It is not known why the CH-53 Sikorsky helicopters crashed into each other in Israel's northern panhandle, leaving no survivors, shortly after take-off. A military spokesman said fog and rain were probably not responsible for the disaster, the worst in Israeli military history.
The death of 65 soldiers and eight airmen exceeds the losses inflicted on the Israeli army in south Lebanon by Hizbollah guerrillas over the last three years. The guerrillas have killed 68 Israeli soldiers, mostly in roadside bomb attacks on patrols and convoys. To protect its troops in the nine mile-wide occupied zone, the army has increasingly used helicopters to ferry soldiers between positions. "The soldiers that fell last night died in the war against Hizbollah," wrote Nahum Barnea, an Israeli columnist, yesterday. "There is no tool, no trick, no novelty the IDF [Israeli army] has not tried to lessen the losses in this war, but the war keeps on winning."
Flags flew at half-mast, rest-aurants and cinemas were closed and members of the Knesset stood in silence for a minute yesterday. Israel radio and television read out the names of the dead at the beginning of every news bulletin. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister, cancelled plans to meet separately with King Hussein and Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, this week.
The disaster has also given impetus to a debate which had already started about Israel continuing the occupation of the zone in south Lebanon. This is the so-called security zone to which Israeli forces withdrew in 1985 three years after their disastrous invasion of Lebanon. Shimon Peres, who as prime minister last year started a 17-day bombardment of Lebanon which left 200 Lebanese dead, said yesterday: "We cannot pull out unilaterally, but we also cannot stay this way forever." He added that Israel needed to pay a "price for peace" with Syria and Lebanon, implying a territorial withdrawal.
Visiting the crash site, Mr Netanyahu said he would not change his policy in Lebanon because Israel needed to resist Hizbollah. "We are not going to be deterred, and we are not going to relent," the Prime Minister said. "We shall defend our country. Ultimately, we shall achieve peace, too."
On the same day as the crash, Hizbollah marked the end of Ramadan with a demonstration of its strength by attacking more than 20 positions held by Israel and the South Lebanon Army, the Israei-controlled militia. Light artillery, mortars and Sagger missiles were fired in co-ordinated attacks though no casualties were caused. Hizbollah has several hundred highly experienced guerrillas.
The crash occurred just after 7pm on Tuesday but military censors held up publication of news of the disaster in order to notify the families first. Yitzhak Mordechai, the Defence Minister, has appointed a committee headed by former air force chief, David Ivri, to launch an investigation into the crash.