Knesset, tens of thousands weep for Israels 73 dead

Voicing the constant sense of foreboding felt by many parents of soldiers serving in Lebanon, the father of the 20-year-old paratrooper said, "For a few months already, whenever Assaf went into Lebanon, I felt that he might not come back."

At 9 p.m. Tuesday, when Israeli television first reported that two army helicopters had collided over northern Israel, he said he and his wife "knew what happened."

The Israel Defense Force "notified us later, but we already knew."

As they grieved the loss of their child this week, the Rothenbergs were far from alone.

With flags at half-mast, shops closed and tears in tens of thousands of eyes, a stunned Israel tried to absorb the helicopter crash that stole 73 lives in an instant.

Seventy-three open graves. Seventy-three funerals. Seventy-three sets of parents beside themselves in pain.

Seventy-three was the highest number of IDF casualties in a single day since the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

"Sgt. Avishai Gidron, 19, from Kiryat Motzkin," read the deep-voiced radio announcer, beginning the heart-rending recitation that continued without mercy all day Wednesday, the day after the accident.

"Sgt. Idan Minker, 19, from Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak," the newscaster continued. "Sgt. Aviv Gonen, 20, from Petah Tikvah. Staff Sgt. Nadav Luchinsky, 20, from Sde Avraham. Staff Sgt. Asaf Siboni, 20, from Kibbutz Nir Am…"

The list was read, in jackhammer-like rhythm, over and over and over. And, jackhammer-like, the effect was penetrating.

On one occasion the list was followed by pop singer Miki Gabrielov's "Let Us Live."

"God in heaven," sang the raspy-voiced Gabrielov. "Look us in the face and tell us why people look for but don't find miracles. Let us live, let us live. Let us sleep in peace without worrying."

Tuesday night, thousands of families like the Rothenbergs were thrown into a state of panic by the announcement of the worst military air disaster in the country's history.

In many cases, it took several hours for the IDF to confirm the worst — or for sons stationed in Lebanon and elsewhere to call home and relieve their anxiety.

Although most immediate family members knew the fate of their loved ones by dawn, others had to wait longer.

All too accustomed to rushing to the newsstand to check whether someone they knew had been injured or killed in an accident or terrorist attack, many were shaken to find that newspapers contained almost no information on the victims' identities.

The reason: Many of the bodies from the fiery crash had not yet been identified.

"The Knesset weeps for its sons."

With those stark words Knesset Speaker Dan Tichon opened a special session Wednesday mourning the officers and soldiers who fell in the tragedy. The flag behind him in the Knesset plenum flew at half mast.

President Ezer Weizman, Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and air force Maj. Gen. Eitan Ben-Eliahu sat stony-faced in the VIP gallery. Also present were the U.S. and Canadian ambassadors, with American envoy Martin Indyk, a Jew, wearing a black kippah.

The session started with a minute of silence. Wearing somber colors, Knesset members remained eerily quiet throughout. They had been shocked into silence, and the House was at one with itself and the nation.

Knesset clerk Arieh Hahn read Psalm 13, including the phrase: "How long must I bear pain in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?"

Wednesday, the list of those who died grew progressively longer as the day wore on, and several funerals took place.

Throughout the country, schools held memorial services, and teachers encouraged students to discuss the tragedy. Restaurants and places of entertainment closed early, in accordance with the Knesset's decision to declare Wednesday and Thursday days of national mourning.

The Chief Rabbinate called for a day of fasting Thursday, to be followed by a mass prayer Thursday evening at the Western Wall.

Although far from the site of the crash, the streets of Jerusalem were unnaturally hushed the day after the accident. Most cafes and restaurants had closed by noon, although they were permitted to remain open until 3 p.m.

Several places of business did not open at all.

"I didn't want to come in at all today, but what could I do?" said Saida Shahat, the owner of a gift shop on Ben Yehuda Street. Tears streaming down her face, she said, "I couldn't sleep.

"They were all 20, 21 years old. They were like flowers, and now they're dead."

Shlomit Ashur, an 18-year-old waitress at Big Apple Pizza, had just closed the pizzeria a few minutes earlier.

About to enter the IDF herself, Ashur said she has many friends now serving in Lebanon. "This morning I received a ton of phone calls from the boys to say they were safe. I'm relieved, but this is still a terrible tragedy.

"So many boys, how do you make sense of it? It doesn't matter that I didn't know any of them. These are all my people and it hurts."

Some young Israelis about to enter the army expressed fears about their own future.

"After [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin's death, I didn't think there would ever be a day that I would be as sad as I was then," said Yael Avner, 18, a 12th-grader from Bayit Vegan. "That's going to be us next year."

Those who personally knew the victims spoke of their commitment to peace and their love of life.

A physician at Rambam Medical Center knew victim Vitaly Radinsky, a 33-year-old doctor who was serving in Lebanon as a reservist.

"Coming from the former Soviet Union, he had to pass many exams, and he did so with honors," he said of Radinsky. "He worked so, so hard, and we believed he would attain great things."

Radinsky leaves a wife and 6-year-old son.

The disaster took place as a national debate has reopened on an old, sore topic — whether it is wise for Israel to remain in southern Lebanon, where it has been fighting a cat-and-mouse war with Hezbollah gunmen for years.

Israel established the 9-mile-wide security zone in 1985 to stop cross-border terror attacks and to prevent the Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah movement from firing Katyusha rockets at northern Israeli communities.

But a steady toll of Israeli casualties over the years — 200, not including this week's — has more than once sparked serious doubts about Israel's strategy in Lebanon. Just this week, for example, onetime war hero and Knesset member Avigdor Kahalani said Israel should unilaterally withdraw from the buffer zone. Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai disagreed.

But IDF Maj. Gen. Gideon Sheffer told Israel's Channel 2 that "if there is a debate on Lebanon, it should not be done on the backs of the soldiers."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, made it clear the disaster would not change Israel's policies regarding the region.

Wednesay, he visited the crash site at Moshav Sha'ar Yishuv, a farming community located near Kiryat Shmona.

Reacting to statements by the Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah group and Iran rejoicing over the Israeli deaths, Netanyahu said, "I think the joy…you heard from Hezbollah groups just shows who we are dealing with. These are people who say their aim is not just to get us out of Lebanon but to get us out of Israel."

The prime minister said army investigators did not yet know the cause of the crash. A high-level commission has begun to investigate.

Although the accident occurred during bad weather, military officials ruled out weather as a factor, saying that transport helicopters such as the U.S.-built CH-53 Sikorskys often fly in heavy rains.

No one on the ground had been hurt in the accident. One of the helicopters had crashed into a vacant house on the moshav.

Because the helicopters were carrying large amounts of ammunition, the impact set off a series of fiery explosions.

Condolences, meanwhile, continued to pour in from around the world, including the United States, Egypt, France and Russia. Among the first to express sadness over the loss of life were Jordan's King Hussein and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat.

Netanyahu canceled a scheduled visit to Amman; he also postponed a meeting he had set with