Israeli police have opened an investigation into an ill-advised school hike into a treacherous area where a flash flood left 9 dead and one still missing as of Thursday night.
The head of the program and two staff members at the Tel Aviv-based Bnei Tzion pre-army preparatory program were being questioned by police on Thursday night, according to The Times of Israel.
According to unconfirmed reports, they are suspected of negligent homicide for holding the hike despite flood warnings in the area.
“Israel Police investigators began collecting evidence and looking into the circumstances of the incident,” police said.
The names of five of the students were released by their families on Thursday night. They were identified as Shani Shamir from the central town of Shoham; Ella Or from Maale Adumi; Yael Sadan fromYerushalayim; Tzur Alfi, from the central town of Mizkeret Batya; and Maayan Barhum from Yerushalayim.
Organizers of Thursday’s trip told the participants that they had contacted the “relevant authorities” beforehand, according to the Kan news broadcaster.
“Don’t worry,” the message read, “we are well-prepared for the hike and the academy has checked with the relevant authorities. It will be fun and wet, and an experience!”
Police Spokesperson Meirav Lapidot said that the Bnei Tzion staff were at fault for ignoring the flash flood warnings that it had disseminated. “The group of youths went on a trip to Nahal Tzafit despite our repeated warnings not to travel in the southern valleys,” Lapidot told Reshet Bet.
An unfortunate process of blame-shifting compounded the tragedy, as the ministries of education and defense argued over who was ultimately responsible for overseeing the school’s hike, as both government offices provide it with funding.
The Defense Ministry insisted it was under the purview of the Education Ministry.
“By law, the Education Ministry is the body responsible for approving educations programs for pre-army preparatory programs. The Defense Ministry is not responsible for the education plans, especially field trips,” the ministry said in a statement.
The Defense Ministry said it was “saddened the body that is responsible is not taking responsibility, but passing it on to someone else.”
The Education Ministry said it was not informed of the trip ahead of time and did not grant approval for it.
“The trip was not reported to us, our situation room was not told in advance, and we did not give any permission for such a trip,” the ministry said in a statement.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, currently in the U.S. on an official visit, said his ministry would be in contact with the deceased students’ high schools in the coming days.
“A heavy tragedy has struck the State of Israel. Our hearts are with the families of the teenagers who met their deaths in flash floods in the south,” he said.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu expressed his condolences to the families of the nine teenagers.
“The State of Israel mourns the promising young lives that were cut short by this tragedy in the Arava,” he wrote on Twitter.