Out of Control

In the five years since it was founded as the military vanguard for combat in the West Bank, the Kfir Brigade has made headlines for acts of abuse, killing and insubordination. Now the IDF seems to have realized that changes are needed in the brigade's mandate.

When the first intifada broke out in 1987, the question of whether an army can control a civilian population under occupation for an extended period of time became an issue that was widely discussed. With the rise of violence and the frequent terror attacks that characterized the second intifada, which started in 2000, the question was shunted aside. Now, the army appears to be discovering the answer for itself.

As dawn breaks, it is apparent that the firing zones on the Carmel mountain range very much resemble the landscape of southern Lebanon: steep, rocky hills covered with dense, thorny vegetation. This is a natural area of low scrub. Closely packed groups of trees protrude from the tops of the few hills, their slopes etched with narrow goat paths.

"The field groups here are very small and isolated. The company commanders can't see their divisions, not to speak of the battalion commanders," says Kfir deputy brigade commander Lieutenant Colonel Yossi Pinto, 35, as he prods troops from a division of the Shimshon Battalion to charge up the hill. The troops materialize out of the gloom. They have just completed a long nighttime hike, carrying all their combat gear on their backs. The battalion has no armored personnel carriers or other vehicles in this exercise, just one tank division assigned to provide assistance. The exercise is meant to simulate a nighttime border crossing and an encounter with enemy forces at first light.

The fighters sweat, their faces painted in black and green. Their loads are heavy but, with Pinto's encouragement, they muster their energy to make one final charge at the enemy cell awaiting them at the top of the hill, as the troops playing that role shout "Allahu Akbar" (God is great ) and "Itbah al-Yahud" (slaughter the Jews ) while firing empty bullet casings into the air. Only after the hill has been charged and taken can the soldiers from the division rest a little, take the night-vision gear off their helmets and prepare for the continuation of the exercise scheduled for that day.

Yuval Tebol

"The objective right now is to destroy the missile launching cells," explains Lieutenant Colonel Pinto. "Afterward, the exercise calls for the rest of the brigade's battalions to move deep into the field." He continually rebuffs any questions about the similarity between the nature of the exercise and field combat in Lebanon. "We are an infantry brigade specializing in guerrilla warfare in built-up areas, but in war situations we are supposed to be ready for any scenario."

As part of its present round of training, the Kfir ("lion") Brigade, formed five years ago to serve as the military vanguard for combat in the West Bank, is performing a series of battalion maneuvers, the topography and firing zones of which resemble combat areas in southern Lebanon. Last year, one battalion drilled this scenario, but in the present round the other battalions are also expected to simulate an invasion and conquest of territory in Lebanon. According to the emerging IDF working plan, some of the brigade's battalions will apparently, during the coming year, be employed operationally along the northern border, and perhaps also along the Gaza border, just like the other infantry brigades.

The concept of training different topographical settings, to be integrated in operational assignments and perhaps also in future combat outside the West Bank, is primarily based on requests from soldiers and commanders of the Kfir Brigade. Pinto explains that it reflects changes in the brigade itself, the army's needs and changes on the ground. Other officers admit that it's really about giving the Kfir soldiers a sense of pride - since serving in the territories can be tagged as negative.

Senior officials in the General Staff and the Defense Ministry are reacting with understanding, but also with a certain wariness. This isn't exactly what they had in mind when they established the Kfir Brigade - particularly at a time when the IDF is having to streamline and make cutbacks.

Critics find it difficult to accept the fact that this specially designated brigade will soon become an infantry brigade like any other. The army already has four, and it never planned or declared the need for another. As one senior IDF field officer puts it: "This brigade was conceived in sin. Things have gotten completely out of control and exceeded all proportion."

Kfir Brigade commanders reject the criticism, insisting that their soldiers are more skilled and better trained than all the rest for combat and for imposing order throughout the West Bank. But they also admit there is too great a discrepancy between their formal mission and daily reality in the territories, and say that what is happening with the brigade now was inevitable.

