Israel Defense Forces soldier Yair Sasson was given a full military funeral on Tuesday despite the objections of the army and the Defense Ministry, which insisted that he was a deserter at the time of his death and hence not entitled to a military funeral.
Sasson's parents, Yaakov and Simcha, had petitioned the High Court of Justice against the army's decision, and minutes before the hearing Tuesday morning, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein announced that he agreed with the petitioners, and had ordered the IDF to grant Sasson a military funeral.
Weinstein explained that the Military Cemeteries Law entitles any "person in military service" to be buried in a military cemetery and even an AWOL soldier is a "person in military service."
Pursuant to Weinstein's order, Sasson was indeed buried at the military cemetery in Be'er Sheva late Tuesday,
However, the decision outraged the army. The IDF Spokesman's Office said in response that for years, this clause in the law had been interpreted as referring to soldiers on active duty or on authorized leave, not to soldiers who were AWOL, and that is how it should be interpreted.
"The Military Cemeteries Law is supposed to express Israeli society's appreciation for its sons and daughters who fell during their service" ¬ not for those who deserted, the statement said. And Sasson, it noted, had been AWOL for 25 days at the time of his death in a motorcycle accident last Friday.
Nevertheless, the statement added, the army would obey the attorney general's order.
While serving officers declined to criticize the decision on the record, retired officers had no such qualms.
"This is an example of prostituting a military cemetery," Maj. Gen. (res.) Elazar Stern, a former head of the IDF's Personnel Directorate, told Army Radio, adding that Weinstein's decision would hurt many bereaved families. "A deserter has removed himself from being an IDF soldier, and he has also abandoned the right to be buried in a military cemetery."
Later, elaborating on his position to Haaretz, Stern explained that "sometimes, values need to trump formal legal considerations."
Weinstein's decision also means that the Defense Ministry will now have to pay compensation to Sasson's family as if he were a fallen soldier, a senior officer told Haaretz. And since the ministry's compensation budget is finite, paying compensation to dead deserters means the ministry has less money to give to "the families that really deserve it," the officer charged.
But Sasson's aunt, Ninette Sasson, retorted that the the army's behavior had been "shameful."
"The body has been sitting in the refrigerator for four days now," she said, since the family refused to bury him until the army agreed to a military funeral. "We're terribly disappointed with the army's conduct. Yair's blood was shed. It's simply shameful. We're happy that the attorney general understood the gravity of the issue."
The Sassons' lawyers insisted that Yair had been in touch with his commanders throughout his 25-day absence, and had planned to return to the army on June 27 -¬ two days after his death.
They said he had suffered from both medical problems and problems adjusting to the army, but had returned to his base after the first time he was absent without leave because commanders promised that his problems would be addressed. However, this promise was not kept, and he therefore deserted again.
The Yad Labanim organization, which commemorates fallen soldiers, sent an urgent letter to Defense Minister Ehud Barak yesterday urging that the law be amended to clarify that deserters are not entitled to military funerals.