The monument for the 73 Israel Defence Forces soldiers killed in the 1997 helicopter accident over She’ar Yashuv in northern Israel. (photo by Geoffrey Druker)
This year’s community Yom Hazikaron commemoration on May 3 will mark the 25th anniversary of Israel’s worst air disaster.
On the evening of Feb. 4, 1997, two Israel Air Force helicopters collided into each other. One crashed in Moshav She’ar Yashuv, the second near Kibbutz Dafna. All 73 people on board the helicopters were killed, including eight air crew members. No one on the ground was hurt.
“The presence of Israeli forces in southern Lebanon, following the 1982 operation, led to ongoing battles with the Hezbollah,” explained Geoffrey Druker, who leads the annual Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) ceremony, which this year takes place at the Rothstein Theatre. “Many IDF convoys going into southern Lebanon were ambushed and hit by IEDs, so the IDF started flying in its troops.”
Druker said the accident was devastating. “It was the largest helicopter crash in all helicopter aviation,” he said. “Until, in 2002, a Russian helicopter downed by Chechens killed 127.
“The accident increased the pressure to withdraw from southern Lebanon,” he added, “which happened in May 2002.”
Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s Gesher Chai (Living Bridge) programs connect Metro Vancouver’s Jewish communities with Israel’s Galilee Panhandle communities. One of those connections is that King David High School’s sister school in Israel is Har Vagai, which is located on Kibbutz Dafna, where a part of one of the helicopters fell. In 2017, KDHS Grade 8 students traveled to Israel and spent time with their Har Vagai peers.
“The students visited the memorial and documented their meeting there, and the video was shown at our Yom Hazikaron ceremony here,” said Druker. “The memorial site is located in the ravine where a helicopter fell, not far from Kibbutz Dafna. On the site are 73 boulders, each the height of a person and all names are recorded on the site – a very moving memorial site.”
The 73 boulders surround a small pool. Among those remembered are three soldiers from our partnership region: Sgt. Tomer Goldberg, from Moshav Dishon; Staff Sgt. Tsafrir Shoval, from Kibbutz Baram; and Staff Sgt. Alejandro (Ale) Hofman, from Kibbutz Merom Golan, who was a graduate of Har Vagai. Hofman was 19 when he died.
In addition to that physical memorial, Druker said, “An annual conference is held in memory of the fallen, attended by the bereaved families. Students from the region participate in the conference. It’s attended by groups of soldiers and, over the years, the prime minister, the president, minister of defence and the chief of staff have attended and spoke at the conference.
“Every year, they focus on another topic, not necessarily on loss and grief – the bereaved families choose to have educational and other topics of interest. This year was about solidarity in times of COVID-19. Due to COVID, only 400 people attended this year, and the chief of staff spoke on behalf of the country’s leadership.”
Druker added, “An interesting point about that conference – the organizers do not adhere to official protocol because that might take away the decision-making from the bereaved families, regarding who can speak and what elements must be included. The wife of the then-chief of staff when the accident happened, Tali Lipkin-Shahak, has taken part in all the events. She personally is committed to be with the bereaved families.” (Amnon Lipkin-Shahak died from cancer in 2012.)
The local Yom Hazikaron ceremony will pay respects not only to the 73 who died in the helicopter accident 25 years ago, but all of Israel’s fallen soldiers and victims of hostile acts.
The commemoration at the Rothstein Theatre on May 3 starts at 7:30 p.m. and registration is required for those wanting to attend in-person, as seats will be limited: jewishvancouver.com/zikaron. The ceremony also will be broadcast live.