They point out that during Operation Cast Lead in December 2008 and January 2009, the brigade's Haruv Battalion took part in combat in Gaza. It was the only Kfir battalion not assigned to the West Bank sector at that time, so it was able, thanks to pressure from the commanders, to replace a paratroops brigade and take part in the battles. Kfir commanders say the battalion performed just as well in Gaza as any other.

For the Haruv soldiers, the combat stint during Cast Lead is considered a source of pride, and for soldiers of the other Kfir battalions, a source of envy. Every one of the Haruv Battalion soldiers interviewed for this article talked about how the battle went in Gaza, about the medal of excellence received by one of its medics, about the death of Company Commander Roi Rosner, and about the killing of 59 Palestinians by its soldiers. According to the battalion narrative, which has never been confirmed by army officials, only nine of the Palestinians were armed. But in the soldiers' view, a unit's pride is forged from this type of action, not from standing at checkpoints, routine patrols or manning observation posts in the territories.

Complex reality

The Kfir Brigade is the newest and largest in the IDF. It comprises six battalions, nearly double that of the army's other infantry brigades. Although it was only established in 2005, it can be seen as the successor to the armored infantry companies that were established in the late 1980s as a force specializing in combat in the territories.

Reserve and regular forces that were sent during the first intifada to operational assignments in the cities of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip often foundered in their missions because of unfamiliarity with the situation on the ground, the lifestyle of the Palestinian population and the unique nature of the activity necessary to quell a popular uprising. The complex reality, so different from the combat environments for which the soldiers had been trained, led to a large number of mishaps, frequently involving casualties on both sides, and sometimes also to escalation and a loss of control over the course of events.

In the late 1980s, the five armored infantry companies - Alon, Oren, Ash'har, Ashbal and Ashuah - were established with the aim of solving this problem. They were stationed for lengthy stints of service in the different cities, the idea being that in time, their acquaintance with the place and the local population would produce better results.

It wasn't long before senior army officers declared that the armored infantry companies were succeeding better in their missions than other companies. It is difficult to define parameters for success in military missions of this type, but the area brigades consider the presence of armored infantry troops in the various sectors desirable. They were very familiar with their sectors of operation, sometimes to the point of personal acquaintance with the inhabitants; they were more skilled than many of the reservist troops in carrying out missions; and on the logistical level, they were much easier to deal with than regular soldiers who arrived on the scene for short periods of time.

But the armored infantry companies under the command of area brigades in the territories were affiliated on the adjutancy level with the army's regular armored brigades, and in times of emergency or war were assigned accordingly. This dual affiliation left them "fatherless." Talks with IDF officials indicate that in many senses, this dual affiliation was contrary to military hierarchy and structure, and was only made possible because of a series of administrative maneuvers. And thus the processes of recruitment, training, building the command ranks and equipping the armored infantry companies with special combat gear often became controversial.

In addition, the armored infantry brigades suffered from low motivation on the part of new recruits and from fatigue brought on by lengthy service in the territories. While the other IDF companies aspired to create a routine composed of activity in several different sectors, interspersed with training, the armored infantry brigade soldiers were left for months at a time in the same positions and with the same assignments, sometimes for their entire three-year stint of compulsory service.

Some veterans of the armored infantry brigades say that as a result, besides the dual affiliation that let them fall between the cracks, pressure on the soldiers also took its toll, leading to an increase in violent incidents between the troops and the Palestinian population.

"The soldiers and commanders from the other brigades treated us like armed falangists," says one former fighter from an armored infantry brigade. Discipline problems arose within these companies with much greater frequency than in the army's other combat companies.

Following the IDF's departure from West Bank cities after the Oslo Accords, in 1995, a number of the armored infantry companies were united into a single battalion, called Haruv. Officers involved in the merging of the companies say the goal was twofold. Experience showed, they declare, that an independent company in the territories could not continue to fulfill its missions for long without discipline and motivation problems arising. In addition, the companies were adapted for controling limited and densely populated areas in city centers. The expectation was that a well-trained and well-equipped battalion permanently assigned to one sector would not experience the kind of erosion that occurred in the independent companies, and that it would function much better than battalions that showed up for brief assignments.

