Document: IDF Insubordination Limited, Punishment Lenient During Disengagement

Amos Harel
Amos Harel

It occurred nearly 18 months ago, and now the outcry seems far removed, almost imaginary. During the spring and summer months of 2005, the issue of insubordination in the Israel Defense Forces over the disengagement plan from the Gaza Strip was one of the most pressing issues on the national agenda. The army, fearing a wave of insubordination that would undermine the effectiveness of its standing units, threatened potential rebels with severe punishment. On a daily basis, senior officers gave their assessment, which often contradicted that of other officers, regarding the extent of the threat and the sort of policies that should be undertaken to stem the potential breakdown. In the end, the disengagement passed with relative ease, and insubordination proved to be a limited phenomenon, allowing the authorities to be fairly lenient on those defying orders.

Only now are the full details being published, from a document by the Military Advocate General's office, that was brought to the attention of Haaretz. The document lists 163 cases of insubordination or involving the threat to do so, by conscripts, professional soldiers and reservists, both before and during the disengagement.

Three soldiers were indicted, and one of whom was sentenced to a prison term. A total of 65 soldiers were tried in a disciplinary court, 46 of whom were sentenced to various periods of incarceration. Various lesser punishments were carried out against 49 other soldiers and officers, including removal from command positions.

The document that reached Haaretz involves the case of Captain Moshe Botivia, whose trial ended last week. Botivia, was the last among those refusing to participate in the disengagement to be tried. A resident of Kiryat Arba, he served as a company commander for an engineering unit operating heavy mechanical equipment in the Judea and Samaria division. As the date of the disengagement moved closer, his unit was ordered to block the road leading to the settlements of Sa Nur and Homesh, in order to prevent opponents of the disengagement in those settlements from reaching the Gaza Strip. Botivia refused to carry out his orders.

Botivia was placed under arrest for a number of weeks, and then his contract for serving as a professional officer in the IDF was revoked. His defense attorney, Kobi Sudery, led the fight on his behalf.

At the end of the long trial, the Central Command military court passed a relatively light sentence on Botivia: a serious reprimand on his record, and a suspended jail sentence.

The judges, headed by Colonel Avi Levy, accepted Sudery's request to consider the "background of the accused and the extreme situation in which he found himself."

The majority in the panel of judges wrote that Botivia was an excellent officer who was due for promotion before his insubordination and added that "the IDF and the court should be sensitive to this detail, his difficulties and strain, even if he made a mistake - and should avoid punishing him in an extreme way."

The court wrote that "the accused is a member of the settler communities, whose members were torn from their homes and as such his refusal [to obey] should be viewed in this light."

A senior source in MAG told Haaretz that the prosecution was considering an appeal against the light sentence.

"A jail sentence will no longer serve anything," the source said. "But we believe that an officer who refused to obey an order in the moment of truth cannot remain an officer."

An analysis of the cases that appear in the document shows that only in three cases did the prosecution opt to bring criminal charges against the accused. One of them is the brigade rabbi who called for insubordination on camera at the Kisufim crossing. He was sentenced to a prison term of four and a half months and was demoted to the rank of private.

The third case involved an officer in the Technology Corps, who withdrew his refusal to obey orders, took part in the evacuation and in the end only suffered a reprimand.

According to the senior source in MAG, the prosecution opted for a quick disciplinary trial in most cases.

Many of the soldiers refusing to obey orders were advised by right-wing organizations to demand that their case be taken to a court trial, but this occured only in three cases.

One of the elements that affected the punishment of soldiers refusing to carry out orders during the disengagement was the degree to which what they did was public. For example, Avi Biber, who became the poster child for the rebels because of his protest in front of television cameras at the settlement of Shirat Hayam, suffered the heaviest punishment given by the disciplinary courts - 56 days of incarceration on base.

In the vast majority of cases, the IDF chose not to confront reservists who threatened to refuse orders.

The senior MAG source says that by determining an orderly policy, sticking to it, and applying it quickly "made it clear to soldiers that we mean business."

The message may have been clear but the judgment, in retrospect, appears to have been lenient. This is particularly evident in the matter of rabbis of Hesder Yeshivas - units combining religious learning and military service - who called for refusal to cooperate with the disengagement. Chief of Staff Dan Halutz threatened to dismantle the units, but in the end nothing was done.