TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) _ After each dive into the polluted Kishon River, Israeli navy seal Yuval Tamir spent nearly an hour scrubbing putrid grime from his skin.

Commanders brushed aside his health concerns and Tamir logged 1,100 hours in the dark waters during a 23-year career _ until he was diagnosed with skin and colon cancer 18 months ago.

Forty divers in the 750-man elite unit have contracted cancer _ and 16 have died _ but the army so far has refused to acknowledge a link between the diving and the disease.

Now, an independent commission is trying to determine whether the military knowingly put the men at risk _ and has raised troubling questions about the military's priorities.

``They (commanders) left us wounded in the battle field,'' Tamir, a burly 43-year-old father of two, told the three-judge panel Thursday.

While the army maintains it is cooperating with the inquiry, it has not addressed the question of exactly when it became aware of dangerous pollution levels. The army spokesman says training sessions stopped in 1990, and that since then, only crucial underwater missions have been carried out, the last one two months ago.

The elite units, including the seals, have always been considered one of Israel's key weapon against terrorism. Members are imbued by a sense of mission, even invincibility, and their training is given top billing.

Veterans of commando units often make a smooth transition into high-ranking government jobs. Prime Minister Ehud Barak and his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, are both graduates of Sayeret Matkal, a crack infantry unit.

The Kishon River and the adjacent Haifa Bay are lined by chemical companies that have been pouring toxic waste into the water for decades.

While the Ministry of Environmental Protection pollution levels have dropped in recent years, the river is still considered a health hazard, with signs along its banks prohibiting swimming.

Yoram Aviram, a lawyer who represents the navy divers, said it has been widely known since 1956 that the Kishon was polluted. Nonetheless, it was the navy's preferred training area for many years.

Former diver Zvi Stern, 48, who served in the unit from 1970 to 1990, said he and his colleagues sometimes spoke of their fears.

``Every time I went into the water, my skin would burn, my eyes would be red and bulging,'' said Stern, who has undergone 20 skin cancer operations since 1998 and has had to give up his job as a caterer.

Stern said that when at one point he refused to dive, he was locked up at the base for two weeks. In another routine disciplinary measure, commanders would force divers to drink Kishon water from their flippers. Tamir said that in 18 months of basic seals training, divers would have to swallow the brew about 10 times.

Tamir, who toward the end of his career headed an underwater unit that searches for explosives, said his suspicions grew with every new report that a comrade had contracted cancer or died of the disease.

Eventually, the sick men got together and demanded to be recognized as wounded veterans, meaning they could draw a monthly stipend. In response, the army launched an internal probe.

Tamir feared a whitewash and appealed to the Supreme Court. Before the judges could rule, the state created the independent commission of inquiry, which began hearing the case this week. It is headed by retired Chief Justice Meir Shamgar, who in 1996 led the inquiry into the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

In Thursday's session, the second so far, the judges heard testimony from Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna and Robert Reuveni, director of the Haifa district office of the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

Reuveni said the Health Ministry ignored his warnings and did little to stop the deadly flow of toxic waste into the navy's prime training location.

Aviram, the divers' lawyer, said each government agency was trying to find someone else to blame.

The navy veterans said they were deeply pained by the cat-and-mouse game.

``All our lives, we were in the military,'' said Stern. ``It really hurt me when our commander said: `I dove and I'm not sick.' He should be thankful that he isn't.'''