The Haruv Battalion was permanently assigned to the city of Nablus and after that, other battalions of a similar nature were established and attached to the other area brigades in the West Bank. One commander says the feeling was that every battalion commander wanted a brigade like this, not for operational reasons, but in order to gain prestige

The problems that arose in companies in the territories reappeared in battalions there. In many ways, these battalions were much more professional and effective than the other army units in combating Palestinian terror, but discipline problems and the fatigue that comes from the length of this type of service affected them as well. Soldiers who served in these battalions at the time paint a harsh picture of violence and abuse toward Palestinian civilians, as a matter of course. On the organizational level, too, power struggles between battalion commanders and area brigade commanders are reminiscent of what occurred with the armored infantry brigade companies. Here, too, symbols and labels were continually being replaced. Five years ago, the establishment of a single brigade that would concentrate all the battalions under it seemed like the best solution.

It starts with motivation

"We want to take part in the action, we want to have an impact on the country's security. For us, every kind of contribution is important. We have no problem standing for hours at checkpoints or observation posts or chasing after rock-throwers. Whatever they ask of us we will do for the sake of the country's security and for the sake of our comrades," says Wova Tovnechov , 19, from Ashkelon, a new recruit in the Kfir Brigade. His comrades Edan Sassi, 20, from Ashkelon, and Daniel Todorovich, 19, from Haifa, make similar statements.

They were drafted in November 2009, although Wova enlisted the previous July in order to do pre-army training at Havat Hashomer. In the 26th week of their training at the brigade's basic training base in the Jordan Rift Valley, they were performing company maneuvers. The following week they were scheduled for an education component, and in four weeks they were to complete the second stage of basic training, known as advanced training. After that, they will leave the training base and join the Nachshon Battalion for a further three-month training period.

These three soldiers were chosen by representatives of the IDF Spokesman's office to be interviewed for this article. After talking with them briefly, it was apparent that their selection was not random. One was named the outstanding soldier in the company during basic training; the second, the outstanding soldier in courses for armored personnel carrier drivers and for building military outposts. The two say that the third is "considered outstanding" - though he hasn't been awarded any special title. They say they heard about the Kfir Brigade from friends and read about it on the Internet before their enlistment, but that none of them had picked it as their first choice. Sassi was debating whether to sign up for a combat unit at all and even briefly considered trying to get his profile lowered, but changed his mind after talking it over with his father.

They are not in the battalion yet and haven't taken part in any of its operations, but all three are insistent that Nachshon is the best of the Kfir Brigade battalions and even better than most other infantry brigades. The three are not familiar with the battalion's combat history, particular events in its past or medals it received, but are ardently convinced that the battalion symbol, which they will soon wear on their shirts, is much more attractive than the other battalion symbols, and admit that this is one reason why they were attracted to the battalion. The three also assert that Nachshon is considered the most professional battalion, particularly in terms of marksmanship, though they cannot cite any facts to support this claim.

"Every soldier basically wants to feel that what he's doing has meaning. He wants to feel needed, that he's making a contribution. And to create this meaning, you need good commanders. They supply the meaning and significance in the lessons they give and of course by the personal example they provide," says Lieutenant Colonel Amit Yamin, 35, from Netanya, commander of the training base, explaining the most important principle in instilling motivation in his troops. In each enlistment cycle he gets six companies of new recruits who will later be sent to the various battalions, and he says there is no real difference among the soldiers assigned to different battalions, except for those headed for the Netzah Yehuda Battalion, which is made up largely of soldiers from ultra-Orthodox backgrounds. "Everyone here is salt of the earth, veteran immigrants, from all the ethnic groups, just like in all the other infantry brigades," he says.

"There's a kind of pioneering spirit involved here," says Yamin. "We're creating something from scratch and so there is a very strong desire to excel and succeed. There's a special hunger here, a light in the eyes, a faith in the abilities and capabilities of our soldiers. And this gives the commanders a tremendous sense of satisfaction."

