squads involved in Monday's incident, for example, were from the same paratroop company whose commander was killed last month, along with two of his soldiers, while dismantling a roadside bomb in the same area of southern Lebanon. They were acting in apparent violation of operational orders to leave such bombs to demolition specialists.
According to Lebanese sources and international military observers, Israel's "security zone" is patrolled by 1,000 to 1,500 Israeli troops together with about 3,000 Israeli-backed militiamen of the South Lebanon Army.
Meant as a buffer against cross-border rocket attacks and guerrilla raids on Israel's northern flank, the zone covers about 440 square miles, stretching from the Mediterranean coast 50 miles inland to Mt. Hermon's slopes. Israel withdrew to the zone from areas much farther to the north in 1985.
Ori Orr, a retired general who chairs the parliamentary Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee for Rabin's Labor Party, called for a full investigation of the clash and noted that other committee members wanted a far deeper probe of the armed forces' safety procedures in both training and operations.
"This is not routine," Orr said. "There are guilty people here, but the problem is not who is guilty. The problem is how such a fatal error occurred. There were not even terrorists in the vicinity at the time."
Rabin's conservative critics have charged him with allowing slacker discipline in the army--although he is a former chief of staff and one of Israel's most successful generals.
An army spokeswoman acknowledged that the toll was the highest in recent years from a battlefield mistake. Five Israeli soldiers were killed in a training accident last November and five others in an earlier accident in 1990.
In 1992, only 24 of the 149 Israeli soldiers who died were actually killed in combat, according to a military spokesman; of those, 15 died in the occupied territories. Nineteen others died in training accidents, 17 in traffic accidents and 16 of various illnesses, the spokesman said; 37 committed suicide. The pattern so far this year is about the same.
The national mood, which had been buoyant ahead of a religious festival this week, quickly turned dark.
Two of the soldiers, 1st Lt. Ezer Asher, 22, the operation commander, and Sgt. Ehud Halamish, 20, were buried Monday afternoon. The other two fatalities, 1st Sgt. Dvir Yaakov Mor-Haim, 21, and Sgt. Yaakov Gabai, 20, will be buried today. The wounded--a lieutenant and two more sergeants--were flown to Haifa for treatment.
Arye Bar-Nathan, the father of a young conscript killed by another soldier five months ago in another "friendly fire" incident, believes the pattern will be repeated.
"I expected this kind of catastrophe," he commented on Israeli Television, reflecting on his son's death. "And if they continue this way, not one parent will be calm. The pain of a worthless death is the worst pain of all."