He acknowledges, though, that reality for the soldiers is liable to be quite different. "In the end, they're the ones who will have to contend with an exhausting routine. They'll spend more hours in the dust of the roads than in the clear mountain air. But amid this day-to-day routine there will be moments of activity like a successful encounter [with the enemy], carrying out an arrest in accordance with intelligence information, or uncovering weapons smuggled by someone suspicious at a checkpoint. And so it's important that our soldiers know that the wearying routine in which they spend much of their time can rapidly change, sometimes in a matter of seconds."

Beyond coping with the exhausting routine, the Kfir soldiers who are sent on operational missions in the territories will also have to contend with thorny matters involving friction with the civilian population there, both Jewish and Palestinian.

Troubling incidents

In recent years, the brigade's name has come up in the media mostly in negative contexts, with soldiers involved in controversial incidents that came to public attention - some even leading to trials and convictions. Just this week, Military Advocate General Avichai Mandelblit ordered an investigation of two senior officers who condoned violence against civilians in their remarks at the trial of Lieutenant. (res. ) Adam Malul, himself convicted of assaulting Palestinians (see box ). The list of incidents is long, including the abduction of a taxi driver in Dahariya; a soldiers' morning run that turned into trouble when they entered the Palestinian part of Hebron; smoking drugs during operational activity; serious acts of violence by soldiers from the Shimshon Battalion; two people killed by live fire during a demonstration in the village of Arak Burin, despite the Nachshon Battalion soldiers' claims that only rubber bullets were fired there; two killed at a checkpoint near the village of Awarta, and more.

Just three weeks ago, there was an incident in which three soldiers from the Netzah Yehuda Battalion, on a brief foot patrol in the Jordan Valley, got into an argument with a Palestinian and shot his camel. And signs waved by conscientious objectors that drew the most public attention in demonstrations came from soldiers from the brigade. Lieutenant Colonel Yamin says that the week-long educational seminar his recruits are to undergo will provide them with the tools to deal with what awaits them. He served in the past as a Lavi Battalion commander, and says he is very familiar with the reality in the field.

"There are times when soldiers will have to deal with a civilian population that is not involved in hostile activity, and times when they will be called upon to carry out orders that don't always mesh perfectly well with their own ideologies," he says. "But today's soldiers are much more mature than in the past, and they can handle this complexity. As a unit and as an army we are much more experienced in these situations, and this accumulated experience is passed on to the soldiers through training and by means of the personal example set by commanders. As a battalion commander, I remember, for example, that during Ramadan, we would arrest people suspected of terror activity only after giving them a chance to take some food along and say goodbye to their families. We also tried to handcuff suspects only after they parted from their families, so as not to leave their parents, children or younger siblings with the harsh impression that this can leave.

"I see myself as an educator first and foremost," says Yamin, adding that this is true of the other commanders of new recruits as well. "Therefore we are making better soldiers. And this education includes, of course, all the aspects of soldiering, but also the human aspects that will eventually help them make the right and most suitable decision in the situations they can be expected to encounter throughout their service."

Checkpoint syndrome

Out of hundreds of testimonies collected in recent years by the Breaking the Silence organization, only 40 came from the Kfir Brigade, a low figure considering its size and the extent of its activity in the territories. A., a veteran combat soldier who still serves in the brigade, attributes this unlikely gap to an atmosphere of concealment that he says prevails in the brigade's battalions. A. says he witnessed dozens of incidents in which his comrades beat Palestinian civilians for no reason. He tells of numerous incidents in which soldiers stole money and property while conducting house searches. Further, at checkpoints where he served, he says it was not uncommon for food products or other objects to be confiscated from Palestinian vehicles. He says all of these actions were carried out with the junior commanders' (squad commanders and sergeants ) knowledge, often with these commanders turning a blind eye.

"Ever since basic training, they've emphasized to us in practically every context, that there are two dimensions to operating in the territories," says A. "There's the theoretical dimension, which you learn from the start of basic training, and then there's the tachlis, the way things really work." He claims that in briefings prior to missions, the commanders made this difference clear "with a wink."

He adds: "No one dares complain because everyone is taking part in things. Every Kfir soldier - if he would just sit down alone for a few minutes and think about it, he would find that he, too, was a party to all kinds of problematic actions, and no one wants to open this Pandora's box or stigmatize his comrades. Over the years, the few who have had the guts to open their mouths were ostracized by the other soldiers and sometimes by the commanders, too. No one wants to be in that position, and so everyone keeps quiet."

R., another fighter from one of the brigade's battalions, describes similar norms. He says that whenever he brought up such issues with his commanders, they never did anything beyond individual or group talks with the soldiers. R. cites a procedure he was exposed to when serving with soldiers from his company at a checkpoint near Tul Karm.

"The set procedure that we were given by the commanders in the company, and which the more senior commanders certainly knew about, because things were managed over the communication system that the battalion commander and the deputy chief of operations also listened to, was that if an illegal arrived from the direction of Israel - in other words, someone who managed to stay in Israel for a length of time without a permit and against the law, we were supposed to punish him by detaining him for hours at the checkpoint. We were supposed to make him dry out there. And then, after keeping him there for hours, we would let him go and tell him that he could no longer enter through that checkpoint. The rationale behind this behavior was that if he has to start running around searching for another way into the city, he'll use up a large part of the money he saved working in Israel and will conclude that it's not worth it anymore. We were told that this procedure was known and approved by the battalion commander.

"We would make the illegal sit on the side and tell him to wait. We would keep him waiting as long as we could or as long as we felt like. And later, after pretending to communicate with the commander, we would inform him that he was free to go, but that the crossing was blocked to him from now on."

R. says this procedure aroused resistance, sometimes to the point of violence. "It was excessive violence, but it was humiliating for the Palestinians. One time, for example, this 14 or 15-year-old kid who was an illegal was standing there. He waited on the side for a long time, in keeping with the procedure. At some point, one of the soldiers at the checkpoint thought he saw the Palestinian guy smiling, so he asked him if he was pleased about something. The Palestinian said yes, and then the soldier slapped him. In another case, a squad commander got into an altercation with a Palestinian who shouted at him, and ended up forcefully pushing his rifle barrel into the guy's chest. The Palestinian collapsed on the spot and was taken away by a Red Crescent ambulance. These two incidents were reported at the time to the company commander and to other officers in the battalion, but nothing was done about them. They would laugh about these situations later at the base."

Kfir Brigade commanders deny these claims. They say the brigade has a culture of comprehensively investigating testimonies about unusual incidents. They also say they deal firmly and forcefully with the extreme cases that occasionally arise, and that this is also the message they convey to the soldiers.

It may be true, as the commanding officers say, that they are devoting more attention than in the past to problems of discipline and to cases in which an approach that is inconsistent with IDF values is reflected in the attitude toward the Palestinians. However, this would appear to have had few concrete results: Almost every month, there are new media reports about the involvement of Kfir Brigade soldiers in controversial and problematic incidents.

Naturally, official sources in the army will not admit this, but the fact is that within the General Staff questions have been raised in recent years about whether forces assigned exclusively to the territories are capable of coping with the complexity of service there over time. Some maintain that the psychological burden on the soldiers is too great and has the effect of generating endless disciplinary problems, which often produce deviant behavior. The negative image from which the brigade now suffers outweighs its achievements and advantages compared with other brigades. The same thing happened with battalions and companies that served exclusively in the territories in the past. This image does not contribute to the troops' motivation and renders the brigade less attractive than others. It would seem that only making Kfir an infantry brigade in every respect will accord it a raison d'etre.

The brigade's commanding officers reject vehemently the assumption that the change the brigade is undergoing is due to its inability to fulfill its original mission.

The IDF Spokesman's Office issued the following response: "The Kfir Brigade is currently in an accelerated building process with the brigade's main area of expertise being combating terror and guerrilla forces in built-up and complex areas. In addition to its unique capabilities, the unit is drilling in other layouts so as to be ready to provide an operational response wherever called upon in accordance with the changing security reality, similar to other infantry brigades." W